Many people will be familiar with the experience of being in a relationship and everything’s going great…then, all of a sudden, they get hit by a wave of retroactive jealousy. Maybe a Facebook memory pops up on their partner’s phone of a birthday dinner with an ex. Or maybe you’re having a few drinks together and talking about past sexual experiences, and your partner mentions a crazy one-night stand they had at a party.
It’s natural to feel inadequacy and anxiety when these things come up. Everyone knows it’s pretty nasty to talk to your partner about your exes too much unless they ask. Even so, it’s unavoidable for the topic of past relationships to be brought up from time to time, particularly in an age of social media where people comment on things and “1 year ago” memories are at the top of your feed.
Even though you consciously know that your partner is over them and loves you now, you might wonder if they thought sex with their ex was better. Or maybe you secretly worry that they miss the crazy one-night stands they had before they settled down with you. You might get stressed about how your partner looks so happy with their ex in those pictures, that you just can’t understand why they’re not together anymore.
Feelings of retroactive jealousy are very common in both sexes. It’s a generalisation and this can go both ways, but typically men seem to get plagued by imagining their girlfriend having many previous sexual experiences. Women often feel upset imagining their partner being romantic and in love with an ex.
Even though feelings of retroactive jealousy are common, they’re not talked about much. Being a jealous partner carries connotations of being crazy, and no one wants to be that guy. Being jealous of your partner getting too friendly with someone while you’re together is one thing, but almost everyone has ex-partners and they haven’t done anything wrong by having slept with someone before you even met them.This is why you might worry bringing up these feelings with your partner could scare them off, which is why it’s frequently not talked about.
How to deal with retroactive jealousy
1. Be logical about it.
Realistically, the only thing that matters is there here and now. Even if your boyfriend was with his ex for several years, and you’ve only been with him for six months, your relationship is automatically more important and real because it exists in the here and now. If he didn’t want to be with you, he wouldn’t be.
2. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes.
You probably have an ex too, right? How often do you think about them? Hopefully, not very often. And you know that you have reasons for the break-up. If your partner was worried about your ex at all, you’d think that was a bit silly because they have no reason to be concerned about some loser guy you dated in college. If you trust your partner, think about the fact that their situation is probably very similar.
3. Do NOT stalk your partner’s ex’s social media.
However tempting this may be, you aren’t going to have a good time doing this! People only post their very best selves on social media, so the only pictures you’re going to see are of them looking good. Their social media shouldn’t matter to you and will only make you feel insecure, so resist the urge to dig.
4. Compare it to friendships.
It can be helpful to think about one of your close friends. You know that they had friends before they met you, and surely this doesn’t bother you. Maybe you know that they’re no longer friends with their goth best friend from high school because they grew apart, and the fact that they were never friends never bothers you. It can help to remind yourself that you consciously know that people have relationships, they grow and move on, and it’s not a big deal.
5. Talk to your partner about your feelings (maybe).
Communication is always a good strategy in relationships. Just make sure that you address it right, so they don’t feel like you’re angry at them for simply having an ex, which they certainly can’t do anything about. Ask them to help you understand why they’re no longer together, and let them reassure you.
6. Talk to a friend.
If talking to your partner about this seems a bit daunting, you could talk to a close friend who’s in a relationship about it. Ask if they’ve ever felt the same way about their partner’s past, and what makes them feel better when they get these thoughts. They’ve probably experienced similar feelings, which can be reassuring. You can bond over how odd it feels to be jealous of someone’s past and come up with coping strategies together.
Many people experience fleeting thoughts of retroactive jealousy. However, if it’s something more ongoing and severe for you, the coping strategies listed above are unlikely to be enough to deal with your feelings of retroactive jealousy. Retroactive jealousy can also be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and you may need counselling to break the cycle of these feelings.
However, remember that regardless of whether your feelings of retroactive jealousy are severe or just fleeting, if you work hard enough you can take control of them. Remember that retroactive jealousy isn’t anywhere near as rare as you might think. You don’t have to feel bad for having these thoughts, but they can be uncomfortable. With some work, you can move past them.