What Is Retroactive Jealousy In A Relationship?

Although there's no denying that some jealousy in a relationship can be a good thing, it's when it gets out of control that there's an issue. "Mild jealousy can be healthy," psychiatrist Dr. Leela Magavi, M.D. tells Pure Wow. "It reiterates the fact that an individual cares about his or her partner, values them, and does not want to lose them."

But the trick to keeping jealousy in the mild territory is not letting your thoughts get the better of you and allowing that jealousy to grow and eventually boil over into the irrational. One type of jealousy that can really drive a person mad is retroactive jealousy. Retroactive jealousy is when someone is jealous of their partner's past romantic relationships. Even if there's no contact with those exes, someone who suffers from retroactive jealousy still focuses on those past people, even obsessively sometimes (via the BBC). While it's totally normal to have an interest in your current partner's past and maybe even want to know about those former relationships, like normal jealousy, retroactive jealousy can spiral out of control.

What does retroactive jealousy look like

Thanks to social media, it's really easy to dig into someone's history. Even if the person you're dating has deleted photos of an ex from Instagram, which some people do, if you try hard enough, you can still find information on the people they dated before you. If you find that you're obsessively looking into your partner's past, researching the people they knew years ago, and feeling yourself getting angry or jealousy, despite no reason to be so, then you have a case of retroactive jealousy (via Healthline). And if your partner is aware of this behavior, it can cause issues in the relationship.

"It can really bring up a lot of pain for couples because for the partner with [retroactive jealousy], they are often fixated on understanding the details of their partner's past relationships, wondering if their partner is thinking or fantasizing about their ex, or even comparing their current relationship with their past experiences," licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist Kate Balestrieri, Ph.D., tells Women's Health. Even if there's no contact between your partner and their ex, you can still feel enraged that they ever dated. Or, even worse, if your partner is friends with their ex, retroactive jealousy can have you going down a rabbit hole of why they're spending time with their ex and what they might be doing with them.

How to get over retroactive jealousy

If you're naturally a jealous person, trying to get a handle on jealousy can be difficult. But if you ask yourself why you're jealous, it can help you navigate how to make sense of it. "Do you think their past predicts something about your relationship or makes you feel like you can't trust them? Once you get a sense of what the jealousy means, you can start to face those fears," clinical psychologist Patrick Cheatham tells Healthline.

Because jealousy often includes a lot of comparisons, you also want to ask yourself why you're comparing them to you. Your partner and their ex are no longer together for a reason, so what's the point of comparing yourself to someone who is, in many ways, a ghost? Recognizing why you're feeling this way is likely to lead you to the real problem: your lack of confidence in yourself and the relationship (via PsychCentral). Once you can realize this is what's playing a role in your retroactive jealousy — and you stop with the digital stalking — you may be able to get your jealousy to a healthy level.

Just like you, your partner had a life before they met you. In fact, if their life didn't take the trajectory it did, you may have never met. Understanding this and that their past made them who they are today and, in many ways, brought them to you, can help diffuse your jealousy. Sure, it can feel a bit unsettling to know your partner loved someone before you, but that doesn't dilute the love they have for you in any way. If anything, the lessons they took from past relationships have taught them to be better a partner and love more deeply.