We are all familiar with good old-fashioned jealousy. That green-eyed monster can pop up in all sorts of situations. But retroactive jealousy? Aren’t we just adding more negative character traits just for the sake of it?

Well, no is the quick answer. It helps to understand retroactive jealousy if we see how it differs from jealousy.

What is retroactive jealousy?

As the name suggests, retroactive jealousy focuses on the past. In particular, the past sexual behaviour or relationships of a partner. It often occurs in relationships when one person is controlling.

To give you an example, take normal jealousy in a relationship. A husband taking a look at his wife’s text messages; a girlfriend going through her boyfriend’s Facebook friends to check up on his ex-girlfriends. These are all signs of jealousy in a relationship.

Retroactive jealousy is an overwhelming obsession with a partner’s past dates, relationships and the number of sexual conquests. Retroactive jealousy goes beyond a normal, fleeting jealousy about a partner’s sexual past.

Many people feel jealous of their partner during the course of their relationship. They might experience pangs of jealousy if their partners have to work with attractive members of the opposite sex, for instance. But these feelings usually pass. It is when a person dwells on the past of their partner’s previous relationships and it becomes all-consuming that it becomes retroactive jealousy.

What are the signs of those suffering from retroactive jealousy?

  1. Constant probing of a partner’s past relationships
  2. Wanting to know about their partner’s sexual history
  3. In particular, wanting to know the number of sexual partners
  4. Judging them for the number of sexual partners
  5. Labelling them as promiscuous and sexually deviant
  6. Calling them offensive words such as prostitute and slut
  7. Fearing that their perceived past behaviour will repeat itself
  8. Envious that they have not had as many partners
  9. A feeling of insecurity that they might not live up to expectations
  10. Doubt that they are with the ‘right’ sort of person
  11. Constant sniping and name-calling
  12. Checking up on partner’s past

Those suffering from retroactive jealousy can focus their attention on one particular aspect of their partner’s sexual past. They can be jealous that their partner was once married or engaged, that they experimented in the bedroom, or of the sheer number of partners they’ve had.

Before I started writing this article, I didn’t even realise there was such a thing as retroactive jealousy. However, now I know my ex-partner suffered from it. I recall when we first got together that he kept pestering to tell him the number of men I had slept with before him. He had exhibited other signs of jealous behaviour, so this was not odd for him.

The number was reasonable for a sexually active woman of my age. Or so I thought. Once I told him, I went from his ideal woman, fit to help raise his children to the whore of Babylon overnight. He kept saying that he wished I’d never told him as he ‘couldn’t get that terrible number out of his head’. Why ask, I thought.

My ex believed that the number I had told him revealed a terrible secret about my past. That I was a promiscuous tart who was likely to relapse into that kind of behaviour at any moment. And it is this that those suffering from retroactive jealousy fear.

How does retroactive jealousy affect a person?

Whichever area of a partner’s past they are concerned with, those with retroactive jealousy conjure up possible scenarios of what they think has happened. Highly intrusive thoughts fill their minds. Emotions are charged. Thoughts are played over and over again until it becomes the truth. When they confront their partner, they are trapped in an endless cycle of over-analysing and irrational thoughts.

Living with someone who has retroactive jealousy is like being constantly under siege. You are questioned all the time. It gets to the point where you believe you were promiscuous. It is not easy for the person suffering either. They constantly live under the threat that you are going to leave them for a more experienced partner. The funny thing is that the rules of past behaviour don’t seem to apply to them.

My partner left his wife and two small children to live with me. Surely, I was the one with the worries about infidelity, not him. But instead, the focus was firmly on my shoulders. My partner truly believed that if someone as honest and righteous as him could have an affair and leave his wife, anyone could.

The thing was, despite him having the dodgy past, I wasn’t interested in his sexual conquests at all. But he had an overwhelming need to know all about mine.

How to overcome retroactive jealousy

The first step to overcoming retroactive jealousy is to understand what it is you are actually afraid of. The one thing those with retroactive jealousy all have in common is that they are afraid of losing their loved one.

For example:

  • They loved someone before me, how do I know they won’t love someone else?
  • If they had so much sexual experience, are they really the right one for me?
  • It seems like they had a great time with their ex-partners, won’t they miss it?

You have triggered a subconscious fear that everyone else is better than you and you have to be vigilant. This means that even the people in your partner’s past are a threat to you.

However, it is important to remember that what you are really afraid of is losing your partner.

How retroactive jealousy is reinforced

As with any kind of reinforced behaviour, there is a consistent pattern:

  1. Thought
  2. Emotion
  3. Behaviour
  4. Relief

Retroactive jealousy always starts with intrusive thoughts:

  • Intrusive thoughts about a partner’s past relationships.
  • Leads to emotions such as anxiety, anger, worry, fear and panic.
  • Makes you behave in a certain way like arguing, snooping, sulking etc.
  • This gives you relief for a short while until…
  • The intrusive thoughts start again.

To break this cycle, you have to tackle the very start, the intrusive thoughts.

As soon as you have an intrusive thought about a partner’s sexual past, stop in your tracks. Take the thought and view it from a third person’s point. This works well by imagining the mental image as a clip from a movie shown on a screen. Remember, it is not the event that is the problem, in other words, it is not your thought but how you react to it. Keep this in mind when the thoughts enter your mind.

If you find this too difficult, then work on your own self-confidence and esteem. At the heart of retroactive jealousy is the idea that you are afraid you’re not good enough. Think about what you don’t like about yourself and take action to work on it.

The other side of retroactive jealousy is the judgemental part. You might still feel that your partner has done something in the past they shouldn’t have. Work on any judgemental issues you have with a third party if necessary.

Despite retroactive jealousy having deep roots, you can break the cycle.  I should warn you, however, for some, it is very difficult. They remain judgmental and jealous and will always seek to put their partners down. My advice if you come across someone like that? Run! Like I did!


  1. https://psychcentral.com
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Alejandro Perez Pozos


  2. Matt

    Thank you for this. It explains me to a T. Know I can get to work solving my issues.

  3. Amos Simango

    Janey Davies thanx for this,how can l privately talk with you


    I really related to this article. I have been having so much problems in my current relationship and I saw myself brought to life in the article. I am going to talk to my counselor tomorrow about it and work on it in my therapy. THANK YOU!!

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