What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

jealous partner looking at their partner's phone

IherPhoto / Getty Images

What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with your partner’s dating history? Have you ever been jealous of their previous romantic partners? Have you ever compared yourself to their ex-partners and felt insecure? If so, you may be experiencing retroactive jealousy.

Retroactive Jealousy

Retroactive jealousy is when you feel resentful or frustrated about your partner’s romantic history, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, who specializes in issues related to relationships.

According to Dr. Romanoff, retroactive jealousy can cause you to focus on aspects such as:

  • Activities your partner used to do with their ex and situations they faced together
  • The emotional depth of their relationship and their memories together
  • Their sexual involvement and physical intimacy

This article explores the causes, characteristics, and impact of retroactive jealousy, as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful if you find yourself feeling jealous of your partner’s past.

Characteristics of Retroactive Jealousy

Below, Dr. Romanoff describes some of the characteristics of retroactive jealousy:

  • Ruminating over your partner’s past: You might find yourself repeatedly thinking about your partner’s past and feeling envious of their previous partners.
  • Doubting your partner: Jealousy can cause you to engage in unhealthy relationship behaviors such as checking up on your partner, doubting their word, or going through their phone. You may find yourself calling their friends or their workplace to check on their whereabouts, or reading their text messages to their ex.
  • Making comparisons: You might narrow in on a specific person your partner dated before you and compare yourself to them. For instance, you might find yourself stalking their former partner on social media platforms and comparing your life and relationship to theirs.
  • Imagining missing details: If you are unaware of the details of your partner’s romantic history, it could be more enticing to imagine a more idealized version of their past. You might fear that your partner dated the most perfect, successful, and beautiful people before you.

Causes of Retroactive Jealousy

These are some of the potential causes of retroactive jealousy, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • You’re feeling insecure: Insecurity is the most common trigger for retroactive jealousy. Whether real or imagined, people tend to experience retroactive jealousy when they feel threatened in the relationship and don’t feel fully secure with their partner. This could come internally from one’s own insecurities or externally if their partner is withdrawing from them or being untrustworthy.
  • You feel like something’s missing: Retroactive jealousy also tends to be triggered when the fantasy of the relationship your partner had with their ex seems to be better in some way than your current relationship. For example, if you aren’t feeling emotionally connected to your partner, you're not spending much quality time together, or you feel like something else is missing in your relationship, you might become fixated on how your partner did the things you are currently seeking in the past with someone else.
  • You’re sensitive to rejection: A 2018 study with 247 participants found that people who are sensitive to rejection are more prone to feeling jealous in relationships. Rejection sensitivity can cause you to always be on the lookout for signs of rejection and have a disproportionate reaction to benign or mildly negative words or behaviors by your partner.
  • Your partner is still in touch with their ex: If your partner is still in contact with their ex, you might find yourself wondering about the status of their current connection and dwelling on all the possible ‘what if’ scenarios.
  • You’ve been burnt in the past: You may find yourself feeling jealous if your current or previous partner has been unfaithful or untrustworthy. While it can be hard to prevent trust issues from previous relationships affect your present relationship, it’s important to see your current partner for who they are.

Impact of Retroactive Jealousy

Jealousy can take a toll on you and your partner. Below, Dr. Romanoff outlines the impact of retroactive jealousy on your mental health and your relationship.

Impact on Your Mental Health

Jealousy is a negative emotion that can take you down a debilitating spiral of unproductive thoughts. Fixating on your partner’s past can affect your ability to enjoy the present with them. You might find yourself feeling stressed and anxious, which is a difficult and uncomfortable state to be in.

Thoughts of retroactive jealousy often tend to be representations of your own worries and insecurities. When you idealize others, you are essentially elevating them and devaluing yourself. This can be hard on your confidence and self-esteem, affecting how you see yourself in other areas of your life as well.

Impact on Your Relationship

Jealousy can cause you to pick fights with your partner that may be entirely unnecessary if they haven’t done anything wrong.

Your partner could eventually get frustrated with your jealousy and also begin to feel affected by your lack of confidence and self-worth. People accept what you project and if you project the idea that your partner’s former partners are all better than you, your partner might begin to believe that you are unworthy. This can affect the dynamic of your relationship and put you at a disadvantage, making you an unequal partner.

Jealousy can act like a self-fulfilling prophecy that sabotages your relationship. By allowing yourself to give in to jealousy, you may engage in behaviors that push your partner away, making your worst fears come true.

Coping With Retroactive Jealousy

Dr. Romanoff suggests some strategies that can help you cope with retroactive jealousy:

  • Avoid giving in to jealousy: If you’re feeling jealous, you may be tempted to give in to it and snoop on your partner. However, it’s important to resist these behaviors and understand that they’re unproductive. Occupy yourself with something else until the urge passes.
  • Work on your self-esteem: Jealousy is often rooted in one’s own worries and insecurities. Try to focus on yourself and work on bolstering your sense of confidence and building your self-esteem. Remember, there is a reason your partner is no longer with their ex and chooses to be with you. Use rational thinking to address your insecurities, which will likely turn out to be irrational upon closer examination.
  • Focus on your relationship: Rather than fixating on your partner’s previous relationships, focus on your relationship with them. Spend quality time with them, create new memories and positive experiences together, and work on building trust and deepening the connection and intimacy between the two of you.
  • Communicate with your partner: If your partner is in fact giving you reasons to feel insecure about the relationship, communicate how you are feeling and consider asking for changes in your relationship to help you feel more confident and secure. 

A Word From Verywell

No one is thrilled about their partner’s dating history; however, letting retroactive jealousy escalate can be harmful to your peace of mind and your relationship. 

If your jealousy is motivated by internal insecurities, it’s important to address them and put them to rest, so that you can focus on enjoying your relationship with your partner. On the other hand, if your partner is behaving inappropriately with their ex, discuss your concerns with them and work on finding solutions and building trust together.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ligman K, Rodriguez LM, Rocek G. Jealousy and electronic intrusion mediated by relationship uncertainty in married and cohabiting couples during covid-19. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2021;24(7):444-449. doi:10.1089/cyber.2020.0669

  2. Murphy AM, Russell G. Rejection sensitivity, jealousy, and the relationship to interpersonal aggression. J Interpers Violence. 2018;33(13):2118-2129. doi:10.1177/0886260515622572