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Retrospective Jealousy

What It Is, Why It Affects You & What You Can Do About It

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by Jeff Billings in Retroactive Jealousy Blog
March 15, 2017
Retrospective Jealousy

Retrospective jealousy… Is this really why you’re obsessed with your partner’s past? 

Retrospective jealousy (Also known as “retroactive jealousy” and “retrograde jealousy”) is a condition in which a person becomes overwhelmed by obsessive thoughts and compulsions concerning their partner’s romantic or sexual past.

In this post, I’m going to break down just what retrospective jealousy is and how you can overcome it by looking at the following:

  • what is retrospective jealousy?
  • how does retrospective jealousy affect men and women differently?
  • why is getting over retrospective jealousy so hard?
  • how to make overcoming retrospective jealousy that much easier
  • a practical retrospective jealousy exercise

What is retrospective jealousy? The lowdown…

retrospective jealousy

A few years ago, I used to suffer terribly from what’s known as retrospective jealousy (although there’s no official medical name for the condition and few doctors will know what you’re talking about.)

Several years ago, having recently gotten together with my girlfriend (now wife), I began to find out things about her past that I soon wished I hadn’t.

Everything started one night when one of her very recent sex-buddies rang her, waking us up at 2 a.m. This initiated many a conversation (as much by her as by myself) about my girlfriend’s sexual past.

From there I spiraled down a whirlpool of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors as I sought to find out more information about getting over my girlfriend’s past lovers.

And what I found out, of course, made the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors even worse. Much worse… To the point where it developed into fullblown retrospective jealousy.

Most people get a bit jealous sometimes when they hear that their partner once loved or had sex with someone else. It’s not something many people particularly want to hear about in great detail.

But there’s a difference between regular jealousy like this and the kind of jealousy I fell victim to: retrospective jealousy, which is, in effect, a form of retroactive jealousy OCD.

“Normal” jealousy involves maybe feeling a twinge when a partner’s past is brought up in conversation. Or not wishing to hear about it in the first place.

Retrospective jealousy, on the other hand, involves:

  • constantly being “triggered” by obsessive thoughts about a partner’s past
  • feeling negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, doubt, envy, judgment, anger
  • succumbing to compulsive behaviors in an effort to make the pain go away

These compulsive retrospective jealousy behaviors can include:

  • dwelling on past events—playing mental images or “mini-movies” over and over
  • trawling the internet looking for answer on how to get over retrospective jealousy
  • snooping through a partner’s personal belongings looking for evidence of their past
  • arguing with a partner, being sarcastic, condemning them for their past actions

And this can go on and on in a vicious cycle for months, years, or even decades.

(I hear from clients on a fairly regular basis who have been married for 15+ years and are still suffering from retrospective jealousy over their wife’s sexual experiences in college.)

The difference between retrospective jealousy in men and women

retrospective jealousy

Men tend to get retrospective jealousy over who their wife or girlfriends “promiscuous” sexual past:

  • amount of sexual partners (this can be a high or low number)
  • one-night-stands
  • threesomes
  • sex-buddies and “friends-with-benefits”
  • sexual positions and practices
  • locations where the sex happened
  • penis size

Retrospective jealousy can equally affect men with tons of sexual experience (often more than their partner) as it can men with little or no previous experience.

Women, on the other hand, tend to worry less about a man’s sexual history and more about his romantic past:

  • who he once dated or was married to
  • why he dated or married her
  • how long the relationship lasted
  • holidays, honeymoons, special occasions
  • the type of relationship it was
  • how he felt about his ex in the past
  • how he feels about his ex now

In other words, retrospective jealousy makes men care more about relatively meaningless physical past experiences. While women tend to worry about more meaningful emotional past experiences.

The beginning of retrospective jealousy…

retrospective jealousy

This difference again goes back to the dawn of mankind, before writing, agriculture, and Ikea.

Men evolved to fret over winding up raising another man’s child instead of his own. This was in order to ensure that his own genes were passed on and not some random caveman’s.

Women who casually slept around (and the men they slept with) therefore, were seen as threats because the chances he could end up raising another man’s child were seemingly increased.

Hence male retrospective jealousy developed as a fear of their partner’s former casual, non-committal physical sex, as it represents the risk of raising another man’s kid.

Women, on the other hand, evolved wanting to ensure that their man would stick around and provide for their child, rather than that of some other random woman.

Hence, female retrospective jealous developed as a fear of their partner’s former emotional bond, as it represents the risk of being left to raise a kid all alone.

Overall, I have far more clients who are male than female—possibly due to the changing face of female sexuality since the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean women can’t fall victim to retrospective jealousy just as badly as men. Or that they find overcoming retroactive jealousy any easier.

Why is getting over retrospective jealousy so hard?

retrospective jealousy

Retrospective jealousy is a strange condition and especially hurtful because you know that what you’re getting upset about is essentially irrational.

Your partner’s actions in the past are gone forever and so why does it still hurt so much in the present? The answer lies primarily in the difference between your conscious and unconscious mind.

Your conscious mind and retrospective jealousy

Your conscious mind knows it’s ridiculous to be judgmental over your girlfriend having slept with sixteen guys when you’ve slept with sixty women.

Or for not being able to stop thinking about your man’s relationship with an ex-girlfriend when it ended three years ago.

Or for being consumed by doubt when all your partner tells you is that they love you and don’t give a hoot anymore about THAT person from their past.

Your unconscious mind and retrospective jealousy

But the problem is your unconscious mind doesn’t care what your conscious mind says.

This is because retrospective jealousy is rooted in a very primal part of the human psyche that was originally designed to protect us.

All negative emotions such as jealousy, anger, fear, doubt, etc. come from the same place—the brain stem—which developed as our primitive ancestors learned how to survive.

Unfortunately, this is why overcoming retrospective jealousy is so hard.

It’s hardwired into all of us to be naturally jealous of other people our partner has been intimate with. But when this goes from “normal” jealousy to retrospective jealousy, something has gone wrong.

A wire’s been tripped that has short-circuited the normal response of, “So what? That happened ages ago.”

Retrospective Jealousy

Once a cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors begins, it can be very hard to stop. And the problem is compounded by the fact that there’s very little information out there on the subject of retrospective jealousy.

Ninety percent of therapists haven’t got a clue what retrospective jealousy is or how to treat it.

And those that do, usually offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but retroactive jealousy therapy such as this can be expensive.

You probably also don’t feel like you can talk to anyone about your retrospective jealousy. Your partner may not want to talk about it or when you do you wind up arguing.

And it’s maybe not something you want to bring up with your friends or family. And even if you do, they probably don’t understand what you’re going through.

Advice such as “Just get over it” or “Put it in the past where it belongs” offers nothing in the way of comfort.

All in all, struggling with getting over retrospective jealousy can be an extremely lonely and debilitating condition.

However, it can be overcome, as I detail in my book and course and at the end of this post.

Overcoming retrospective jealousy in men and women

retrospective jealousy

At the core of retrospective jealousy lies insecurity and a lack of self-confidence. Getting over the condition is not easy when you feel you’re always coming “second best” to someone who knew your partner before you.

And so building up your own sense of self-worth and value is a necessary start to overcoming retrospective jealousy.

I received this email recently from a woman (let’s call her Karen) whose situation perfectly encapsulates the problem with retroactive jealousy: feeling like you somehow “don’t measure up” to your partner’s past lover(s).

Below is a copy of the email in which she describes how her retrospective jealousy is being caused by the fact that her fiancé has been married once before. (Following the email, I include my response.)

Karen’s retrospective jealousy email:

“Hi, Jeff,

I had an episode tonight… not as intense as before. But it all comes from: am I really the most important person in his life?

A lot of times I feel like how can I mean so much to him if he’s experienced marriage before me? Or already loved someone enough to marry them already?

How can I know that this is really special to him if he has already experienced it? So frustrated at being the soon-to-be second wife.”

My response:

Firstly, thank you, Karen, for letting me use your email to highlight one of the many peculiar aspects of retrospective jealousy: how it tricks the mind into believing that your boyfriend’s past with other people was somehow so amazing that it devalues the experiences he’s sharing with you.

It seems your retrospective jealousy is caused by a feeling that because your partner has been married once before, his decision to marry you is somehow less important.

You feel like he’s “been there, done that,” and you’re somehow a “runner-up”.

I do not know the exact circumstances of your fiancé’s relationship with his ex-wife, but I presume he shows no interest in her now?

And the fact that he wants to marry you indicates that he loves you and wants to spend the rest of his life with you, not her.

But, as I know from first-hand experience, this logic doesn’t work with someone who’s gripped by retrospective jealousy.

It somehow manages to shut your eyes and ears to all the great things you have going for you: your relationship, the fact you’re soon to be married and how he tells you he loves you now and not his ex-wife.

Overcoming retrospective jealousy step #1: Realize it’s not your fault

my wife's past bothers me

So, the first thing you need to do to start dealing with retroactive jealousy is to stop beating yourself up about how you’re feeling.

Understand that it’s perfectly natural to have these feelings of jealousy considering your situation.

I’d bet that every single girl on Earth would prefer their fiancé had not been previously married, given the choice.

Getting married is a major step, and it’s only natural to feel anxiety over making such a fundamental change in your life. The ego hates change.

It wants to hold you back from moving on, and so when you do make a fundamental change it kicks into gear with all sorts of anxieties to try and prevent you from moving forward.

In other words, blame your ego, not yourself.

How to deal with retrospective jealousy step #2: Do not engage with obsessive thoughts

Secondly, try to move away from the feeling that because your partner has been married before, this devalues your upcoming marriage to him.

Whenever these feelings arise, learn to acknowledge them, witness them, and move on, as I describe in my book.

Your retrospective jealousy is making you focus solely on the great times your partner shared with his ex-wife and block out the bad—the reasons why they’re no longer together.

Whether he broke up the relationship or she did is irrelevant. The fact is, they were not fully compatible otherwise they’d still be married. He’s found the real person he wants to be with—you.

Everyone has a past. They’re not just parachuted down from the sky for you in a box for you to open, all innocent and fresh. If he hadn’t met his ex-wife, would you two have met in the first place?

I wouldn’t recommend dwelling on all this though. Don’t spend time thinking about his past marriage, or how he loves you now and not her, as this is still giving unnecessary mindspace to your retrospective jealousy.

As I said, try not to let the obsessive thoughts turn into compulsive actions as I describe in the book.

Dealing with retrospective jealousy step #3: Boost your confidence

RETROACTIVE JEALOUSY BOOK

One of the main causes of retrospective jealousy is a lack of self-confidence, and I would wager this is the driving force behind your fears.

If you were fully confident in yourself you would actually believe your fiancé when he says he loves you, rather than choosing to dwell on his former love for someone else.

This is because you would believe it yourself. But at the moment you probably don’t. Your insecurity within yourself is causing you to not understand why he’d feel marrying you is “special” when he’s already done it before.

But the thing is, he loves you because you are special. You just need to work on yourself until you realize it, too.

A retrospective jealousy practical exercise

Close your eyes a moment and imagine you’re a super confident individual. 

  • Imagine you’re capable of delivering a speech to hundreds of people.
  • Imagine you’re perfectly happy walking into a bar and chatting up the most beautiful girl or the most handsome guy in the room.
  • Imagine that whenever someone’s disrespectful to you, you’re able to shoot back with the perfect putdown that leaves them reeling.

Hold on to that feeling of confidence and inner power for a moment… Breathe deeply and feel the power of your self-belief coursing through your veins… Now bring to mind someone from your partner’s past…

Do they still seem as significant?

RETROSPECTIVE JEALOUSYDo your partner’s past experiences with them seem to matter as much? If not, then there’s your answer: you need to work on your self-confidence.

To learn how to stop feeling destructive jealous emotions, click on the button below to purchase my book The Ultimate Retroactive Jealousy Cure: How To Stop Being Jealous Of Your Partner’s Past in 12 Steps.

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Let me know in the comments section if you think insecurity is playing a part in your retrospective jealousy. If so, what have you done to try and improve your self-confidence?

82 Comments
  1. Boris says:

    Greate article. Keep posting about retroactive jealousy – I’ve got this site bookmarked 🙂

  2. Sherlen says:

    Wow, this post is good, my sister is suffering from retrospective jealousy and I will send her a link. Thanks for your great post!

    1. Thanks Sherlen – hope it helps your sister 🙂

  3. Armando says:

    I see your strateges for getting over RJ, would like you to help me please

  4. Marc says:

    I agree with most of this, however I don’t think a lack of confidence is always a major factor in RJ. I am a confident guy, I have a ton of great friends, never had any problem getting women, my job involves delivering presentations and talking to big clients all the time. So no, that’s not a problem for me, and yet I still can’t get her past out of my head.

  5. Brett says:

    I want to get over RJ asap.

  6. Barry says:

    Is this for real?

  7. Joni says:

    YOu’re so right! I love it when you say “your unconscious mind doesn’t care what your conscious mind says”. That’s exactly right, it feels like my unconscious mind just flings these images at me but my conscious mind knows they’re stupid but can’t do anything about it.

  8. Sarah says:

    Fully agree with most of this. I like the way you differentiate between men and womens experiences of RJ. My boyfriend has slept with about 70 girls but I couldn’t care less about any of them. It’s the two ex girlfriends I have a problem with.

  9. Terry says:

    I do ALL of those compulsive behaviors. How do I stop???

  10. Alvin says:

    Read Julian Barnes book “Before She met me”. Very good for RJ

  11. Edward says:

    Who else is suffering from repeated images of girl going down on ex?

  12. Jason says:

    I’ll tell you how to get over your gf slutty past: run for the hills.

  13. Sketchy says:

    What do you guys expect dating a whore?

  14. Brian says:

    Whenever I’m feeling down about my wife’s past I come on here and browse these posts. You’re a good man Jeff. Keep it up.

  15. Jesse says:

    If I put my shades on I don’t see so well, do the same with your girl and block out her past and all the dirty shit she got up to. It works.

  16. Yvonne says:

    You’ve described my problem like you know me! hugs Y x

  17. Alistair says:

    It’s impossible to get over this. How do I make the images stop? Help plz

  18. Anthony says:

    Finally I am on point with this. Thank you Jeff your the man!

  19. Liv says:

    The main issue I have is the ocd movies. How do I make them stop?

  20. Anthony says:

    Praise the lord and thank you for this site

  21. Darius says:

    I want my life back this hurts so much 🙁

  22. Pal says:

    Don’t know how much longer I can hold on. I get the feeling she’s going to leave me if I dont stop with my jealousy shit. You are doing a great thing here though jeff. I’m following your advice closely.

  23. Abdul says:

    I didn’t know what I was going thru it had a name until I found this site. I’m still learning but need to make this stop as soon as possible. Maybe we can talk

  24. Kathryn says:

    Thank you for this amazing site Jeff. I am taking your advice about now dwelling and I find playing the piano really helps me stop the images. I get in the zone and everything else fades away.

  25. David says:

    So there is no difference between retroactive retrospective and retrograde jealousy? But I think I have all three lol.

  26. Kevin says:

    I definitely agree with this. I couldn’t care less who my girl was in a relationship with. It’s the casual sex I hate.

  27. Kevin C says:

    I gave this a good read and its exactly what I was looking for. You are Doing a good thing by the sounds of it Jeff. I’m confident I will get over my gf’s past.

  28. Art E Choke says:

    The thing that bothers me is that I hadnt been with anyone before when we got together, but shes been with more women than she can count, and several men before me.. at such a young age, and it makes me question her integrity, because im not a manwhore myself.

  29. Thomas says:

    This post is great. I feel a little better already. Thank you Jeff.

  30. Tina says:

    The post resonated with me totally, it was like you have written it for me. My RJ is caused by childhood abuse (neglect and emotionally abuse as well). So for me it is a combination of abandonment issues and the way I was taught to see human relationships(especially sexual ones) as being wrong if not in a committed relationship. I still struggle very much with these concepts and, also I know that what I was taught was completely wrong I cannot help myself sometimes and judge my husband past through my mothers standards which is crazy I know. My mother destroyed my life and in the end I am left with years of therapy and medication in order to cope with everyday life.

  31. Kathryn says:

    I think this about ”performance in bed” is more young male… or maybe it isn’t, come to think of it. My problem is the ranking and that every single woman I have focus my retro on are sort of the same (in my mind). They are cold, hard, selfish and not at all vulnerable. And oddly enough that is almost true. They have never shown my husband/boyfriend (plural) that they are jealous or weak… they are all very non emotional and sure of themselves. Not at all like me. (My ”trauma” is that my weak father ALWAYS defended my hard, cold, aggressive mother. I was always left in the cold. So my big thing in life is that no one has ever defended me).

  32. Mike says:

    Thanks Jeff, appears getting better with my RJ thanks to you.

  33. Sally says:

    I’ve only had the opportunity to read the book very briefly but found myself nodding enthusiastically in agreement at most of it!

    I’m determined to beat this – I have a truly wonderful partner and we have a great relationship but he really doesn’t deserve me giving him a hard time about his past and I think that I deserve to be totally happy too and free from these horrible feelings.

    I’m eager to get going with the exercises and a little apprehensive but I will give them my best shot!

    Thanks again for the book Jeff :o)

  34. Walter says:

    Nice to see that someone else had pretty much the same issue and got over it. I will be using your coaching service when I get paid.

  35. Harry says:

    RJ is a horrible thing to suffer with but I can see light at the end of the tunnel and soon will be getting down on one knee. Thank you for your help.

  36. Cecilia says:

    Why do we like to cause ourselves pain? Any tips on how I can stop myself from doing this?

  37. David says:

    I have been putting your suggestions into practice and will continue to do so. If you have any more ways to assist I’d be very grateful, but I will continue and thanks for your book.

  38. Lexie says:

    Your book was a very help full and it overcame me retroactive jealousy.

  39. Jimmy says:

    What’s the differnece between retroactive jealousy and retrospective jealousy?

  40. Seth says:

    I’m trying to be strong and not let this bother me but MAN it’s difficult!

  41. William says:

    I’ve been following your advice and its helped me tremendously. Onward!

  42. William D says:

    I have recurring images about my girlfriend going down on a guy from her past. Make it stop!!

  43. Joy says:

    I have had to break up with my boyfriend because I couldn’t get over his past. It’s terrible but I’m feeling better.

  44. Alexander says:

    I thank you for taking the time to set up this site and help us RJ sufferers.

  45. Ben says:

    I seem to go up and down in my RJ. Some days it’s bad then it’s good. How do I keep it away?

  46. Loftus says:

    No woman no cry.

  47. Daniel says:

    How great to finally find this site. I’m going to go through all these RJ posts.

  48. Paul says:

    Having to move out due to RJ She’s had enuf. Need your help.

  49. James says:

    You can’t teach an old whore new tricks.

  50. Nigel says:

    Making real progress now thanks to the book Ultimate RJ Crusher. Thank you!

  51. Rick says:

    Feel the paaaaaiin!

  52. Rob says:

    What’s the difference between retroactive jealousy and retrospective jealousy?

  53. Jack says:

    Men are allowed to sleep around because it’s meaningless to them. Women get all emotional and attached and can’t have sex without feelings.

  54. Gavin says:

    Jeff’s course is helping. Get it if you can.

  55. Peter says:

    Should I buy your book Jeff if my jealousy is over an ex?

  56. James says:

    I’m 24 and a virgin. Just met a girl but she’s slept with 14 guys already and now I’m turned off.

  57. Kevin H says:

    Don’t like her past? MOVE ON!

  58. Kev says:

    Thank you Jeff . it feels like your talking directly to me.

  59. Zeena says:

    Retrospective Jealousy is such a bad thing. It’s messed with my mind so much I don’t know who I am anymore 🙁

  60. Silvio says:

    Love this post Jeff. Your writing genetics society upbringing evolution all playing a part in my jealousy was eye opening.

  61. Zach says:

    I know all this but still feel like shit about my girlfriend’s past.

  62. Rip Franz Winkle says:

    I begin to see now how stupid I’m being. The more I read on this blog the clearer it becomes that I am the problem not my wife.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  63. Heidi says:

    Who says RJ affects men more than women? Nonsense.

    1. I’m just going from my years’ of experience dealing with retrospective jealousy in both men and women and find many more men suffer from it than women. This isn’t scientifically proven, though, of course.

  64. Laura says:

    That email by Karen could have been written by me! I’m getting married in three months and know exactly how she feels.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Laura. I’m finally free to take on more retrospective jealousy coaching clients if you’re interested.

  65. Jazz says:

    Is there a way I can get a discount on your book Jeff? I’m student and have not much money. Thank you.

  66. Ramond says:

    I tried CBT and its crap. Total waste of money, don’t do it if you have RJ.

    1. So did I – not much good for dealing with retrospective jealousy.

  67. Claude says:

    This has been an eye opener. Thanks for putting this together jeff and the rest of the site. Will check out your book now!

    1. You’re welcome, Claude.

  68. Dara says:

    I agree, I couldn’t care less about his sexual past, I’m only focused on the girl he was engaged to two years before we met 🙁

    1. Sorry to hear that, Dara. Shoot me an email and we’ll talk.

  69. Jesse says:

    Yep I do all of those irrational behaviours. How do I stop!?!

    1. Your retrospective jealousy will stop once you start to stop engaging with it.

  70. Brian D says:

    I tried the exercise at the end and – wow – it really works.

    1. Glad to hear it, Brian!

  71. Daziel says:

    I wish I could buy you a drink Jeff. If you’re ever in NYC hit me up. I owe you one!

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