During a recent Q&A I did, someone asked if I had ever experienced retroactive jealousy. I had never heard of the term before, so I looked it up.
Woah… WOW. Yes. It’s all I ever felt and, embarrassingly, acted on in ninety-nine percent of my past relationships.
Even though I’ve never written a blog post using the term “retroactive jealousy,” I realized that I had experienced it, been writing about it, speaking about it, and helping people with it for years. It’s such a cool feeling when you find an actual term for exactly what you’ve gone through, felt and struggled with. It’s empowering to know that it wasn’t just you (it never is) and that you aren’t alone (you never are).
This was a severe and compulsive obsession that I could not control. It reached a point where I’d justify acting in ways that went against what I knew was morally and ethically right. Some people have broken the law, all in the name of retroactive jealousy.
What Is Retroactive Jealousy?
Everyone experiences relational jealousy at some point. However, when jealousy becomes obsessive and starts to affect your mental health, moral code, and quality of life, it becomes retroactive.
Retroactive jealousy is when you feel threatened by (and subsequently obsess and investigate) your partner’s past relationships, exes, experiences, and decisions. Although all of these things are in the past, you feel like they are a front-and-center threat to you and your relationship.
This can manifest in allowing your triggered emotions to dictate regrettable actions. The stress it causes can also affect you physically and sexually. The obsessive thoughts and anxiety prevent you from being your authentic self, and, in turn, it sabotages your relationship.
Whenever I started dating someone new, I would get on social media and immediately switch to FBI-investigatory mode. I’d stalk the exes of the person I was dating to the point that I knew their current relationship status, job, income, interests, and all of their siblings and cousins. I knew their parent’s hobbies; who their sorority sisters were. I even found exes of theirs.
You name it, I knew it.
I picked apart their looks, jobs, success level, the amount they traveled, etc. One time, I went to the boutique that the ex of the person I was dating owned. I browsed around and tried to study this woman as much as possible. I felt like we were in a battle; like she still wanted the guy I was dating, and he wanted her.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Looking back, my behavior was creepy and desperate. That was a new low for me. (Sadly, a year later, I dove even lower than that). But I couldn’t see it for what it was back then because I was operating from a place of emotional survival. And when you’re in survival mode, as my dear friend Mastin Kipp explained to me, it feels like you’re always acting from a place of integrity because you’re, quite literally, hanging on for dear life, just trying to survive.
And when that life-and-death energy is at play, everything becomes justified.
No matter what, I always concluded that my partner’s exes were smarter, prettier, sexier, more successful, and all-around better than me in every way. I’d then start to question why my partner was even with me; how they were attracted to me when they had an ex who was everything I wasn’t.
With retroactive jealousy, your relationship can never be a twosome. It is a debilitating triangle of you, your partner, and all the stuff you know (and feel threatened by) but can’t tell your partner that you know.
There’s no way you could tell your partner. You’d look crazy. But, as humans, we cannot help but communicate who we are. These things always end up seeping through our emotional pores.
So, you do what I used to do. You start asking questions and performing little “tests” to see how your partner responds and if they’re really “telling the truth.” The problem is that this search for “the truth” is endless. You don’t know the full truth about your partner’s past. You only know what you’ve been able to find out through the internet and social media stalking, so nothing satiates your hunger.
And because you aren’t being your authentic self (because of all the stress you put yourself through), you rob both yourself and your partner of the opportunity for your relationship to grow and develop.
It’s also worth noting that retroactive jealousy is not limited to romantic relationships. It can happen in friendships, professional, and familial relationships.
What Are Some Signs of Retroactive Jealousy?
- You feel the need to snoop through your partner’s phone, computer, tablet, car, desk, etc. When I did this, it wasn’t ever something I thought out. I did it very impulsively. And it was always justified because I was in emotional survival mode. I felt like I had to protect myself and find out everything I could. In my mind, it was self-protection. I was just doing my due diligence. I needed to figure out the truth of what went on/was going on. The problem is that when you’re operating on the gasoline of this level of fear, NOTHING satisfies you – no matter how much to try to tell yourself that “this is the last time.”
- You obsessively think about your partner having sex with their past partners.
- You social media snoop/stalk your partner’s exes and incessantly compare yourself to them.
- You feel terrible about yourself when your partner talks positively about a past relationship or an ex.
- You believe they had a better sexual connection with their exes than you. It’s like you put yourself in a competition with a made-up opponent.
- You wonder if your partner did the same things with their ex as they are doing/have done with you. And the thought of it makes you so sick you can’t be present nor enjoy the moment.
- You are constantly suspicious of your partner, even though they’ve done nothing to break your trust.
- You give your partner’s exes all of these incredible qualities (that you don’t even know if they truly possess) all to confirm your own perceived worthlessness and insecurities.
- The searching/snooping/stalking is obsessive. And because it’s un-satisfiable, it’s endless.
- You use your partner’s past against them to shift the power and gain control because you feel so powerless, unworthy, and out of control deep down.
What Causes It?
Contrary to what your triggered emotions try to convince you, retroactive jealousy is caused by your past – NOT your partner’s.
My retroactive jealousy was caused by un-dealt-with childhood trauma that bred low self-esteem and resulted in anxious attachment in my relationships.
If you’ve been cheated on, lied to, gaslighted, or abused/manipulated in past relationships, it’s only natural that you’ll have anxiety in regard to your partner’s past and being abandoned.
But if you allow that trauma to turn you into a puppet (letting your triggered emotions dictate your actions), you will sabotage the relationship, end up single, and, once again, fill your self-fulfilling prophecy of “I am not enough.” Wash, rinse, repeat.
Retroactive Jealousy Is the Way I Used to Project My Insecurities
I grew up in a very unstable and chaotic environment. And I was disciplined with the possibility of one of my parents “divorcing me,” like they did my other parent if I did not shut up, never question anything, get straight A’s, and behave.
I felt like I wasn’t wanted at times. And after my parents divorced, I felt like they both chose their spouses over me. (My parents did the absolute best that they could. No one had the perfect parent, and no one will be the perfect parent. I do not blame them for a thing, nor do I share this from a victim standpoint whatsoever. I share this to help others feel less alone and heal).
When I took a compassionate look at my past and where I came from, I was able to understand exactly why I was experiencing these emotions and establishing these destructive patterns. I then got rid of everything that was exacerbating the jealousy and was able to pivot from the hell I was putting myself and other people through.
Although I didn’t know of the term “retroactive jealousy,” when I saw it for what it was, it took the electrical charge out of it. It no longer had the power over me that it once did.
How to Overcome Retroactive Jealousy
- Make sure you have a healthy, respectful relationship with alcohol. Don’t use drugs.
- Unless your partner has given you reason not to trust them, you must give them the benefit of the doubt (just like you’d want them to give you).
- Vulnerability is the ultimate strength. Have an honest conversation with your partner. Share your feelings, fears, and concerns in a non-accusatory way. The truth really does set you free.
- Stop any activities that activate you. A client of mine decided to take a shot of spoiled milk every time she went to social media stalk. She could never bring herself to drink the spoiled milk (I am NOT suggesting you do that), and it really helped because she could see that she wouldn’t make herself physically sick (from the spoiled milk) but was making herself mentally sick (from the constant snooping).
- Work on loving yourself. Be who you needed when you were younger and did not have. Get acquainted with your White Horse. And understand that by making these little agreements/promises to yourself and following through with them, you will gain self-love and respect that no one can ever take away. You’ll reinstate your dignity.
You’re not going to read a blog post and magically never experience retroactive jealousy again. But something you read may have sparked something inside of you to hold yourself to a higher standard. To stop engaging in behavior that is beneath you. To hug yourself a little tighter and be grateful that you can redirect, heal, surrender where you need to, and control what you have to so that you can remember who the f*ck you are.
Have some compassion for yourself. Your emotional body is just trying to keep you out of the kind of pain that it still needs to process from your past.
x Natasha Adamo
Are you struggling with retroactive jealousy? You’re not alone. Millions of people experience this feeling, and it can be debilitating. But there is hope. Natasha Adamo, #1 bestselling author, high-performance coach, and relationship expert, has helped thousands of people overcome retroactive jealousy and build happy, healthy relationships. With over two and a half million readers, Natasha’s advice and guidance has been trusted by people around the world. If you’re ready to take the first step towards healing, sign up for Natasha’s one-on-one coaching today. With sessions available in-person and over the phone, she can work with you no matter where you are in the world. Don’t let retroactive jealousy control your life any longer. Sign up for coaching with Natasha today and start living the life you deserve.
This is such an interesting post. I had never heard of the term ‘retroactive jealousy’ either until about eighteen months ago when my then girlfriend started bringing up my past relationships in conversation. I felt as though I was being cross-examined at court! There was no justification for it…I loved my girlfriend unconditionally and all of my exes were, and remain, in the past. She had scrolled through my Facebook page and found a photo from 2011 which I had missed when I was deleting such posts. I believe she used this as (one) excuse to monkey-branch to another guy when we did break up. Retroactive jealously is an extremely frustrating and helpless thing to experience as a ‘victim’ – it’s something I would never want to go through again.
Thanks for the post Natasha and I am so happy to have discovered your work. As I have said before, it has helped me get back on track. Although we have never met in person, I count you as a dear friend.
I count you as a dear friend too, David. And I look forward to the day that we can meet in person. Thank you so much for shedding light on this by sharing your experience.
I hope that the post was helpful. You are not alone. All my love to you, dear friend. Thank you for you.
Thank you for this post, Natasha! I am definitely prone to retroactive jealousy and can see how indulging in it will sabotage a good relationship. I love this line: “retroactive jealousy is caused by your past – NOT your partner’s.” Gonna deal with my own trauma and learn to love myself more! Hugs to you xx
Big hug back to you, Charmaine. So happy it helped! Xx
This post is amazing and very thought-provoking Natasha! It made me look at a wide selection of my past behavior from multiple angles.
I’m an Enneagram Type Five – so I gain energy from investigating just about anything. I agree with everything you say about the causes and remedies for obsessive investigatory behavior, particularly the part about how it will ultimately sabotage the relationship. And as I chewed over my own experience with this, the logic chain came together like this: Unstable archetypal relationship prompts person to view all people suspiciously and as potential sources of disappointment, ergo he/she should fear and avoid all commitment. The investigation provides the excuse to avoid full commitment, and is the portal to serial infidelity and other destructive relationship behaviors.
I appreciate all you do to help us shine a light on the path to self-improvement.
“Unstable archetypal relationship prompts a person to view all people suspiciously and as potential sources of disappointment, ergo he/she should fear and avoid all commitment. The investigation provides the excuse to avoid full commitment and is the portal to serial infidelity and other destructive relationship behaviors.” – THANK YOU for this, Brandon. Wow, talk about a light bulb moment.
The appreciation is mutual. Thank you for being here and for being you.
Thanks for being my chosen family.
I thank you advance if you ever read through this message to you.
I did not think that I was in any way a jealous person retroactive or otherwise. I have been dating a guy who has an ex-wife and two children. In the time that we have been in a committed and monogamous relationship, if she ever needed or wanted anything he would physically and financially spring to her rescue. Never have I considered that they had a physical relationship as they had been divorced for a few years before I met him. In our first year together he was three hours late to a holiday dinner. It was only after he arrived that I found out he was at her house having the holiday dinner with his family. In the second year, I was to take him out to celebrate his birthday. He asked if we could instead have dinner with her and his 17 year old son because she wanted to make him a special meal. I agreed and there we were at her table eating the meal she prepared for him. When we went to her living room to open gifts, there I see on her living room wall of her new home a collage of their wedding photographs. Fast forward to he and I breaking up and in “RETROACTIVE Jealousy”, I stalked her social media to learn that she had changed the whole theme of her account to photographs of them together as far back as 25 years ago. I was then struck with full on jealousy. After 14 months of being broken up, he begged me to get back together. I should not have but did. He moved in with me to prove to me how committed he was to us. After a little more than a year back together I learned that they have been sharing/swapping photographs with each other. I learned that in this time he has not shared a single photo of us and that for his part, he would share photos of him by himself whilst we were on vacation, him with his friends, him with his family and him with their children. None of the photos were sexual in nature. However, he never once told me that he was swapping and commenting on photos with her (unbeknownst to me at the time, she was posting his comments about her photos on her social media). When I found out that this has been happening during the entire time of our “relationshit” reboot, I shared with him how betrayed I feel that he had been doing this during the whole reboot time and had not told me whereas he often told me when he shared photos with his father, his kids and his friends sans her. He went on to explain I had no right to feel betrayed because I knew they were friends and that he was nurturing their friendship. He did not tell me because he did not want me to be upset .
I still feel betrayed and lied to by omission.
Admittedly, he did know that I was very confused that she had altered her once philanthropic and community service posts to posts that had only to do with him, her and a few of them with their children (23 & 20 yoa). I am reaching out to you for your thoughtful consideration of this issue. We have not broken up over this. Nonetheless, I am SERIOUSLY considering it not just for the photo/comment swapping of 18 months but also for telling me I had no right to feel betrayed.
Upset in Asheville,
Dear De Elle,
My overall reaction is to refer you to what Natasha urges in her takeaways from this post: give the benefit of the doubt, unless he has given you a reason not to trust him.
It does sound like he’s prone to avoidance behavior (he did not tell you because he didn’t want you to be upset). That makes him like virtually any other person, choosing the short-term over the long-term…one wonders why we all seem to choose that, when clear communication is a much better choice to strengthen the relationship. Point being – I understand why you were upset by his avoidance behavior.
He has a right to interact with his children’s mother, and you have a right to have feelings about how he does that. Relationships are not legal proceedings. The more they can be governed by principles (instead of rules) the better, in my opinion.
It is difficult to lay out clear boundaries in a situation such as this. Having said that, if he made a specific representation to you about how he would interact with his children’s mother, and then violated that, then I understand why you feel betrayed.
But given the difficulty of setting boundaries that work for all parties in this situation, I think the principle that would strengthen your relationship with him is to accept that some interaction of this nature is inevitable and also nothing to fear. You show trust in him by doing that (giving the benefit of the doubt) and hopefully he will reciprocate that trust.
I wish you well!
Retroactive jealousy is my personal hell. Ive only had two relationships in my life. And I suffered this through both. I just don’t know what to do anymore.
Go to my coaching page; I am happy to help. You are not alone, Nick.
Got no words at all….thank you so much Natasha for the insightful post.😊
This is definitely how i felt sometimes during my past relationship, but it turns out I was right because he went back to his ex 3 weeks after he broke up with me.. She was also in a relationship and 1 week after they broke up she went back crawling at my ex. I just feel used and lied to. I’m now aware that i ignored some red flags that revealed he wasnt over her but everything was going so well between us so i just ignored them. I know he does not care about me right now but i just want an apology someday.
Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve been there; you’re not alone.
I have a post about apologies from exes. You have to ask yourself – at this point, what would an apology from him even mean? Allow his actions to be the closure. I know it’s easier said than done, but you’ve got this! And you’ve got us (this community – full of love and support).
All my love to you, Sister. Xx