The Strange Case of Retroactive Jealousy: The Psychology and the Treatment

Photo: Richard Lee/ Unsplash/Bison fighting for the right to mate

How to Kick the Habit of Retrograde Jealousy

In this blog post I will examine the strange case of retrograde jealousy. While the normal kind of jealousy may make sense. Let’s say that your partner begins to speak very fondly about a colleague and this said colleague begins texting your partner late at night. In this case you probably should worry and feeling jealous would be a perfectly normal reaction. Retrograde jealousy on the other hand is peculiar. In this case you consider your partner’s ex’es as a kind of threat, or at least some sort of a nuisance. As something that threatens your self worth or as something that threatens your relationship. In the following I will outline some of the first steps you should take if you suffer from retrograde jealousy. Then I will proceed to carve out two possible underlying mechanisms: OCD and a “Rivalry Complex”.   


Your Personal Why

Consider the “why” of it all: What makes you think so much about your partner’s past relationships? Even your most negative habits, thoughts and feelings have some sort of meaning to them, albeit painful to you. Zachary (author of the book Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy: A Guide to Getting Over Your Partner’s Past and Finding Peace) considers that the motivation behind much of retrograde jealousy comes from the need for passivity; that the thought of your partner’s ex or ex’es perhaps being better than you, relieves you from the plight of taking action and being the best you can be? This is what one in a Freudian framework would call a subconscious drive to gain a secondary reward: Like the person pretending to be sick in order to get love and attention (the secondary reward), you may dwell at your partner’s past in order to give in to the feeling of not being good enough. Hence a reprieve from actually trying living up to your potential with all the struggle and challenge that goes with that.

Too complicated? 


Whatever the case it is always a good idea to ask yourself the, at first bewildering question as to the purpose of your thoughts about your partner’s past. What does ‘it” want? What’s the point of thinking about your partners ex? 


Experiment: If you placed your jealousy, let’s call this part of you “Mr Retrograde Jealousy” in the chair next to you, and asked him – or her “Why do you obsess about my partners’ past?” and you changed seats and answered back as Mr Retrograde Jealousy and thus created a kind of back-and-forth conversation with your Jealousy by actually changing seats, you may get some insights into your “why”. This way of dealing with yourself may sound odd, but it is based on techniques developed in Gestalt Therapy and is actually quite a common method in psychotherapy. 


Taking It To The Limit … and then some

You may also, as Zachary also suggests want to consider taking it to the limit. Sit yourself down and ask yourself the following provoking question: If I dialed this my retrograde jealousy up to eleven, what would my situation be like in three years from now? Try to write as a minimum 3 pages in which you consider how it will affect your relationship(s), work life, health, happiness and sense of meaning and peace of mind. 

For some people this kind of exercise does nothing more than exacerbate their pain whereas for others it may create a motivation to steer clear of that miserable future image of yourself hence putting a damper on your retrograde jealousy. 


Don’t seek assurance from your partner?

Researching for this blog post I stumbled upon this following piece of advice, which should come with a warning. It is suggested that you have talks with your partner about your retrograde jealousy. This sounds – on the face of it – as a good idea. Two things may happen though, that is definitely not in your interest: First of all it will sooner rather than later make your partner feel ill at ease as he or she can’t help you. You may also come across as weak. This may be detrimental to your relationship as the man who appears weak (it’s in my experience mostly men who suffer from this affliction) loses his attraction fast. Women don’t like their men being weak and they can’t stand jealousy.

Also  If she tries to reassure you it will very likely strengthen your problem. Why? Whenever a partner reassures their loved one about an imagined irrational problem, it may alleviate their partner’s anxiety at first but the act of reassuring tends to make the thoughts worse in the long run. This is a well known fact from the treatment of OCD. The reason behind this peculiar fact is most likely, that the very act of reassuring someone about a strange imagined problem in a serious conversation affirms said strange problem indirectly. It makes it appear more real. Your retrograde jealousy is – not – a – real – problem. Don’t treat it as a real life problem. Don’t seek assurance from your partner.  You may talk to her about it, but in a way in which you clearly state that you know that it is irrational, so that you demonstrate maturity and show her that you are capable of wrestling it to the ground yourself – perhaps with some help from a therapist. 



If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. Through the years as a practicing psychologist I have learned to listen to my intuition. It is oftentimes wiser than my theorizing and my methods. “Retrograde jealousy” strikes me as so particularly irrational that it tastes like OCD. 


No. It doesn’t taste like OCD. But you know what I mean. It is very OCD like. 


Many of my clients who have suffered from Retrograde Jealousy have sought my help because of the trouble and tribulations they suffer at the hand of their fevered thoughts about their partner’s ex or exes. This is a hallmark criteria for OCD sufferers – the realization that something is off about their obsessional thinking. 


There is a definite advantage in this perspective on Retrograde Jealousy, as there are effective, evidence based methods directed at relieving people from OCD. You may as well quit reading on and finding a therapist who has specialized in methods developed to treat OCD like “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”,  “Meta Cognitive Therapy” or any kinds of Compassion Focused and Mindfulness based therapies. These methods are on a whole based on: a) Psycho education about thoughts as something you can’t and will never be able to totally control why b) you need to learn how to let your “automatic negative thoughts” pass by instead of ruminating on them. Part of these treatments is also concerned with behavior. To rid yourself of any type of OCD it is crucial to stop your ritualistic behaviors – meaning any and all behavior that result from your OCD, including seeking assurance from your partner. Which takes us to the next point: 


Just Don’t Go There

I once had a client. He started dating a man who was 20 years older than himself. He got to worry about his new partner’s exes. Who had he been with and why? He proceeded with the full accept of his new boyfriend to trawl through his messages with other guys going back 5-10 years. It took them the best part of a week. As is the case with almost all kinds of OCD this kind of manic checking behavior only made his retrograde jealousy much, much worse. He almost developed a psychotic break down. So: Whatever the case do not act upon your retrograde jealousy. Rule of thumb: Any and all behavior motivated by your retrograde jealousy increases the retrograde jealousy. Just don’t go there. 


The Rivalry Complex 

So I got to thinking: What motivates this apart from perhaps low self esteem or a penchant for OCD?

People with Retrograde Jealousy don’t necessarily suffer from low self esteem and OCD describes the mechanics of what is going on – you take your negative thoughts too seriously – but it does not explain the “why this?” at the prerequisite psychological analytical level.

It may all be about rivalry. An ancient evolutionarily ingrained social modality script, so ancient in fact, that it may run on the unconscious and largely illogical mind, wherefore it may even spot a rival to engage with who is long gone – as in the case of Retrograde Jealousy of partners’ exes.


The person who suffers from this affliction may be caught up in a loop of a primordial social motivational system.


A program which is dead set on keeping enemy suitors at bay.


A program with a life of its own as it were.


A program that has been activated and even over-activated in the depth of the person’s psyche some time in his or her own past, so that it has become automatic, chronic, like a sub personality with a mind of its own.. 


This may sound complex or even far fetched, but the solution to this scenario is not:  

Trace back to when you got into a rivalry situation for the first time in your life, perhaps with your own brother or sister or with a parent? Think back to your school years. Having pinpointed your former suffering and rivalising self, give yourself the assignment of writing to this younger version of yourself, like a parent to a child. Tell him or her that things will be okay, that you may lose one love and win another etc. in other words write a caring, comforting and coaching letter to your former self with the hope that this may dampen or bring a halt to this likely innate rivalising program that has hijacked your psyche like a piece of bad software.


If you need a helping hand to kick this unseemly habit why not book a session? We may do our sessions online. Book now.

Read here for more information on research on the topic.

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