A young woman is feeling green with retroactive jealousy and wants to learn how to cope.

Feeling Green With Retroactive Jealousy? Here’s How to Cope

4 min.

Retroactive jealousy is a step beyond the typical jealousy that many people feel when thinking about a romantic partner’s past relationships — it includes intrusive thoughts that lead to insecurity and even irrational behavior.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

May 1, 2024


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Table of Contents

Thinking about a romantic partner’s past relationships makes many people feel jealous. But if you find yourself fixating or obsessing over details of their past relationships, such as their sexual history or past experiences, you may be dealing with a particular kind of jealousy — retroactive jealousy. 

These jealous thoughts can be intrusive, leading to insecurity and even irrational behavior. As a result, retroactive jealousy can cause problems in a romantic relationship, making it hard for partners to trust each other and leading to emotional distress for both people involved. Below, we delve into the signs of retroactive jealousy, its impact on relationships, and various treatments that may help. 

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What are the signs of retroactive jealousy?

Signs of retroactive jealousy can vary from person to person, but the most common indicator is obsessive thoughts about your partner’s past partner, experiences, or sexual history. People with retroactive jealousy usually find themselves obsessing over specific details of their partner’s past, such as their ex-partners, intimate moments, or past experiences.

These thoughts are often accompanied by the feeling of jealousy or resentment towards your partner’s past relationships. It can also cause insecurity about yourself or your relationship due to comparisons with your partner’s past. To alleviate this insecurity, people with retroactive jealousy may seek constant reassurance or engage in compulsive behaviors such as checking a partner’s social media or asking probing questions about their prior relationship.

Is retroactive jealousy a disorder?

Retroactive jealousy is not officially recognized as a specific disorder in diagnostic manuals like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it can still cause significant distress and impact people’s lives and relationships.

As mentioned, some people may experience retroactive jealousy that significantly interferes with their daily functioning or causes considerable distress. In such cases, it may be helpful to seek support from mental health professionals, such as therapists or counselors, who can provide guidance and assistance in managing these feelings effectively (more on this below).

What is retroactive jealousy OCD, and how is it treated?

While retroactive jealousy isn’t a disorder in and of itself, retroactive jealousy OCD refers to a specific manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — a diagnosable mental health condition that requires treatment. People with retroactive jealousy OCD often experience intrusive and distressing thoughts related to their partner’s past relationships or sexual history. These intrusive thoughts are often accompanied by compulsive behaviors such as excessive questioning, checking, or seeking reassurance to alleviate anxiety or uncertainty about their partner’s past. 

Treatment for retroactive jealousy OCD typically involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) techniques. CBT helps people challenge and reframe their obsessive thoughts, while ERP involves gradually exposing oneself to triggers related to retroactive jealousy and learning to resist the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors. Medication may also be prescribed in some cases to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression associated with retroactive jealousy OCD.

How does retroactive jealousy affect relationships?

Retroactive jealousy can significantly strain relationships and make it challenging for partners to maintain a healthy and fulfilling connection. These negative effects on relationships include:

Lack of trust

Constant intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past can make it difficult to trust each other in the present. This can cause suspicion and insecurity and make it difficult to feel close.

Communication Breakdown

Being overly fixated on retroactive jealousy can cause repetitive and accusatory talks about the partner’s past, making communication strained and the relationship tense.

Emotional Distance

Retroactive jealousy may cause one or both partners to withdraw emotionally to avoid conflict or uncomfortable discussions about the past. This emotional distance can weaken the bond between partners and lead to feelings of isolation.

A young couple is experiencing retroactive jealousy.

Jealousy and Resentment

Feelings of jealousy and resentment towards a partner’s past can build up over time, creating a hostile atmosphere in the relationship and leading to further distrust and animosity.

Relationship Instability

The constant presence of retroactive jealousy can create instability in the relationship, making it difficult for both partners to feel secure and confident in their connection.

What are the different treatment approaches for retroactive jealousy?

Treatment for retroactive jealousy often involves therapy, where people learn to challenge their negative thoughts about their partner’s past and develop healthier coping strategies. This might include CBT to change thought patterns or mindfulness techniques to reduce emotional reactions. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is another therapeutic approach that can be beneficial for addressing retroactive jealousy OCD. ACT focuses on accepting an uncomfortable, intrusive thought and feeling without judgment, recognizing that these thoughts do not define them or their relationships.

Learning better communication skills individually and with a partner can help manage retroactive jealousy and lead to healthy relationship dynamics. Self-reflection and setting boundaries are essential aspects of treatment. People may need to explore the root causes of jealousy and establish limits on discussing their partner’s past. Additionally, seeking support from others who understand or have experienced similar feelings can provide valuable guidance and validation while overcoming retroactive jealousy.

Mental health support at Charlie Health

If retroactive jealousy or jealous thoughts are affecting your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with serious mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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