Is envy over a partner’s past clouding a happy future?
According to onlinedoctor.com, in the UK, the average person has seven sexual partners across a lifetime but, whatever your own experience, it’s fair to say that most people will go into a new relationship bringing their own history. So, what happens when the past gets in the way of present happiness?
“Retroactive jealousy is the jealousy of the past, and a series of uncertainties related to the partner’s previous love affairs,” psychologist Barbara Ocello explains. “It manifests in disproportionate jealousy for the partner’s romantic past, often becoming a cause of conflict, hindering the grounds for harmony within the couple.”
As Barbara explains, retroactive jealousy can lead to obsessive, intrusive, and negative thoughts that can encroach on an otherwise happy and healthy relationship, and this risks bringing with it anxiety, anger, and sadness. So, what steps can you take to address these feelings?
1. Become aware of what you experience
Putting a name to a feeling can really help us start to feel more in control of it, and also allows us to connect with other, similar experiences.
“Sometimes, you can become so overwhelmed by the flow of events that you cannot understand what is really happening,” Barbara explains. “Think about what you are experiencing, name the feelings you have, and think about the images that come to mind. It may be helpful to write down what is happening, to ‘let out’ the anger and become aware of it.”
When you’re in the throes of retrospective jealousy, the feelings of distress are very real, but trying to take a step back to name and examine it is a gateway to giving yourself permission to move forward.
2. Stay in the present
“A useful strategy to deal with such jealousy is to rationalise feelings and thoughts,” Barbara says. “One way to do this is to think back to your past rather than your partner’s. Look back over your experiences, both good and bad. Think about the times when you felt loved or have loved. Also, reflect on what you were like in your past relationships. If it doesn’t take anything away from how you feel in your current relationship, why shouldn’t it be the same for your partner?”
When we’re missing info, it can be easy to fill in the gaps with things that aren’t necessarily grounded in facts. If this is something you find yourself doing, take a moment to pause and consider where reality ends and intrusive thoughts take over.
For example, Barbara recommends keeping in mind that if your partner ended the relationship with their ex, there must have been problems, and that they have now chosen to stay with you, to build a life together.
3. Try to avoid controlling behaviours
The point at which retrospective jealousy can become a more serious problem is if you begin to act on unfounded feelings. You might then breach trust in the relationship, or be constantly on the lookout for new information about your partner’s past, which will only spur on your fears.
“Stop investigating the past by looking for info on social networks, or asking family and friends about previous relationships,” Barbara says. “These are self-destructive behaviours. Don’t nag your partner with questions, and above all, don’t compete with their ex. After all, if it’s over with this person, there must be a reason, right?”
Try to identify whether there are any particular triggers to these behaviours, and then see what you can do to mitigate them. For example, if you see an ex-partner on your social media feed, and that causes you to spiral, unfollow, mute, or hide their account.
4. Consider what the feelings are telling you
“Admitting the problem is the first step to facing it. However, if the emotions of retroactive jealousy feel too overwhelming, psychotherapy, individual or joint, can help,” Barbara suggests.
There might be more to your feelings than first meets the eye, such as fear of abandonment and rejection, and this is something you may choose to explore further in a supportive environment.
“An individual path will be useful to learn how to manage your emotions, thoughts, and impulses in order to modify your vision of the past, and live in the present,” Barbara continues. “Often, those who suffer from retroactive jealousy have a need for control in a broader sense, so it will be important to learn to let go.”
Approach your feelings with compassion and curiosity, and create a strong foundation to explore the root of your retrospective jealousy, from which you can work on moving forward.
If you are struggling with feelings of jealousy and would like some support, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.