What is retrospective jealousy, is it normal, and how can I stop feeling jealous?

Samantha Redgrave-Hogg
By Samantha Redgrave-Hogg,
updated on May 30, 2023

woman hiding behind green plant

Are you fixated on your partner’s exes? Are you comparing yourself to them? Is it normal to feel this jealous? And is it possible to overcome?

Most of us enter a new relationship with a past, but what happens when your partner’s history starts to hold your relationship back? Do you find yourself consumed by your partner’s ex? Or scrolling (and scrolling) through their social media, worrying if you match up to them in some way? You may have retrospective jealousy.

What is retrospective jealousy?

Retrospective jealousy (or retroactive jealousy) arises when someone becomes overwhelmed with thoughts of their partner's previous sexual or romantic relationship. There could be lots of different reasons for these feelings. Some of the common ones are low self-esteem, attachment issues, or a previous history of experiencing unfaithfulness.

Jealousy is normal in small measures and can even be a healthy hint to re-focus or safeguard a relationship. Being curious or having odd negative thoughts is completely natural, after all! But what if it starts to feel overwhelming and you get dragged into a rabbit hole of anxiety? It can have a real impact on what could be a healthy and harmonious relationship.

What are some signs of retrospective jealousy?

Being interested in your partner’s past isn’t the issue here, it’s when things start to get out of hand. The red flags of retrospective jealousy could be:

  • intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past
  • never-ending questioning about their exes
  • following previous partners on social media
  • experiencing trust issues, without any foundation
  • sifting through your partner’s old things without permission
  • being critical of the number of sexual relationships your partner has had
  • feeling threatened by your partner’s old relationships
  • trying to control your partner’s relationship with their ex

Counselling Directory member and integrative counselling practitioner, Lyn Reed, talks about the link between jealousy and the need to control in her article, Jealousy in relationships: Taming the green-eyed monster, “Clients often speak of feeling rational one minute and irrational the next. They feel insecure. They feel a need to control everything and everyone.”

If you’re experiencing morbid or obsessional jealousy in which your behaviours start to become extreme and could even be a threat to yourself and others, it's important to seek help from your GP immediately.

How can I stop feeling jealous?

It may be tricky to stop feeling jealous completely, but there are some practical ways to confront underlying feelings and work on a greater sense of self-esteem.

Good communication

Talking through things with your partner is a positive step forward. The way you communicate with them is so important. You don’t need it to be overly forthright as it’s easy to get wrapped up in the tension of it all. But calmly explaining to them your feelings and why you may be finding this part of your relationship tricky can be helpful. If you need some reassurance or positive attention, it’s OK to say something like, “I like it when you show me affection, would it be OK to do this more with me?” This helps build good, honest, and clear communication - a cornerstone of any healthy relationship.

Speak to a counsellor

Relationship counselling can be a great way to work through communication issues, but it can also be worth seeking professional help on a one-to-one basis to help with your feelings. They can help you assess your expectations and move away from the pitfalls of jealousy, such as blame or making accusations. The counsellor can help you get to the root of why you’re feeling jealous of your partner’s past in a calm, compassionate, and curious way. A supportive space to explore underlying fears can act as a catalyst for change.

Mindfulness practice

This can look like meditation, walking in nature, or doing something creative to stay in the present moment. It’s a good idea to find something positive to help your mind release its grip on the situation. It can be so easy to rake over your partner’s past or fill in the gaps with things that may not even be true. But mindfulness allows you to stay rooted in the here and now, helping you be less reactive.

Ultimately, retrospective jealousy can’t really go anywhere good, but it can end up making both of you unhappy. Staying present, communicating clearly with your partner, and building your sense of self-worth can help you prevent these jealous feelings from becoming harmful to your relationship.

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