Retroactive jealousy and sex: how to stop obsessing

Man obsessing over pictures from his partner's past

Have you ever found yourself obsessing over your partner’s exes or their sexual history?

You certainly wouldn’t be alone. In fact, this thinking trap is so common it has a name: retroactive jealousy.

Ben (not his real name) got in touch with exactly this issue:

I’ve been with my girlfriend for 5 years and she’s awesome.

But I’ve developed two weird problems in the last year and it’s doing my head in:

Firstly, I can’t stop thinking about my girlfriend’s exes – the guys she was with before we met. I get obsessed, thinking about the sex she had – picturing it in my mind – and I end up asking her questions about her intimate past. This isn’t good for either of us.

And as a side note, I’m really finding it hard to hold on sexually. I’ve always been on the quicker side, but not this quick. And then I think about her previous partners, and how they must have lasted longer than me.

So all of this feels related somehow. How do I break out of these loops?

Thanks Ben for sharing. When worries about performance and comparison combine like this, they can feel frustratingly self-fulfilling. Fretting and pressure and perceived failure only leads to more fretting and pressure.

But you can break out of this loop – I’m here to tell you.

So let’s take these worries one at a time. I should be clear that this isn’t therapy; I don’t have all the facts about your situation but hopefully I can give you some pointers.

Retroactive jealousy is a natural instinct out of control

And asking your girlfriend questions and assurance seeking is the classic response to it.

It’s one of those things we can all relate to, to some degree. We get with someone new, we learn a few details about their previous relationships and we can’t help wondering about how we stack up.

That’s natural; we all want to be seen as an upgrade to previous partners.

But sometimes these wonderings can get out of proportion. We might do some digging on Facebook or Instagram to feel more informed about our partner’s past. Again that’s kind of natural but can veer into obsessive territory.

Left unchecked, such thoughts can lead us into OCD territory. We feel like we need to respond to them. We can’t change the past, but we can ask our partner for more details.

This reaction is an attempt to close the loop of our thinking, to shut down our uncertainties and fears.

Couple arguing, woman pushing the man away

And our partners can’t win. They give us more content to chew on or they shut the conversation down, which only leads to more overthinking on our part. Either way, we go back down the mental rabbit hole.

And like you say Ben, sometimes this all kicks off later in the relationship. That’s quite common too – you didn’t really think about it that much, and then one day you did. And your mind latched onto it for some reason.

If this sounds like your experience Ben, it’s horrible and it feels nonsensical at the same time. Why can we just put these questions down, leave them behind in the unchangeable past?

A bit of a reframe can help: I mean, no matter who your girlfriend was with before you, or what she enjoyed sexually, that was her prerogative. And you had your intimate life too.

And the experiences she had led her to you. Even if she had really good times – whoever she had them with didn’t work out. Your girlfriend choses you.

Young couple having a serious conversation, man looking troubled.

Intellectually, you know this already. And when we’re fighting with intrusive thoughts and compulsions, rationality goes out of the window. I know.

It can help to take a few deep breaths and explain what you’re experiencing to your partner. Not asking the questions, not putting it on her, but just letting her know that you’re getting these thoughts now and again and you’re going to tackle this.

You’re not going to let this hijack a really positive relationship

Because you know it’s not about her or her past anyway.

Some people find that the thoughts and the assurance seeking gets so difficult, they end the relationship. They think there’s something about this person’s past they just can’t get over.

Then they get with someone else and are dismayed when the thoughts start over again, this time attached to their new partner’s past.

So if you find yourself in these OCD-like loops, get informed and get some help with it.

ERP – exposure and response prevention – is a proven way forward

It’s a form of therapy that lets the thoughts in a little bit. We don’t try to suppress or push them away because that doesn’t work. We learn how to hold the thought, to give it a little space but not act on it. Not asking those old questions or digging for reassurance.

And ultimately, that’s how the thoughts lose their grip over us.

OK I’m having this thought, I know what this is, and if I don’t wrestle with it – I don’t react to it – it has no power over me.

And if it happens again five minutes later, the same applies. I’m having anxious thoughts about having thoughts, but I’ve got this.

ERP is a treatment for all kinds of OCD and the therapist and client take it one step at a time. Maybe get sufficiently comfortable picturing your partner walking along the beach with an ex, or having dinner together.

Couple walking on the beach

Feel whatever that makes us feel but know that we don’t need to act on it to make the thought, the feeling pass. Because it can pass along by itself when we don’t latch onto it. That’s empowering and it builds up our mental resilience.

Ultimately, all thoughts can do is make us think them

Retroactive jealousy is completely treatable. There are lots of resources out there with more info and advice.

And/or find a local therapist with ERP insight. I can pretty much guarantee they will have come across this issue before.

I work with retroactive jealousy in my therapy practice too, so you’re welcome to discuss with me too.

Now for you, Ben, I’d recommend tackling things in this order. When your thoughts aren’t pushing you around, you’ll feel more in control and your sexual confidence can pick up too. A lot of the pressure you’re feeling will lift.

Overthinking and anxiety and pressure are a recipe for sexual struggles. And if you want a bit more support with lasting longer, see some of my other videos about relaxation and getting back into your sexual stride.

I hear you when you say you’ve always been on the quicker side. Here’s an opportunity for you to work on your stress response, use your thinking a bit more positively, and in due course it will benefit your sexual function too.

This way, you’ll be investing in yourself and the future of your relationship too.

Thanks again for reaching out and I hope this is helpful.