Retroactive jealousy: natural emotion or OCD problem?

Man struggling with retroactive jealousy, surrounded by thought bubbles of his girlfriend with other men - illustration

Is it normal to feel jealous of our partner’s sexual past?

Do we all feel it, to some degree?

Let’s say you know one or two things about your partner’s past. They had a one night stand or casual hookups or this ex that they did all the things with. Or multiple combinations of the above.

And you feel a bit ‘oh I wish I didn’t know about that‘ or ‘I hope the sex with me is good enough‘ or ‘he or she’s got more experience than me‘.

You really like this partner but you can’t help feeling jealous or icky about this insight into their past.

So maybe you Google ‘jealous of my partner’s ex‘. And a lot of the results talk about retroactive jealousy. It’s a thing. And you read more articles about it, and there’s a retroactive jealousy subreddit, and therapists like me talking about it on YouTube.

And you also see it called Retroactive Jealousy OCD in various places.

Oh is that what it is? Maybe I’ve got a form of OCD. hmm… well I am a bit of an overthinker.’ Maybe that’s what this is.

That’s quite a leap: from jealous of your partner’s ex to having obsessive compulsive disorder.

Are we pathologising a natural emotion?

I’m a psychotherapist based in the UK and I do talk about retroactive jealousy. Hopefully this is helpful for people who find themselves in this situation.

But I am conscious that we live in a time when therapy speak and diagnosis has worked its way into the day-to-day of our relationships. We talk about red flags, anxious attachment, codependency, toxicity and increasingly, retroactive jealousy.

If you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts and obsession about your partner’s past – it’s really chewing you up and you’re doing or saying things to your partner because of it – then putting a name to this struggle is useful. You realise you’re not alone, it’s quite common.

But some degree of jealousy or not particularly enjoying knowing the details of your partner’s past might be completely normal. Quite healthy even.

And the risk is that this kind of therapy speak, all the all the articles and forums, might have you self-diagnosing something you don’t have. It might be pathologising quite regular relationship feelings.

Actually the term retroactive jealousy doesn’t originally come from psychotherapy. It was coined on social media about 10 years ago. But it has really taken off. Psychology Today and the like have pages devoted to it. And like I say, it can be helpful have a name for our struggle.

So don’t get me wrong – there’s excellent advice online. But I think we do have to be quite clear and careful with diagnosing and sometimes assuming. And things like OCD can be on a spectrum of severity, of course.

Now I say all this, while promoting my therapy for overcoming retroactive jealousy OCD. When I work with clients we do some assessment, but if you take my self-help course it will be specifically about RJ OCD.

Retroactive jealousy is very often a form of OCD, but not always. So I go to some lengths to differentiate regular jealousy or discomfort with your partner’s past from OCD.

Let’s define RJ OCD as clearly as we can

The last thing we want is someone who’s in a bad relationship hanging in there and doing self-help in order to tolerate that bad relationship. In other words, treating themselves as the problem.

Say you get with someone who constantly, deliberately brings up their previous partners in order to put you down. There’s evidence of it, they keep doing it. That’s not going to get resolved by treating it as your OCD.

How do you know when you’re feeling natural jealousy?

There is such a thing when we value and respect our partners. We can feel a bit protective, proud to be with this person. We value the exclusivity of the relationship. We don’t particularly relish hearing or thinking about them with someone else.

This is natural, to some degree, and it can be part of becoming securely attached in our relationship (to use a bit of therapy speak there).

It’s healthy when there’s a clear appreciation for both partners of what belongs in their individual pasts and what belongs in the relationship they have now. You get with someone you can have these boundaries of respect with and it’s good for you.

That feeling of jealousy – or discomfort, or not wanting to bump into your partner’s exes – is there but it comes and goes. It’s very common in new relationships when we’re finding our feet with someone, building that connection romantically and sexually. These feelings settle down as we feel more confident and secure.

And both partners learn what to leave in their respective pasts, what doesn’t need to be shared.

How do we identify retroactive jealousy?

If these feelings come but don’t go, or the thoughts feel more intrusive, we could be in retroactive jealousy territory.

And there’s lots of advice for that – many of the people who come to see me have read Zachary Stockill’s book for example. And Toby Ingham, a therapist from the UK, has a self-help book and there are plenty of others.

These books and resources have that core message of: you’re not alone, many people experience this. There are stories and anecdotes about people who got past these thoughts in various ways.

Reflecting on their values, positive reframes, affirmations. All with the aim of developing a healthier perspective. For example, whatever your partner did before, they’re choosing you now. People change, they grow. Be in the moment of your relationship, stop zooming back into the unchangeable past.

And there are meditations and exercises like listing all the things you value about your partner. Creative ways of reflecting on these feelings and I think these approaches can help.

Our social and sexual values play into retroactive jealousy too

We learn from our environments, our family and our culture. That’s where we get our expectations from, for better or for worse.

There are parts of the internet and social media that promote very fixed ideas about what people should or shouldn’t do sexually, particularly applied to women. Then these values and beliefs clash with reality when you meet someone with past experience.

Thoughts and feelings might go beyond jealousy or ‘hoping I’m enough’. Intense judgement or disapproval might show up, with an urge to rub a partner’s nose in their past over and over again.

Is this retroactive jealousy OCD? Or a clash of values? Or low self-esteem? Or all the above? It’s not always obvious.

When are thoughts about our partner’s past more in retroactive jealousy OCD territory?

Well, if we’re obsessing for a significant amount of time. If the feelings are very easily triggered. If our sensitivity to our partner’s past feels intense most of the time.

The thoughts flood in early in the day and we spend the day chewing on them – or them chewing on us.

And if we’re doing things in response to these barrages of thought. Compulsive actions, like researching our partner’s past, habitually snooping exes on Instagram, questioning our partners, dragging it up all the time, pushing our partners away. Making constant comparisons with exes and imagined experiences too.

So not things that we might find ourselves doing now and again when we’re getting to know someone or having an insecure moment. But things we keep doing and thinking. Responses that feel necessary. Ways of coping with the jealousy, uncertainty, obsession.

Speaking with people who have these judgemental thoughts about what their partner did – sometimes with intense disgust – these feelings feel kind of conflicted.

I have these thoughts but I realise they aren’t fair or rational, they don’t really represent my views“. They are intrusive thoughts of the egodystonic kind (to use a bit more therapy speak). “A big part of me doesn’t agree with them.”

People often say “I have a past, I slept around or whatever, so it feels hypocritical. It really shouldn’t matter what my partner did.”

Whereas, when people dig in and defend their views – “I can’t be proud of someone who did that, that’s doesn’t fit with my values” – then again, this is unlikely to be resolved with OCD treatment. It’s more a case of change your expectations or change your relationship status.

So constant triggers, intrusive thoughts that feel conflicted, obsessing, saying and doing things in response and then regretting it. And this fixation on your partner’s past putting immense strain on the relationship. These are the hallmarks of retroactive jealousy OCD.

And very often, people experiencing retroactive jealousy OCD have other OCD tendencies. Maybe checking or ritualistic safety behaviours when they were younger, or social anxiety and replaying social interactions. Post-morteming and looking for things they got wrong. A need for certainty that’s difficult to let go of.

These kinds of indicators we often see. Then we can be more confident that we’re in RJ OCD territory – that it’s quite beyond regular jealousy.

Effective therapy for retroactive jealousy OCD

Working with a therapist or taking the self-help route, there are proven approaches for overcoming OCD.

CBT or ERP therapy, mindfulness, self-compassion – there’s a lot of positive we can do here. Experienced OCD therapists will recognise the symptoms of retroactive jealousy OCD even if they aren’t familiar with the social media label.

Ideally, the popular retroactive jealousy books and articles and podcasts should make it clear that when it comes to retroactive jealousy OCD, some kind of evidence-based approach is needed.

The reframing and meditations and lifestyle adjustments they recommend are all well and good. People with lighter relationship jealousy, or just struggling a bit adjusting to a new relationship, can truly benefit.

But people with retroactive jealousy OCD may need more of a structured, therapeutic approach. From someone used to working with OCD.

And there’s nothing wrong with that of course. We notice we’re struggling, we google, we get the book, we try the things, we feel less alone and more assured. Then if we still struggle, it the thoughts feel really sticky, we reach out to a therapist to assess for OCD and maybe any relationship trauma that’s playing into it. It’s all part of the journey.

And Zachary Stockill and Toby Ingham, they do make this quite clear to their credit. They are signposting where to go for further help if necessary.

Because when it’s OCD, things like mantras, self-assurances, researching, trying to think our way out of it, even buying more books and hanging out on the retroactive jealousy subreddit can become part of the problem. These responses can become compulsions, keeping us in the OCD coping loop for longer. Feeding into the obsession, giving us more to chew on.

ERP therapy can make a significant difference in weeks. That’s why assessing the extent of the problem is essential.

Effective OCD treatment is less about the content of thoughts and obsessions, and more about recognising the patterns: uncertainty, obsessing, doing things to feel better, and repeat.

First we break the OCD pattern, then we can work on insights

The OCD tendency can latch onto anything and it does. With retroactive jealousy, it latches onto our partners past. It’s not completely random but it makes us believe we have more to stress about than we do.

Jumping right into the content with a relationship self-help book – reflecting on how we feel about our partner, visualising our future together, etc – may send us down further OCD rabbit holes. 

We can recognise and interrupt this. We can step back, identify the pattern and change it up. This is our first priority in OCD therapy and self-help.

To sum up: some jealous feeling can be just fine, and it may well subside over time as you feel more secure. If it doesn’t and it feels problematic, then regarding it as retroactive jealousy may be helpful.

And yes, retroactive jealousy is quite often a form of OCD when it’s obsessive. When it permeates your life and has you acting in conflict with the love and respect you feel for your partner. There’s effective help for that, and it’s not about your partner.

Anyway, some of my observations there and that was longer than I expected. I hope it helped clarify things!