Retroactive jealousy: blame, shame and disgust

Couple in bed, anxious and tense

She’s done nothing wrong

Gary sits opposite me, exasperated. He’s tormented by thoughts of his girlfriend Emma’s sexual past.

Last night, he fired another barrage of questions at Emma. He needed clarity about a specific guy, a brief fling that Emma once referred to as a just-physical thing.

His imagination has been wrestling with the details ever since she mentioned it.

Gary wanted to express his hurt too. The despair and disgust that feels so difficult to contain. For Emma to truly understand how hard her past is for him.

“It didn’t go well” says Gary. I can well believe this.

Emma can’t win. If she shuts these conversations down, Gary feels more suspicious. If she tries to assure him how insignificant this brief fling was, the questions just keep coming.

The last thing Emma wants to do is walk Gary through the details. But that seems to be the only way to placate him. Temporarily anyway – he’ll be asking again within a matter of days.

It’s clear that Emma feels judged, shamed and harassed. “I do love you Gary, but this has to stop” she’s told him. And here we are in my therapy room.

As Gary reflects, he starts to walk me through the story of Emma and her ex. I want to shift focus away from Emma’s past, and back towards Gary.

“As far as I can see,” I lean in to say “Emma’s done nothing wrong…”.

Gary’s eyes tighten a little. I’ve pressed a button, and not necessarily a helpful one. “That’s easy for you to say” he retorts.

Gary has a point. He desperately wants to move his mind on, to leave this story in the past where it belongs. That’s not so easy when we struggle with retroactive jealousy OCD.

The timeline matters

Let’s get objective for a moment. Consider three ‘what our partner did‘ scenarios:

  1. Pre-relationship: they dated, flirted, enjoyed casual sex, did X or Y before our relationship, before we even met.
  2. In-relationship: they did the things while in our relationship. They’ve cheated on us, to some degree.
  3. Blurred lines: they did the things while our relationship was forming, or during a relationship break of some kind. Maybe there wasn’t a mutual agreement on monogamy at the time. This kind of messiness is common.

Paradoxically, it’s the first, pre-relationship scenario that tends to trigger retroactive jealousy. The scenario with the least reason for feeling cheated or hurt.

Hence the label retroactive. There’s something about the unchangeable past, the things our partner did before they arrived in our lives.

Sometimes, RJ develops from the blurred lines scenario too. We agreed to some kind of relationship time-out, but our partner embraced the freedom more than we did. Or there was overlap between an ex and us, and even though the ex is very much an ex, we struggle to reconcile this.

The in-relationship scenario is quite a different one. There’ll be context of course, but we’ve suffered an abuse of our trust. This calls for healing, repair or a grown-up parting of ways. Couples therapy can really help determine this.

Retroactive jealousy vs objectivity

The history that Gary can’t stop thinking about is most definitely pre-relationship. My attempt at some helpful objectivity stands up: Emma has done nothing wrong.

Intellectually, Gary knows this. But he’s in a different place a lot of the time. A visceral, emotional place where RJ festers.

Retroactive jealousy is rarely resolved by an objective appraisal of the facts. Quite the contrary; RJ thrives in the gap between our rational understanding and our emotional reflex.

Her past feels wrong. Is she who I thought she was? How could she do it? Did she enjoy it? So she’s had more partners than me? What does just-physical really mean? What does it mean for us, for our future and our past? How can I change or correct this, in her or in me?

A torrent of fears and insecurities. The label jealousy barely covers it.

Don’t get me wrong: we can all relate to such thoughts. Especially as we develop feelings for someone new and learn a little about their intimate experience.

But when those feelings develop into an ongoing obsession, we’re in RJ territory. Men and women of all orientations can find themselves tangled up here.

Obsessive over-thinking and feeling

In all its forms, OCD takes a natural fear and massively blows it up.

It’s natural to want to feel secure in knowing my car door is locked. But not necessarily to try the handle 15 times.

Obsession and rumination will twist our interpretation of right and wrong too. Good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate.

In the grip of RJ, we might seek assurances from other people. We make comparisons to other relationships. We wonder how we could ever catch up in terms of our own sexual experience, to match our partner’s bodycount.

We find ourselves judging, taking the moral high ground. Slut-shaming, in our minds or in our words.

And then feeling even more confused and terrible. The compulsion, the anger, the twisting of the past in our minds.

In therapy, we work to understand these distortions without going down the rabbit hole. If I join the moral debate about what happened in the past, I’m only adding fuel to my client’s ruminations.

It’s tempting, of course, and we might even arrive at some temporary relief. “Yeah I think I get it now” the client might say. But they’ll be back next week with some variation of the obsession and pain.

Response prevention therapy is way to go

The simplest facts inform our strategy for therapy. If we’re talking about cheating, a toxic or abusive relationship, or plausible in-the-now reasons for wanting out, we go there of course.

But if we’re talking RJ, we’ll treat this as OCD. We acknowledge the themes, the obsessions and the cycle of distress.

Thinking and reacting and thinking. Getting out of this loop is our initial focus.

We can’t easily untangle what the partner did from what feels so wrong, and we don’t necessarily need to.

At some point in therapy, we might explore why it felt so terrible. What are we projecting from our own past, our early learnings and insecurities, that’s making us feel so distressed now?

But we need to unhook from asking and digging and over-thinking first. Otherwise, emotional exploration will only keep us in the obsessional loop.

I’ll write more about this ERP-based therapeutic approach. It typically begins with a simple breathing or grounding technique. A way to have our thoughts without being hijacked by them.

And then we gradually, deliberately lean in to the thoughts. We get to have them on our own terms.

Suffice to say: we don’t need to respond to thoughts, images or mental movies by going down the rabbit hole or seeking assurance.

Every time RJ thoughts and fears pop up – and they will – we take the emotional sting out of them. That’s how we stop asking and digging and ruminating on our partner’s past.

Finding a new perspective

As a consequence of this work, the past starts to feel different. We connect more realistically with the person who lives and sleeps and loves right next to us.

That was a positive outcome of Gary’s therapy.

The work was challenging for Gary, and it required perseverance. RJ OCD is bundled up with intimate and sexual and self-esteem worries. There’s quite a lot to work with sometimes.

With his compulsions in check, Gary’s relationship needed repair. Both Gary and Emma needed to rebuild trust. This was genuinely doable now.

On the matter of wrongness, Gary shifted from assigning blame to Emma. He shifted from blaming himself too. Better handling of our emotions, along with better understanding of the environment we grew up in, can have this effect. 

What Emma did or didn’t do feels less consequential to Gary these days.

I’ll write more about the messages handed down from our parents and their parents. The unmet needs and insecurities that undermine our trust in our partners and often underlie retroactive jealousy. There’s plenty there.

If Gary’s experience resonates with you, I hope this provides some hope and some pointers.

We start by tackling compulsions: the asking and digging and ruminating. With our internal resources freed up, real reflection and repair can happen.