Retroactive jealousy: why so many questions and how to respond

Man with retroactive jealousy asking his girlfriend questions

Sarah asked if I’d speak with her husband Martin. His mood swings and relentless questioning had become impossible to live with. Fighting back tears, she told me it all seems to be about her past.

“He interrogates me about my previous sexual partners. Sometimes for hours. He makes me feel ashamed. He says he doesn’t want to hurt me but keeps on asking. I can’t take any more of this.”

This is a common scenario, and it puts partners in an impossible situation.

If Sarah tries to shut the conversation down, Martin gets more agitated. Answers and reassurance seem to calm him down, but it’s only a matter of time before he fires up again.

Let’s be clear: Sarah doesn’t owe Martin answers, or apologies or reassurance or shame. Her past experiences are hers. Whatever underlies Martin’s behaviour, it’s not OK and it needs to change.

When I speak with Martin, he fully acknowledges this. He feels horrible for abusing Sarah in this way. But he can’t seem to stop.

“I just need to know. I need to hear it again, for certainty. I hate asking but I’m trying to get peace of mind.”

When an obsession with our partner’s past develops, in conflict with the love and respect we feel for them, it’s known as retroactive jealousy.

In most cases, this is a form of Relationship OCD. Recurring doubts cause intense feelings of anxiety, and we’re compelled to act on them.

Retroactive jealousy is a horribly perfect OCD storm

Obsessive thoughts thrive on the unchangeable and the unseen. Many sufferers wake up every morning next to the protagonist of their obsession. Intrusive thoughts, images and mental movies torment them all day long.

They’ve slept with more people than me? What were they thinking? What if they do it again? Why am I so affected by this? What if I’m with the wrong person? What if our values are totally incompatible? Do I really know my partner?

Sooner or later, despite knowing how much it strains the relationship, the sufferer desperately seeks answers and reassurance.

If I can get clarity, fill in some specific detail, this weird obsession might go away.

Repeatedly asking for assurance is a classic symptom of OCD. But this constant probing, interrogating and shaming feels unusually cruel and confusing for everyone involved.

A starting point for change is understanding the underlying reasons for this behaviour. Here are some observations from my experience of working with retroactive jealousy.

Replaying and reviewing the unchangeable past

Intrusive thoughts often concern past events. We can’t change what happened, but we can reimagine it over and over. It feels like useful mental activity. This is how internal rituals develop.

And if we’re hooked on someone else’s past, someone close to us, this work feels even more necessary. Some sexual exploit or fling we’ve been told about, perhaps. Our imagination can really get stuck into it.

This is how mental rituals suck in our partners too.

Maybe if we fill in the details, the doubts will subside? Researching is problem-solving, right?

Making partners walk us through their past, one more time, brings some temporary relief. But it only feeds our obsession.

Every time someone struggling with retroactive jealousy digs into their partner’s past, their OCD learns that this is how to cope. This is how to fix the distress in the moment.

When the thoughts and doubts return, and they will, the questions will feel even more necessary and compulsive.

Playing detective to close the case

Retroactive jealousy makes us the expert on our partner’s past. We mentally note the chronology of every little detail.

If we ask, just one more time, we might discover a discrepancy in the story. That might resolve our doubts, or justify them perhaps. Either way, we might get the certainty we crave.

Unhappy young couple having a difficult conversation

Or if the details don’t change, we might discover that our partner didn’t really enjoy the experience. Or they enjoyed it more than we realised. Any certainty will do, please.

These are OCD thinking traps. Trying to dislodge the obsession with facts, or to discover our partner’s true motivation.

In the grip of OCD doubts, we can’t stop playing detective.

Seeking assurance and reassurance

Partners desperately want this obsession to go away too. They don’t want to rehash their intimate past over and over, but maybe this really will be the last time.

They usually follow up with something like “but it really didn’t mean anything, I love you.”

This works too. At least until the sufferer’s OCD rebounds with further doubt.

But what if it did? What if I don’t mean anything either?

Some sufferers tell me that as long as they keep getting answers, their partner can’t be treasuring their past in secret. Until OCD rebounds again.

But what if they actually enjoy revisiting it?

Testing for a reaction

Retroactive jealousy turns doubts into dilemmas. We don’t want to shame or abuse the person we love. We want to crush this obsession and enjoy our relationship.

But when they answer with shame, tears and apologies – you guessed it – we feel some temporary relief.

OCD has us judging and disparaging the person we love. Retroactive jealousy is cruel and unrelenting.

To reiterate: this behaviour needs to change.

Making sure history doesn’t repeat

If we can’t change our partner’s past, can we stop it happening again?

Questions often revolve around whether an ex is still on the scene, or still connected via social media, or still in our partner’s thoughts.

The irony is that they probably wouldn’t be – if we didn’t keep dredging them up.

Reassurance that exes really are in the past brings some temporary relief. Until OCD has us trawling through our partner’s Facebook page or Instagram profile to make sure.

Making partners see our pain

When we’re in the grip of intrusive thoughts and images, we feel alone in our torment. Through questioning, we get to share what we’re going through.

See what you did to me? See what I have to cope with? I’m asking because I care and I need to know.

Partners are made to feel like they owe forgiveness and understanding. And that brings some temporary relief.

Asking out of habit

OCD compulsions evolve over time. Tapping on walls six times, silently counting to 1000, replaying mental movies and asking for assurance. All are developed ways to cope with anxiety, anger, despair or disgust.

Yes, they become time-consuming and sabotaging. But they brought relief and made sense at the time.

“When I start digging and she asks me why we need to do this again” said one retroactive jealousy sufferer, “I can’t even explain it to myself.”

Sometimes, the ritual becomes so entrenched that the answers, the details, the emotional response doesn’t even matter. We need to feel better by doing the ritual.

Our partner’s feelings are collateral damage.

Fulfilling sexual curiosity

This is less common, but retroactive jealousy sometimes presents a different dilemma.

The graphic content of our thoughts and mental movies, envisaging our partner in all kinds of sexual scenarios, is painful and indeed intrusive. But we’re aroused by it too.

How many times? How often did you orgasm?

We hate the answers, but kind of enjoy them a little bit too.

There are various theories as to why this can occur. Maybe adding some element of sexual gratification helps make the thoughts more tolerable. Perhaps it’s our way of getting in on the action, another attempt to reframe our fears.

Whatever the cause, this can be an aspect of retroactive jealousy. And it feels even more confusing, adding another layer to the OCD obsession.

Advice for sufferers: how to stop

The relentless questions of retroactive jealousy are intensely damaging. This isn’t a list of justifications or excuses, but I hope it provides some helpful context.

These questions are the compulsions of OCD, and OCD is treatable. If you recognise any of the above in your own behaviour, this is positive news.

In therapy, we assess the thoughts, fears and behaviours. We provide explanation and understanding. By realising that this is OCD and not your true nature, you can begin to separate yourself from the thoughts.

Our aim is not to block the thoughts or remove the anxiety. Questioning is trying to do just that – and it doesn’t work.

Developing a tolerance of this very specific uncertainty, and the anxiety that comes with it, is essential. One step at a time.

We learn to accept the occurrence of thoughts. We don’t need to act on them. The content begins to matter less, even the most uncomfortable stuff.

That’s the way out of retroactive jealousy, and I’ll be writing more about how we achieve it.

Partners can play a significant and positive role in this process too.

Advice for partners: how to respond to questions about your past

I encourage anyone on the receiving end to remind the sufferer that these are OCD questions. It’s a bully thought and it doesn’t need feeding.

Retroactive jealousy questions aren’t the typical ‘what if’ questions of OCD. They are often laced with anger and resentment.

We have to be mindful of this. The sufferer, your partner, needs to accept that this is OCD and be open to addressing it. Otherwise, you’ll remain in the same impossible and intolerable situation.

Show this article to your partner. There are plenty of useful retroactive jealousy resources to back this up. Recommend that they speak with a therapist who understands OCD. Give your partner sufficient time to reflect.

If there’s no acceptance and you continue to be interrogated, shamed or blamed in other ways, you may want to consider whether this relationship is for you.

A healthy partner appreciates you for who you are, past and present. They understand that your life has and will exist outside of them.

Accepting and seeking help for OCD is a step towards healing.

A way out of retroactive jealousy

I gave the same advice to Sarah. And working with Martin, we all agreed that the habitual thoughts and doubts weren’t going to go away overnight. He had to find a better way to roll with them.

We followed a process of exposure and acceptance of the thoughts, learning how to not get sucked into the content. Not avoiding, not fighting – and certainly not dragging Sarah into the fight.

Sarah supported Martin through this process, and rediscovered the man she wanted to be with.

Retroactive jealousy isn’t a problem of reconciling what our partner did or didn’t do. It’s OCD in one of its many guises, and we don’t need to be pushed around by it.