Why People Can Feel Jealous of a Partner’s Romantic Past

5 min read
Jen Theodore / Unsplash

Jen Theodore / Unsplash

Retroactive jealousy, occasionally referred to as retroactive jealousy OCD, is a distinct form of intense and irrational jealousy an individual feels concerning their partner’s past romantic and sexual experiences. Unlike conventional jealousy, which typically focuses on concerns about your partner’s future actions, retroactive jealousy centers on an obsessive preoccupation with who your partner was involved with before your current relationship. It is often characterized by:

  • Obsessive thoughts. Intrusive and obsessive thoughts about your partner’s past can be persistent and challenging to control, causing emotional distress.
  • Constant questioning. Individuals with retroactive jealousy inundate their partners with numerous questions about their past relationships. They seek detailed information, hoping to find reassurance or closure, which can lead to relationship strain.
  • Comparisons. People dealing with retroactive jealousy often engage in unhealthy comparisons between themselves and their partner’s exes. This habit can lead to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

Here are three causes of retroactive jealousy and effective strategies to manage it.

1. Insecurity

Retroactive jealousy is often driven by deep-seated feelings of insecurity. These feelings can stem from either real concerns or imagined fears, causing individuals to grapple with jealousy when they perceive a threat to their relationship and doubt their partner’s commitment to it.

Insecurity can have various sources, including personal doubts and anxieties about one’s own self-worth, as well as external factors like a partner’s withdrawal or perceived untrustworthiness.

Failure to address and manage insecurity promptly can introduce toxicity into your relationship. This is emphasized in research published in Personality and Individual Differences showing that individuals with insecure attachment styles, who often worry excessively about their relationships, are more likely to intentionally incite jealousy in their partners. They tend to do so through their use of non-assertive, passive, and indirect communication styles, which can result in misunderstandings and insecurity in their relationships.

To keep your insecurity in check, turn your focus inward using the following strategies:

  • Self-reflection. Reflect on your positive qualities, accomplishments, and what makes you unique. Recognize your self-worth independently of your partner’s past.
  • Rational thinking. Whenever irrational fears or thoughts about your partner’s past arise, counter them with rational thinking. Challenge these negative beliefs and remind yourself of the strengths and qualities that make you a valuable partner.

2. Social Comparison

A study published in Social Media and Society highlighted that the use of social media can trigger retroactive jealousy through social comparison, scouring digital remnants of past relationships, and fact-checking partner-provided information.

People with lower self-esteem are particularly susceptible to making unfavorable comparisons between themselves and their partner’s ex-romances, often assuming that the partner’s previous experiences were better.

Remember, your partner chose to be with you for a reason and their past relationships are, in fact, in the past. You can prevent social comparison from harming your relationship by:

  • Resisting the urge to snoop. While snooping on your partner may temporarily ease your self-doubts, it’s crucial to prioritize respecting your partner’s privacy and trust for a healthy relationship. Instead of succumbing to the counterintuitive temptation to snoop, exercise self-control proactively.
  • Distracting yourself. To divert your mind from intrusive thoughts and jealousy, engage in activities that you enjoy or find meaningful. This can help you regain your emotional balance and composure. The key is to redirect your focus until the urge to snoop subsides.
  • Spending quality time together. Engage in activities that both you and your partner enjoy. Creating new memories and shared experiences can assist in building trust and intimacy, ultimately strengthening your relationship.

3. Rejection Sensitivity

A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence reveals that individuals who are highly sensitive to rejection are particularly prone to experiencing jealousy in their relationships. Rejection sensitivity involves being hyper-alert to signs of rejection and reacting intensely to even minor negative words or behaviors from a partner. This heightened sensitivity can lead to misinterpreting innocent actions or words as signs of rejection, making it challenging to differentiate between reasonable concerns and overreactions, ultimately exacerbating retroactive jealousy.

To address this, try:

  • Mindfulness and emotional regulation. Mindfulness can help you differentiate between actual rejection and perceived rejection. By regulating your emotions, you can respond more rationally to benign or mildly negative feedback from your partner. This practice can help remind you that not every negative reaction from your partner equates to rejection.
  • Communicating openly. Sharing your feelings with your partner, particularly about your struggles with retroactive jealousy, can enhance your connection and enable your partner to understand your perspective.

If the jealousy proves persistent and disruptive, consider couples counseling or individual therapy. A trained therapist can provide guidance and techniques to manage jealousy and improve your relationship.


Obsessing over a partner’s past can harm a relationship in two ways. First, constant questioning can erode the trust that is essential for a healthy relationship. Second, the emotional stress caused by retroactive jealousy can lead to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, affecting both the individual feeling jealous and their partner. This emotional distress can, over time, significantly harm a relationship’s overall health. Taking proactive steps can lead to a healthier partnership—a process that takes time and effort, but one that’s achievable with dedication and the right strategies.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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