The other day I received a very honest letter from a reader named Dave from the USA detailing over a decade of experience with retroactive jealousy, self-esteem issues, Moroccan hash, and more. Definitely worth the read.
I apologize in advance for the length of this email, particularly as I know you try to read all!
I’ve struggled with Retroactive Jealousy (as we are pleased to call it) for 12 years, on and off. All of my relationships have followed a similar pattern. A few heady weeks or months, the development of real feelings, the creeping anxiety and obsessive thoughts that finally spiral out of control and destroy first our s life, then our relationship and finally lead me to cheat in some form of ‘getting even’ and/or simply to give myself some old-fashioned guilt to obsess over instead.
The unwillingness to forgive myself for those slips, the realization that I must end the relationship, and then it starts again. The three proper relationships I’ve had have spanned first 7 years, then 1 and a half for the next 2. During that time I cheated on all three with multiple partners, often engaging in drunken unprotected s. I think the risk factor attached to that fed into the self-flagellation that follows.
After the third relationship, during which time my lovely partner (who needed love and affection to help with her abusive past rather than the recrimination I meted out) begged me to seek professional help, I spent a relatively happy and free two years being single. I engaged in several ‘casual’ relationships, but ran as soon as feelings began to develop or any commitment loomed on the horizon. I felt no jealousy, least of all over the past. I felt good and then, it happened. I met a girl who shook my foundations.
You know that feeling, when you realize you have never really felt love before? To my horror, it started immediately this time – in fact, even before we were officially dating. I felt terrible. My outbursts of anger, usually after drinking, began quickly. I should mention that I am good friends with my ex-partners, a fact over which the new girl is delighted, being mature and caring towards me. However, lulled into a false sense of security, she introduced me to ex-partners, or chatted blithely about them.
Angry outbursts in the first few weeks of dating are not something that are easily explainable and I was forced to confess all in the hope that she saw past it and stayed. In the past I have always felt a sense of relief at the end of a relationship. When I tried to leave her, I felt a deep and overwhelming sense of loss and horror. Finally a grain of reason filtered through and for really the first time, I wondered if I could change myself. A big, big step, as you know.
I registered with a doctor (!) – it took a long time – and when I got there I was about to despair. I felt a mess. I had no clue how my behaviour was affecting the amazing girl I desperately wanted to keep seeing, despite my own best efforts to get rid of her! I was referred to local psychological services who recommended an anger management course (CBT) to help in the short term, to cope with the angry outbursts. It was almost immediately effective, to an extent. I was more in control at least, not completely, but there was a change. They have now referred me to 1:1 counselling and there is the inevitable waiting list. I realized in the interim I had to help myself and I downloaded your book.
A big thanks, man. Not everything works for me but a lot of it does, and simply re-reading your book occasionally helps me to re-focus my mind on identifying thoughts as irrational and helps to stop the train of crowding, horrifying thoughts. I downloaded your book post the new phenomenon of the panic attack, which beset me just prior to attending anger management, and it was incredibly helpful and hopeful. It helped me strengthen that feeling that the problem was me, not her. That is incredibly important, and I can’t thank you enough.
When I read your book I disagreed with your conclusion that all stems from insecurity. I am a barrister used to public speaking, successful, confident, very popular with women. I put it down instead to my unusually religious upbringing. I went to see a hypnotherapist, who suggested all stemmed from low self-esteem. I dismissed this again. Recently, when on holiday in Morocco, with my girlfriend, I had an ‘epiphany’ (the fact that I was smoking Moroccan hash at the time is immaterial…).
I asked my girlfriend what she was thinking, I was convinced there was something she wasn’t telling me, and I quickly became obsessive and angry. I started putting on my clothes to leave. I was arrested in my tracks when she quietly asked me to calm down and told me there was nothing wrong. I realized that I had created the situation in my head and further, that for the first time, I had just gone through all my usual stages of anxiety, panic and anger over something that was in no way connected to her past – it was because I did not know what she was thinking, I had no control over it, and I automatically assumed it was connected to something negative about me, or to another man. She – a very shrewd girl! – held me and asked if I was worried that she would leave me. She asked me to stop worrying about that, because it was going to be incredibly destructive to our relationship in the long term. She suggested that the only thing that scared me more than getting close to someone was being left by someone.
As she said it, I realized that it was true – that I assumed she was going to leave – and that my obsessive jealousy centered around the fact that deep down I knew I could not measure up to other men, or even other relationships in her life – that she would eventually discover what I was really like, that the shine would wear off and she would reject me. I started to link it to other kinds of relationship, with family and friends. I stayed awake for hours. I stared at myself in the mirror. It was a tough and at the same time incredibly heartening night. I will never forget the beauty of the sunrise the next morning. Needless to say, the euphoria was short lived and the thoughts came back, but some of the sting has gone, and I know the truth now.
The realization that I have cripplingly low self-esteem is a big one, but the realization that my worries are not really about her past is difficult to take in. It seems so real, as you will know! All those years worrying about whether it is a ‘dealbreaker’, trying desperately to rationalize their past behaviour…and the mental images and thoughts that even post epiphany are hard to take! Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible, and yet deep down I know it to be true.
I really wanted to write to thank you for helping me along this path. Your insights and thoughts have been incredibly helpful. I have a long way to go I know, but I am finding that focusing on the low self-esteem, even though it seems counter intuitive, is more effective than focusing on the jealous thoughts. For the first time I think I may be able to beat this.
So glad to hear it, Dave. Happy to help.
Readers: follow Dave’s example, step up to the plate, commit to doing the necessary work, on getting your jealousy handled starting right now. It’s never too late in life to make a big change.