In today’s video, I’m going to talk about a term that could be applicable to some people who struggle with their partner’s past– retroactive envy.

Read or watch below to learn more about retroactive envy.

Zachary Stockill: I speak a great deal about something called retroactive jealousy. Which basically refers to unwanted intrusive thoughts, and often obsessive curiosity about a partner’s past relationships and or sexual history. 

But as I’ve covered in other videos, the term retroactive jealousy is sometimes misleading. Because while retroactive refers to the past, which is involved in this phenomenon, the person experiencing retroactive jealousy doesn’t always necessarily feel jealous in the traditional sense. 

In fact, a better term that would be more applicable to a lot of people dealing with this issue is retroactive envy

So we’ve covered retroactive jealousy and the basic definition of that term. What is retroactive envy?

Retroactive envy involves many of the classic symptoms of what I call retroactive jealousy. So quite often, you have things like unrelenting, intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past, and unrelenting, sometimes obsessive curiosity about the details of your partner’s past. 

Maybe you stalk their exes on social media, or you creep their social media profile for information…

retroactive envy

You start digging around the internet for information. Maybe you feel the urge to ask them a million questions about their past. Maybe you have graphic mental movies about their past.

Retroactive envy, as I define it, can involve all these symptoms and more.

But what distinguishes retroactive envy from retroactive jealousy is maybe the sufferer actually envies the fact that their partner had maybe a broader range of sexual experiences in their past. You could also call it retroactive resentment. As in, “My partner had all these fun experiences when they were young… 

“And I want to punish them for that on some level because I didn’t get to have those experiences myself…”

This is a very, very common component for many retroactive jealousy sufferers. Needless to say, not every retroactive jealousy sufferer experiences those feelings, but many do–especially if there’s a wide imbalance in each party’s sexual and/or dating history.

So maybe their partner’s had far more experience, and maybe they haven’t had quite as much past dating or sexual experience. There’s an imbalance there. And there’s often a sense of resentment, sometimes anger, and envy toward their partner for having had experiences that maybe they didn’t. 

One of the most important things I can tell anyone struggling with retroactive envy is your past is not your partner’s “fault.

Your partner is not responsible for making you feel better or worse about your own sexual past. And the good news for you about dating and sex and relationships is…

Your relationship/dating life is yours. You get to make your own choices, and you can make different choices starting right now, if you want.

Sometimes people assume that I say the right choice is always to stay in the relationship, to work things through, to fight and keep the relationship. And while that’s often the right choice, it isn’t always the right choice.

Sometimes, the right move for everyone involved is for you to move on and find someone new. Or perhaps be single for a while, and get a few more experiences. And then start a new long-term relationship, perhaps once you’ve had a little more experience under your belt. 

My job is not to judge anyone for wanting anything. My sexual ethos is basically as long as no one’s lying to each other, as long as no one’s getting hurt, you can “choose your own adventure,” more or less. 

So what I’m saying to anyone struggling with retroactive envy, as I call it, is: your past is not your partner’s fault. And you shouldn’t punish your partner for the fact that they have more of a past than you. That’s not fair. That’s not right.

The worst thing anyone who struggles with retroactive envy can do is linger in their relationship for months or even years, continually punishing their partner for their past. By the way, this also applies to anyone struggling with what we call retroactive jealousy. 

Your past is not your partner’s fault. It’s not their responsibility. 

retroactive envy

Your partner’s past is not yours to judge and blame. If you find things out about your partner or their sexual history that are fundamentally unacceptable to you, you have every right to move on. Now, I hope you do it as gently and kindly as possible, but of course, that’s your right.

What is not your right is to stay in the relationship and continually torture and punish your partner for their past.

By the way, how do I know this? Because I used to be guilty of this. When I was a much younger man and in my first serious relationship, I spent way too long punishing my partner unnecessarily for their past… their extremely normal past, by the way.

I used to do this. And I can tell you today that it is still a source of regret and embarrassment for me. What right did I have to go around punishing my partner for their very normal past? If it was really such a problem for me, I should have just sucked it up and moved on. 

But there was a part of me that was afraid to do so because I loved this person so much. 

retroactive envy

And I was being selfish. So my solution, at least for a little while, involved continually lashing out at them being confused about my feelings, dragging the process off for way too long…

Rather than truly owning this problem for myself, and taking the steps toward finding a solution

If you think you might be struggling with retroactive envy, it can be a very good idea to find a place where you can be alone. Take out a journal

Ask yourself:

Is there a part of me that is kind of envious of my partner’s past? And that may be fueling some of the emotions that I’m experiencing?

Is that fueling some of the anger and resentment that I have towards my partner, because of their past? Am I actually trying to punish my partner for their past? Because I wish I had more of a past? Because I wish I had access to some of those opportunities that my partner had?

My advice to you is don’t waste time punishing your partner for their past. You will wake up one day, look back on your life, and you’ll have regret…

You can make whatever choices you want with your future. 

If you feel like you need to move on, great. But at the same time, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. If you’re struggling with this phenomenon that I call retroactive envy, are more sexual partners, more dating experience what you truly want and need? Maybe the answer is yes. But maybe the answer is no. 

Remember also what you’d be giving up if you decide to walk away from your partner right now.

As I often say, I believe that you can have most of what you want in life, but you probably can’t have 100% of what you want. And no one has a “perfect” past. Of course, any choice we make in life, on some level, when we make that choice, we’re saying no to other choices.

There’s no such thing as perfection in human beings. There’s no such thing as perfection in someone’s past. The crucial component is realizing that for every choice you make, you’re going to have to say no to other choices. 

And finally, if you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy or retroactive envy: be sure to take ownership of finding a solution.

If you need more help with retroactive jealousy and/or envy, check out my online course “Get Over Your Partner’s Past Fast”, or consider applying for one-on-one coaching with me.

Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.