When people ask me the question “Is retroactive jealousy OCD a form of obsessive compulsive disorder?” I generally try to steer the conversation toward possible solutions, rather than discussing theory.

I do this because I think giving retroactive jealousy an intimidating label such as “OCD” makes it seem bigger, scarier, and harder to overcome.

I’ve tried to avoid this as much as possible when writing for this blog, as well as in my guidebook and video course because I want you to see your retroactive jealousy for what it really is: something you can indeed overcome. Not some “disorder” you might have to “live with” indefinitely.

Still, there are a number of tactics and techniques we can borrow from the literature on OCD to help us regain control over our brains, and break free from the cycle of obsessive jealous thoughts.

Watch the video:

(Transcript below)

Whether or not you consider them “one in the same,” it’s clear that OCD and most experiences of RJ have a great deal in common.

I have received numerous detailed emails from RJ sufferers over the years. Over time it has become clearer and clearer to me that many, if not most experiences of retroactive jealousy include symptoms that we can classify as falling under the label of OCD.

Here’s an example of a destructive thought cycle associated with retroactive jealousy OCD:


(Note: I borrowed this diagram from GetSelfHelp.co.uk)

Keeping the above diagram in mind, let’s do a few substitutions to reflect the typical experience of retroactive jealousy:

INTRUSIVE THOUGHT: girlfriend prefers her ex-boyfriend to me

leads to

ANXIETY: vivid “mental movies” of my girlfriend and her ex together, followed by feelings of nausea, physical unease

leads to

COMPULSION: bringing up the topic of her ex-boyfriend in conversation, looking for her to reassure me that I’m better in bed, and an all-around better match for her

leads to

(Emphasis on short-term) RELIEF: I feel better for an evening, or a half hour, until the same jealous thoughts return, and the cycle repeats itself.

As you can see…

There is no lasting relief to be found in this process.

Einstein defined insanity as “repeating the same process over and over and expecting different results,” and unfortunately this is what many sufferers of retroactive jealousy do.

We look to our partners to give us an ultimate reassurance that we really are the best for them, and they’re “over” their past relationships.

However, no matter what, or how often our partners tell us, it’s never enough.

It might take a day, it might take an hour, but sooner or later our jealous thoughts and anxiety return, and we’re looking for even more reassurance.

This is one of the reasons why I advise sufferers of RJ to stop talking to their partner about their past. Not “sometimes,” and not “just once more:” nothing, nada, zip, zilch.

Stop looking to your partner to provide that “one last” reassurance. Because by doing so over and over you’re reinforcing the vicious cycle described above, and no matter what your partner tells you, that ultimate reassurance will never come.

Instead of looking for reassurance and having endless conversations with your partner about their past, here’s something you can try next time you feel a jealous thought or “mental movie” coming on…

Ask yourself: is this thought fact, or opinion?

If you catch yourself thinking “My girlfriend prefers her ex to me,” ask yourself: is this fact, or opinion?

If you picture your girlfriend and her ex in bed together, ask yourself: is this fact, or opinion?

Am I positive that some past event happened EXACTLY like this, or am I simply making things up?

Is it my “opinion” that they were together and they felt EXACTLY this way, and did EXACTLY these things, and the scene looked EXACTLY like this, or am I projecting some crazy movie in my head?

Whenever you experience a jealous thought, ask yourself: fact, or opinion? Am I witnessing this thought in action right in front of me (eg. Are you actually WATCHING your partner and her ex in bed together right now?), or am I making things up that don’t exist?

If you’re anything like I used to be, and you suffer from RJ, you’ve probably compiled a vast collection of details about your partner’s past. But here’s the thing: it’s all smoke and mirrors. Memories of the past–your partner’s memories, their ex-partner’s memories, your memories–aren’t what you think they are.

To explain, here’s an excerpt from my newest book:

Our “memories” are never, ever as “pure,” or representative of past events, as we imagine them to be…

What is a memory? Most people think that a memory is a vivid recollection — a mental documentary — of past events. We assume that our brain records the events of our lives in glorious high definition video, storing it in the hard drive of our brains for safe keeping, and future review.

In fact, our memories are more like impressionist paintings with constantly running, wet ink, than they are like video tapes; a living, breathing, changing and eventually dying animal, as opposed to some static museum piece. Our memories are as alive as we are. That said, they are subject to the same basic principles of life as we are: they are born, and change, and eventually die.

Any comfort, pain, or inspiration you derive from past memories is delusional, as your memories are delusional.

Your memories trick you into thinking that life can be lived retroactively, but they lie to you; they are funhouse mirrors, obfuscating and obstructing your vision of whatever reality you (or whoever else) once experienced. They are shadows lurking in the night, offering empty intrigue.

In short: your memories are phonies.

Reminding yourself that your jealousy is based on your own misguided opinions, rather than fact, is a helpful way to remember that all memories are faulty, and the past doesn’t exist.

And if your jealousy is based on fact–let’s say your partner actually prefers her ex-boyfriend–then what are you doing staying in the relationship anyway? Why would you choose someone who doesn’t choose you?

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking “But Zach, my girlfriend actually told me that she did XYZ with her ex. It really happened. It’s a *fact* that they did those things…”

Are you sure that what you’re imagining or envisioning is “fact?” Did it happen EXACTLY as you’re picturing it? Are you positive that it went down PRECISELY as you’re seeing it in your head? Were you in the room with your girlfriend and her ex videotaping, and taking notes? Didn’t think so.

So try it. If you have a jealous thought later on today, ask yourself: fact, or opinion? You’ll then realize that your brain is lying to you, you’re making things up that never happened, and your “opinion” is, in fact, dead wrong. Because your vision of the past is skewed, just like everyone else’s.

Another tactic we can borrow from OCD literature is to de-identify from the offending thought.

If you have a recurring negative thought, or series of negative thoughts, try to stop yourself from going down that road (and repeating destructive thought and behaviour cycles) as soon as possible.

Once you identify that you’re experiencing a recurring negative thought based on your delusions about your partner’s past, take a moment to consciously de-identify from the thought.

Tell yourself:

“It’s not me, it’s OCD.”

Or if you’d prefer,

“It’s not me, it’s RJ.”

If you’re alone, feel free to say it out loud. (If you’re in a crowded room, people might find it a bid odd and disconcerting.) Or, simply practice saying the statement of your choice in your head.

Identify the fact that you are about to go down a destructive, pointless road you’ve travelled down many times before, and stop yourself.

Once you call out the negative thought for what it is–a manifestation of an emotional disorder, not a hardwired aspect of your identify–immediately occupy your mind with something else. Go outside for a run, put on some music, read a book, start writing. Do something–anything–that will break your negative thought/behaviour cycle before it begins.

As I emphasize repeatedly in my online video course and in my guidebook on overcoming retroactive jealousy, we are not our thoughts. Our identity is not intrinsically linked to our thoughts, or, as the case may be, to retroactive jealousy, or retroactive jealousy OCD.

The trick is to establish new, healthier and productive patterns of thought/behaviour, rather than submit to retroactive jealousy OCD.

There are a number of tactics and strategies to do this (which I cover in my course), but an easy one to help you get started is to simply disconnect from an unwanted thought as soon as it comes up. Over time, with repeated practice, this process becomes easier and easier, until you begin to do it instinctively at the earliest recognition of a negative thought.

And remember: after you realize that you’re letting your momentary (and most likely delusional) opinions impact your day, immediately focus on something else; personal development, reading a book, walking your dog, whatever.

Just don’t cave in to your delusional opinions or constructed “memories” of past events; it’s very likely that they’re all phonies.

UPDATE: Click here to watch a free bonus video from my online course that goes deeper into overcoming retroactive jealousy OCD.

Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I’m a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, PopMatters, Mic, HuffPost Live, and many other publications. I’m passionate about helping others overcome jealousy in their relationships, and become happier human beings.

  • Grayson Miller

    Amazing, I understood before finishing the article because I have tried to force these se ideas. However, you provided it succinctly and as a separate person the reassurance helps so much. Distilling it into one question makes it easy to prompt during these situations and you even addressed my thoughts as I thought they should, but I couldn’t myself. Thank you, I have relief right now, she’s loyal and I have no reason to do this to her. I will continue to use this method and grow as a person.

  • Karri

    I just got your book and I was absolutely THRILLED. I have OCD and I didn’t know that RJ was kind of a close cousin. I’ve been looking online for Years about jealousy of the past and I didn’t find anything until now. My husband and I have been married 21 yrs yet I still ask the same questions, then ask for reassurance that I’m the best (and it’s affecting our marriage). After 23 yrs together, you’re right- he’s not going to have the same vivid memory that I’ve created a Very graphic and vivid movie of in my head. Thanks so much for writing this book and I look forward to your future works! I will press on and follow your tips. Thank you Zach!- Karri

    • Thanks for sharing, Karri. I’m really glad you’re finding my work helpful.

  • Steven Anderson

    I have OCD and i was diagnosed with it about eight years ago. I had it my my whole life but I just didn’t know I thought I was just a idiot. I met my wife 21 years ago and we got married 7 months after meeting. I was a virgin at the time and she was not. In fact she had a child with another man but they never married. During our courtship she unpacked the baggage so to speak and i heard the sorted details of her past and dealings with My daughters bio. From what I heard he was only out to get laid while she was looking for more. I on the other hand watched a lot of porn before we met and has plenty of material to use, I just had to replace the faces. I could not accept that she did not enjoy what happened to her and like you said I created a image in my mind that was not real. He was in the military so He could not hide from his obligation. When he was served papers he got them signed and returned in record time. My wife was hoping that he would fight it even a little bit to show he cared a little bit about the child the created but I knew better I had figured out that he was a sack of [email protected]@T All kinds of horrible thoughts were going through my mind and I thought about it night and day. Needless to say it got ugly to the point where we had it out. At that point I backed off and kept it to myself. I month ago I met him for the first time at my grandson’s birthday party and all these thoughts came back. Seeing them talking together was about all I could bear. I felt like the odd one out. See it was her past and she had forgave him a long time ago so to her he was just another guy. I thought why cant I think like that? I mean she isnt haunted by her own past why am I. Things got real ugly again very quickly and the thoughts came roaring back. I am so glad i found this material and I am hoping that it will help me deal with this hell and be rid of it once and for all.

    • Zachary

      You certainly do. Thanks for sharing, Steven.

    • ugly world

      second wife, she will create emotional distraction

  • Kate Finik

    Hi Zachary,
    After months of grappling with the exact behaviors you describe, I now realize I probably have retroactive jealousy and I’m so glad there is the chance for me to overcome it and stop poisoning my amazing relationship!
    I have one question. I think my RJ stems mostly from fear that my bf and I don’t share the same core values. I view sex as something very sacred and reserved for love; until very recently, my bf had 2 friends with benefits and also lost his virginity to a random girl who already had a baby. This was in 11th and 12th grade; we’re now in college. Clearly this is very different than my past. He says he has changed, and although the change seems rapid, I do believe him–but the fear is still there, leading to the awful RJ cycle. Can I solve this problem with the same approach you desribe even though it’s less about me picturing him with past girls and more about me fearing we have conflicting core values?
    I’d appreciate any advice. I know I’m young and all that, but I don’t think this relationship is worth giving up, and plus I need to solve my RJ even if I ever move on!

  • dean

    Hi. Does this type of disorder also include doubts about cheating, doubts about them sleeping with others when you are away, feeling sick with jealousy that others will seduce them etc? Most of this is based on not being able to control the outcomes of things. It also happens to me when my partner is very attractive. I get these feelings the less i can control and predict the outcomes.. I start to think ‘well, if she was willing to come to my house after the 7th date, i bet she does same to other guys, infact, i bet she is doing this right now..and on and on and on,,!!!’,(btw she is actually a lovely genuine person)! Sound familiar? cheers

  • Pragmatic

    I liked this article. I have a complaint though: you said “…my girlfriend actually told me that she did XYZ with her ex… …Did it happen EXACTLY as you’re picturing it?…”

    Well, of course you don’t know if things are exactly as other people tell you they are. In fact from your own argument we could ask if things this hypothetical girlfriend said were like she thinks they were. But the point is the world works like this anyway. Things are as real as we think they are.

    If the girlfriend says she had her best sexual encounter ever with a guy in the past. What does it matter if this is not exactly what happened? She believes that. That’s it.
    If you can’t believe in what your significant other tells to you, then you shouldn’t believe he/she loves you either.

    I understand that under an OCD-like mind an insignificant comment can be converted in something it isn’t really is. But it doesn’t mean it is always like that. Sometimes people reveals too much without noticing the huge mistake that is.

  • Jeff DeVere

    hi Zach, I dont think I have what you specialise so well in RJ, but I do have real-timeJealousy, ( moving images, twisted thoughts about ‘ events ‘ that I think are happening today. Is any of your work applicable to me ? If not would you be able to point me in the right direction? kind thanks

    • Zachary

      Hey Jeff, thanks for your interest. Short answer: yes, I think a lot of what I talk about in my course and book would be applicable to you, but it’s funny you bring this up… I’m actually considering writing more about the more “normal” forms of jealousy you describe. So even if you’re not interested in my course or book, be sure to sign up for my mailing list to get updates on the blog: https://www.retroactivejealousy.com/free-report/

  • Jo

    Hello! I think I am suffering from retroactive jealousy but my problem might be a bit different. With my current boyfriend (of 2 1/2 years), I had a crush on him the moment I met him. He was interested in my group of friends (all female) and I witnessed his open flirtatious behavior. I’ve heard him call them beautiful and sexy, sleep in their beds, cuddle with them, etc. He’s kissed one of my friends before and possibly done other things I don’t know about when we were seeing each other. When we began to be exclusive at some point, he would continue to do things I found inappropriate with our mutual friends (girls). I was and still am very much in love with him. Eventually he became serious about our relationship (after I consistently had to tell him on numerous occasions that it was hurting me and completely disrespectful) and no longer did any of that but at that point I started doubting my relationship with him (this has been going on for 2 years). I don’t like it when he calls me beautiful, I don’t like to kiss him because I have him kissing my ex friend on my mind, etc. What should I do? Would this course be any help to me since the past of my boyfriend actually occurred and was in my face rather than my imagination?
    I never had a boyfriend, sex, or any sexual encounters with any male before him and neither did he (he’s had one sexual encounter).

    • Zachary

      Without trying to sound like too much of a salesmen, I’ve received emails from people in similar situations to yours who have gone through my course and found it very helpful. I read some of these letters on this page: https://www.retroactivejealousy.com/retroactive-jealousy-cure/

      Everyone’s experience of RJ/their partner’s past is a little different, but I strongly believe that the “cure” is still pretty much the same for everyone. (Though I’m not trying to suggest that my program is the only remedy for RJ.) My best advice would be to try something new to start sorting your problem out before the relationship dissolves as a result of your RJ, whether that’s therapy, my course, someone else’s course, whatever.

      Hope this helps.

  • disqus_WWpWIrdVl2

    Just discovered this website. Wondering…should I tell my wife I believe I have this condition. While it may bring up painful memories, it may also help explain my seeming to be obsessed with her past. Which, btw, was only 1 boyfriend….30 years ago…to whom she lost her virginity.

  • ugly world

    the only cure is a second wife, she will create emotional distraction

  • CJ

    So, my jealousy is actually a current close friend in my partners life. It was shared that throughout their friendship they’ve been attracted to each other, have kissed and as recently as a few years ago, the friend professed her love for my partner. I can’t help but to wonder if there’s still an attraction or longing there for this person, even though they are across the country, partnered themselves and with kids. I keep getting thoughts and physical reactions when I hear this person mentioned. Part of me wants to question my partner and get more information but another part tells me to stay out of it and believe that they are just good longtime friends. Help please….

  • Robert fiance

    Hi zach, my problem is nt d kind u discussed here bt in close relation to it. O hd a crush fr my girlfriend 5yrs ago bt den i hd thot of nt letting it feelings out due to variois reasons. Now whn i met her again after 5yrs nd we both in love wid each other, she hs disclosed memories abt a physical relationship she hd in d past. I feel myself responsible fr dis as i hd nt persued her 5yrs ago which cud hv saved her frm dat phase of her life.

  • guest00001

    I came across this blog because recently I have been experienced this. I only have one question…what if my boyfriend is still friends with his ex who has been with him for 9 years. They had broken up 2 years already when we got together, his ex is not even in the same country because she moved with her new boyfriend, but he insist he will still send her message once in a while, around one time every two to three weeks just to see if she is well (even now both of them are with someone else) I feel like she is more important for him because after she occupied him for 9 years, he still wants her in his life even if she is out of sight. He also said he would meet her when she is back because they have mutual friends, but I know he is not a person who would care about reunion.

    I am not sure if this is still RJ, I assume it is, but I found a lot of people here are facing a ghost, but I am facing a real person who is still in presence (in a way). Is there anyone in the same situation as I am?

    Thanks for anyone who leaves a comment.