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 OCD 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 associated with retroactive jealousy OCD.
Watch the video:
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 OCD:
INTRUSIVE THOUGHT: girlfriend prefers her ex-boyfriend to me
ANXIETY: vivid “mental movies” of my girlfriend and her ex together, followed by feelings of nausea, physical unease
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
(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 retroactive jealousy OCD thoughts and anxiety return, and we’re looking for even more reassurance.
However, there are ways to overcome your retroactive jealousy.
The first thing you can do is 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 retroactive jealousy OCD, 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 book Everyday Joy:
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 retroactive jealousy OCD 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. This may sound simple, but doing so will make you feel so much better.
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 helpful 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 associated with your retroactive jealousy OCD, 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.
“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 bit 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.