If you’ve ever Googled the phrase “retroactive jealousy research,” you might be surprised by the lack of search results.

I certainly was.

Back when I created this site, wrote my guidebook, and started working on my course back in 2013, I was shocked by the dearth of academic research relating to retroactive jealousy. Although retroactive jealousy is more common than you might think, it still seems strange to me that academics have mostly ignored the subject.

But maybe things are starting to change.

Jessica Frampton is a PhD candidate and researcher at Ohio State University.

She reached out to me after the BBC News feature that came out last year, and we began collaborating and sharing information.

Jessica is in the midst of some groundbreaking retroactive jealousy research, and she needs your help.

She’s looking for retroactive jealousy sufferers to share their stories, in the hopes of improving our understanding of retroactive jealousy, as well as discovering new coping methods.

I asked Jessica to write a guest post for this blog in order to share her story, and gather more responses from retroactive jealousy sufferers.

Take it away, Jessica.

Academic Retroactive Jealousy Research: What is Going On?!” by Jessica Frampton

I am a relationship scientist, which is just a fun way of saying I conduct empirical studies that examine human relationships. In my case, I tend to study negative emotions and stressful experiences in romantic relationships specifically.

retroactive jealousy research
Jessica Frampton

Though I am not a marriage counselor, my friends often ask me for insight about what is going on in their love lives. Typically, after skimming through my collection of journal articles and perusing my bookshelf for a bit, I can summarize the existing research on the issues they are facing. But other times, it is not that easy…

Several years ago, one of my friends said she felt increasingly upset when she thought about her boyfriend sleeping with his high school sweetheart.

She knew he no longer even spoke to his ex, and she did not understand why she felt so hurt by his actions from long ago. As she was telling me, I nodded along, realizing I had experienced similar feelings myself. I later defined these feelings as retroactive jealousy.

I started reading the existing academic research on jealousy to figure out what was going on. I read through hundreds of academic journal articles and requested numerous books from the depths of the library.

My search ended up in disappointment.

I found a couple book chapters from the 1980s that mentioned retroactive jealousy is possible, but they did not describe any studies on the subject. A few more recent studies documented evidence of people becoming upset when talking about their partner’s sexual history, but they did not explain much more about it.

The truth is that retroactive jealousy research is virtually nonexistent, and that needs to change.

What we do know is that all types of romantic jealousy occur when people perceive some sort of threat stemming from their partner’s real or imagined involvement with a third-party rival. The issue is that our existing theories and models of jealousy focus on current rivals or threats to the relationship.

For example, John may become jealous when he notices someone flirting with his partner at a party.

These jealousy models suggest that when people perceive that their romantic partner a) is currently involved with someone else, or b) might form a new relationship with someone else in the future, they interpret that information as threatening to their self-esteem, the rewards they derive from the relationship (e.g., companionship, attention), or to the existence of the primary relationship itself. Most studies focus on this last type of threat.

However, what happens when people experience jealousy when looking at old photographs of their partner hugging a deceased spouse?

Why is it that people experience jealousy regarding their partner’s sexual or romantic past even though they are confident their partner is no longer involved with their exes and is happy in the current relationship? In these cases, it is unlikely the jealous individual thinks their partner is currently involved with the ex(es) or might run off with an ex in the future. Thus, existing jealousy models and theories often cannot explain jealousy regarding a partner’s past.

So, I set out to explain what is going on when people experience retroactive jealousy.

Over the past few years, I have conducted a number of studies on retroactive jealousy, and I am in the middle of several more.

In these studies, I investigate individual, relationship, and situational factors that impact retroactive jealousy. I also examine perceptions of threat, coping, and communicative responses to retroactive jealousy.

From my retroactive jealousy research, it appears that retroactive jealousy is especially likely to occur if information about your partner’s sexual or romantic past threatens the sense that your relationship with your partner is special or unique.

As an example, some people that experience retroactive jealousy are concerned that their partner’s prior intimate moments with someone else make intimate moments in their current relationship a “repeat experience” or less meaningful in some way.

Other individual differences (e.g., an anxious attachment style) and situational variables (e.g., the way your partner talks about an ex, the pictures you see on social networking sites) also impact your feelings.

Although we have started to fill the gap in retroactive jealousy research, there is still a lot to do.

For instance, in the near future, I am teaming up with other relationship scientists to investigate what people experiencing retroactive jealousy describe as “mental movies” of their partner with an ex. In academic research, these mental movies are called third-party imagined interactions.

Although these movies can be upsetting, it is possible that they serve a specific function that helps people cope with their partner’s past in other ways.

The catch is, to conduct retroactive jealousy research, I need participants that have experienced this emotion.

Although retroactive jealousy is an extremely common emotion, some people are hesitant to disclose their experiences to a researcher. I get it. This is pretty personal stuff.

The good news is that many countries have research ethics committees or institutional review boards that look at the proposed study to make sure participants will not be harmed and that the researcher is taking proper precautions to protect their privacy. In the United States at least, researchers also have to go through extensive training on participants’ rights, privacy laws, and proper data management procedures.

When I conduct studies to investigate retroactive jealousy, I try to avoid collecting identifiable data at all.

In other words, I try to avoid collecting names, email addresses, phone numbers, or any other information that could link the responses to specific people.

If I have to collect such data to provide participants incentives (e.g., gift cards, cash payments), the names and email addresses are typically collected separate from the retroactive jealousy responses.

For example, some participants filled out an online survey about retroactive jealousy. At the end of this survey, I redirected them to a new survey to enter their name and email address for a drawing for a gift card. This way, their identifying information was not associated with their retroactive jealousy responses.

For other studies, I conduct one-on-one interviews with participants. In these studies, I know the participants’ identities when I talk to them. Later, I remove their names from the interview data. Any publication that results from the interviews uses pseudonyms or just labels participants by gender and age (e.g., a 30-year-old man).

At the end of the day, there is not much people can say about their relationships or their feelings that would shock me.

What some people consider embarrassing emotions or behaviors actually turn out to be quite common. By participating in research and sharing your experiences, you can help us all understand retroactive jealousy and figure out the healthiest coping strategies.

If you have any questions, want to participate in a study, or just want to know what I am working on now, feel free to reach out at [email protected]


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 RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.