In today’s video, I talk about one of the “secret” causes of retroactive jealousy that I don’t hear a lot of people talking about.

Read or watch below to learn more about a secret cause of retroactive jealousy.

Zachary Stockill: One of the most common questions I receive from people who find my YouTube channel and find me on Google is: “What causes retroactive jealousy?”

Often they’ll tell me about their struggles. They’ll tell me that they’re struggling with painful and annoying, unwanted intrusive thoughts about their partner’s past. They’ll give me some rundown of their relationship history or their psychological history. And they’ll basically ask me: what causes this? 

There are many potential causes of retroactive jealousy. And I’ve spoken about some of them on this channel. But today, I want to talk about a secret cause of retroactive jealousy that I don’t hear a lot of people talking about that. I think it’s fascinating.

So when we think of retroactive jealousy, we generally think about painful, unwanted intrusive thoughts. Often a feeling of anxiety or panic or dread around a partner’s past relationships and or sexual/dating history.

We think of painful, unwanted, intrusive thoughts. We think of intense and sometimes obsessive curiosity. And what I call “mental movies,” where you’re playing all these crazy pornographic films in your head about your partner with other people. That’s generally what we think about when we think of retroactive jealousy. 

But I have heard a similar comment from dozens of coaching clients over the years. And, that’s given me pause, and led me to the conclusion that…

There could be another secret cause of retroactive jealousy beyond questions about values, beyond genetics, beyond anything else…

I have had hundreds of coaching clients open up to me about their partner’s past dating or sexual experiences that really troubled them. Sometimes, my clients have genuine questions about their partner’s choices in the past, about their partner’s values, and all the rest. 

And it’s interesting that, for a lot of these clients, when they learned about their partner’s past experience, for example, experimenting with drugs, they experienced the same symptoms. The same sense of anxiety and dread as when they learned about some of their partner’s dating experiences and sexual experiences. 

In the past, many of my clients have told me stories like this. They say learning about their partner’s past sex life feels the same as learning about them taking some drug at a party years ago. For some, it inspires the same sense of dread, the same panic, the same physical sensations… The same feeling that they get when they think about their partner’s experience having a one-night stand, for example.

I think a secret cause of retroactive jealousy is simple fear of the unknown

Often when we fall in love with someone, we become captivated by them, and we become smitten by them. 

secret cause of retroactive jealousy

And perhaps on some level, we’re idealizing them to some extent. I talked about pedestalizing your partner, and tearing down the pedestal. Because a lot of retroactive jealousy sufferers, maybe without realizing it, or putting their partners up on this pedestal. They have a glorified or idealized image of their partner that doesn’t necessarily correspond with reality. 

Because we’re all flawed. We’re all imperfect. And thus, it makes sense that a lot of my clients experienced the same symptoms and experienced the same emotions when they learned about their partner’s drug history, as when they learned about their partner’s sexual history. 

Because for many of us, it’s almost impossible to imagine our partner with anyone else. Tthey seem so devoted to us, we’re experiencing incredible sex together, and all of our hormones are elevated, and we just feel incredible. 

And on some level, it doesn’t even make sense

… thinking that this person who we love so much could be having a one-night stand in the past. Or could be loving another woman, as the case may be. Or could be having sexual experiences with anyone other than us. Doesn’t really make sense when we’re in a state of jealousy.

And especially when we’re in a state of infatuation, often with a new partner. 

Similarly, it doesn’t compute when we think about our partner may be doing some drug one night in a club. Even though this could have been 20 years ago. Even though maybe they did this drug once.

“It doesn’t make sense that this beautiful, angelic woman beside me, the mother of my children, doesn’t make sense that she could also be in a club, doing drugs 20 years ago with her friends.”

This is simply about fear of the unknown. 

It’s about catching a glimpse of our partner, perhaps in another life, that doesn’t correspond with our contemporary idealized vision of them. 

We’re painting our partner’s past in the present.

You’ve probably heard of the Madonna-whore complex. I’ve spoken about it before on this blog. 

I think this experience can be related to the Madonna whore complex, where many men go around kind of slotting women into two categories. Often they’re not quite sure which one a woman fits into.

They meet a woman, they become infatuated, and they’re trying to decide: Is she the Madonna? Is she like Mom? Is she virginal and pure? Or is she the whore? It’s almost like there’s no in-between. 

So if that sounds familiar, it might be worth checking in with yourself. Check whether you’re idealizing, or pedestalizing your partner to some extent.

Spend some time thinking about the fact that you’re never going to entirely know your partner. There’s always going to be some element of your partner that is going to be slightly mysterious. There’s always going to be some aspect of their past, or their personality that is slightly mysterious to you. And that’s okay. 

Because, believe it or not, that is partly what creates attraction between two people.

secret cause of retroactive jealousy

It’s catching a glimpse of something mysterious and interesting, either in their personality or in their demeanor or in their energy or in their spirit. Something slightly mysterious, that seems interesting, and you want to know more. 

I think it’s a bad sign if you wake up one morning, and you decide, “You know what? I know everything there is to know about my partner.” You’re wrong. No one has anyone else entirely figured out. 

And number two, you’re opening yourself up to a gnawing sense of boredom in the relationship at some point. In fact, you might be bored right now, if you feel like you’ve got your partner all figured out. 

Now naturally, I’m not saying that everyone has somewhat transgressive episodes in their past. I’m not saying that everyone has a history of drug use or anything else in their past. Of course, that’s not what I’m suggesting.

But start making peace with the unknown. Start making peace with the idea that you’re never going to know anyone else 100%. 

Human beings are incredibly complicated. There’s no such thing as certainty in life, certainly not in love, and certainly not in relationships. 

And if you’re trying to “get to the bottom” of your partner in an attempt to ease your jealousy and anxiety, it’s not going to work.

I think making peace with the parts of your partner that you may never entirely “know” is a much better pathway to peace.

If anything I said in this video resonates, if you’re struggling with the question of your partner’s values, I have helped many people work through similar questions.

So if you’d like help overcoming retroactive jealousy and working your way through some of these questions, you can sign up 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.