In today’s video, I’m going to talk about possibly the number one factor that holds many retroactive jealousy sufferers back.

Read or watch below to discover a new perspective on the meaning of your partner’s past.

Zachary Stockill: As you may or may not know, I’ve been working on this issue of overcoming retroactive jealousy for 10 years now. So needless to say, I’ve seen and learned a lot, and I’ve worked with a lot of people. We’re talking to multiple thousands of people via coaching.

I’ve communicated with thousands of retroactive jealousy sufferers around the world. And needless to say, when it comes to this issue of retroactive jealousy, there are often a lot of things that are holding someone back from freedom and peace of mind. Especially if someone’s been struggling with retroactive jealousy for a long time. 

There are often multiple factors that are holding back their progress…

But there might be one factor that is above the rest. 

Today, I’m going to talk the number one factor that holds many retroactive jealousy sufferers back. 

For the people who are here for the first time: the term retroactive jealousy refers to unwanted intrusive thoughts, often obsessive curiosity, and what I call “mental movies” about your partner’s past relationships and/or sexual history. 

And to all of you watching, I would say don’t get too hung up on the word jealousy. Because quite often I hear people say, “Yeah, I relate to the intrusive thoughts. I get the mental movies about my partner with their ex. I have curiosity, but I’m not jealous in the classic sense…”

Retroactive jealousy obviously doesn’t jealousy in that strict definition all the time. 

Don’t get too hung up on that word, jealousy.

And when I talk about what holds retroactive jealousy sufferers back, what I’m talking about is when someone’s struggling with this problem, and they aren’t making the progress that they want. They aren’t making as quick progress as they want. Or they feel stuck in a loop of intrusive thoughts and often obsessive curiosity. They feel like they aren’t making progress. 

So two things I would say. One, sometimes, these people are simply not taking any action. This is obviously an issue for a lot of people. Some retroactive jealousy sufferers think that this problem will just magically disappear. “I don’t have to do anything to fix it. If you know, I just need to ask my girlfriend 800 million questions about her past. And I can just find the answer in some sketchy discussion board online. I don’t need to take any real action. And I don’t need to do any real introspection, I don’t need to really put in the work to beat this problem…”

That’s a separate category of people. That’s not really who I’m talking about in today’s post. 

There’s another group of retroactive jealousy sufferers who aren’t making the progress that they want. And the thing that’s holding them back is they don’t realize that the actual facts of the past and their interpretation or the meaning they make out of those facts are two separate things.

Many retroactive jealousy sufferers are being held back by the stories they’re telling themselves about the past. Because the past has no inherent meaning. And this is a big philosophical idea that hopefully many of you are familiar with. But it’s true. There is no inherent meaning in the past. There may be facts, there may be statistics, there may be events, but we are the ones who make meaning out of those facts and statistics and events. 

We are the ones who make meaning out of the past. 

the meaning of your partner's past

And thus, our interpretation of the past is really all we have power over. We have zero degree of power or influence over anything that happened a moment ago, over anything that happened in the past. But we have 100% control over our perspective on the events of the past. We have 100% control over the meaning we make out of the past, and thus many retroactive jealousy sufferers who aren’t making the progress that they want are telling themselves unhelpful stories about the past. 

And when I say telling themselves a story, I’m not being patronizing here. I’m not belittling the story they’re telling. I mean “story” literally, because we all tell ourselves stories about the past. And in essence…

The way we heal from the past is to tell ourselves a better story about the past. 

Remembering that the past and our interpretation of the past are two different things. The past has no inherent meaning or truth.

I’ll give you a very personal example:

Now, this is not related to retroactive jealousy, but it is obviously about the past. So maybe, I don’t know, eight years ago or something. I was involved in a really, really stupid motorcycle accident. I was traveling in Thailand. I’m an avid motorcyclist, I love being on scooters and bikes and all that. But I was doing something really dumb. I was driving around without a helmet. And I hit a wrong turn, and I fell off the bike. And I could have been very, very seriously injured there, I could have broken my neck, I could have died. 

Thankfully, my injuries were relatively minor. I hit my knee pretty hard. And I also smashed my face on one of the rearview mirrors on my bike. I’ve got a scar from the surgery I had that runs along my face. And since that event, my face has never looked quite the same. 

This was one of the most painful events in my life. 

Because I think before this event, I didn’t realize how vain I was in many ways. I didn’t realize how much pride I took in my face. And all of a sudden, for some time after, my face looked really different. And I only had myself to blame.

And for a while, for about a year, the story that I was telling myself about that event was, you know, “You’re an idiot. What a dumb thing to do. If you hadn’t done that thing, your life would be so different now. You’d have your old face back. That was so stupid, it cost you thousands of dollars in surgery. Who on earth drives around without a motorcycle helmet? What a dumb, dumb thing to do. Zach, your face is never going to be the same, and your life is never going to be the same because of your dumb mistakes…” 

So that’s the story I told myself for about a year. Needless to say, maybe some elements of that story are true. That was dumb. That’s true. But that isn’t the most helpful story that I could have been telling myself about that event in order to move on, and in order to heal. 

So what’s the story I tell myself about that event today? 

When I look in the mirror, the story that I tell myself today is:

“Yep, that was dumb. Yep, that was an error of your youth that you can never take back. Yep, your face has never looked the exact same. 

But it could have been so much worse, I could have died. Literally, I could have died eight years ago, very easy riding around on the motorcycle without a helmet, it could have been so much worse. And maybe, as terrible and traumatic as it was, maybe that was a lesson that I needed to learn… 

So I didn’t have an even worse traumatic experience on my bike in the future. Maybe that was the lesson I needed to learn. Do I go riding around the streets without a helmet today? Absolutely not. I learned my lesson very, very clearly. 

And I think a big component in learning that lesson and moving on from that trauma and healing those wounds from the past was:

Telling myself a better story about that past event. 

It’s not about deluding myself. I’m not talking about making things up or deluding yourself in any way.

I’m talking about telling yourself maybe a more charitable version of the past, a more positive version of the past, or a version of the past that can help you heal and move on. 

Another classic retroactive jealousy example:

My partner slept with X number of people. So that means that they’re never going to be a good partner to me, they lack the ability to pair bond or whatever… You know, they’re never going to be satisfied with their choice to be with me. My partner was with X number of people, I hate it. And maybe they’re doubting their choice to be with me because they have this past experience to draw on.

This is a very, very common retroactive jealousy story that a lot of retroactive jealousy sufferers tell themselves. 

So what’s a better story that that person struggling with those feelings could be telling themselves?

This is just one example that comes to mind. A better story could be:

My partner slept with X number of people. I don’t love that. And that’s okay. It’s totally okay not to love that. 

But maybe they got the self-knowledge they needed from those events. And in retrospect, in hindsight, maybe those experiences were actually positive because they taught my partner that I am a better match for her than anyone else. 

Maybe she’s one of those people who needed those past experiences in order to totally appreciate how incredible I am and how lucky she is to have me in her life. 

the meaning of your partner's past

So which story’s better?

I think you probably agree with me that the second story is a better story that any retroactive jealousy sufferer could be telling themselves. Again, it’s not about deluding yourself. It’s about choosing better perspectives, and it’s about choosing perspectives that will allow you to heal and move on from the past. 

So my homework for you today is to simply ask yourself: what is the story or stories that you are telling yourself about the past, your past or your partner’s past? What are the stories that you’re telling yourself about the past that aren’t entirely helpful?

Which stories could you potentially swap out for better, more proactive stories, stories that are gonna lead to more healing and growth when it comes to your relationship with the past?

If you are currently struggling with retroactive jealousy, you can click here to sign up for a free four-part mini-course that will help you get started. Or if you need more help, then you can consider signing up for one-on-one coaching with me. [Subject to availability]

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.