It’s fair to estimate that the overwhelming majority of the global population has never encountered the term “retroactive jealousy.”
Someone at a party asks what I’m working on, and I’m consistently met with a confused “Huh?” when I bring it up. Even those of us who become familiar with the term “retroactive jealousy” are often unclear about exactly what it means, or what it’s referring to.
It’s a broad term, and it can mean many different things. Thus, I wanted to put together an article/video outlining the three main types of retroactive jealousy, as I see them.
The Three Types of Retroactive Jealousy
If you’re currently struggling with any of the below types of retroactive jealousy, this article will help you determine where you fit on the retroactive jealousy “scale,” and offer a bit of insight into what you can start doing to feel better. It’s essential to also note that you may be experiencing two of these types of RJ at the same time.
It’s important for me to be clear that this is not some kind of medical, scientific definition. And this is certainly no substitute for a professional clinical diagnosis of any type.
I’ve simply arrived at these categorizations after going through thousands of emails from people detailing their experiences of retroactive jealousy. And as I see it, these experiences fit into three different, though closely related categories.
Let’s get started.
Type 1: Moderate Retroactive Jealousy
If they’re being honest with you, most people in intimate relationships will tell you that they don’t love thinking about their partner’s past relationships and/or sexual history. No shock there.
Falling in love and committing to someone can feel like a blissful, and at times dark and painful acid trip for the brain. There is no more potent drug on the planet than the oxytocin our brain releases as we fall in love.
Thus, for most of us, thinking about the person we love with someone else, in the past, present, or future, is unpleasant. Sometimes very unpleasant. Sometimes painful. Often, we want the person we love all to ourselves, past, present, and future.
If, like many people around the world, you’re dealing with some kind of mild, Type 1 RJ, hopefully, with some time and perspective, you won’t care about your partner’s past a whole lot. Do some reading, talk to friends, and explore some new, liberating, non-possessive perspectives on love and relationships.
In the near future you may even find that you’ve become more interested than put off by your partner’s past, curious to learn about their past relationships in order to learn about their growth and development as a human being. This is the trajectory many people experience.
It’s also interesting to note that there are many, many people around the world in loving, intimate relationships who don’t experience this type of jealousy at all. There is also persuasive biological evidence that suggests that humans are not as hard-wired for monogamy, and this type of jealousy, as we sometimes tell ourselves we are. But that’s another discussion altogether…
The bottom line is this:it’s not a huge deal if you don’t love the thought of your partner being intimate with another person, past, present, or future. The majority of the people in relationships on our planet feel similarly about their own partners, and learn to work their way through it without too much anguish or effort.
However, things get more complicated if the question of your partner’s values enters the picture, which brings us to…
Type 2: Values-Based Retroactive Jealousy
It’s perfectly understandable if you don’t love the thought of your partner sleeping with their ex, even if they haven’t even seen their ex in years.
However, you may have concerns about what your partner’s past relationships/sexual history says about their values, thus raising concerns about their suitability for a long-term relationship with you. This is an entirely legitimate concern.
Our values represent the way we see the world, what’s “right” and “wrong,” and how we should go about living our lives. It can be tricky to share an intimate relationship with someone whom we perceive as not sharing our values, or harbouring conflicting values.
Now the question of values and relationships is, of course, not so cut-and-dry. As I’ve argued previously, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to share all of our values all of the time, but it’s equally unrealistic to expect a person to live up to their values all of the time. Have you ever made a mistake, in love or otherwise, which contradicted your own values, your sense of “right” and “wrong?” I thought so. (I’ve done so on multiple occasions.) Your partner is no different.
Unless you’re some kind of infallible celestial prophet (which, to be honest, I doubt—apologies to the celestial prophets reading this), it’s just about impossible to always lead a life totally in line with your values. And it’s also highly unlikely that your partner shares all of your values, all of the time.
Still, this is not to dismiss your concerns if you genuinely feel that your partner has consistently demonstrated that they don’t share values, moral judgments, etc. that are important to you, either in the past, or the present.
This can be a good thing to discuss with trusted friends and family members, in order to get their perspectives, and hopefully, help you better understand why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, and how you can proceed. And if you check in with yourself in a quiet place, on a consistent basis, do some hard thinking, and come to the conclusion that your partner’s past really is a “dealbreaker,” and you cannot accept it or move past it, there’s nothing wrong with that.
This is something people sometimes get wrong about me, and my work. Over the past three+ years since I published my guidebook and launched this website, several people have written letters to me arguing—often forcefully—that their partner really is a <insert offensive label here> and that they simple cannot or will not accept it (and who the hell am I to argue otherwise).
My response is always the same: OK. Of course you have that right, and I think that’s fine. I want to tell these people: you are free. You can move on, and let your partner move on, and find someone else whose values are more closely aligned with your own. Nothing wrong with that.
Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with moving on from a relationship that isn’t right for you.
On the contrary, it’s the proper and right thing to do, for both you and your partner, as long as you treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve as you do it. You don’t have to “accept” things about your partner that you feel you cannot, or will not, accept.
What I think is wrong is continuing to stay, and punishing your partner for their past ad nauseum while the relationship dies a slow and painful death. Why waste precious time staying with someone who isn’t compatible with you? Why harangue someone repeatedly for something they have absolutely no ability to change (ie. their past)? Why stay with someone who you genuinely believe is not the right person for you?
There are many reasons why people stay with people who aren’t right for them, but one of the most common characteristics these people share is a scarcity mentality, instead of an abundance mentality. So instead of breaking up, these people stay with people who aren’t right for them out of fear that they will never again find someone to love them the same way. I understand the impulse, but if you believe your partner isn’t right for you (and/or that you have a “right” to harass or abuse them for their past choices for as long as you want) you owe it to your partner to move on, and to let them move on.
However—and this is where things get more complex—Type 3 retroactive jealousy described below can seriously distort our perspective, cloud our vision, and warp our sense of “right,” “wrong,” and what’s “acceptable” when it comes to our partner’s past. Type 3 retroactive jealousy is the reason I created this site, and created my guidebook and course.
So even if you think you might be dealing with more straightforward values-based RJ, you might actually be dealing with…
Type 3: Retroactive Jealousy OCD
Retroactive Jealousy Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is the most extreme, painful, and challenging form of retroactive jealousy. It’s also the least common, least known, and least understood.
If you are constantly—or obsessively—making up “mental movies” in your head featuring your partner, and suffering from intrusive mental images of imagined scenes from their past, you’re likely suffering from RJ OCD.
If you feel like you can never turn these mental movies and intrusive thoughts “off,” you’re likely dealing with RJ OCD.
If you constantly feel the impulse to question your partner about their past, looking for more details about their past, “clarity,” or resolution, you’re probably suffering from RJ OCD.
If you find yourself constantly looking through old photos, creeping their past on Facebook, experiencing mini-panic attacks, or finding yourself mired in depressive episodes as a result of thinking about your partner’s past, you’re almost certainly experiencing retroactive jealousy OCD.
Though everyone experiences RJ OCD differently. Some people only have the odd “attack” of intrusive thoughts and curiosity, and are then fine for weeks or months at a time. For others (including this writer, once upon a time), it’s a daily struggle.
Type 2 and Type 3 retroactive jealousy can sometimes go hand-in-hand. Occasionally, learning about our partner’s past relationships/sexual history can cause us to question their values. Then, sooner or later, our brain becomes fixated on this question of values, and the details of our partner’s past. For some people, a genetic malfunction or neurobiological imbalance causes the OCD-vulnerable part of the brain to latch on to our partner’s troublesome past, and the tortuous cycle begins.
But our partner’s past doesn’t even have to be troublesome for OCD to take hold. Many RJ OCD sufferers know, deep down, that their partner’s past is “normal,” “not a big deal,” whatever, but still struggle with the constant curiosity, intrusive thoughts, mental movies and anxiety.
For RJ OCD sufferers, it’s crucial to emphasize that, often, we can only determine whether or not our RJ is based on genuine incompatibility with our partner after we begin putting in the work to tame the noise in our heads, and start overcoming OCD.
Only after we put in some work, and the mental movies and intrusive thoughts begin to lessen in frequency, can we make the decision as to whether or not our partner’s past truly is a “dealbreaker.” And then, hopefully, our decision will be grounded in reality, made in a calm and clearheaded mental space, and it will be the right decision, as opposed to some hasty judgment in the midst of the confusion of RJ OCD.
Here’s a video debunking some of the common myths surrounding OCD:
What causes RJ OCD?
As you’ll learn if you watch the video above, researchers and medical professional are unsure about exactly what causes OCD. It is clear that there is often a genetic component, which is to say that OCD (if not necessarily retroactive jealousy OCD) can “run in the family.”
The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines that OCD sufferers experience above-average activity in certain parts of the brain. OCD is thought to impact approximately 1 adult in 40 around the world, affecting men and women in equal numbers.
Furthermore, according to the Centre, the behavioural theory of OCD suggests that sufferers come to “associate certain objects or situations with fear,” while the cognitive theory suggests that OCD sufferers simply lack the necessary cognitive ability to dismiss unwanted thoughts when they come up like most people. This cognitive malfunctioning often causes them to misinterpret their thoughts and impulses as more serious or dire than they really are, with symptoms often waxing and waning over time.
In my correspondence with readers and students in my course, I’ve discovered that there is often a religious aspect to RJ OCD. I receive a lot of letters from extremely religious RJ sufferers—Christians, Muslims, even a Sikh or two. I’m not a religious person, and never have been, but for some, their own religious upbringing seems to represent the impetus for their RJ. And for many of these people from conservative religious backgrounds, shortly after learning about their partner’s past and having trouble with it, obsessive compulsive disorder takes hold.
How can you start to overcome RJ OCD?
Whether or not you choose to affix the ‘OCD’ suffix to your own experience of retroactive jealousy, I believe all experiences of jealousy—concerning the past, present, whatever—is related to insecurity on some level, and in my work I advocate a holistic approach.
You can also start overcoming retroactive jealousy OCD through watching demonstration videos, personal counselling or psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, brain “re-wiring exercises,” cognitive behavioural therapy exercises, joining a support group, and more. I do not have experience with medication, but I have been told that some OCD sufferers find certain types of prescription medication helpful. For more serious afflictions, hospital time might be necessary.
Like any other disorder, there are varying degrees of severity. Some people might be a “3” or a “4” on the OCD scale, while others might be a “9” or even a “10.” But regardless of the severity of the individual’s experience, OCD is serious and debilitating, and must be approached as the cancer it is. You wouldn’t sit back and wait for cancer to simply “burn itself out”—you have to be proactive about it. You have to try something new. You have to take action.
If you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy OCD, don’t hesitate to try something new, experiment with different options, and seek out the help you need. Myself, and a small army of ex-RJ OCD sufferers can tell you that life gets very, very good once you manage to conquer this beast.
In other news:
There is no way to pass this along without it seeming like a humblebrag, but regardless: ManTalks.com recently featured me as a ‘Man of the Week.’
You can read the interview here, where I talk about my journey with jealousy and relationships, and how my thinking is evolving lately.