Since I launched this site several years ago, hundreds of people have written to me asking the same question.
That question goes something like this…
“My partner is amazing in every other regard, but I can’t seem to get past their past relationships/sexual history. Do you think I should try to work through this, or break up with them?”
But what they’re really asking is…
“Do you think I’m dealing with irrational retroactive jealousy, or are my partner’s values and my values incompatible?”
This is a very important question; in a certain sense, it’s the only question when one is first forced to confront retroactive jealousy. So let me take this opportunity to clear a few things up…
What are values?
Most people associate the word “values” with their personal code of ethics; the moral standard of behaviour they believe is “right,” and by which they try to live their lives.
For example, one of my core values is honesty; I believe in trying to be honest with the people close to me, and I expect the same in return. One of your values may be fidelity; you won’t cheat on your partner, and you expect that your partner won’t cheat on you.
Of course, we’re all hypocrites to a certain extent. We may have strongly held values, but that doesn’t prevent us from straying from them from time to time.
Still, values are important–as many philosophers throughout the centuries have concluded, it becomes much easier to live a peaceful and happy life if you a) figure out what your values are, and b) do your best to live true to them.
One good way to determine someone’s values is to look to the choices they’ve made in their past. And sometimes, two people get together and after a brief period of courtship (in which one or both parties talk about their sexual past and/or relationship history), find out that their values seem to be out of alignment.
To cite an extreme example, let’s say you’re a devout, born-again Christian, and you discover that in a former life your girlfriend was a porn star. In that case, it’s possible that your values are out of sync with hers. And that’s fine.
Let me be absolutely clear: there is nothing wrong with leaving your partner if you conclude that you don’t share the same values.
Indeed, it’s the right thing to do; no sense putting your partner and yourself through endless torture, and missing opportunities to find someone better suited to you.
BUT let’s also say that ten years ago your girlfriend decided to leave the porn industry, join a convent, and pursue a totally different lifestyle. Let’s say she explains that she eventually came to the conclusion that she hated pornography, and everything associated with it, and her subsequent life choices demonstrate that. What do you do then? Are your values and hers still incompatible?
Of course, our past doesn’t entirely define us as a person, and our values can (and often do) change over time.
So, how do you decide what your partner’s values really are? And how do you know when you’re dealing with retroactive jealousy/OCD, or simply a case of conflicting values?
Distinguishing between retroactive jealousy and incompatible values
In my view, what often distinguishes retroactive jealousy from conflicting values is the constant, OCD-like thoughts and mental images associated with your partner’s past.
In other words, not loving the thought of your partner’s past is quite normal–constantly thinking about it is not normal, and the best indication that you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy–not conflicting values.
Or, it’s possible that you’re dealing with both conflicting values, and retroactive jealousy OCD. If this is the case, it’s only possible to find out if you’re dealing with incompatible values AFTER you get a handle on your brain, and put RJ-OCD behind you.
This is why I advise everyone dealing with constant thoughts regarding their partner’s past to first put in the necessary work to overcome retroactive jealousy, and then make a decision regarding whether or not you’re a poor match for each other.
Trying to decide whether or not your partner’s values are in sync with yours while at the same time dealing with RJ-OCD is like trying to solve a complex math equation while tripping on LSD. (Juuuust about impossible, unless you’re Stephen Hawking or something.)
Looking at the many emails I’ve received from readers who have managed to get past their partner’s past, it becomes clear that the vast majority of people who overcome retroactive jealousy come to discover that their struggle wasn’t about conflicting values after all.
Many ex-sufferers of retroactive jealousy conclude that their pain and confusion was a product of the hellish, OCD-like torture of retroactive jealousy, rather than some sort of moral incompatibility with their partner (and their past).
Which is one of the many reasons I’m so passionate about helping others overcome retroactive jealousy.
For most of us, it’s hard enough to find someone we connect with, and it seems like such a waste to throw away an otherwise-happy relationship because we mistake retroactive jealousy for conflicting values.
The hierarchy of values
It’s also important to note that not all values are created equal.
We may have certain values that are important, but having a partner who doesn’t share those values isn’t necessarily a deal breaker.
For example, you might fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum, while your partner has a more conservative bent. Or you may value promptness, while your partner is habitually (however apologetically) late. Or perhaps when you were younger you placed an extremely high value on your virginity, waiting until grad school to have sex for the first time, while your partner didn’t feel the same about their virginity, and simply “wanted to get it over with,” as many people do.
My point is that we shouldn’t expect our partner to share identical values to ours, or to place the same amount of value on everything that we value.
What’s more, as I wrote earlier, our values can change as we grow older, make mistakes, and do our best to learn from them. This is a good thing–it’s called “growth.”
And if our partner is still learning, changing, and growing into a better person, is it really fair to judge them solely on the “mistakes” and indiscretions from their past?
Of course, there may be times when you discover that certain character traits and principles you value highly are incompatible with your partner, and that means you should probably end the relationship.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that one day you’ll find someone whose values are completely identical to yours, and whose blemish-free past embodies those values 100%. Because you almost certainly won’t.
If you’re currently dealing with retroactive jealousy, you may occasionally fantasize about finding someone who has a completely uneventful, squeaky-clean past, unlike your current partner.
If you’re thinking this way, beware: many people who fail to deal with retroactive jealousy when it first comes up are forced to deal with it in every subsequent relationship for the rest of their life.
Which is to suggest that, yes, even if you eventually find a virginal, church-going angel who’s never had a boyfriend, you’ll probably still deal with retroactive jealousy somewhere down the line until you put in the work and overcome it, once and for all. Make no mistake: just about everyone has some kind of sexual/romantic history.
And over the years I have discovered that the most “innocent,” “tame” scenarios can still inspire retroactive jealousy. I’m not kidding: I’ve received letters from RJ sufferers haunted by the mere thought of their partner kissing, hugging, holding hands with someone from their past.
You might think that if your partner’s past was less “eventful,” you wouldn’t suffer from retroactive jealousy. But I wouldn’t be so sure. Thousands of reader emails have taught me that retroactive jealousy can strike any of us at any time, for just about any reason.
The most innocent, innocuous events can inspire retroactive jealousy, and cause us to question our partner’s values–even when we know, deep down, in our calmest moments, that our partner’s past really isn’t a “dealbreaker.”
In conclusion: I can’t tell you whether or not your values are compatible with your partner’s
I understand the impulse people have in writing to me to ask whether they should break up with their partner due to conflicting values. But unless you’re a militant, evangelistic nudist, and your partner is Tobias Fünke, I can’t tell you whether or not your values are incompatible with your partner’s.
Because only you can decide what’s really important to you in a partner, and in a relationship. And only you can make good decisions based on that.
If retroactive jealousy is making it difficult for you to determine whether or not your partner’s values align with your own, take my advice: first, put in the necessary effort to get a handle on your brain so you can then make that determination with a clear head.
If you put in the necessary work to beat retroactive jealousy, in all likelihood you’ll then arrive at the conclusion that your problem wasn’t about conflicting values–it was irrational retroactive jealousy, nothing more.