6 Painful Reasons You Experience Retroactive Jealousy

If you find yourself jealous of your partner's exes, you may be experiencing retroactive jealousy.

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Many people struggle with retroactive jealousy, which is when you are jealous of a partner’s past romantic or sexual partners. Some of the most common manifestations of this include looking your partner’s ex-partners up on social media, comparing yourself or internally “competing” constantly with an ex, constantly asking your partner about their prior relationship and what was better/worse in that relationship versus yours, and even snooping through your partner’s emails/texts to find old correspondence with their ex. What are some reasons people experience retroactive jealousy?


Here are 6 painful reasons you experience retroactive jealousy:

1. Low self-esteem

If you feel like you are not attractive or lovable, you likely do not understand why your partner is with you. You may rationalize that the only reason they stay with you is because you are a provider, or because you are stable, or because you take care of all of their basic needs. You assume that your partner’s previous partners were more appealing to them or more of a turn-on, so you become obsessed with “proving” that this is the order to protect yourself. After all, if you “know” that you love someone else more, you protect yourself from being blindsided It eventually turns out to be the case and they leave you.




RELATED: 6 Painful Habits Of People With Very Low Self-Esteem

2. You have a preoccupied attachment style

When you grew up in a home where your emotional needs were not consistently met, you learn that romantic partners are not trustworthy. If you have this attachment style, you are constantly anxious that your partner loves you and doesn’t prioritize you, and since you are drawn to avoidant partners facts are not as reassuring as others may be. You therefore take their avoidant style to mean that you just aren’t “enough” for them and become obsessed with the idea that they acted differently in their prior relationship and that the ex-partner somehow elicited the sexual or romantic feelings that you can’t fully obtain from your partner now. (Note: you may also have a fearful avoidant attachment, although this is a less common style.)

3. Sadness about your own sexual/romantic past

Many men who consider themselves late bloomers struggle with retrospective jealousy. They do not feel like they have enough experience, either in terms of the number of partners or variety/intensity of experiences, and they become jealous of their partner’s ex, whom they perceive as more attractive or sexually successful than them.


RELATED: Why You're So Obsessed With His Ex (And How To Stop Being Jealous)

4. Unadmitted dissatisfaction with the relationship

It feels risky to people with low self-esteem to admit that they aren’t happy in their relationship because they are unsure that they could ever get a different partner who is a better fit for them. If you aren’t fully satisfied in your relationship, you may project your unadmitted dissatisfaction onto your partner, saying they aren’t really into you… when in facteally aren’t into them! Also, telling yourself that your partner did more romantic/sexual things with someone else means that there is hope for change because, in theory, you can “hack” your partner by becoming more like their ex. Admitting that whatever your relationship is currently like is the best it will get can be scary and upsetting if you are happy.

5. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People who struggle with OCD in other areas often struggle with relationship OCD as well, where they constantly question if the relationship they are in is “right” or if they are truly compatible with their partner. Retroactive jealousy often plays into this as well, where you get intrusive thoughts about whether you love your ex more than you. Intrusive thoughts of any kind can be a symptom of OCD and can be treated by therapy, especially exposure therapy with response prevention.

RELATED: 5 Ways Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) Hurts Your Marriage


6. Your partner is actually in love with their ex or uses them against you

In some cases, the ex was really “the one who got away” from your partner, and they make ongoing, wistful comments about this. (Note that talking about exes in general is normal and healthy, but heaping praise on an ex repeatedly is not.) Also, in dramatic, conflictual relationships, your partner uses their ex as a comparison point during fights, saying things like, “X treated me better than you do… I bet he would want to get back with me.” In the first five points, you need to look inward, but in this last case, you need to look at your partner’s behavior objectively. They may be facilitating or even creating jealousy, whether purposefully or not, because of their sadness about their prior relationship ending, or to create drama with you.



If retroactive jealousy is something that you struggle with, therapy can help you figure out why and how to move forward. Individual therapy is preferable to couples because this is usually an issue that you need to figure out on your own, rather than involving your partner and making them listen to all of your thoughts and feelings about their ex every week. However, if your partner brings up their ex repeatedly, as per point number six, couples counseling is the way to go.

RELATED: How To Get Over Your Boyfriend's Past (Without Becoming A Jealous Monster)


Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.