Retroactive Jealousy: When You’re Obsessed With Your Partner’s Ex
A small amount of jealousy is normal and, arguably, healthy in a relationship. Knowing your partner could be with someone else if they wanted to can make you appreciate them more, treat them better and not get complacent. It’s a common, useful feeling, grounded in reality (a relationship is a choice: you’ve chosen each other).
Less useful, however, is a less-discussed (but potentially just as prevalent) phenomenon known as “retroactive jealousy”: feeling curious and jealous about a partner’s past relationships and sexual history, even if you know there’s nothing going on. At its most innocuous, it might mean glancing at their ex’s Instagram every once in a while out of boredom, or being a little too interested in what was said in their most recent “friendly catch-up”. At its worst?
Retroactive jealousy is obsessive, compulsive and ruinous. It means delving through the entire backlog of posts, comments and photos of them together online, constantly comparing yourself with the ex and incessantly questioning your partner about every element of their relationship.
It’s a pretty shameful thing to admit to, so it’s unsurprising that those we spoke to about the phenomenon wanted to remain anonymous. Ahead, five women share their experiences of retroactive jealousy.
I’m confident my boyfriend no longer thinks of his most recent ex in a romantic way – he doesn’t even speak to her anymore – but I’m still retroactively jealous of her. They spent nearly four years together, which is longer than I’ve been with my boyfriend, and I’m jealous he’s spent more time with someone else. I haven’t met her, but she comes across on social media as very intelligent, creative and interesting, which intimidates me. Because he spent a big chunk of his life being interested in her, and I think very highly of him, I think highly of her by default.
I’ve read messages between them on his phone, and I check her social media profiles more regularly than I’d like to admit. At the beginning of our relationship I’d look back on old photos of them together, and it makes me feel really insecure that he’s been in a relationship with another girl, who has felt the same about him as I do. I’m really bothered by the thought that she was in my position before me, experiencing the same relationship and feelings that I’m currently experiencing.
I need a lot of reassurance from him in terms of how he feels about me. I’m very aware that it’s my own insecurities causing this jealousy, and he hasn’t done anything for me to feel this way, so I’m trying not to let my own self-esteem issues get in the way of a good thing.
On the surface I’m an easygoing cool girl in relationships, but my behaviour when it comes to boyfriends’ exes proves otherwise. Years ago at the beginning of a relationship, my then-boyfriend accidentally left himself logged into Facebook on my laptop, so naturally (being me) I read through his entire chat history with his long-term ex. They’d been in a long-distance relationship and 90% of what I found was explicit sexting (who does this on Facebook Messenger?!). Rationally, I knew I was a better match for my then-boyfriend in most ways, but for a long time I felt I wasn’t ‘enough’ for him sexually compared to his ex. Although it did give me an insight into what he liked in bed. Every cloud?
A worse experience involved the long-term ex of another boyfriend, who was more intimidating. They had a fairytale love story – they’re from similar backgrounds and met at university – and I obsessively compared myself to her (it doesn’t help that she has a few attributes I’ve always wished I had). I’ve seen every picture of her and them together on Facebook and pored over her qualifications on LinkedIn (anonymously, obviously). I’m glad her Instagram is private because there’s a risk I’d accidentally double tap something from 2015 and end up having to flee the country. I know my feelings are irrational. I trusted both boyfriends completely – one told me candidly everything that went wrong with his ex and that she doesn’t compare to me. I’ve even met both of the exes and couldn’t have felt more secure or been more charming. They might have even been jealous of me!
I was – and probably still am, when I think about it – retroactively jealous of a person who slept with my current boyfriend a few times two years before we got together. We’ve been together for three-and-a-half years and it’s completely irrational, but because I was friendly with this person before really knowing my boyfriend, it feels like she was part of an intimate club that I was late to the party for. I was more jealous in the early days of our relationship, when angst can outweigh your own self-confidence, and it manifested in me interrogating him about her after sex. Needless to say, this killed the vibe. Even less sexy, I’ve done a lot of private social media stalking.
Interestingly, the only time the jealousy rears its head now is when there’s some other underlying problem – either with my relationship, friends or life in general. It’s kind of like PMT but for life anxiety – I will start privately heckling this person’s Instagram feed and then realise that actually I’m upset about something else entirely.
I was with my ex-boyfriend for about two years, then on and off for a while, and the relationship was incredibly toxic. I felt anxious and insecure throughout, which led to me being extremely jealous about other women who were, or had been, in his life. I became particularly jealous of a girl he’d slept with while he had a girlfriend, which had ultimately ended their relationship. The worst part was that she was still part of his friendship group – there was a large group who had been friends since school and, unhelpfully, they all seemed to have hooked up with each other in the past.
I felt uncomfortable and anxious whenever they spent time together, which was a lot given they were friends, and often when there was a lot of alcohol involved (there were a lot of house parties). If I wasn’t there, I’d try and find out details about the night – who’d been there, what they’d done, where they’d slept – to reassure myself or trip him up. I’d go through photos on Facebook from events they’d been at together, trying to spot anything that looked untoward. It was like I expected to find something, and when you’re in that mindset anything can feel like a betrayal. I found myself trying to befriend her more actively than any of the other girls. I figured if we had a relationship then something would be less likely to happen between them – ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ and all that.
Unsurprisingly, it was a strain on my relationship – he’d get annoyed and frustrated that I was asking so many questions. But I don’t blame myself; now I know my behaviour was a product of an incredibly dysfunctional and toxic relationship, in which he played the leading role.
I had a very bad case of retroactive jealousy once but I never knew what it was at the time. When I first slept with my (now ex-) boyfriend he had a picture of him and another girl on his bedroom wall. She was the polar opposite of me: slim, mousy brown shiny hair, and naturally pretty. “Who is she?” I asked. “My sister,” he told me, slightly smiling. After seeing her image, I couldn’t get her out of my head. I wanted to know what she did, how they met, why they broke up…
I asked him about her a bit but I don’t think he had a clue how much I actually thought about her in the beginning. What I really wanted to say to him in bed that night was: “Tell me everything, leave nothing out, I don’t care if we’re here for three days, we’ll order Chinese.” She was such an enigma to me, and I think I gave her ghost way too much power in our very new and volatile relationship. Her name was Lee, and I really love that name, still. After a few months of dating I stopped caring about her. There were a few close shaves when I was still with my ex. The adrenaline rush of almost meeting her was unreal. Once I was in the same pub as her minutes after she left, and she briefly dated someone I know, but I never actually met her, so she always inhabited my mind as this slightly ethereal, ghostly figure, until she did what ghosts always do and disappeared entirely.
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