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What is Retroactive Jealousy?

We all know what jealousy is, how it makes us feel, and what triggers it…

It’s sparked by her glances at the man at the next table or his wink at the waitress when she sets down his drink. It shows up when he finds out from a friend that his partner was flirting with another man or when she reads the secretive texts from another woman on her partner’s phone.

Jealousy can be maddening for both the person feeling it and their partner who is trying to help dissipate it. It exists on a spectrum from mild and tolerable to obsessive and abusive. Jealousy can be especially exasperating because it can manifest without evidence of a partner’s actual wrongdoing. It may enter our lives and our psyches and linger, even after we try our hardest to slow its advances.

But what is retroactive jealousy (RJ)? Possibly the most maddening form to feel and experience in your partner, retroactive jealousy is jealousy of your partner’s past behavior. Instead of feeling jealous of your husband’s new assistant, retroactive jealousy shows up when we find out about people our partners once dated or had sex with. A man dating a recently divorced woman may fall into retroactive jealousy when he sees her old wedding photos, or even at the thought of him being in a previous relationship in the first place. Maybe a woman tells a story of a college hook-up in jest at dinner with friends, leaving her boyfriend feeling confused at his immediate discomfort and urge to leave.

In my work with clients, I’ve noticed that many people almost immediately begin to attack themselves for experiencing this particular kind of jealousy. They believe they have no right to worry about something that is long in the past and does not directly affect their current relationship. They will often blame themselves for causing unnecessary problems with their partner, and ultimately feeling ashamed, foolish, and childish.

When retroactive jealousy hits us, we turn inward, often feeling confused at our own attempts to shrink away and distance ourselves from our partners. We might pull away from touch or connection or feel unexplained anger. At the same time, our partners may feel exasperated and frustrated at something that seems to them as being absurd or ridiculous. So what do we do when RJ rears its ugly head?

First, we need to find and hold compassion for ourselves when jealousy arrives on our doorstep. At the heart of jealousy is a fear of losing our partner and the love that they give us. It can also be a sense of unworthiness in ourselves. Jealousy often acts as an invitation to access our own vulnerability. Everyone needs relationship and connection, attachment and love, and safety and stability. When there is a perceived threat, whether it be past or present, we go into a state of self-protection. We don’t want to be hurt by the one we love so we withdraw to relieve them of the chance. Remember, you’re not the only person who is suffering from RJ! Try to notice the feelings that are arriving for you. Then ask yourself if you’re in a place to discuss them with your partner or if you need some time for yourself first.

Second, you need to name the jealousy and shame. Shame thrives in the dark, dank, crevices of our psyche, which is why we have to encourage ourselves and our partners to play what I like to call, “Name that Shame Game.” By sharing with our partners the jealousy we feel, and the feelings that come up around it (shame, anger, etc.) we open a direct line of communication that doesn’t cut off our partner, but instead invites them in and fosters connection. Our partners are more likely to respond positively when we use I-statements, sharing our experience and our feelings rather than falling back on accusations, anger, and blame. Ideally, our partners will respond with empathy, patience, and gratitude for our honesty and vulnerability. You will probably be surprised how relieving it can feel to share your feelings of jealousy and shame.

Third, stop thinking so much. People have a tendency to intellectualize their retroactive jealousy, ultimately spinning themselves in circles of thoughts, rationalizations, and logic. We need to break away from being captive to an imaginary past. This is where mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and grounding activities become crucial. Our thoughts exist in our heads, so extending our awareness and focus into our bodies can create a bigger, more grounded vessel for our experience to move through and settle.

Fourth, it may be time to call your therapist and to do some work toward increasing self-esteem and self-confidence. This work can move us away from needing our partners to reflect our worth and value and move us toward finding our own self-worth. Once we find our confidence and value in ourselves, we become less anxious and concerned about receiving it from others. Slowly we move away from the fear of losing our partner to someone else, who may be more __________(fill in the blank), and instead feel more confident in ourselves and in the increased vulnerability and communication in the relationship.

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