In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Can Jealousy Be Retroactive?

I am jealous of my lover's ex-lover

"The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves." William Penn

Jealousy is typically directed at the future—it involves the fear of losing your mate in the future to someone else. The loss is an imaginary possibility that has not yet materialized, but the agent suspects that it is highly probable. Can an agent be retrospectively jealous of his beloved's past behavior, which occurred before he knew the beloved?

Retrospective jealousy

"Jealousy is no more than feeling alone against smiling enemies." Elizabeth Bowen

Romantic jealousy is concerned with a most painful loss: when we are in an exclusive relationship and our mate prefers someone else. Typically, jealousy involves a fear of a future loss of your mate to a rival, which often gives rise to the wish to revenge oneself upon the mate and the rival. Can romantic jealousy refer to the past?

Emotions toward the past are somewhat similar to emotions toward fictional figures. In both cases, the motivational component is present but it is basically focused on our imaginary behavior. As William Lyons suggests in his book Emotion, one might wish that the dead person could be brought to life, but such wishful thinking does not materialize into impulses to action. This wish may be futile, but it is not necessarily illogical. Although the past seems to be unchangeable and irremediable, our attitudes toward past events, and hence the impact of the past upon us, is constantly changing. William Faulkner put it nicely when he asserted that “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The past may not exist in physical terms but from an emotional perspective, it is alive and kicking.

In retrospective jealousy, the agent's awareness of the mate's past behavior generates a negative emotional attitude in the agent.The following true story describes a case of (pathological) retrospective jealousy.

A 99-year-old Italian man stumbled across letters that his wife of 77 years had written to a secret lover in the 1940s. The 96-year-old woman confessed to having an affair 60 years ago and then tried desperately to persuade her husband to stay. He refused and filed for divorce despite their relationship having spanned nearly eight decades. It may be relevant to mention that this was the last straw in their rocky relationship: 10 years previously, the husband had moved out to live with one of the sons, but returned weeks later.

This kind of jealousy is retrospective in the sense that a past event caused the divorce. Compared with the length of their marriage, the weight given to this event is disproportional, and the whole reaction seems to be pathological. It is retrospective jealousy, not retroactive jealousy, as it does not change the past and does not introduce into the evaluation of the past present elements which did not exist in the past.

The retrospective emotional attitude, generated when the beloved reveals her or his previous love affairs, is usually closer to sadness than to jealousy. The fear of losing the mate to the ex-lover may scarcely exist because of the length of time that has passed and the disconnection between the two. Such a fear may arise in a more general sense in which past behavior can indicate future behavior, in the sense of "once a cheater, always a cheater." This attitude may be stronger at the beginning of the relationship, when it is still difficult to know how the relationship will develop. The sadness in these circumstances may not be associated with the fear of losing the mate, but with the sadness that the beloved is not as pure as the agent has perceived her to be.

Retroactive jealousy

"Jealousy is the great exaggerator." Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Retroactive activity involves judging a past event in light of a novel element that was not present in the past. For example, a retroactive tax is one that has just been imposed, but applies to a period of time before the tax law was passed. This has practical results in the sense that the agent can be punished in the present for past behavior that was not punishable when the deed occurred.

In retrospective jealousy, the agent's awareness of the mate's past behavior generates a negative emotional attitude in the agent. In retroactive jealousy, the agent introduces new present elements into the original past circumstances and negatively judges the mate's behavior in light of these elements as well. Thus, the jealousy of the old Italian husband is not retroactive since his judgment of his wife's past behavior is based upon elements that were present in the past. Consider, however, the following case.

Jim and Carol, who are married to other people, met six months ago and it took them a few weeks to develop an intense loving relationship. After a while they told each other in very broad terms about their past extramarital affairs. A week later, Carol mentioned that in one of her affairs with a married lover, the intensity of their love was so strong that within a day they had engaged in an intense sexual relationship; the whole affair lasted, however, merely five months. Jim told her that it was painful for him to hear about this affair, and he decided to leave her.

Retroactive jealousy is when past event (Carole's past intense affair) is negatively judged by her current mate as he takes into account a present element that was absent in the original circumstances (his loving relationship with Carole), and he acts accordingly (by leaving Carole). The similarity between Carole's past and present situations facilitates the generation of Jim's negative attitude. Thus, Jim's negative emotional attitude might not arise if Carole's past affair took place while she was still single and not when she was married, as she is now.

Retroactive jealousy is an extreme attitude. A more common and less extreme emotional attitude in these circumstances is sadness. In such an attitude, Jim would not consider that Carole had done something wrong and accordingly he would not wish to leave her.

A more natural phenomenon compared with retroactive jealousy is being jealous of your ex-lover's love affairs. In this case, the person may still have some romantic feelings toward the ex-lover (even though he may not want her back, as he might be happy with his current relationship), and some sort of jealousy may be natural. However, as there is no connection between the two, the motivational component in such jealousy is of little importance, if at all, and his attitude would also be closer to a kind of sadness.

Generally speaking, Jim's emotional situation is complex as in addition to jealousy, it may involve fear and sadness, which we have just discussed, as well as emotions like anger, envy and pride.

If Jim's attitude is that of retroactive jealousy, then anger is natural, as anger is a response to unjustified harm that someone has inflicted upon you. The harm is often, as in Jim's case, a kind of personal insult, and thus the desire for revenge is also natural.

Envy may also be present here, since Jim may wish to have been in Carole's ex-lover situation, in which he and Carole were in intense sexual relationship within the first day—for Jim, it took several weeks to arrive at that situation. And pride also may be present in the sense that despite Carole's many ex-lovers, she finally has decided to be with him and wishes to be so for many years to come. In this sense, Carole has saved the last dance for him, and Jim is proud of that.

Concluding remarks

"The jealous bring down the curse they fear upon their own heads." Dorothy Dix

Sometimes jealousy expresses caring and love; however, retrospective and retroactive jealousy are destructive and may even become pathological. Retrospective jealousy is destructive as constant rumination about the past is harmful and may block the possibility of the current relationship flourishing. Retroactive jealousy is even more destructive. In a sense it assumes eternal ownership over the mate, even before the agent and the mate knew each other.

Emotions are complex, and positive emotions, such as love, can easily turn into negative ones, such as retrospective or retroactive jealousy. As the ancient great philosopher Aristotle noted, moderation is the key in reducing such risks.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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