Overcoming Retrospective Jealousy

Getting past the past.

Posted Feb 08, 2019

 Abigail Keenan/Unsplash
Source: Abigail Keenan/Unsplash

What is Retrospective Jealousy?

Jealousy can arise not only about the present but also about the past—even the past before you met your current partner. In the course of getting to know your partner you learn that they had past lovers, maybe a former spouse, adventures with people you never knew and now you think about them and wonder what this means about your current relationship. For example, when you hear about a former lover, does it make you anxious, make you doubt your partner’s feelings about you, or make you think that you are just another stop along an endless journey that they are taking? This is what is called “retrospective jealousy” and this can plague your relationship and destroy any trust that you have.

Look at the following statements and see if any of these fit you.

  • I often think about the fact that my current partner had a lover in the past.
  • When I think about this I feel uneasy—anxious and worried.
  • I wonder if my current partner had a better relationship with their former lover.
  • I want to be the only person that they ever enjoyed or had passion with.

What Does Their Past Mean to You?

Since everyone has a past—some more adventuresome than others—your jealousy may be intensified if you think the following thoughts:

  • I should be the only person my partner ever desired.
  • If my partner enjoyed sex with someone else then they might go back to that person.
  • If they enjoyed sex with someone else, then they will leave me for another person.
  • It’s dangerous to my current relationship if my partner has fond memories about a past partner.

Does any of this sound familiar? How does it affect your current relationship? Does it make you less trusting, less secure, and feeling like you are second-best?

Are You Suffering From Emotional Perfectionism?

This is a form of perfectionism that many of us have at points in time when we think that our emotions should be pure, good, comfortable, or even wonderful. For example, we become intolerant of unpleasant emotions such as jealousy, boredom, ambivalence, or loneliness. We think we should feel good all the time.

How is this related to retrospective jealousy? In retrospective jealousy, we believe in "romantic perfectionism"—that everything about our relationship and the feelings that we both have should be wonderful, idealized, and romantic. Part of this is what I call "desire perfectionism," where we think that our partner should never have had desires, love, or satisfaction with anyone else.

What is the downside of this kind of perfectionism? We can’t tolerate that our partner had feelings, sex, desire, and romance before. We want to eliminate the past memories, the past experiences that they had—and we can’t do that. We can’t erase their past. So we view their past—especially any fond memories that they may have—as a current threat.

How can you think of this in a more adaptive, realistic way?

Put the Shoe on Your Foot

Let’s look at your own experience. Were there people you desired and found sexual satisfaction in before you met your current partner? Should you feel guilty about that? Or does this mean that you have had a healthy, normal past experience with other people? Should your current partner distrust you? After all, think about your past and the experiences that you enjoyed. Wasn’t it fun? Does this mean that you can’t love and commit yourself to your current partner because you had fun in the past? If you had pleasure with past partners does this mean that you cannot control yourself now? Are you constantly going back to your past partners and having sex with them? Why not? Is the past “now”—the past for you? Have you left your past behind? If any of this is true for you, maybe it’s true for your partner.

What is a Realistic Way to Look at the Past?

Since everyone has a past, it’s going to be important to have a realistic way to cope with that. We can see that your romantic perfectionism will get in the way and your desire for “purity” is unrealistic in the 21st century. Imagine if you were 30 years old and you met someone your age who said, “You are the only person I have ever felt attracted to, the only person that has aroused any passion in me, and the only person I have really enjoyed talking to." Imagine that. Would you believe them? I doubt it.

Try to have a more realistic view of past relationships. Here are some suggestions:

  • I should not be the only person my partner ever desired.
  • If my partner enjoyed sex with someone else then it means nothing about the possibility that they might go back to that person.
  • If they enjoyed sex with someone else, then they can also enjoy sex with me.
  • It’s not dangerous to my current relationship if my partner has fond memories about a past partner. It's natural for all of us to reflect on positive experiences in the past. That's what memories are for. 

Keep in mind that the reason the relationship is in the past is that it didn’t work. That doesn’t mean that your partner didn’t have some good experiences—just as you have had past relationships and had fun with someone else. The key to the current relationship—the one that you want to make as good as it can be—is accepting that there was a past before this relationship but to focus on the present, to make this the best it can be so that you can have a future together.


Robert L. Leahy, The Jealousy Cure. 2018 New Harbinger, Oakland, CA.

Robert L. Leahy Emotional Schema Therapy. 2015 Guilford Publications. New York, NY.