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Getting Past the Past Jealousy

How to overcome your anxiety about your partner’s past relationships.

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Jason had been dating Nadia for four months, and everything seemed to be going well, except that Jason could not get it out of his head that Nadia had been intimate with other men in the past. Even though he felt that the communication between the two of them was going well; even though their sex was extremely passionate; and even though Nadia told him that she loved him, Jason kept ruminating about Nadia and other men.

Retrospective jealousy — or jealousy about your partner’s past — is a common issue for couples. You may feel that their past is something that threatens your current relationship, and so you keep dwelling on it. For Jason, his thoughts kept triggering his anxiety:

  • I wonder if he was a better lover than I am.
  • I wonder if she might want to go back to him.
  • I wonder if she is thinking about how great it was with him.
  • I wonder if she will want other men and reject me.

Jason could acknowledge that the relationship was going well, but he also realized that these thoughts were plaguing him. Her past experiences created for him a sense of uncertainty — “I don’t know how she feels about them” — and a sense of lack of control — “I can’t keep her from having fantasies.” He thought that her thoughts and feelings about the past were a threat to his current relationship.

What could we do to help Jason?

1. Normalize your feelings. This kind of jealousy is normal and simply reflects the primitive human desire to be the only one — ever. In fact, in some cultures there remains an insistence on “virginity” for new partners, although it is often not possible, practical, or desirable. Any competition is viewed as a current threat. So don’t think that you are crazy because you have these feelings.

2. Validate the pain. It’s difficult to have jealous feelings. They make you anxious, angry, sad, and helpless, and they interfere with your current relationship. So give yourself some compassion when these feelings arise.

3. Don’t turn your relationship into a trial. Sometimes your anxiety about the past leads you to do things that only add to your anxiety and alienate your partner. Try to minimize interrogation, reassurance seeking, accusations, and withdrawing. These strategies only make matters worse.

4. Realize that there is a reason the past is in the past. Most relationships end for good reasons. Maybe your partner’s past relationships ended because one or both partners found it unrewarding. If that relationship ended, it may no longer be important to your partner. You don’t need to resurrect the past to get on with your life

5. Thoughts and feelings are not dangerous. We often want to control the thoughts and feelings of our partner — a kind of romantic perfectionism. This is unrealistic and only adds to your partner's feeling that satisfying you will be impossible. If you accept that everyone has private thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, you will be living in the real world where a real relationship is possible.

6. Everyone has a past — including you. Imagine if your partner insisted that you not have a past — that you had to be completely “pure” and unentangled by memories. How would you feel? Isn’t there a reason why your own past relationships ended?

7. Would you really believe someone who never had a past? This may be an antiquated wish — that your partner has no past with other people. But we are not living in the 16th century. In the modern world, people learn from their past experiences and often use those lessons to make their present experience even better. After all, would you really believe someone over the age of 21 who told you, “I have never found anyone else sexy?”

8. Focus on making the present better. It’s less important what happened in your partner’s past and more important how the two of you deal with the present. Interrogating, accusing, seeking reassurance, and withdrawing will not strengthen the bond between you. Rather than ruminate about the past, try doing everything you can to love and appreciate each other. Make daily and weekly plans for pleasure, growth, and communication, rather than litigating what has been over for quite some time. The current relationship will thrive on its own merits. The past can be left — in the past.

Learn more in my book, The Jealousy Cure

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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