How to get over retroactive jealousy
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Chances are you have some experience with jealousy, especially in romantic relationships. It’s pretty normal to occasionally feel insecure or worry your partner might develop an attraction to someone else.
But what about insecurity about who your partner’s been attracted to in the past? Turns out, there’s a name for that: retroactive jealousy. It refers to jealousy around your partner’s previous relationships.
“Interest in a partner’s past can range from curious to obsessive to avoidant,” says Emily Cook, a marriage and family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland.
Like ordinary jealousy, retroactive jealousy is fairly common. It doesn’t always create problems, but, Cook explains, it can sometimes become obsessive and show up in unhealthy or destructive ways.
The good news? You can work through these feelings. Here’s how.
A key first step of working through any difficult emotion is simply acknowledging it and accepting it. It might not feel very good, but jealousy is a normal, valid emotion.
If you’re having a hard time accepting your jealousy, Patrick Cheatham, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon, recommends asking yourself what your feelings of jealousy really mean to you.
“Do you think their past predicts something about your relationship, or makes you feel like you can’t trust them? Once you get a sense of what the jealousy means, you can start to face those fears,” Cheatham says.
Experiencing retroactive jealousy doesn’t make you a bad person, but it can lead to unwanted emotions. You might feel anxious, worried about the future, or stressed around your partner.
It’s important to name and address these feelings, too. If you pretend they don’t exist, they may get worse.
You love your partner and want your relationship to succeed. This desire may contribute, at least in part, to your feelings about their past.
But think about your own past. You probably have some ex-partners, too. How do you feel about them now?
Breakups typically happen for a reason. Even if you dated someone more conventionally attractive than your current partner or someone you had better sex with, something wasn’t quite right. So you moved on and chose to develop a relationship with your current partner.
Likewise, your partner is making the same choice to stay with you, whatever their past relationships meant to them.
Most people can’t resist the temptation to poke around their partner’s social media pages, looking for pictures and comments from past loves.
While it’s one thing to pay attention to current posts your partner makes, going back through months or even years of social media history is another. Yes, a lot of people do it, but that doesn’t make it healthy.
The problem is that people tend to show their best selves on social media. They post their favorite photos and share their successes. What you see is often more idealized than realistic.
If something about your partner’s current social media behavior concerns you, bring it up with them. Beyond that, it’s generally best to respect their past. And remember: It probably wasn’t as great as it looked on Facebook.
There’s no way around it: Open communication is essential when it comes to working through difficult feelings, including jealousy.
“Curiosity about past partners and experiences is very natural,” Cheatham says. “Discussing these things can be a good way for couples to get to know each other and understand each other’s approach to relationships.”
You might struggle to find the right way to express your feelings, especially if you don’t want them to think you’re shaming them for having a lot of partners.
Do this in a compassionate, respectful way by using “I” statements and focusing on your current feelings instead of their past experiences.
For example, you could say:
- “Sometimes I feel worried you’ll move on from me because I believe you could date anyone you wanted. ”
- “I know you and [ex’s name] planned to get married. So even though I trust your feelings for me, sometimes I worry you’ll realize you’d rather be with them after all.”
Your partner may be able to address your feelings in a way that helps ease them. But even just voicing them may help you manage them more easily.
Sharing your feelings with your partner might help in the moment. But later on, doubt may pop up again.
Maybe you trust their feelings for you right now but worry about what might happen if their attractive, talented ex shows up one day and says, “Breaking up was a mistake. I want you back.”
You can never know what someone’s truly thinking. That’s why trust is so important in relationships. If you trust your partner, extend that trust to what they’re telling you now.
Jealous feelings that linger or provoke an emotional response can be tough to overcome alone, Cheatham says. It may help to talk to a professional who can help you sort through them.
Pinpointing what’s driving feelings of jealousy can help.
Maybe you wonder who your partner was before they met you, or you want to know what attracted them to you in the first place. Or maybe you feel jealous because you don’t have details.
Cook suggests some people resist hearing about previous partners because they either want to keep their own past private or they fear hearing about infidelity. But you might still wonder about these things, even if you’d rather not discuss them.
Openly admitting exactly what you’re curious about or why you’re curious allows you the opportunity to bring it up with your partner.
According to Cook, a lack of self-worth or limiting beliefs about yourself can fuel jealousy. You might fixate on how your partner’s exes look, what they do, or make other comparisons.
Remind yourself that they chose to date you for a reason. It’s entirely possible (and probable) that, no matter how attractive or accomplished an ex was, you’ve got something special they’ve never found in anyone else.
Taking a few moments to remind yourself of your own unique talents and attributes can also help boost your self-confidence. If you’re struggling to recognize your positive traits, talking to a counselor can help.
You think your partner is pretty great, and you’re afraid of losing them. Take a moment to consider what makes them great. Family, friends, and romantic partners can all contribute to personal discovery and change.
Relationships themselves are a learning process. Your partner may have grown a lot from their past relationships, no matter how they ended.
Practicing gratitude can help you appreciate your partner’s history and feel less threatened by past relationships. Without those relationships, they could have developed into someone entirely different — someone you might not have fallen for.
Relationships involve some level of uncertainty and risk. Yours might end, and you might not be able to prevent that. Accepting this possibility can feel scary, it’s true. But the alternative usually involves anxiety and doubt.
Constantly wondering what led to the downfall of their past relationships or worrying your partner might move on to someone else takes a lot of energy. This can keep you from enjoying your time together.
Focus on the things going well in your relationship instead. Do what you can to nurture them and increase togetherness. No one can predict the future, but fixating on the past usually won’t help your relationship succeed.
If you’re struggling to overcome jealousy around your partner’s past, talking to a therapist is a good option.
A therapist can be particularly help for jealousy that:
- doesn’t go away
- contributes to anxiety or depression
- affects your relationship or quality of life
- affects your trust or opinion of your partner
According to Cook, therapy can help shift your focus from your partner’s past to your own inner dialogue by focusing on:
- your narrative of the relationship
- your worthiness of love, trust, respect, and affection
- any limiting beliefs you have
Some people may also experience retroactive jealousy as a type of OCD. So far, there’s little scientific research exploring this emerging concept.
However, Zachary Stockill describes obsessive retroactive jealousy in his book “Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy: A Guide to Getting Over Your Partner’s Past and Finding Peace.”
With this in mind, it’s wise to seek professional support if you:
- have intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past
- think about their past so much it affects your daily life
- need to act out compulsions to relieve distress
If your partner is struggling with feelings of retroactive jealousy, keep in mind that while these emotions may be triggered by you, they likely aren’t about you, Cook says.
Here’s how you can help.
Offer compassion and open communication
“Be patient, kind, and honest,” Cook says. “Hang on to your integrity (I own my past/my choices) while making space for your partner’s distress (I understand you’re worried about my past/my choices).”
Honestly answering your partner’s questions may help relieve jealousy. You don’t have to go into explicit detail if it doesn’t feel appropriate, but avoid lying or twisting the truth.
Couples counseling may help if:
- their questions seem to reach a point of fixation or repetition
- you feel like you’re talking in circles
- answering seems to cause more distress
Support them in individual counseling or couples therapy
You might feel frustrated or confused by your partner’s feelings. You don’t intend to leave them, and you barely think about past relationships. They might recognize this on some level, but it may require help from a therapist to work through jealousy and accept it.
It can be hard to find the right way to encourage someone to see a therapist.
Try something like:
- “I’m worried about your fears because I don’t want them to affect our relationship, since I want to make it work. Could we talk to a counselor together?”
- “I’m concerned because you seem sad and worried around me lately. Do you think it might help to talk to a counselor about those feelings?”
A final note about retroactive jealousy from Cheatham: Avoid romanticizing it.
“A lot of narratives around being in love see jealousy as a sign someone really loves you. It’s really not. At best, it’s a relationship hiccup. At worst, it shows someone’s love might come with a sense of possessiveness and limitation.”
Having some curiosity about your partner’s past relationships is completely normal, but the way you handle these feelings can make a difference for you and your relationship. If you’re struggling with them, a therapist can always offer support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy in Relationships
There are many ways to work through and overcome retroactive jealousy in counseling. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and other trauma informed psychotherapies can help you move beyond fixating on your partner’s past. In its most extreme manifestation Retroactive Jealousy OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) can interfere with not only your relationships but activities of daily living. Seeking help from a mental health professional if you are experiencing obsessive or unwanted thoughts related to your partner’s previous relationships can help.
What is Retroactive Jealousy?
Retroactive Jealousy is a condition where an individual experiences obsessive thoughts related to their partners romantic history. Feeling of retroactive jealousy may cause an individual to seek information about their partner’s previous sexual or romantic experiences and become obsessed with the idea that they are inadequate or develop an intense fear of losing their partner.
Retroactive jealousy may trigger behaviors such as tracking a partner’s exes on social media, obsessively asking questions about prior emotional and sexual relationships, and seeking reassurance that the relationship is not being threatened. If you are experiencing retroactive jealousy a partner’s reassurance will never alleviate your suffering or intrusive thoughts. However, a therapist can work with you to overcome your fears and end the vicious cycle of intrusive thoughts.
Retroactive Jealousy & OCD
Relationships can be the focus of a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The anxiety they are experiencing can manifest as jealousy retroactive or current. They may become with their partner’s sexual history and focus on the idea that need to prevent someone else from interfering in the relationship at all costs. OCD therapy can help those who become consumed with feelings of retroactive jealousy, which can take a serious toll on their mental health.
Why do I get jealous of my partner’s past relationships?
There is the potential to experience retroactive jealousy when we learn about our partner’s romantic history. This can be especially problematic for individuals who have attachment wounds disorders, low self-esteem, or who feel insecure in relationships. Romantic relationships present an opportunity to grow and examine negative thoughts and emotions. Many people may find themselves experiencing insecurities in relation to their relationship with their partner that they are able to work through without experiencing excessive suffering our self-doubt.
Sufferers of retroactive jealousy needs treatment when they feel that their behavior is out of control. They may be constantly reviewing their partner’s online history or begin to believe their partner is betraying them even when their is no proof. They experience negative thoughts that make it impossible to accept that their parent’s past is not wrong or a threat to the relationship.
Techniques for overcoming feelings of retroactive jealously
There are many ways a person can free themselves from feelings of retroactive jealousy. You can engage in your own personal work and self-reflection with activities like journaling and meditation. However, if you need additional support a therapist could help. Therapy can offer relief by helping you learn how to manage negative symptoms by dealing with underlying anxieties, help you accept partner’s prior relationships, and improve your mental health. You can learn how to break the cycle of fear that jealous thoughts can cause.
- Stop engaging in activities that lead to jealous feelings.
- Accept that just like you, your partner has a past.
- Do you own work to discover the underlying issue.
- Seek medical attention if you believe you have retroactive jealousy ocd. Medication can help.
- Talk to someone.
- Reframe the meaning of your partner’s prior history.
- Identify the cause of underlying insecurities that are unrelated to your partner.
- Cultivate healthy self-esteem. Know your own worth.
Stop Engaging in Activities that lead to Retroactive Jealousy
Today we have an abundance of information on social media and online about our partners romantic history. Retroactive jealousy is more common than ever now that we can access anything from our partner’s high school prom pictures to a clue that leads to their exes perfectly curated Instagram profile. This can lead people who are already feeling insecure to create false narratives that lead to jealousy and insecurities. If you are struggling with retroactive jealousy stay off of social media. There is nothing there for you. You will also want to avoid asking your partner to share unnecessary information about their sex life prior to meeting you. Unless you have concerns regarding your physical health , this information does not present any value. It could serve as another thing your brain may fixate on to trigger retroactive jealousy and lead to the behavior you may regret.
Accept the Past
You can free yourself from retroactive jealousy if you accept the past. If you feel jealous of your partner and suffer because of it, it is likely that you are arguing with reality believing that your partner’s history is wrong. Your partner’s past has led them to you and where they are today. At a certain age it would be odd for us not to have engaged in prior relationships
Discover the underlying issues
There are many reasons that we experience anxiety in romantic relationships. They rarely have anything to do with our partner’s past relationships. It is more likely that these issues are rooted in your past relationships. Retroactive jealousy is likely to be rooted in your own personal history, not your partner’s past. Previous trauma related to prior romantic relationships and even the relationship you have with your parents can offer clues as to why you are experiencing retroactive jealousy.
Medication could Help
Retroactive jealousy OCD may require medical attention. OCD that focuses on relationships could be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition such as an anxiety disorder, Bi-Polar disorder, or Schizophrenia. If jealousy is causing serious symptoms that cause paranoia or interfere with daily living seek the help of a professional.
Talk to Someone
Talking through jealousy with a trusted friend or therapist can help you reframe the meaning of jealousy and see the truth of what is underlying your insecurities. Retroactive jealousy could be an indicator that there is a prior trauma that needs to be addressed. Couples therapy can be an opportunity for you and your partner to explore underlying issues and use this obstacle as an avenue for a deeper understanding and connection with one another.
Reframe the meaning
What is the meaning you have made of your partner’s prior romantic history. If the narrative you have created in your mind is just a serious of stories that you use to feel less than and jealous than change it. Identify the positive aspects of prior relationships and how you have both learned from your history work to find reasons why everything has happened exactly the way it should.
Identify the underlying Cause of your insecurities
Anxiety is often the result of untreated and unprocessed trauma. Sometimes we recognize these traumas and the effect that they have on our behavior and mindset. However, often times we are completely unaware of why we respond impulsively and in ways are self-sabotaging. Retroactive jealousy could be showing you that you have anxiety that needs to be addressed and there is a very good chance it has little to nothing to do with your relationship. Therapies that address trauma such as trauma informed psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and EMDR therapy can all help you identify underlying issues and resolve them.
Cultivate Healthy Self-Esteem
Know your value! Focus on the reasons why your partner has chosen you and what you bring to the relationship. There is a reason relationships end and become part of our history. Trust that your partner has moved on for a reason and focus on the positive traits that you are both bringing to the relationship.
What do you do if your partner has retroactive jealousy?
There is very little you can do if your partner has retroactive jealousy and does not recognize that it is their own issue. If they can not see that their feelings of jealousy are there own your constant reassurance will not help. Ultimately people change and grow when they are ready and you may not be able to influence your partner to see things in another way. However, there are a few things you can try that may be effective.
- Offer to go to Couples Therapy with them.
- Allow them to share their concerns about your history without getting defensive or shutting down.
- Know your boundaries and clearly communicate them to your partner.
Couples Therapy can help you and your partner discuss your concerns in a structured and productive way. Through this process you can learn more about your partners concerns and a therapist may be able to help you identify the root cause of the issue and work through it.
Do Not get Defensive or Shut Down
When you create a non-judgmental safe place for your partner to share their concerns without getting defensive or shutting down there is the possibility that your partner will feel truly heard which will make them more likely to accept your reassurance and begin to see that their concerns are unfounded. This can be challenging if you are feeling unfairly attacked by your partner. However, a defensive or dismissive response will only serve to validate their fears and increase feeling of jealousy and insecurity.
Communicate your Boundaries
Tolerating unhealthy jealous behavior will only lead to feelings of resentment and could sabotage your relationship. Do not engage in behaviors that violate your boundaries in order to reassure your partner. If you do not want your partner checking your text messages or tracking your browsing history let them know. Explore other options for reassuring them that do not feel like a violation of your privacy.
Laura Richer is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and coach. Located in the Uptown neighborhood of Seattle, she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been practicing in the state of Washington since 2011.
Why you are jealous of your partner's past and how to stop it
An increased interest in your partner's past romantic and sexual life is called retrospective or retroactive jealousy. Often it has no good reason, but it poses a serious threat to the relationship.
At first, you just feel uncomfortable thinking about your crush's former lovers. Then you begin to doubt the value of the current connection, consider your partner immoral and unreasonably suspect him of treason. Finally, jealousy takes over completely, makes What Is Retroactive Jealousy / Ballard Psychiatry check social networks and browser history, spy.
Flashbacks of events you have never witnessed may occur at this stage. According to Retroactive jealousy: Obsessed with my partner's past / BBC relationship consultant and sexologist Ammanda Major, this often leads to obsessive thoughts and a relentless desire to know what "really happened" between a partner and their previous lovers.
relationship counselor and sexologist
This can end up tormenting both himself and his lover and turning the relationship into an abusive one.
How to Know if You're Jealous of the Past
Read the statements suggested by Overcoming retrospective jealousy / Psychology Today by Robert Leahy, Ph. D. and Yale University professor:
- I often think that my current partner had a past lover or mistress.
- When I think about it, I feel anxious and restless.
- I'm wondering if my partner's past relationships were better than ours.
- I want to be the only person my partner has ever loved.
If you understand that some phrases can be attributed to you, then you are jealous.
Why do you think about it
The reasons may be different and depend on your character, conditions of acquaintance with a partner and external factors. But most often, according to The 4 main reasons why people suffer from retroactive jealousy / YouTube by Eva Thompson, a therapist who specializes in retrospective jealousy, it boils down to this: experienced a betrayal by a friend or your previous partner was an abuser. One way or another, your body remembers this and tries to protect you from a similar situation. The defense mechanism is activated when you fall in love and begin to experience strong emotions. It is he who encourages you to sabotage the relationship and avoid any potential danger.
You are worried that you will be compared with your previous partner
This reason is closely related to your inner beliefs, self-esteem, attitude. If you feel insecure at the beginning of a relationship, it's likely that things will only get worse. When you find out that your soulmate had other partners, you subconsciously begin to look for flaws in yourself, worry that you will be compared with previous lovers, and decide in advance that you will be worse.
You think that your partner's past is not good enough for you
In this case, you compare your partner with yourself. It seems to you that he does not correspond to you, because he used to do something that is unacceptable for you. You focus on his past mistakes and devalue his merits in the present.
You don't like that your partner has experience that you don't.
A busy past can be a serious cause for disagreement. It may seem to you that the person next to you had a brighter and more interesting life. Then you will want to quickly find a reason to end the relationship in order to "catch up."
You think you made the wrong choice
When you fall in love, you see everything in a rosy light and endow the person with super qualities. But then you get to know him better, and your ideas fall apart. The partner turns out to be not perfect, but ordinary, and you don’t want to put up with it. Then you plunge into the past of a person and start looking for evidence there that he was always selfish, unfaithful, evil, and you simply made a mistake in him.
How to get rid of jealousy of the past
Retrospective jealousy can spoil not only relationships with a partner, but also your emotional state in general. To prevent this, try following these tips.
Acknowledge your feelings
First of all, you need to understand that your emotions are perfectly normal. They don't make you a bad person or crazy and, according to psychologist Robert Leahy's Getting past the past jealousy / Psychology Today, are due to the natural desire to be the one. Understand your feelings, accept them, otherwise it will be worse.
Doctor of Psychology and professor at Yale University
Feeling jealous is hard. It makes you anxious, angry, sad and helpless, it interferes with your relationships. Therefore, be compassionate to yourself.
Ask yourself what it is you're worried about
Sometimes pinpointing what makes you jealous can help. Perhaps you are not interested in who your partner met before, but what kind of person he was then. Or you want to know what attracts him and what annoys him. Or you think you can predict the development of your relationship.
Look at the situation from a different angle
Let's say you're afraid of losing your lover because he's wonderful. Think about what made him the way he is, and admit to yourself that past romantic relationships have contributed as well.
Any relationship makes us more experienced, allows us to develop. And perhaps if they were not, your partner would not have become the person you fell in love with.
Realize that the past is the past
Even if you know that your partner had a relationship before you (and not even one), remind yourself that it is over. Perhaps people have realized that they are no longer interested in each other, or have identified different goals in life. In any case, this is a past stage that has nothing to do with you.
Try to put yourself in the place of your partner and remember that you also have your own history and people who were once dear to you, but then left in the past. And this, as Robert Leahy says in Overcoming retrospective jealousy / Psychology Today, is perfectly normal for the 21st century.
Imagine that at the age of 30 you meet a person your age who tells you: “No one before you seemed attractive to me, did not arouse passion in me. You are the first person I like to talk to." Will you believe? I doubt.
To be more realistic about your significant other's previous relationships, Robert Leahy advises Overcoming retrospective jealousy / Psychology Today to periodically repeat the following phrases to yourself:
- I should not be the only person my partner will ever desire.
- Just because my partner enjoyed sex with someone else doesn't mean he can go back to his former lover.
- My partner can enjoy being close to me, even if he used to enjoy sex with someone else.
- My partner's warm memories do not threaten our current relationship. All people mentally return to a positive experience, this is natural.
Remember that thoughts and feelings are not dangerous
Trying to control thoughts and feelings does not lead to anything good and only shows the other person that you will never be satisfied with him. Realize that everyone can think and fantasize what they want, and then you will live in the real world with real relationships.
Do not turn relationships into a test
Try to control yourself: do not interrogate your partner, do not look for reasons to find fault and do not provoke him to quarrels.
If you know that certain topics and names are triggers for you, don't try to bring them up in a conversation and don't ask your partner to share details of his previous relationship.
Talk to your partner
If you speak out, it will be easier for you to accept your feelings and get rid of jealousy. And your partner may be able to calm you down.
Just be correct, respectful. When speaking, try to use "I-statements" and focus on your current emotions rather than your past. For example, you might say, “Sometimes I worry that you will leave me because I believe you can date whoever you want” or “I know that you and [former partner’s name] were planning to get married. So while I believe in your feelings for me, I sometimes worry that you will realize that you want to be with him/her.”
Learn to accept what you are told
You can share your feelings with a partner, calm down for a short time, but then begin to torment yourself with doubts again. This is due to the fact that you do not fully trust either the feelings or the words of your soulmate.
Try to calm your anxiety, understand that you cannot double-check every word, and accept what your partner convinces you of.
Stop spying on your partner
If you check your loved one's phone every day, the most you'll get is neurosis and the final breakdown of the relationship. No one likes when their personal boundaries are violated. Therefore, do not follow your partner when he goes somewhere, do not apply for his work and do not try to learn something from third parties.
Don't scour social media for pictures of exes and cute comments they once left for each other. Remember that sad faces and details of quarrels are not posted on the Internet. Therefore, a few travel pictures do not at all indicate that the previous relationship of your soulmate was easier, freer, happier.
Focus your energy on developing relationships
Constantly thinking about the past or worrying that your partner might leave you takes a lot of energy. So much so that it does not remain at all to spend time together. And because of this, you move away from each other.
Unable to change the past or predict the future. Therefore, it is better to focus on the present and do everything possible to develop relationships.
Interrogation and accusations will not strengthen the bond between you. So just love and appreciate each other. Plan how you will have fun, develop and communicate, rather than arguing about what is long over.
Remind yourself of your worth
According to Dealing with Jealousy About Your Partner's Past / Healthline, family psychologist Emily Cooke, insecurity can fuel jealousy. The worse you think of yourself, the more you focus on the appearance, character, and behavior of your exes.
In this case, it is important to understand that you were chosen for a reason. Most likely, you are an attractive and interesting person with your own views, hobbies and dreams, and there is something special about you. Remind yourself of your unique talents and qualities, dedicate time to a long-forgotten hobby, play a sport, or immerse yourself in a new project at work.
If you're having trouble identifying your positive qualities, move on to the next tip.
Talk to a specialist
Therapy helps to switch from the past partner to the internal dialogue and understand what exactly caused the jealousy. It makes sense to seek professional help if:
- You are not left with obsessive jealous thoughts.
- You think about your partner's past so much that it affects your daily life.
- You repeat certain actions to get rid of stress. For example, wash your hands regularly.
If your partner doesn't mind, you can go to couples therapy and try to solve the problem together. This option may help if:
- You ask each other the same questions.
- You feel that you are talking about extraneous things and are not getting closer to solving the problem.
- Your partner's answers cause you even more stress.
Read also 🧐
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- “Shall we take a break in the relationship?” Is it worth parting for a while and how to do it right
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How to stop being jealous of a partner for a former relationship - tells a psychotherapist
For many, thoughts about a partner's past sexual and romantic experiences are truly painful, and sometimes these thoughts can even destroy a relationship. If you are familiar with this, read an excerpt from the new book of the world-famous psychotherapist Robert Leahy “Jealousy. How to live with her and maintain relations”, which was published by the publishing house “Peter”.
Josh is anxious to go to a party where he knows that Molly's ex-boyfriend Emmon will also be there. This makes him anxious and angry, and he doesn't know how to deal with it.
All he can think of is that Molly had sex with him, which instantly makes him jealous. He knows that Molly broke up with Emmon because she thought he was too controlling and critical of her. She tells Josh that she doesn't feel like going back to Emmon. But that's not enough for Josh. "If I see him, I know that I will want to punch him in the face." He knows it's wrong, and it's been six months since Molly and Emmon broke up, but right now his feelings are too strong.
It is hard to imagine any of us without a past filled with romance, sensuality and attachment to some person. We do not live in a world of immaculate virgins and universal chastity. But many people are tormented by images of former lovers of their partners. They get upset at the thought that their partners were sexually intimate or in love with them.
If you have had this experience, you can compare yourself to someone else you have never met. You think about things like: “I wonder how many times he slept with her,” “He probably loved her more than me,” “He must be thinking about her and comparing us.”
When jealous of a former relationship, people think their partner may still love, want to be with, or fantasize about that person
Read the following statements and see if you recognize yourself in them.
- I often think that my partner had a lover in the past.
- When I think about it, I feel uneasy - I feel anxious and worried.
- I wonder if their relationship was better than ours.
- I want to be the only person that my partner likes and arouses passion.
If any of these statements are true for you, then you may be trapped in retrospective jealousy. Even if everything is fine in your current relationship, you can dwell on your partner’s past relationships, comparing yourself to his lovers and experiencing anxiety and anger because of this.
"I want to be the only one"
It seems natural to you to believe that a partner can only want you and have great sex exclusively with you. Part of the romantic ideal is that for our partners we are special and unique. At times, we are convinced that partners should not find anyone else attractive while we are with them, and in the case of retrospective jealousy, we can be fueled by the belief that no one else attracted them in the past. This is romantic perfectionism, in which there is something unique about our current relationship, as if all past relationships never existed. We become obsessed with integrity, believing that our partners may have been corrupted by their past behavior. But such an assumption will only make us unhappy. Let's look at it logically by asking ourselves a series of questions.
- Why shouldn't your partner have had nice sex with someone else in the past?
- Is it because you expect him to be attractive only to you?
- Do you consider yourself the only person who could move him? Why does it have to be like this?
- Why do you have to be the only sexy person in the world?
- Is your partner the only person you have ever found attractive or enjoyed sex with?
- Does this mean you cannot be trusted? Does it seem possible?
- Isn't it logical that sexually active people could enjoy sex with other people?
- Moreover, you yourself have probably enjoyed sex with other people. Does this mean that your partner should also feel threatened?
Why do you think you have to be the only person in the world that your partner can desire?
Imagine that this is true. Of the six billion people in the world, your partner can only get sexual satisfaction because of you. It's almost the same as if your current partner lived for twenty or thirty years and was not attracted to anyone - until you showed up and everything changed.
This is what I call lust perfectionism, the idea that your partner should always lust after you and no one else. We often do this by thinking about a partner's past experiences as well as potential fantasies or desires our partners may have today. This is based on the illusion of purity, the idea that true love requires purity and sexual abstinence. This is an illusion, because in today's world, adults are freed from the harsh religious and cultural taboos often used to punish and even kill women. Moreover, we live in the twenty-first century.
New ways to look at jealousy
Let's look at the situation logically. Imagine that you and your future partner are thirty years old. You just met. A new acquaintance tells you: “I am thirty years old, and no one in this world has ever attracted me sexually. I dated different women, but none of them aroused sympathy in me. But now I realized that I have opposite feelings for you!”
What do you think? First, you may decide that he is not telling the truth about his past. Or that something is wrong with him, since he has never been attracted or excited by anyone else. You may be wondering, “Maybe he is severely depressed? Or maybe he is not sure about his sexual orientation? What if he has some kind of disease? And if one of these reasons caused a lack of sexual desire in the past, then what would you predict for the future? Will his desire be trustworthy? This may seem implausible. But that's exactly what it can be if you follow your illusions of purity and the perfectionism of lust.
Let's look at your own experience. Before meeting your current partner, did you encounter the people you desired and enjoyed sexual satisfaction with them? Do you feel guilty about this? Perhaps it simply means that you have had healthy, normal past experiences with other people. Should your current partner distrust you because of this?
Moreover, think about your past positive experiences. Wasn't it nice? Ask yourself if this means you can't love and be serious about your current partner. Maybe the pleasure you had with past partners means you can't control yourself now. Do you constantly return to past partners and have sex with them? Why not? Probably because the past for you is the past.
Josh has had many ex-girlfriends, but he is worried about Molly's ex-boyfriend who will be at the party. When I ask him if she should be worried about his past relationships, he becomes defensive: “What is she to worry about? I love her! That relationship is over. " I ask him if Molly might have the same point of view. Her past relationships are just what happened in the past, period. Josh thinks for a moment and reluctantly admits, “You're probably right. She should be as worried as I am." Moreover, most relationships often end because one or both partners believe that they are no longer worth it. When your past relationships ended, they opened the way for your current relationship.
The Mirror of Evolution
Another way to look at past sexual desires and relationships is to look at them from an evolutionary standpoint. Sexual desire has evolved because it is adapted to humanity. The presence of sexual desire in many generations of people is adaptive, because it allowed our ancestors to reproduce. If the object of this attraction were limited to a single person for each of us and he would never meet us, the continuation of the family would become impossible. In the context of evolution, it is somewhat absurd to think that you will be the only person that your partner can desire or achieve sexual satisfaction with.
You may believe that your partner's past (or present) sexual desires will inevitably lead to action. Josh asked me, "If Molly wanted Emmon, what would stop her from going back to him or dating someone else?" I noticed that Josh considered Molly's sexual desires, her memories, and even her fantasies to be dangerous to him. He was sure that an uncontrollable sexual desire would seize her and she would cease to control herself. This is reminiscent of the fusion of thought and action we mentioned earlier: "If Molly has a sexual desire, she will be guided by it." I offered to test this statement on his example.
- Bob: How often do you meet women who attract your attention?
- Josh: (smiling) Every day.
- Bob: Since you and Molly have been together, how many times have you decided to cheat on her?
- Josh: Never.
- Bob: Doesn't this suggest that there is often a discrepancy between sexual attraction or fantasy and immediate action?
- Josh: Yes.
- Bob: So why didn't you follow your sexual fantasies and desires?
- Josh: I may find other women attractive and even fantasize about them, but I really love Molly. The implementation of these thoughts in reality would just spoil everything. I don't want to make life difficult for myself. It's not worth it.
- Bob: Is it possible that the same process of thinking and choosing could be true for Molly? While she may remember having sex with Emmon and even have erotic thoughts, she may decide that it's just not worth it. Is it possible that there is a big difference between the appearance of a thought or feeling and the choice of the appropriate action? Isn't that what you do on a daily basis?
Developing Realistic Guidelines
Now that we've looked at these relationship rules, let's replace them with more vital and acceptable guidelines that won't destroy existing relationships. Here are some suggestions.
- I don't have to be the only person my partner has ever wanted.
- If my partner enjoyed sex with someone else, that doesn't say anything about the possibility that he might return to him.
- If my partner enjoyed sex with someone else, she may also enjoy sex with me.
- It is not dangerous for my relationship if my partner has pleasant memories of a former lover.
- It is natural for all of us to think positively about the past. That's what memories are for.
"If my partner wanted him, how could she want me?"
Let's look at your polarized, categorical dichotomous thinking. The reasoning goes something like this: "If my partner has experienced sexual attraction to someone else in the past or present, this means that he does not feel it for me." This is a form of lust perfectionism, where you can have only one desire that cancels all other desires.
Let's take food as an example. Let's say you're crazy about spaghetti with lobster in tomato sauce according to a special recipe. You just love this dish. But by the time you arrived at the restaurant, it was over. So the waiter tells you that the menu has excellent parmesan eggplants, as well as thirty other excellent dishes. Do you exclaim: “How can you talk about anything else but lobster in tomato sauce?” and leave the restaurant?
Similarly, your partner may have had sexual desires for someone else in the past, but that relationship has ended. Perhaps they both decided they couldn't stand each other. But it may also be true that sometimes she fondly reminisces about the past with this person - most likely, evoking only good things in her memory. Does this mean that her sexual desires and fantasies of the past will prevent her from manifesting her desire for you in the present? Desires and fantasies are not a dilemma. They are not mutually exclusive. You may catch yourself fantasizing about another person, but still enjoy intimacy with your partner. Both can exist side by side.
"Maybe the other person was a better lover than me."
Let's look at your fear that your partner might think your former lover is better than you. What if this turns out to be true? It was one of Josh's fears.
- Josh: I don't know exactly what Molly and Emmon's sex was like, but sometimes I worry that she might consider him a better lover than me.
- Bob: And what would happen if that were true? Does this necessarily mean that your partner cannot be sexually gratified with you? Does any experience have to be the best to be considered satisfactory?
- Josh (thinking for a moment): My sexual relationship with Molly is generally quite good, but there are times when she is too tired or not interested. When that happens, I wonder if she's losing interest in me and comparing our relationship to the one she had with Emmon.
Josh suffered from sensory perfectionism, the belief that the only satisfying sensory experience is a perfect experience. Based on this, he assumed that Molly had such an experience in the past with another person, and she could only be happy if she had an ideal.
Let's take a simple example of this. Imagine that five years ago you went to the best restaurant in the world and ate the best meal of your life. Does this mean that after such a delight, you will never eat any delicious food again? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that since then you have eaten a lot of different, very tasty and good food, and in the future it will not become less. The best is not necessarily the enemy of the good.
Imagine that your best sex happened five years ago. Based on the logic of such perfectionism, you will never again be satisfied with sex in the future.
In this case, it turns out that the whole subsequent experience is unsatisfactory and makes you unhappy. Is it really logical? Wouldn't a wide range of satisfying and enjoyable experiences not be the best experience? Let's imagine a conversation between two people who love each other and have just had sex.
- Man: It was really amazing. And what do you think?
- Woman: I was very pleased. I also enjoyed it.
- Man: Was that the best sex you've ever had?
- Woman: I can't say exactly, but it was really good.
- Man: What? Do you mean that you had better sex with someone else?
- Woman: I don't remember, but I think it's possible.
- Man: Well, I can't deal with this. Sex with me should be the best in your life, every time. It must be better than before.
- Woman: Isn't this a utopia?
- Man: Don't you love me?
- Woman: Of course I do, but it seems crazy to me.
Probably the woman from this dialogue is right. It is absurd to demand perfection. Experiences can be ranked according to the degree of pleasure, and, moreover, if they are frequent and pleasant, then it does not matter what happened five years ago. You have sex for pleasure, not to set world records and hold them for years.
"I can't get it out of my head"
Many people who suffer from retrospective jealousy seem to dwell on the imaginary past experiences of their current partner. They have obsessive thoughts about how exciting and meaningful the past experience of the partner was, and they conclude that he should interfere with the current relationship.
Your current relationship is in a sense tainted by the past. You may even think that because your partner has had this experience, you are a second-rate consolation prize and cannot accept it. You cannot tolerate these intrusive thoughts. You need to get rid of them in order to enjoy the existing relationship. You try to get these thoughts out of your head, but they continue to torment and harass you, take you prisoner. Wherever you go, thoughts follow you relentlessly.
What if you had to admit that you had these thoughts and images? They may be driven by perfectly natural curiosity. You can try to view them as part of the collective memory of your relationship: just like you, your partner may have thoughts and images of your past experiences. Consider if this can't just be a natural part of the relationship, as the past is often part of the curiosity we feel about the person we're currently with. While accepting these thoughts, you can use conscious distraction.
Start practicing conscious distraction: abstract, observe, accept, don't try to control these thoughts, don't judge them.
Just mark them and tell yourself this:
“Here's another thought about my partner's past. I just noticed my brain sent this thought and here it is. I wonder how my brain works, sending all sorts of thoughts and images. I can accept these thoughts, they are natural, everyone has them, and I can observe them and understand that they are just thoughts. I can bring my attention back to the present moment. I can follow my inhalations and exhalations. I can breathe a thought:
"He had another" and exhale: "I'm letting it go.