Are you jealous of your partner's past? | Psychologies (2023)

Love life

Knowing our partner was happy in a past without us or was once in someone else’s arms can threaten to ruin the present. But you can break free. By Bernadette Costa-Prades

By Psychologies

Are you jealous of your partner's past? | Psychologies (2)

All romances begin with a desire from both parties to start afresh. ‘It’s a great part of the passionate stage at the start of a relationship, during which the lovers, who feel like they’re the only ones in the world to love so intently, want to start again with a clean slate,’ explains psychiatrist and relationship counsellor Jacques-Antoine Malarewicz. But as time passes and the outside world starts to intrude, this feeling starts to wane. What happens if you come out of that phase and find that jealousy has survived intact? That you remain excessively interested in your partner’s past, and read things into insignificant anecdotes. What lies behind this anxiety? There’s a degree of irrationality about this, says Susannah Abse, director of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships. ‘When I see it, it alerts me to look for other difficulties there might be in the relationship.’ Here is what your jealous feelings may be trying to tell you.

When you need to know everything

‘I want to know everything about his past,’ says Sophie, 34, who has been with Jerome for eight years. ‘Sometimes I even wake him in the night to ask for details.’ What appears to be curiosity is an attempt to gain reassurance, says psychoanalyst Sophie Cadalen. ‘We want to know everything so that we can compare the place we have in our partner’s life with that of their ex.’ Love is unsettling and we’re always looking for benchmarks against which to measure our relationships. Even though we know it has the potential to torment us, we drag up the past by asking questions. We think, ‘If I knew how they lived before – the things my partner liked, I’ll be able to work out whether they like their life now’. Wanting to pick over your lover’s life in forensic detail can also be an indication of something else, says Abse. ‘I would suggest that this is really about you and your own fantasies about somebody else having a better time than you. Jealousy can often come from feelings of inadequacy.’ At the root of this is probably a childhood experience of not feeling special, she says. Perhaps you were competitive with your siblings, or felt your parents were more preoccupied with each other than with you. ‘It’s about feeling outside a special circle, as though your nose is pressed up against the window,’ says Abse.

When their past seems too happy

‘As soon as I mention anything about the two years I spent working in Canada my husband becomes visibly anxious because he didn’t share that time with me,’ says Marie, 50, who’s been married for 21 years. But how can her past experience interfere with the present? Again, our childhood can be at the heart of our resentment, says Cadalen. ‘Many people think subconsciously that everyone has an allocation of happy times in their life and that if their life was happy in the past, there’s less happiness to come,’ she says. ‘In fact, the opposite is true. Desire increases desire.’ You might feel that you are being petty or not doing yourself any favours dwelling on this, and that’s true to an extent, but remember that few people escape this sort of jealousy. It’s better to admit it so that you can identify it and stamp it out next time it comes up.

When you can’t bear to hear about it

Think of those women who don’t want their new partner to talk about his children, or the men who expect their new girlfriend to see less of her family. ‘If someone is very upset and jealous of previous experiences they are unlikely to be tolerant of any separateness,’ says Abse. ‘For some, when their partner goes to work, or even football on Saturday, it can feel threatening. There is a feeling that the relationship can’t tolerate any sort of separateness. ‘You are probably likely to see this when dealing with issues of jealousy generally and intolerance of difference between a couple. A fixation with the previous girlfriend becomes a concrete manifestation of the separateness threat.’

When their past intrudes on your present

‘My partner used to be in a touring theatre troupe,’ says Belinda, 38, who’s been in a relationship for 10 years. ‘It went under at about the time we met. Whenever we meet new people he goes on about his life as an actor, and his travels, as if he’s got no interest in our life together.’ ‘If you keep signalling to your partner that the past was better and you’re disappointed with the present, you’re pushing feelings of insecurity onto them,’ says Abse. ‘This is projection. A therapist would think, “Why does that man have to keep engendering these feelings in his partner?” Often when you get down to it, it’s because they don’t want to have those feelings themselves, they don’t want to have to worry about feeling they are not really wanted but always be in the powerful position.’ A relationship shouldn’t be a battle to see who has had the best experiences, and it can be difficult to live with someone who gives the impression they’ve seen and done it all. ‘As soon as the passion starts to wane, some people start to look back at things through rose-tinted spectacles,’ says psychoanalyst Catherine Bensaid. If you are always analysing the quality of your relationship in this light you can end up resenting your partner.

When their past seems so much better

Would you really want to be with someone who has had an uncomplicated past? Someone who has never felt real emotion? Isn’t the thing that’s making you jealous the thing that attracted you in the first place? Weren’t you seduced by their tales of fearless adventure before you became irritated that you weren’t there with them? ‘Humour can be the best antidote for jealousy as it helps you to take a step back,’ says Cadalen. Christopher, 36 and six years into his relationship, says, ‘My wife was married before to a man with lots of money. I’m not jealous of him, but I am jealous of the fact she didn’t have to worry about money. When she moved in with me she brought very expensive crockery with her. Every time I used it I felt a bit hurt, which was stupid. One by one I managed to break all the plates. And when we realised what I’d done we both fell about laughing.’ That’s a great example of how to deal with the other person’s past – turn it into a new memory that you can both share.

When the past is too painful

Child-like feelings often surface when we are in a relationship, says Abse. ‘When we are in a close, intimate relationship, feelings from infancy – about how uncomfortable it feels to be dependent, for example – re-emerge. But then we get into the same child-like defences that we had at a much younger age.’ Jealousy can awaken the child inside us. ‘Subconsciously, some people will masochistically reopen old wounds, reactivating childhood anxieties, such as the eternal question over whether their parents had a favourite,’ says Bensaid. ‘This behaviour is typical of the sort of person who is insecure and values themselves so little that they’re always afraid they’re not loved.’ In the face of such low self-esteem no partner could be reassuring enough. The only way to ease your anxiety is to work on your self-esteem. "I can't forgive my friend for sleeping with my ex".

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Is it normal to be jealous of your partner's past relationships? ›

It's natural to experience some jealousy when in a romantic relationship. But if your jealousy over your partner's past relationships impacts your mental health or interferes with your relationship, discuss this with a mental health professional.

Is it normal to be bothered by your partner's past? ›

You do not have to be jealous of your partner's past. It is their past, but they are no longer with the others that they used to have relationships with. Instead, you need to work on how to accept the past of your partner in a healthy way so you aren't jealous or bothered by the things that have happened previously.

Should I be upset about my partners past? ›

Sometimes people just grow apart or want other things out of life. Because of that, there's no reason for you to worry about your partner's previous long-term relationship. "Life can't be lived comparing yourself to someone else," Branson says. "You can't be successful based on what someone else has done.

Does retroactive jealousy go away? ›

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.

How do I stop obsessing over my partner's past? ›

Getting Past the Past Jealousy
  1. Retrospective jealousy — or jealousy about your partner's past — is a common issue for couples. ...
  2. Normalize your feelings. ...
  3. Validate the pain. ...
  4. Don't turn your relationship into a trial. ...
  5. Realize that there is a reason the past is in the past. ...
  6. Thoughts and feelings are not dangerous.
Apr 30, 2018

How do I stop obsessing over my partners past? ›

Here's how.
  1. Accept and validate your feelings. ...
  2. Put yourself in their place. ...
  3. Resist the urge to dig. ...
  4. Talk to your partner. ...
  5. Accept what they tell you. ...
  6. Ask yourself what you're really concerned about. ...
  7. Remind yourself of your own value. ...
  8. Reframe the situation.
Dec 13, 2019

Why am I triggered by my partners past? ›

It may arise when you feel your partner still values or treasures something in their past and that affection could take their love away from you. A 2017 systematic review of 230 studies on romantic jealousy found this emotion was often rooted in: insecurity. low self-esteem.

Why am I insecure about my partners past? ›

There are a few causes for retroactive jealousy, however, the two main ones are: feelings of insecurity (i.e. about your own looks or ability to please your partner compared to their exes) and having low self-esteem or low self-confidence.

Why do I obsess over my partner's past? ›

Retroactive jealousy OCD is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that involves becoming overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts of a partner's past experiences with both romantic and sexual partners. It goes much further than just a fleeting pang of jealousy.

How many past partners is too much? ›

One report says the ideal number of sexual partners for maximizing happiness is one a year. The other found three partners to be the ideal. Men in their 20s consider seven or more partners “too high” for a woman; women in the same age group are more lenient, considering ten or more partners to have too high.

Is it OK to not tell your partner everything about your past? ›

It all depends on the type of relationship you're in and what you hope to get out of it. Some people believe that they should not keep anything from their partner, while others believe that telling them about important life events is sufficient.

How do I get over retroactive jealousy? ›

5 Ways to Overcome Retroactive Jealousy
  1. Avoid Giving In to Jealousy. Working on ways to avoid or minimize the amount of effect the jealousy has on you will sometimes help shift the focus. ...
  2. Focus on Your Current Relationship. ...
  3. Be Mindful of Your Thoughts. ...
  4. Work on Improving Self-Esteem. ...
  5. Work on Improving Communication.
May 3, 2023

What triggers retroactive jealousy? ›

Causes of Retroactive Jealousy

You're feeling insecure: Insecurity is the most common trigger for retroactive jealousy. Whether real or imagined, people tend to experience retroactive jealousy when they feel threatened in the relationship and don't feel fully secure with their partner.

Is retroactive jealousy anxiety? ›

Retroactive jealousy OCD is a condition characterized by obsessive and intrusive thoughts about a partner's past romantic or sexual experiences. These thoughts can lead to intense feelings of jealousy, insecurity, and anxiety, even if the events in question occurred long before the current relationship began.

Why am I insecure about my partners past relationships? ›

We all get jealous sometimes—but worrying obsessively over your significant other's sexual and romantic history is known as retroactive jealousy, an unhealthy relationship habit. Retroactive jealousy can be triggered if you have an anxious attachment style, bad experiences with past partners, or even childhood trauma.

Is retroactive jealousy a mental illness? ›

However, it is often considered a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or an OCD-related disorder. While retroactive jealousy is not considered a standalone mental disorder, it can be a significant source of distress and may require professional help to manage.

Should I tell my boyfriend I'm jealous of his ex? ›

There is nothing wrong with that. Once you share your feelings with him, he will be intrigued and appreciate that you care for him enough that you are jealous. Note that if you speak with him openly, he should not have a tendency to attack you by saying something like, "You are jealous."

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