Fighting Retroactive Jealousy

Written by
Michael Wells

Fighting Retroactive Jealousy

Being OK with your Partner's Sexual Past

Written by
Michael Wells

Fighting Retroactive Jealousy

Being OK with your Partner's Sexual Past

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
“I keep having thoughts of my girlfriend’s sexual past, and they create huge anxiety for me. It’s killing my relationship. How do I overcome this?”

Retroactive Jealousy is an intensely difficult experience for many people.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it describes a situation in which a person is in a romantic relationship, and feels intense jealousy about their partner’s sexual past - certain sexual encounters and relationships that occurred before they even met.

You might think this is an unusual and rare problem - but it has become so increasingly common that it now has its own acronym- “RJ.”

What do I mean by increasingly common?  Well... in the past 10 years, searches for the term “retroactive jealousy” on Google have increased by about 800%.

This is important to see, because if you or someone you care about is suffering from RJ, it's important to see that you're not broken, and you're not alone.

How does Retroactive Jealousy cause Suffering?

RJ creates a surprisingly wide range of problems for the person suffering.

  • Constant anxiety, which is attached directly to their partner, the person they love most. That means love, combined with fear and anxiety- or in the most extreme situations, a love-hate relationship.
  • Sexual anxiety, a feeling that maybe, they’re not “good enough” in the sack. Of course this makes sex less fun, but it also can create sexual disfunction. For men, erectile dysfunction is not uncommon, and for women, an inability to relax, enjoy sex, and to experience orgasm.
  • Often, vividly imagined mental videos of all kinds of crazy pornographic experiences that they imagine their partner must have had.
  • Fear, that the partner might be unsatisfied with them, and leave them.
  • Resentment towards your partner, that they somehow did something wrong, and that they've hurt you- even though they didn't even know you at that point in their lives.
  • Constant stress, frustration, a feeling of being "trapped," unable to stay, or go, in the relationship. Sleepless. Agitation, anger... and much more.

More than one victim

But when someone is suffering from RJ, they’re not the only one in pain. It creates just as serious problems for their partner...

  • Having a moody partner, who is sullen and touchy, and perhaps even depressed at times
  • Feeling resentment and anger from their partner at times
  • Difficulties connecting emotionally with their partner
  • General lack of trust, and unwarranted suspicion, in the relationship
  • New intimacy challenges in the bedroom, including erectile dysfunction (ED) for men, and female sexual arousal disorders (FASD) for women.
  • Feelings of shame about their past
  • Feeling shamed by their partner, about their past

If you are suffering from RJ, then your partner is too - because Retroactive Jealousy hits right at the center of the relationship.

Suffering, everywhere

When your partner is the source of your anxiety, and intimacy only amplifies that anxiety... where do you go from there?

Sufferers of Retroactive Jealousy feel absolutely trapped. 

They cannot leave the relationship, without feeling huge pain and heartbreak. They cannot go deeper into intimacy, without feeling more jealousy.

There’s no enemy to fight, or to run.

And you can’t solve it by setting boundaries- because there is no behavior your partner can change to make things better.

If you’re experiencing these things right now, I feel for you.

Read on.

How does Retroactive Jealousy harm Relationships?

With these intense emotions existing between the partners in a relationship, RJ tends to destroy relationships from within.

The emotional pressure is so intense that these warped perceptions and unresolved emotions end up warping the behavior of both partners.

It builds resentment

Over time, people who suffer from RJ tend to feel resentment towards their partner. Any time we feel pain, our brain immediately looks outside of us for the cause of that pain, first

With RJ, your brain says “she/he is causing my pain.”

The result of this is that you’ll feel anger towards your partner for their past choices, even though they couldn’t have known they would ever meet you.

The result of this thinking is that people suffering from RJ often shame their partners. 

“You having sex in your past relationship was wrong.”

Shaming your partner might make you feel better momentarily, as though you’ve taken some sort of revenge for the pain you’ve been caused... but your partner did not intend to cause you pain- and what can they do about their past?

Nothing at all.

It's confusing... and intellectually dishonest

If you're honest, you'll notice there's a bit of hypocrisy here too. You are making the same choices they did, and asking them to make the same choices again- because the full statement you are making is likely...

“You having sex in your past relationship was wrong... even though of course I want you to have sex with me."

According to the Daily Mail, the average relationship lasts 2 years and 9 months. That means, there's a pretty big chance that this will not be your last relationship, or your partner's last relationship. There will probably be some else in your future, and someone else in theirs.

The is all quite possible, because... we're human. We change, we grow, we want different things. Or we get bored, and we want new experiences. Welcome to being human.

So how would those future people feel, looking back at your sexual relationship together? Might they feel some retroactive jealousy towards you, and towards your partner- just like you are feeling that towards your partner and their ex-partner?

Sure seems like a possibility- and seeing that might help you see why RJ thinking is a bit warped from the ground up.

It adds sexual shame to your relationship

But wait, there’s more.

And you’d better sit down for this one, because it's a doozy.

When you shame your partner about sex, you shame them about all sex...
Including sex with you.

If you want an intimate, special relationship with your partner, full of love and connection, this is pretty much the worst possible thing you can do.

Are you banging your head against your monitor right now?

I’m fully aware that some of you experiencing RJ haven’t considered these realities - which is exactly why I’ve pointed them out.

I know it hurts, but it's important to see the truth clearly.

Retroactive Jealousy is not something you can ignore, or pretend that it will go away.

So let’s kill it.

How to Fight Retroactive Jealousy

When I work with clients who are tackling RJ, they feel absolutely overwhelmed with intensity of emotions they are feeling, and the lack of visible options. They are panicked, and paralyzed, at the same time.

It sounds like “mission impossible” doesn’t it? A black hole of darkness from which nothing can escape. It feels like a nuclear bomb ticking away, counting down to zero, about to blow your whole world to bits at any moment.

But it will all be OK...

Fortunately, you can conquer RJ, and it’s not as hard as you think.

It comes down to three basic parts-

  1. Understanding what your brain is doing, and why these emotions are so intense
  2. Getting a solid perspective on YOUR situation, and what the Truth is
  3. Taking action to solve the actual problems, rather than the imagined ones.

Let’s walk through each of these and break them down.

Understanding Your Brain

Let's look at a few of the emotions and thoughts happening in the mind of someone who is suffering from RJ.

What is jealousy, and why do we feel it?

Jealousy is best described as the fear of losing something or someone that you care about.

  1. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t feel jealousy.
  2. If you didn’t have that thing in your life, you wouldn’t feel jealousy.
  3. If you felt safe and secure in your ability to keep that thing in your life - so that others cannot take it away - you wouldn’t feel jealousy.

Jealousy is not a bad emotion. Like all emotions, Jealousy is important.

It’s telling you that there is something important to protect, and that maybe you could be doing better at that.

Hold on to this thought, we’ll come back to this. 

How is Retroactive Jealousy different?

When you are jealous, there is a clear threat. Someone, or something, that has the potential to harm you, and that you can defend against.

With RJ, there's nothing to fight, because there’s no present threat... it’s not like there’s someone knocking on your door, trying to steal your girlfriend, right?  

And yet this fear is probably the exact feeling you are experiencing.

The reason is simple...

At the root of all jealousy - current and retroactive - is a feeling of insecurity.

Somewhere at the center of your RJ is the feeling that just maybe...

  1. You’re not good enough
  2. That her past lover, or sexual experiences might somehow have been “better”
  3. That you cannot compete with that past, or give her more happiness than that
  4. That you cannot improve, as a lover
  5. That somehow, sex is the most important thing in your relationship - more important than love, security, personality, emotional connection, or anything else

But... is any of this true?  Where did you get these ideas?

What are you comparing yourself to, exactly? Where did that comparison come from, and Is it realistic?

Do you have even a single piece of REAL evidence to support all of these negative thoughts?

If you are honest with yourself, I’m very confident that you’ll discover that at least 99% of what you’re imagining above is complete bullshit- beliefs that have zero underlying evidence... and yet all of your RJ is based on these beliefs.

Without those those bullshit beliefs, you’d feel secure, and experience no retroactive jealousy at all.

Imagination is powerful... but what you’re imagining is fictional

Every emotion you're feeling is normal, but it's not always valid. This is because your emotional mind cannot tell the difference between a real threat, and an imagined one.

When you were a kid, were you ever afraid of the monster under the bed, or in the closet? Do you remember how real that felt, and how intense that fear was? As adults, that same mechanism is still in our brain.

Every thought that you have in your rational mind is something your emotional mind sees, and reacts to. If you don't know how to control your thoughts, than you don't know how to control your emotions, either.

Where do these thoughts come from?

Both men and women who suffer from RJ often have an incredibly vivid and unrealistic imagination of what happened between their partner and their partner’s past lovers.

Somehow that ex boyfriend or girlfriend we imagine was the best lover in the world, and we can’t possibly compete, right? Where does this idea come from? I also notice that in recent years, RJ seems to be increasing most dramatically among men.

I have a theory, and I’ll give you a clue...

What’s your idea of “great sex”, and where did it come from?

For most male suffers of RJ, I imagine that the predominant idea of “great sex” comes from watching porn.

I have zero doubt that - for men especially - when you imagine “great sex”, you are visualizing scenes that you’ve seen in porn videos. For women, “great sex” also includes strong psychological, situational, and emotional components, so it may just as easily be romantic movies, daytime dramas or romance novels that fuel their sexual imagination.

Understanding the impact of porn and fantasy in RJ is essential, because porn isn’t real

For men in particular, watching porn creates a very warped idea of "ideal sex," and even “normal sex”- and this is a very unhelpful situation, because;

  1. This isn’t what love and connection look like. 
  2. This almost certainly isn’t what your girlfriend expects or even wants from you.
  3. The women you see in porn films are actresses, and are vastly exaggerating their enjoyment of the different sex acts they’re performing.
  4. The actresses you see in porn are representing the male ideal of how women should behave and respond in sexual situations. 
  5. The physical characteristics of both the men and the women are chosen for exaggerated, abnormal qualities. 
  6. And, it’s film! An average 60 minute shoot can take 15 hours to film - yet we imagine that that male actor is supposed to maintain that level of vigor and turgidity for that hour effortlessly.

If that’s your standard of “normal”... good luck, my man. You and your girlfriend probably are not going to enjoy sex that much.

What you’re seeing isn’t real, and here’s the clincher...

If "porn" is what you’re picturing when you imagine how other people have sex... than this is how you’re imagining your girlfriend was with her past lovers too.

And psychologically, you’re killing yourself, for absolutely no reason.

Getting perspective on your own Retroactive Jealousy

Now let’s get a bit more personal, and connect this into your own relationship.

The past is NOT that important, and it cannot hurt you now

All of us- you and me included, are the sum of our life experiences. Our past experiences influenced us in important ways, and are part of who we are today.

But those memories of the past are far less important than the experiences we’re having in our lives right now.

If I think of my own past lovers, I have memories, but I’d have to think very, very hard to remember much specific about those experiences, and I can no longer “feel” them.

Those relationships are history. They are a distant memory, rather like something I saw in a movie, or read in a book.

Most importantly, if I have a relationship with a woman who I care for, I am not thinking at all about some other woman that I knew 3 years ago. Why would I do that when the person I care about most is already in my arms?

She’s all I want.

Other experiences work the same way. If you are eating a nice slice of pizza right now, do you enjoy it?  Or are you thinking about every other slice of pizza you’ve ever eaten, and comparing them critically?  

I hope you're answering... "I enjoy the pizza, and it's freakin' awesome."

The same is true of how you feel about your partner, and how she feels about you.

Your partner chose YOU, for a reason

Your girlfriend or boyfriend chose you, remember that. 

They are with you, right now, because you make their life better than anyone else ever has.

That past relationship ended for a reason. No matter who ended it, or why, it did not work- and it’s long over.  Your partner learned from that, and guess who they've picked as a better choice?

That’s right, YOU.

Are you getting this?

Focus your attention on that truth, and keep being you, because you are the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

And as long as you can appreciate that, keep appreciating her and growing with her, you have a great future together.

Taking Action

Emotions are fantastic tools, and they are surprisingly simple once you understand why they exist and how they work

Jealousy demands Action...

All pain emotions are a motivation to take action.

When you touch a hot stove, you feel extreme pain. It makes you want to pull your hand away, doesn’t it?  When you pull your hand away, the pain subsides. The same is true of a sharp nail, or a cold shower.

All pain works similarly, including emotional pain.

With emotional pain, you are confronted with a choice, known as a threat response, and you get three options.

  1. Fight.
  2. Flight.
  3. Freeze.

Jealousy is a pain emotion too, and just like the others, it also demands action. 

So what are you doing about it?

Most RJ sufferers either “Freeze” up and do nothing, feeling paralyzed, confused and helpless. Or, they choose “Flight” and run away. I’ve seen people push their partner away, end their relationships, or have affairs out of an inability to deal with their own jealousy.

But if you choose either Flight or Freeze, you’re stuck with RJ forever, because you will never solve the problem, and therefore the emotions will never go away.

Once you begin taking effective action, the pain will go away...
That means that the only effective option with RJ is to Fight.

But... How do I fight? What am I fighting?

"Fighting" simply means to go towards the problem, and to find constructive ways to conquer it.

Jealousy is a painful experience, for a reason. It's your mind trying to get your attention, and to tell you to take care of the things that are important to you, or you just might lose them.  

When you feel jealousy, you should immediately ask yourself...

"How can I take care of my partner better, and reduce the chance that they’re unhappy and will want to leave?"

Finding the enemy

The best place to start is by examining your jealous thoughts directly.

Where are you uncomfortable? Where is your jealousy telling you that you’re weak and vulnerable in your relationship? 

Go towards that and conquer it.

Here are a few examples of what I hear from clients, and some ideas on what you can do...

"I don't feel like I'm a good enough lover"

  • Talk to your partner, find out what they like, be open minded and willing to experiment. Let them trust you and guide you.
  • Ask your partner, with their permission, if they would be willing to show you how they pleasure themselves. Men are pretty simple- our sensitive parts are pretty much in one place. For women, her whole body is sensitive, and there is a much broader range of sensation, motion, rhythm, and pressure that will excite her most- and this will change depending on how excited she is. Let her show you, no one knows her mind and body better than she does.
  • Learn sensual massage.
  • Consider exploring Kama Sutra, or Tantric sex together, if you are both interested.
  • Consider exploring “yoni massage”
  • Discuss your curiosities and interests together, get playful, and experiment.
  • Sex is a conversation, and your goal is to make it fun and interesting together.
  • If porn is in your life, kill it. It's doing you zero favors, and costing you way more than you know.
  • If masturbation is in your life, kill that too. Save sex for your partner, you'll be amazed how much more aware, connected, and appreciative you are when your energy and all of your senses are at 100%.

"I want to be a better partner, and to feel more emotionally connected"

  • Learn your partner’s love languages and practice them daily.
  • Make time for deep conversations every day before bed. No TV, no distractions, just you two connecting.
  • Learn to lead honest, vulnerable conversations, where you share things that scare you, and invite your partner to as well.  
  • Play the “question game” to learn more about each other, in fun and interesting ways.

"I feel like my body is not sexy enough"

  • Go to the gym.
  • Eat right.
  • Hire a fitness coach, or a nutritionist.
  • Make a morning run, or bike ride to work part of your daily routine.
  • Exercise with your partner, swimming, tennis, or something like acroyoga.

"I don't feel confident"

  • Challenge and improve yourself- at the gym, in your learning, and socially with friends.
  • Give yourself self-esteem by going towards your fears- for example if public speaking makes you feel nervous, join Toastmasters.
  • Improve yourself in ways that make you respect and appreciate yourself more. I'm going to recommend gym here again, it does wonders.
  • Invest time in listening and talking to your partner, to figure out what makes them feel amazing. When you learn how to create absolute ecstasy for her, you'll feel far more confident sexually with her.

These simple changes will change your life.

Your thoughts themselves, are the enemy, too

Is the monster under the bed real? Or imagined?

Often, I hear clients describe this horrible imagined situation that just doesn't exist. It never existed. In truth, their thoughts are the enemy.

And this is a hard truth we often need to face. Sometimes the monster isn't real, and it's not outside of us. There's nothing wrong with the relationship. There are no threats. The past is the past.

It's up to you to put that monster where it belongs.

Most importantly, always remember this- the key to killing Retroactive Jealousy is to go towards the problem, not away from it.

As my favorite tenet from Stoicism says-

The Obstacle is the Way.
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First published on 
August 12, 2020
. Last updated on 
April 21, 2022

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