How to manage retroactive jealousy

What does retroactive jealousy mean?

In retroactive jealousy at the beginning of a new relationship, one partner is jealous of their partners previous love affairs and relationships. 

Right from the start of a new relationship there is an insecurity about the relationships the partner has previously had.

‘Even as I meet a new person I am jealous of the people they have known before me.  I can’t help myself.  When they start to speak about their friends or previous partners I can feel it start up.  The sense of worry and then jealous feelings.  I really struggle to keep them to myself.’’

In my work and research I have come to understand it that; people who experience this kind of corrosive and destructive retroactive jealousy, are battling with fears and insecurities about themselves. Feelings that tend to relate to their own earlier experiences rather than being to do with a new relationship.


Retroactive jealousy and projecting insecurity

One way of understanding the experience of retroactive jealousy is; that the individual is projecting fears and experiences from their own previous experiences onto new relationships. 

In the past the person may have been overwhelmed by experiences of insecurity, or may have experienced a traumatic degree of insecurity involving the feeling that they were being overlooked in favour of another person.

  • It may be that the person who experiences retroactive jealousy grew up in an environment where they were the second child. 
  • They may have had the experience that mother or father preferred another sibling to them.
  • They may have had a depressed mother.
  • They may have felt that they were never wanted.

Powerful unresolved feelings from childhood

People who experience retroactive jealousy may have grown up with the experience that mother or father weren’t particularly interested in them; that their parents seemed to have a better time without them.

Some people who experience retroactive jealousy may have had depressed mothers or mothers who were always more interested in other people’s children than they were in their own. 

There are obviously variations on these themes but they all have in common that they provoked overwhelming insecurities and jealousies that could not be dealt with or properly acknowledged at the time.

At it’s extreme retroactive jealousy can provoke very disturbing paranoid feelings.


Traumatic experiences and retroactive jealousy

It may be that there were traumatic experiences early in life which fundamentally changed the state of security the individual experienced and grew up in.

This may have meant that the individual was left longing for something they could not have; predictable love and care.

In later life these kind of fears and insecurities get projected into love relations and become the basis for retroactive jealousy.

Furthermore this kind of destructive retroactive jealousy can undermine the relationships you have with your children.  If you experience retroactive jealousy you may experience it in all relationships.

In retroactive jealousy we see these difficult feelings being projected onto the new people that are met.  As that happens the jealousy corrodes the confidence in the new relationship.  Feelings like; anger, envy, jealousy and insecurity have a destructive effect on the relationship.

The thinking that develops from retroactive jealousy is unhelpful to a long-term relationship.

How to manage retroactive jealousy

It may be helpful to work on these issues confidentially in psychotherapy.  Otherwise they may prove too much for the individual to manage by themselves and they will continue to ruin the chance of having enjoyable relationships.

These kind of insecurities need to be got hold of and managed so that they cease to exert a destructive influence on the present.

In psychotherapy an attempt can be made to create a safe space in which the retroactive jealous feelings can be made sense of.  In the confidential therapy setting it may be possible to understand more about the root and origin of these powerful feelings. 

To grasp where they have come.

What they originally relate too.

Doing this may mean that the individual becomes less threatened and dominated by feelings of retroactive jealousy.   

In psychotherapy we try to contain these kind of destructive feelings.  We use the word ‘contain’ to mean that something is being thought about and managed, not to mean that it is being repressed.

  • When we are able to contain a destructive and difficult feeling like retroactive jealousy we limit the feelings capacity to run amok at the slightest provocation.
  • By containing our feelings we become able to recognise what the feelings relate to and keep them to ourselves.
  • We become able to see that the feelings we are having do not in fact refer to the present, but that they refer to past instances in our lives.
  • As we recognise this we limit their capacity to exert a potentially destructive influence.

Be careful around alcohol and drugs

It may be the case that people who suffer from these kind of retroactive jealous feelings should be careful around drink and drugs.  Alcohol and recreational drugs both tend to diminish our capacity to retain conscious control and to make sense of things.  Alcohol and drugs can encourage these kind of destructive and threatening projections to occur very quickly.

How to manage retroactive jealousy?

  • It might be helpful to use a combination of psychotherapy and improved self-care,
  • limit consumption of alcohol and drugs,
  • Try to remember that the feelings of retroactive jealousy may relate to insecurities in your early years and not to what is happening now.

We may not be able to undo the traumatic experience of early years, but through psychotherapy we can learn to understand more about them, to understand that the strong jealous feelings we experience may relate to past events rather than the present, and so limit their capacity to undermine our present relationships.

By containing the negative experience we take responsibility for it and by doing so we can start to live more constructively in the present.