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Retroactive Jealousy: Triggers and How to Overcome Them

Facing jealousy is a common occurrence in a relationship. Yet, there is another kind that is less understood and rarely talked about: retroactive jealousy.

This type of jealousy involves fixating on a partner’s past relationships or experiences, causing distress and anxiety in the present. It can be a challenging emotion to navigate, but understanding its origins and developing coping strategies can help overcome this relationship hurdle.

Relationship coaches specializing in repair frequently cross paths with retroactive jealousy – so here are some tools to understand its triggers and treatment pathways.

What is Retroactive Jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy refers to an excessive preoccupation with a partner’s past relationships or sexual encounters. It involves intrusive or obsessive thoughts, and vivid fantasies. Deep-seated feelings of inadequacy or fear a partner will leave can trigger intense anxiety.

People affected by retroactive jealousy have the impulse to question their partner about every detail of their past sexual or romantic experiences. They feel haunted by a sense of insecurity, spending hours comparing themselves to their partner’s previous partners. Even if their partner no longer has any connection with their exes, or the relationships or sexual experiences took place many years ago, these feelings might still prevail.

Understanding the Origins

To help your coaching clients overcome retroactive jealousy, it is essential to understand the underlying causes. Retroactive jealousy can stem from many different places, including:

  • Personal insecurities
  • Attachment trauma (fear of abandonment or disorganized attachment)
  • Low self-esteem
  • A tendency to compare yourself unfavorably to others
  • Other kinds of trauma that result in high levels of fear and anxiety
Jealous woman, having retroactive jealousy triggers.

Retroactive Jealousy and Attachment Trauma

Attachment trauma comes from challenging early childhood experiences with caregivers that impact their ability to form secure attachments in adulthood. These experiences can lead to attachment wounding include neglect, abuse, inconsistent caregiving, or significant disruptions in attachment bonds.

Because it impacts your client’s sense of self-worth, trust, and security in relationships, a history of attachment trauma makes it more likely that they will develop retroactive jealousy. Profound insecurities and fears around abandonment and rejection may be triggered when they are confronted with their partner’s past experiences. Often, this can lead to intense feelings of jealousy or a desperate need for reassurance.

One of the symptoms of any kind of trauma is an inability to separate the past from the present. Clients with attachment trauma are more likely to project their old, unresolved attachment wounds onto their current relationship. Healing this attachment trauma is essential in resolving the underlying insecurities, and learning healthier ways to navigate relationships – ultimately reducing the intensity of retroactive jealousy.

Retroactive Jealousy and OCD

If someone is already affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), they are more likely to develop retroactive jealousy.

For example, they may compulsively seek reassurance from their partner, repeatedly asking questions about their past, or engaging in excessive research about their previous relationships. These behaviors are very similar to the compulsions seen in OCD, where individuals feel driven to perform certain actions to alleviate their anxiety or discomfort. OCD is frequently irrational and uncontrollable, and can become cyclical.

Retroactive jealousy then can be viewed as a specific manifestation of OCD – commonly known as relationship-centered obsessive-compulsive disorder (RC-OCD) or obsessive-compulsive relationship disorder (OCRD). In RC-OCD, individuals experience obsessions and compulsions specifically related to their romantic relationships.

It is important to note that not everyone with retroactive jealousy has diagnosable OCD. However, the similarities in obsessive thought patterns and compulsive behaviors suggest a strong connection between the two. Understanding this link can help you support your client in seeking appropriate support or treatment.

Retroactive Jealousy Triggers

No matter if the retroactive jealousy is combined with OCD or attachment trauma, common triggers are often the same:

  • The partner talks frequently about past relationships, and it can be particularly distressing if they go into explicit detail.
  • Being compared to past partners by friends and family.
  • Finding pictures or memories of their current partner with an ex.
  • Seeing social media posts in which their partner’s ex looks particularly desirable or successful.
  • Watching movies or television shows, or reading books where the main character gets back together with a past partner, cheats on a current one, or longs to be back together with their ex.
Couple on relationship coaching session, working on overcoming retroactive jealousy issues

Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy

Luckily, there are a host of wonderful tools you can use to help your coaching client overcome retroactive jealousy. They may consist of:

  1. Communication and Emotional Support: Encourage open and honest communication within the relationship. Discussing feelings and concerns can help them understand their partner better, and diffuse jealousy in a constructive way. They should also seek emotional support from friends, or consider couples coaching or therapy, where a professional can guide them through the process together.
  2. Teach a Better Story: Help them recognize that their partner’s past is separate from their current relationship. Remind them that their experiences have shaped the partner into the person they love today.
  3. Nudge Them to Stop Comparing: Show them that focusing on their own unique qualities and what they bring to the relationship is going to introduce more positivity and love.
  4. Encourage Them Follow Their Own Desires: Instead of focusing so much on their partner and what they want or don’t want, gently nudge them to explore their own desires. Prioritizing activities that make them feel confident and fulfilled will help diffuse jealous or anxious feelings.
  5. Tracking Those Retroactive Jealousy Triggers: Find out what triggers their retroactive jealousy, and then teach them tools to calm themselves in those instances. Avoid interrogating their partner or social media sets the tone for a much more harmonious relationship.

The path to healing around retroactive jealousy requires a willingness to challenge negative thought patterns, explore the root causes of insecurity, and develop a healthier perspective on a partner’s past. It is essential to remember that dwelling on the past prevents them from fully enjoying the present, and building a strong future with their loved one. The goal should always be to cultivate a relationship that is rooted in trust, understanding, and unconditional love.

The Somatica Training teaches all of the relationship tools to overcome jealousy – or if you’re already a certified relationship coach, you might benefit from taking the Somatica Online Character Strategies Training.

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