How To Deal With Retroactive Jealousy OCD

We have all had instances when we felt jealous. Perhaps you felt that twinge when someone scored a top mark at school or a colleague got a promotion you'd coveted at work. Such feelings of jealousy can be unpleasant, but they are typically just upsetting for that moment, passing pretty quickly. 

However, there is one type of jealousy that's unpleasant and painful, and the feelings of jealousy don't go away easily. It's known as retroactive jealousy OCD. 

Retroactive jealousy¹ involves getting jealous about things that happened in the past. If you have this condition, you have an unhealthy interest in your partner's sexual and romantic life before you got together. Retroactive jealousy is typically mild-to-moderate at first but may progress to OCD. 

When the intrusive thoughts become too much, and insecurities about your partner's past strain your relationship, you’re dealing with retroactive jealousy OCD.

If you have retroactive jealousy OCD, it doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong with your relationship or your thoughts are true. However, you need to cope with it in a healthy manner; otherwise, it may ruin your relationship and impact your physical and mental well-being. 

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Types of retroactive jealousy

Typically, jealousy does not affect all relationships. If retroactive jealousy manifests, it does so in three stages or degrees, which include:

Mild-to-moderate retroactive jealousy

At this stage, you have uncomfortable feelings about your partner's past. Sometimes you may question the people they text or meet. However, your jealousy does not involve any violent actions or negative thoughts. 

Value-questioning retroactive jealousy

At this stage, you may obsessively think about your partner's past relationships and sexual history and wonder what this says about their values. When you start questioning your partner's values, you may doubt whether they are the right choice for you.

You may start seeing sexually-provocative connotations in everything they do, from how they laugh to what they wear. Sometimes, you may even accuse your partner of cheating on you.

Retroactive jealousy OCD

This stage is the most extreme form of the condition. People with retroactive jealousy OCD often engage in unhealthy activities, including hacking into their partner's browser history and snooping on their text messages.

When retroactive jealousy turns chronic, it may take over your life and ultimately ruin the relationship. People with retroactive jealousy OCD may give reasons that they think justify their thoughts and behaviors. The negative thoughts constantly cloud their mind, so they lose the ability to think clearly. 

Causes of retroactive jealousy OCD

Many people experience retroactive jealousy. Some may argue the leading cause of this fixation is the simple fact that we're human; that anyone can feel jealous of a person with whom their partner had an intimate relationship in the past, and it's normal. 

However, genetics could have a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder. About 25% of people with this disorder have a close relative who also has it. 

Additionally, people with OCD usually have low serotonin levels. 

Retroactive jealousy in women tends to center on emotional connection. They may not care that their partner slept with other people in the past. What concerns women is usually the fact that their partner supported, confided in, shared inside jokes, and had great times with someone else. 

Men are typically the opposite and get jealous of physical connections. A one-night stand between their partner and someone else is usually more disturbing to a man than the emotional intimacy their partner shared with someone for years.

Signs associated with retroactive jealousy

Negative thoughts and emotions 

  • Judging your partner's sexual history and believing they behaved 'immorally' in the past.

  • A subconscious fear that your partner may go back to an intimate relationship with their previous partner, and you may lose them.

  • Experiencing envy due to the opportunities you feel you missed in your past.

  • Feeling angry about your partner's past relationships.

  • Anxiety attacks due to the overwhelming emotions and thoughts about your partner's past.

  • Doubting whether your partner is the right fit. For example, you may wonder whether you want to be with someone who got intimate in a club with someone they met the same day. 

Resulting negative actions

  • Spending excessive time searching for a retroactive jealousy cure due to the confusion resulting from the mix of emotions.

  • Violating your partner's personal space, e.g., cell phones, social media profiles, and email accounts, due to the strong desire to find out more about their past.

  • Arguments may arise as you question or comment aggressively about your partner's past, yet they don't think they have done anything wrong. The questioning and comments may not always lead to an argument, but they can undermine your relationship. 

Treatment for retroactive jealousy OCD

Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder² is similar regardless of the type. Although the specifics vary, the general treatment recommendations remain constant. 

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention (ERP)

Exposure therapy encourages you to face your fears rather than relying on safety behaviors, such as seeking reassurance from your partner or looking through their phone. These rituals feel helpful at the time, but they worsen your anxiety and your condition. 

There are two types of ERP: Planned and unplanned. In planned ERPs, your mental health professional will plan sessions. In these, you expose yourself to anxiety-provoking ideas, thoughts, or images and try to avoid indulging in the ritual that follows.  

You may imagine your partner being intimate with someone from their past but stop at that thought without taking action. You should not engage in safety behaviors or even analyze your thoughts. In short, you ignore intrusive thoughts completely and consider them irrelevant and unimportant. 

Unplanned ERPs involve trying to ignore the urge to indulge in an accompanying ritual when you experience an intrusive thought unexpectedly. 

Lifestyle choices

Lifestyle choices can manage retroactive jealousy OCD or prevent it from worsening. 

Here are things you can do if you have retroactive jealousy OCD:

  • Maintain open communication with your partner.

  • Practice meditation.

  • Focus your energy on helping your relationship thrive.

  • Join support groups.

  • See a therapist.

Medication

The majority of people³ with OCD who take medications respond well to them. Although the drug may not make the disorder disappear entirely, it lowers anxiety to a tolerable level that makes ERPs possible. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common medications for OCD. They inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, a chemical in the brain responsible for mood and emotions. It increases the levels of serotonin around the brain nerve cells. 

Examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro. In some cases, your healthcare provider may recommend a tricyclic antidepressant like clomipramine (Anafranil).

The lowdown

Retroactive jealousy OCD can become obsessive and haunt you day and night. It may also ruin your relationship and affect your physical and mental well-being. However, there are various ways to manage this condition.

You can practice lifestyle adjustments on your own or visit a healthcare professional who will recommend appropriate treatment options like medication or CBT with ERP.

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