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Obsessed With Your Partner’s Ex? You’re Not Alone

How to navigate retroactive jealousy

Ex
Movie: To All The Boys I've Loved Before

Olivia Rodrigo is obsessed with her partner’s ex. Well, her recently-released song ‘Obsessed,’ would lead you to believe that, at least.

Image still from Olivia Rodrigo’s Obsessed

The track features lyrics like, “If I told you how much I think about her you’d think I was in love,” and, “Is she friends with your friends? Is she good in bed? / Do you think about her? No, I’m fine, it doesn’t matter, tell me / Is she easy-going? Never controlling? / Well-travelled? Well-read? Oh god, she makes me so upset.”

While it’s hard to deny that ‘Obsessed’ is a bop and notably, its lyrics are not necessarily literal, its release has spotlighted a surprisingly common phenomenon: feeling jealous of your partner’s ex partners. Across TikTok, users have used the song to detail their own experiences of obsessing over a partner’s ex—or on the flip side, of being the ex who was obsessed over.

The former phenomenon is actually thought to be quite common and is closely aligned with something called retroactive jealousy. While regular jealousy is about feeling insecure in the moment, as the name suggests, retroactive jealousy concerns things that happened in the past.

Being curious about your partner’s ex is an experience that predates social media. In fact, an internet nickname for retroactive jealousy, Rebecca Syndrome, is actually borrowed from a 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. However, as Psychotherapist Toby Ingham told Vice, social media has likely made the problem more common.

“From the Facebook age onwards, people could start looking back over people’s pictures to see who they were with, to check their Instagram, to see who’s following them, to see if an old boyfriend is still liking their current girlfriend’s pictures,” Ingham told the outlet.

Once upon a time, if someone was curious about or felt jealous of a partner’s ex, there was little they could do to feed that hunger for information other than ask said partner about them. Today, thanks to social media, they can gather that information for themselves. What’s more, they can revisit it whenever they want, using social media as a means to essentially rub their own face in those feelings of jealousy.

What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

Essentially, retroactive jealousy is feeling jealous of or threatened by a partner’s past relationships. This can occur (as Rodrigo sings) even if their partner is no longer connected to or in contact with said ex.

Ingham notes in his book on the subject that retroactive jealousy feeds on the idea that your partner had better or more fulfilling relationships with past partners than they have with you. Once this idea has taken told, it is like an itch that can’t be scratched and a need to know everything about your partner and their exes increases—no matter how upsetting it may be to know.

As Kate Balestrieri, psychologist, sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy previously told Women’s Health, it can also go beyond feeling envious to comparing oneself to a partner’s ex. For example, you may believe your significant other’s ex is better looking, more intelligent, better in bed or funnier than you (once again, see Rodrigo’s lyrics), even if it’s not true.

The exact cause of it is not entirely understood but, as Bumble’s resident sexologist Chantelle Otten tells ELLE , “Retroactive jealousy often stems from insecurities or past experiences that are triggered [and not caused] by a partner’s history.”

The kind of obsession associated with this condition can potentially lead to negative consequences like intrusive thoughts and online stalking behavior.

Is It Normal To Be Jealous Of Your Partner’s Ex?

To a degree, jealousy is normal, and can even be healthy, in a relationship. However, when it becomes all-consuming or its effects spill over and begin to affect other people, it becomes problematic.

“Healthy jealousy can serve as a protective mechanism, reminding us to value and maintain our connections,” says Otten. “However, jealousy can become unhealthy when it starts to dominate your thoughts and behaviors. Signs of unhealthy jealousy include constant suspicion, frequent arguments over imagined scenarios, and attempts to control your partner’s actions.”

“This type of jealousy often stems from deep-seated insecurities or past traumas, which need to be addressed to prevent them from damaging the relationship,” Otten explains.

How To Deal With Feeling Jealous Of Your Partner’s Past

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that retroactive jealousy is your problem, not your partner’s. Open communication is imperative in dealing with and moving past these feelings, however, you need to keep in mind that this relationship happened before you were in the picture and, no matter how you may feel, your partner hasn’t actually done anything wrong.

The first thing you should do to cope with these feelings is acknowledge them. Notice that you feel a certain way and be honest with yourself about why they have arisen. This will help you get to the root of the cause, such as, as Otten notes, insecurity or past trauma.

While it’s easier said than done, it’s important to stay present, too.

“It’s crucial to remember that our partners’ pasts are just that—the past,” says Otten. “They don’t define the present relationship unless we let them.”

Next, be open and honest with your partner. Otten advises, “Discussing your feelings with your partner in a constructive manner can help both of you understand each other’s perspectives and work towards building trust.”

She adds, “One way to combat retroactive jealousy is to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship. Celebrate the present moments and the future you’re building together. This shift in perspective can significantly reduce feelings of jealousy and help create a more secure attachment.”

It will also be helpful to stop looking at their social media! Treat the “moving on” as you would a breakup and avoid checking what they are up to—even if it means you have to block them.

Lastly, be gentle with yourself. Jealousy of any kind is not a pleasant emotion so learning how to navigate it, especially when it pertains to a romantic partner, is bound to be difficult. The fruits of your labor will inevitably be worth it, though. If you need reassurance of such, Rodrigo wrote ‘Obsessed’ three years ago and look at her now.

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