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(Wo)man Versus Ex: Retroactive Jealousy and What to do About it.

We all love a good story. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Girl falls off cliff, leaving Boy loveless and lost. Boy finds potion to revivify girl. Girl comes back to life, but this time as the twisted shadow twin of original Girl. I love the classics…

Pilar Psyched Retroactive

As human beings, the words ‘once upon a time’ are etched into our DNA.

Philip Pullman once said: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

We might swear that all we want is a sandy beach, a hammock and a margarita, but that’s not true. What we’re really after, is for a gust of wind to hit that hammock, blowing the margarita out of our hands and splashing it straight into the face of a gorgeous, but lonely stranger.

The problem with this urge to create stories is that we never stop doing it.

Not even when it threatens to destroy our relationships.

And you know what’s also true about stories? They need stars! Divas. Actors. Opposing forces. Good versus evil. Man versus Self. And in the case of many of my clients (and admittedly myself)…

Man versus Exes.

This is a peculiar, yet boringly common phenomenon, that entails selecting at least one unsuspecting character from your partner’s history of exes on which to focus, and turn into the The Villain of your story.

Personally, the stories I tell myself are never very creative, nor have they been anything but psychological thrillers. Without fail, they’ve predicted that these infamous Exes were just biding their time, ready to draw my partners back in at any cost.

This happening is also known as Retroactive Jealousy, which refers to obsessive, relentless and excruciating thoughts, curiosities and questions about your partner’s sexual or romantic past. These elements often join together to bring unremitting mental anguish, and possible ruin to your relationship.

As a couples therapist, I get a behind-the-scenes look at how Retroactive Jealousy unfolds within my client’s relationships. It appears as:

* attempts to control a partner’s friendship with their exes.
* monitoring contact, going phones, email, and social media.
* interrogations, or constant requests for reassurance.

Am I better? Am I best? Do you still love me. Will you always?

And before you know it, you’ve put an #exhex on your relationship. A ghost is sitting at the head of your dinner table. She’s joining you on your Hawaiian vacation. He’s lying down in bed beside you, sleeping soundly, between you and your beloved.

But what exactly is the purpose of this story-machine-love-ruiner?

Why is retroactive jealousy, so common in our romantic relationships?

Well, there’s not just one answer to this question, but huge spoiler alert: It’s not about the ex.

Well, it’s probably not about the ex. First, go ahead and figure out if your villain is an actual adversary. Discern whether this person is truly vying for your lover’s attention, or if their lurking only takes place outside the window of your imagination. An adversary is different from a villain. Figure out which one they are.

Next, evaluate these other, much more likely, options.

Consider how culture is affecting your perspective.

In the culture or family you grew up in, were you taught to fear (and hate) those who are different or unknown to you? When it comes to exes, what you’re feeling could be a powerful cocktail of insecurity and xenophobia. Are you looking for someone to hate in order to create an alliance between you and your partner?

Let’s talk triangles.

We figure triangles into everything we do. We use our jobs, our phones, our addictions, our families and definitely our exes, to create anything from closeness to chaos, distance to drama. Love triangles can breed complexity and excitement into your relationship. Are you bored? They’re also great at mitigating intimacy. Are you feeling scared or overwhelmed by closeness with your partner? Try setting a boundary or talking to them about how you feel.


The world is made up of polarities, so why not your love life? Ask yourself if you’re creating a villain so you can become the hero? After all, where would Batman be without the Joker? But remember that healthy functioning includes the ability to move along the continuum of any polarity, with awareness and flexibility. Your internal villain is just as important as the hero. Develop both.

The Big One.

Lastly, consider whether this ex is taking on the gargantuan job of acting as a receptacle for your very big and very human fears of loss, change, and the unknown. It may be difficult to accept that uncertainty and love are strange, but devoted bedfellows. You can admire your desire for order, but do not idolize it. Yes, life can be terrifying. But don’t blame the ex.

So here’s the deal:
Seek resolution, not victory.

Since you’re not starring in an action flick, the solution to retroactive jealousy isn’t to destroy your opponent, or erase your sweetheart’s memory.

Instead, your job is to find resolution within the parts of you that become activated at the mere mention of an ex. Touch base with the unshakable foundation within you – calmer than you feel, stronger than you think you are. Seek reassurance, sure. But not so much that it leaves you fiending for more, shaking from withdrawal until your next fix. As you learn not to act out on these intense feelings, you’re building your capacity to self-soothe. Next stop: world domination.

You can move on from retroactive jealousy. And to do so, consider that whatever thoughts, fears and fantasies you may be having about this infamous character, the only clear and present danger to your relationship is probably just your sticky little fingers are all over your partner’s cell phone screen.

Pilar Dellano

Pilar Dellano

Pilar is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is passionate about helping her clients make conscious contact with themselves and others. She specializes in relationships of all kinds, is sex-positive, queer & kink friendly. LMFT #90934

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