Retroactive jealousy: Obsessed with my partner’s past

Illustration of a couple talking in a restaurant

Zachary Stockill’s obsessive thoughts about his partner’s previous sexual experiences led to the collapse of his first serious relationship. It took time for him to discover that his problem had a name – and that thousands of other people also suffer from it.

I was in my early 20s and, for the first time, I was in love.

One evening my girlfriend and I did what a lot of new couples do at the beginning of a relationship – we started talking about our pasts. The conversation moved on to previous relationships we’d both had.

A switch flicked in my brain.

There was absolutely nothing she said that was out of the ordinary, no details that were particularly unusual, shocking or even titillating. But something changed.

Her romantic history was suddenly all I could think about.

I grew up in a small town in northern Ontario, Canada. My parents had an excellent marriage and for the most part I had a great relationship with them. I didn’t grow up with mental health challenges – no depression, no anxiety, no obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

I loved women.

By grade three (aged eight) I had two girlfriends! But that was probably one of the few times I dated more than one person at a time. I enjoyed typical high school relationships.

Then I went to university and as an undergraduate I met and fell in love with a woman unlike any I’d met before. She was beautiful, extremely intelligent, artistic, and curious.

But when she spoke about her earlier life an emotion I’d never experienced began to take over.

Most of us have an impression of what “normal” jealousy looks like. Maybe feeling a pang when you see your partner attract the attention of someone in a bar or perking up when a colleague’s name starts cropping up more often in conversation.

Illustration of a final frame of a movie

Most people don’t like the idea of imagining their partner with someone else, such as an ex, but what I was feeling was entirely different.

My romantic history was, shall we say, more “colourful” than hers, but the thought she had been intimate with anyone other than me started plaguing me.

I didn’t know the name of it then but what I had is sometimes called “retroactive jealousy”. I’d learn much more about it in the years that followed.

I started playing mental movies in my head of her in situations with her ex and imagine them as if was happening in real time, right in front of me. It was as if she was cheating on me.

Her past suddenly became my present.

I’d latch on to some trivial detail and paint a hugely vivid picture around it. I would add details and turn insignificant events into full-blown scenarios in my mind.

If we went out to eat I’d wonder if she and her previous partner had been to the same restaurant. We’d walk by a hotel and suddenly I’d wonder if they had made love there.

Her previous relationships were the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing at night.

Social media is a huge magnifier for this issue. You have a backlog of posts and comments and images from your partner’s past. And I dived into it.

I became an online detective.

Illustration of a desk and laptop showing social media sites

I’d scroll through old photos from before I knew her, reading comments, trying to figure out who certain people were, how they fitted into her life, whether there was an untold adventure from her past.

These were the things I did in private, then there was the real-life toll on our relationship.

I’m ashamed of how I acted then.