What is Retroactive Jealousy OCD?
Retroactive jealousy is exactly what it sounds like: It’s jealousy related to a partner’s past actions. This isn’t always a problem; in fact, envy gets the best of most of us one time or another. That’s because it’s normal to feel the stare of the green-eyed monster when we think about our partner romancing someone else. Going to a high school reunion where your spouse will see their first love, for example, is enough to leave most of us rushing to look our best…..and hoping secretly that they look their worst.
What is Retroactive Jealousy OCD?
Retroactive Jealousy OCD is sort of like jealousy on steroids. The sufferer is plagued with obsessive thoughts regarding their partner’s romantic and sexual history. Unlike normal jealousy, Retroactive Jealousy OCD does not involve a passing interest in past actions but, rather, an unrelenting one. The jealousy felt isn’t reserved for unique occasions, either (such as the high school reunion mentioned above); instead, it’s part of everyday life.
Retroactive Jealousy OCD can wreak havoc on sufferers and it can also affect, then ruin, relationships. The union is no longer marked by laughter, support, and trust, but suspicion, accusation, and negative thought patterns.
What Causes Retroactive Jealousy OCD?
Retroactive jealousy is so common that it can be argued the main cause is one we can’t avoid: Being human. It’s entirely normal to feel jealous of anyone your partner was previously intimate with. Typically, men are most jealous of physical connections – they may find themselves more disturbed by their partner’s one-night stands than the intimacy they shared with a boyfriend of two years. Women are the opposite: Their jealousy is focused on the emotional connection. They see past loves as bigger threats than hookups or flings. They tend, most often, not to care that their partner had sex with other women; they care that they laughed with someone else, supported someone else, confided in someone else, and shared inside jokes with someone else.
Why a normal and – perhaps – healthy amount of jealousy turns into OCD is up for debate. Yet OCD, in general, is a disorder with many causes, and not one main culprit.
Among the biggest cause is faulty communication inside the brain; in the OCD mind, the front parts of the brain don’t always communicate appropriately with the deeper parts of the brain, resulting in the sufferer seeing danger where danger does not exist.
Sufferers typically have low levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which is why antidepressants are used as first-line treatment for OCD. They may also have high levels of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for learning and memory.
Genetics matter too, as they tend to do, and about 25% of people with OCD have an immediate family member who has it as well. Studies have also found that many OCD sufferers have a mutation on the serotonin transporter gene (hSERT), indicating a direct hereditary link.
Compulsive behaviors, while not the cause of OCD, are what allow it to blossom. In essence, OCD cannot exist without the compulsions that keep it alive. If a person is genetically or structurally predisposed to the disorder, behavioral conditioning solidifies its existence.
It’s similar to someone predisposed to alcoholism – without taking a drink, they won’t become an alcoholic, not even if their genetics have already laid the blueprint for the disease. With OCD, sufferers may sidestep the disorder entirely, no matter their genetics, if they can avoid compulsions.
Unfortunately, this is rarely possible as most people with OCD begin to engage in compulsions before they are aware that they have OCD (ultimately stripping them of their ability to stop the disease before it snowballs). It’s yet another reason why education around OCD is so important: Getting on top of it as quickly as possible is among the surest ways to get it under control.
The Role of Dysfunctional Beliefs
OCD, as a rule, involves dysfunctional beliefs since sufferers pay attention to thoughts that are meaningless and ridiculous; their minds insist on making the nonsensical legitimate.
Per the Obsessive-Compulsive Cognitions Working Group, there are six types of dysfunctional beliefs common in OCD sufferers, including:
Possessing an overactive sense of responsibility: OCD sufferers take it upon themselves to prevent any negative outcome from happening. In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may believe that stopping their ex from feeling anything for someone from their past is the only way to save their relationship.
Making meaningless thoughts meaningful: OCD sufferers believe that thinking of something bad is on par with that bad thing happening. If someone with Retroactive Jealousy OCD experiences an intrusive thought where they picture their spouse being intimate with an ex, they’ll give that thought meaning, believe their fear is valid, and, maybe, conclude that it’s a sign their relationship is doomed.
Trying to control their thoughts: The OCD sufferer makes the mistake of believing they can control their thoughts and then attempts to do just that. In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may attempt to control the intrusions by overanalyzing the thoughts, seeking information about their partner’s exes, or forcefully trying to expel the images from their mind.
Seeing danger when none exists: OCD sufferers would make lousy insurance assessors since they’re always on high alert and prone to overestimating the likelihood of disaster. In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may believe that their spouse still has feelings for a college fling simply because they mention that fling’s name. In no time at all, their OCD tells them that their partner is going to leave them for the fling and live happily ever after while they grow old alone.
Aiming for perfectionism: Perfectionists don’t always have OCD but OCD sufferers tend to have perfectionism. In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may strive for the ideal relationship and view their partner’s past dating or sexual experiences as a threat to this perfection.
Perpetuating an inability to tolerate uncertainty: OCD is a disorder where sufferers feel that they must be 100% certain in whatever area their OCD has latched onto (being 99.9% certain isn’t enough). In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their partner does not have feelings for someone from the past even when those feelings are understandable (for instance, people often have a special place in their heart for their first love).
What Emotions are Common in Retroactive Jealousy OCD?
In general, Retroactive Jealousy OCD is marked by common emotions, including:
Judging a partner for their past actions: The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer may judge their partner for their past actions, claiming that they slept with too many people and calling them names (such as a “slut”). This judgment may lead them to doubt their partner’s worth (or doubt if that person is right for them). For example, a man who suffers from Retroactive Jealousy OCD may question whether he can stay with his girlfriend if he finds out that she had a one-night stand with someone she barely knew.
Assuming that past actions will happen again: The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer may assume that their partner will repeat past patterns. For instance, if their partner dated a lot in college and slept with a variety of people, they’ll assume that this means they’ll do this sort of thing again. At the root of this assumption is the fear that the sufferer will lose the person they love.
Getting mad at past actions: The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer may find themselves angry at their partner’s past actions, although those actions likely happened before they knew their partner. They may question why their partner dated a particular man or woman and wonder what that person offered and how they match up.
The sufferer may also compare past actions, which can fuel anger too. For instance, if the Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer’s partner once took a woman on an Alaskan cruise, they may get angry and ask why they haven’t been invited on a similar trip.
Believing they missed out: The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer may feel insecure about their own sexual history if it’s not as vast as their partners. For example, if they only dated a few people and slept with a handful, they may be envious of their partner’s sexual experimentation, believing they missed a chance to sow their wild oats and wishing they had branched out too.
Feeling anxiety about their partnership: The most prevalent emotion related to Retroactive Jealousy OCD, similar to all forms of OCD, is anxiety. The sufferer is overwhelmed with worries and fears regarding their partner’s past history. As addressed above, this is based on the terrifying idea that they will lose their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse.
While all of these emotions are common, it’s not always easy to know whether it’s the OCD talking or the sufferer’s true values. For example, a woman with Retroactive Jealousy OCD who learns that her partner cheated on several of his ex-girlfriends or once kissed his brother’s wife will most certainly have concerns. Yet this might not be related to her OCD; it may be attuned to the qualities she looks for in a partner. Many people, whether they have OCD or not, find issue dating serial cheaters and have concerns regarding the character of someone who willingly kissed their sister-in-law.
In other words, sometimes there is overlap between the normal and the abnormal.
What Compulsions are Common in Retroactive Jealousy OCD?
Like other types of OCD, Retroactive Jealousy OCD involves compulsions that are performed to relieve anxiety and reassure the sufferer that their fears aren’t real.
Because the partner is the focus of the OCD, they are the focus of the compulsions as well and these typically manifest with the sufferer checking up on their partner’s actions.
Some of the most common compulsions include:
Checking a partner’s phone or email: Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferers may routinely skim through their partner’s text messages, outgoing calls, and email messages in an attempt to assure they’re not cheating or straying with a past love. They may log into their social media accounts as well.
Calling a partner when they’re not home: The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer whose partner is out of sight may assume the worst – they’re reconnecting with a past flame. In an effort to squelch their anxiety, they’ll call their partner repeatedly, making sure they’re not doing anything deceitful. Some may even track their partner’s phone through a GPS app.
Asking their partner for reassurance: Arguably the most common compulsion in both Retroactive Jealousy OCD and Relationship OCD (which Retroactive Jealousy OCD most closely mirrors) is asking a partner for reassurance and asking them to promise or prove that they’ll never cheat, leave, hurt, or rekindle passion from the past.
While some of this is normal – as surely most of us in romantic relationships crave this kind of security – the OCD sufferer needs endless reassurance. They often require it so much that their partner begins to feel accused and like they’re not being given the benefit of trust. This harms the underlying foundation of their union and can fracture it so greatly that it becomes unrepairable.
Seeking validation: Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferers may look for ways to validate their jealousy, thus normalizing it in the process. They may research cheating statistics as means to prove that they have reason to be suspicious. For example, a 1991 report found that 70% of married women and 72% of married men cheat on their spouses, a stat that justifies the jealousy felt by the OCD sufferer (even if it seems more inflated and outdated than what is likely the average).
Seeking a solution: On the flip side, some Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferers recognize that their jealousy is abnormal and, what’s more, they don’t want to keep feeling the way they do. As a result, they may seek help by reading books or websites on how to control jealousy or how to ignore a partner’s past. They may join chatrooms to discuss their jealous fears with others who feel similar and who are also looking for the remedy.
Thinking through a partner’s past experiences: Many people with Retroactive Jealousy OCD ruminate on their partner’s past history, recreating the sexual encounters in their head. They may go as far to add specifics, including what their partner was wearing, how the bedroom looked, or what happened during the encounter.
The sufferer isn’t trying to torture themselves; they’re simply trying to integrate their emotions and think through their anxiety. But, as is the case whenever anyone tries to compromise with OCD, this always backfires.
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Traditional OCD versus Retroactive Jealousy OCD
While “Traditional OCD” is a term regularly used (even by us), it’s a bit of a misnomer; in reality, there is no such thing as traditional OCD because OCD comes in all kinds of varieties. However, the closest thing to the traditional form is Contamination OCD, not only because it’s – by far – the most well-known but it’s also among the most common: 25% of OCD sufferers are believed to have it.
In Contamination OCD, the disorder is marked by obsessions regarding things like germs and cleanliness and the subsequent compulsions (such as constant handwashing) that neutralize those negative thoughts.
The OCD sometimes involves a type of trigger, such as the sufferer touching a dirty doorknob, that sets off the obsessive notion. But a trigger is not always present and – sometimes – obsessive thoughts pop into the sufferer’s head out of the blue: They may suddenly believe they have HIV for no reason other than their intrusive thought tells them they do.
Triggered or not, the obsessive thought takes root in the sufferer’s mind and, in order to neutralize that thought, the sufferer engages in their compulsion. This can be a physical act, such as washing their hands, or a mental one, such as counting in their head, purposely thinking a positive thought to cancel out the negative one, or saying a silent prayer. Some people may have both physical and mental compulsions and engage in more than one, just to be safe.
The reason it’s a cycle is because OCD is never satisfied. If the sufferer washes their hands, they’ll feel relief for a while, but – before too long – their OCD will tell them that their hands are dirty again. The sufferer will then repeat their routine and, again, find momentarily relief. Until OCD reappears….which it always does.
This is why compulsions keep OCD alive – they only reduce anxiety in the short-term, but lock OCD in for the long-haul. Compulsions validate the obsessive thoughts and make them harder to ignore in the future. Once they gain steam, they become more frequent. And that starts the cycle again, over and over and over…..
Retroactive Jealousy OCD involves the same sort of cycle, but the content of the obsession, as well as the specifics of the compulsion, are different. The Retroactive Jealousy OCD sufferer is focused on their partner instead of germs.
Their cycle may look something like this: They hear their partner compliment someone they dated in high school, they begin to obsess about the meaning of this, possibly believing that their partner will leave them for their past love. The sufferer engages in a compulsion to reassure themselves this won’t happen, such as searching their partner’s Facebook to see if they’ve been in contact with their former love. After finding reassurance, they experience relief until the next intrusive thought comes along. The cycle then starts again.
The Retroactive Jealousy OCD cycle often involves soliciting the partner to help (“help”, in this instance, is really enabling). The sufferer may ask their partner to promise that they won’t leave them and take comfort in their reassuring words. But the next day, they may worry again, requiring, again, their partner to repeat the vow. And so on and so forth.
The partner may be okay with this at first and find that it feels nice to be so loved. Soon, however, this evolves into resentment as they know they’ve done nothing wrong to elicit suspicion (and they’re right): It’s OCD, and not the partner’s behavior, that is fueling the doubt – OCD is well known as “the doubting disease” for a reason.
The Concept of Thought-Stopping
Thought-stopping is a common desire of OCD sufferers, regardless of the type they have. It’s an understandable yearning – the thoughts are uncomfortable, which makes people want to get rid of them. The problem is that we can’t control our thoughts, no matter how much we try.
Thought-stopping not only doesn’t do what it insinuates, it makes OCD worse, too. That’s because the surest way to think of something is by telling yourself not to – you can’t tell yourself not to think of a brown dog without actively thinking of a brown dog. The more those with OCD try to control their thoughts, the worse their OCD becomes.
In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, sufferers may feel bad about their thoughts, especially if those thoughts are hurting their relationship. But telling themselves, over and over, not to think about their partner’s past only keeps that past in the forefront of the sufferer’s mind. The key is to purposefully think of the thoughts but change the applied reaction (more on this later).
Intrusive Thoughts: Not Exclusive to OCD
Intrusive thoughts are a hallmark of OCD, but they’re not reserved for OCD sufferers; by and large, most everyone has intrusive thoughts every now and then. The difference between the OCD sufferer and the normal brain is that the sufferer takes these intrusive thoughts seriously while the normal brain casts them off as the nonsense they are. Taking them seriously, in return, makes the thoughts come around more often. And compulsions don’t help, either.
Performing a compulsion is putting a cherry on top of the OCD sundae; it solidifies the thought as valid instead of something that should be ignored.
In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer’s mind listens to their intrusive thoughts attentively. As previously mentioned, some envy regarding a partner’s romantic past is natural and no one likes to think about the person they love being intimate with a previous flame. But OCD goes beyond passing discomfort until it’s a dominating force in the sufferer’s life.
Is Retroactive Jealousy Really OCD?
OCD is commonly self-diagnosed by those who don’t actually have it. This is largely due to the fact that OCD is dramatically misunderstood by the average layperson, a perpetuation that leaves people to erroneously assume they’re afflicted with OCD if they keep things organized, color coordinate, or prefer their home or car neat and spotless.
However, OCD is not marked by a desire to have things a certain way; it’s controlled by anxiety and fear. It’s also not a disease that mildly annoys the sufferer; it’s one that terrifies.
These misconceptions around OCD apply to all types of it, including Retroactive Jealousy OCD, and it’s possible that someone really doesn’t have OCD even if they are overly concerned with their partner’s past history. They may have a jealous personality or be suffering from paranoia or extreme insecurity. They may even be reacting to their own traumas; if they previously had a partner who left them for an old girlfriend or boyfriend, they may fear history repeating itself again.
Naturally, it’s also possible that someone suspicious of their partner has a genuine reason to be: Not everyone is trustworthy, no matter how much we wish they were.
But when jealousy appears as terrifying, repetitive, and frequent intrusive thoughts, comes with compulsions, appears in cycles, and comes with no evidence to support the underlying fears, Retroactive Jealousy OCD should be considered.
Treatment for Retroactive Jealousy OCD
OCD is treated the same way regardless of the type. The specifics differ, of course, but the gist stays constant.
Most treatment involves one, or several, of the following:
CBT with ERP: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention (ERP) is gold standard treatment and considered the most affective. During this process, patients avoid neutralizing their intrusive thoughts.
ERPs are both planned and unplanned. In the former, patients purposely expose themselves to their anxiety-provoking images, thoughts, or ideas and then they make a conscious effort to avoid engaging in the accompanying ritual.
Unplanned ERPs happen organically, where the sufferer experiences an intrusive thought out of the blue or because of a trigger and then makes an effort to ignore the urge to engage in their compulsion. Both methods are effective as long as the compulsion is avoided.
In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the patient may be asked to imagine their partner having sex with someone from their past. The sufferer will then be instructed not to solicit reassurance from their partner, not to look in their partner’s emails or snoop through their phone, not to analyze their thoughts, and not to engage in any sort of behavior that makes them feel better and more certain. The idea is to ignore the intrusive thoughts entirely and look at them for what they are: Unimportant and irrelevant.
ERPs sound easy but – in practice- they’re extremely hard for the sufferer to complete successfully. This is due to the anxiety and fear they elicit, with many sufferers giving in to their compulsions because the stress is simply too overwhelming. Fortunately, ERPs get easier the more they’re done. Most importantly, they work for those willing to put up with the discomfort they cause.
ERPs don’t need to be completed successfully every single time in order to move the patient forward in treatment. In truth, because they cause such terror, it’s unlikely that anyone will find perfection when attempting them. As long as the sufferer keeps trying to see the ERPs through and ignores their compulsions as much as possible, they should find eventual success.
Starting with lower-level ERPs is usually a better option than diving headfirst into the deepest end of distress and despair. For instance, in Retroactive Jealousy OCD, patients may find that they have an easier time imagining their partner kissing or hugging someone from their past rather than sleeping with them.
Medication: Medication works for the majority of OCD sufferers: 70% of people respond. The medicine likely won’t make OCD go away completely, but that’s okay! The point is to take the anxiety down to a tolerable level, one that makes ERPs possible.
OCD medications don’t work for everyone because of genetics and sufferers sometimes must experiment with many medications before they find one that helps. Prescriptions for OCD, like other prescriptions, are designed for the general population and geared towards those who metabolize drugs at a normal rate. Some people metabolize drugs faster and others do it slower, placing them apart from the medication’s target audience. Anyone on either extreme may find a hard time with traditional OCD meds and thinking outside the pillbox might be required.
To avoid wasting time, spending money, and taking unnecessary risks, patients can have their genetics tested to find out what kind of metabolizer they are. This will tell them what drugs they should avoid because they have a compromised response or because they’re susceptible to side effects. This test must be ordered by a physician but it is usually covered by insurance.
OCD sufferers with preexisting conditions or those who take drugs for other ailments may face additional obstacles. Some OCD drugs should not be taken with other types of medications or given to those with heart conditions, kidney disease, or diabetes. Along these lines, children, teens, and young adults should not take specific antidepressants because they increase the risk of suicide.
Having said all this, the most common medications prescribed for OCD are Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressants that work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
SSRI drugs include:
Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (which are similar to SSRIs) may be used too and work by increasing serotonin and norepinephrine. Anafranil (or Clomipramine), a tricyclic antidepressant, is regularly prescribed as well and, though it is effective, it may come with negative side effects (such as heart arrhythmia and increased appetite).
Off-label medications might manage OCD, especially in instances where more traditional medications fail. Though they’re not explicitly approved for OCD, they are commonly prescribed and believed to be effective from anecdotal reports and scientific studies.
Some of the most commonly used include:
- Tramadol (though it’s a controlled substance with opioid tendencies, it is used in those with anxiety disorders and depression because of its SSRI-like effects).
ACT Therapy: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is making a name for itself in the world of mental health, including OCD’s inner circles. ACT treatment focuses on accepting the intrusive thoughts without judging them one way or another. With ACT, the OCD sufferer is asked to see their thoughts as intangible things separate from themselves. They may be instructed to imagine the thoughts on TV screens or on billboards.
ACT merges acceptance, mindfulness, psychological flexibility, and self-compassion, as OCD sufferers are taught to look at their thoughts as stoically as possible, letting them come and go without reaction. When ACT is done successfully, the OCD sufferer treats their intrusive thoughts the same way they treat the thought of getting a glass of water or checking the time. That is to say they don’t place unnecessary meaning, value, or analysis on it.
In Retroactive Jealousy OCD, the sufferer may have an intrusive thought where they imagine their partner leaving them for a past love. Instead of asking their partner for reassurance, or reacting with any emotion, they’ll be told to remind themselves that they’re having an OCD thought, saying something like, “I am having the OCD thought that my partner will leave me for a past love.” It’s much more accurate, and healing, than saying, “My partner will leave me for a past love.”
Lifestyle: OCD usually requires professional help but lifestyle choices can assist in managing the disorder (or at least keep it from getting worse).
The most effective thing sufferers can do is manage their stress since stress exacerbates OCD symptoms and makes the disorder more disabling. A few avenues to try include:
- Eating healthy and avoiding too much alcohol, coffee, processed foods, or sugar
- Exercising aerobically every day
- Practicing meditation, mindfulness, or yoga
- Seeing a therapist weekly and joining support groups
- Speaking openly to friends and family about their condition
- Asking their partner not to enable their disease by providing reassurance, no matter how much the sufferer asks for it
Finding a Retroactive Jealousy OCD Therapist
It’s notoriously hard to find a good OCD therapist due to the fact that the misconceptions surrounding OCD aren’t limited to the general population and, instead, exist inside the clinical one as well. That’s why it’s essential to go to someone who not only treats OCD but specializes in it.
Ideally, that therapist should have specific training in OCD and advanced certification. Far too many people have a story about going to a therapist who believed they were qualified to treat OCD and walking away worse because the disorder was out of that clinician’s wheelhouse and experience.
A good therapist is especially essential for those who don’t have the more common germ-focused and contamination types of OCD; if they don’t present as a textbook case, an unqualified therapist may miss the diagnosis.
For Retroactive Jealousy OCD, an inexperienced therapist may believe the sufferer is insecure or reacting to a traumatic romantic history. They may even assume that the sufferer’s partner is adulterous and encourage their client to leave them for someone more trustworthy. At best, this misapplied treatment sets the sufferer back, but the ensuing effects are often traumatic and longer-lasting.
The International OCD Foundation website allows visitors to search for approved providers by zip code, making it an excellent place to find the right fit.