Retroactive Jealousy OCD: Signs & Causes

Written by:Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

Published On: July 11, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Reviewed On: July 11, 2022

Updated On: July 24, 2023


Everyone has experienced a little jealousy from time to time in life. It’s a natural emotion, but it can become an issue when it transforms into regular jealousy that’s constant. Maybe your current partner sees an old girlfriend or boyfriend at a high school reunion, or your boss hires a new, enthusiastic, well-qualified employee, or a best friend spends time with someone new and you feel left out — feeling that pang of jealousy would be a normal response for most of us.

However, when someone begins having obsessive jealous thoughts about a partner’s past relationship, and it affects their quality of life and begins interfering with the current relationship, that’s beyond the scope of what we consider to be “typical” and healthy feelings of jealousy. There’s a name for this. It’s called retroactive jealousy OCD, or as some might refer to it, retrospective jealousy.

What Is Retroactive Jealousy OCD?

Retroactive jealousy OCD is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that involves becoming overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts of a partner’s past experiences with both romantic and sexual partners. It goes much further than just a fleeting pang of jealousy. With retroactive jealousy OCD, the onslaught of jealous feelings is unrelenting and can quickly turn any relationship into one of suspicion, mistrust, and accusations. It usually has nothing to do with whether a partner has actually done anything to warrant suspicion. These obsessive thoughts can often stem from a person’s own previous relationship experiences, fueling the destructive cycle of this disorder.

Retroactive jealousy OCD vs traditional OCD

The term OCD might be a little confusing. Most people are familiar with some of the more common OCD symptoms, like repeatedly checking whether the stove is turned off, making sure that spices are put away in alphabetical order, checking that doors are locked, or washing hands out of fear of contamination. These compulsive behaviors are a mainstay of traditional OCD.

One similarity between retroactive jealousy and other forms of OCD is the repetitive behavior. With retroactive jealousy OCD, that “behavior” just happens to be constantly thinking about a partner’s past, worrying they’ll leave, or being convinced they’ll have a romantic relationship or affair with a previous partner. Instead of washing their hands or checking the stove, they revisit these jealous, negative thoughts.

“In both OCD and retroactive jealousy OCD, behavioral patterns are repetitive in nature. Distinctive to retroactive jealousy is the elevated intensity of the cycle of behaviors that are relational rather than individual and can be damaging and negatively impactful on respective partners.”

Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical, (LCSW-C), LICSW, MSW Elizabeth Keohan

The compulsions are similar, except instead of checking appliances or locks, or washing repeatedly, they might check social media accounts, look at a partner’s call history, or check email to try and “catch” their partner making contact with someone from their past relationship. These compulsive behaviors are driven by the negative emotion of retrospective jealousy.

Retroactive jealousy OCD patterns

Like other types of OCD, retroactive jealousy OCD involves a cycle. For those who live with this disorder, the pattern may go something like this:

  1. Someone hears their partner saying something positive about another woman/man they know from their past (often a partner’s ex).
  2. They become obsessed with unrelenting and unwanted thoughts that their partner is going to leave them for that person (obsession).
  3. They check emails, voicemails, and text messages for signs that something might be going on (compulsions).
  4. When they don’t find anything, they feel momentarily relieved.
  5. The relief doesn’t last long, and they have another intrusive jealous thought — the cycle begins again.

Recognizing the Signs of Retroactive Jealousy OCD

It’s important to understand the common signs of retroactive jealousy OCD, so you can get treatment before it destroys your healthy relationship. This disorder can cause feelings of envy towards the past experiences of a partner, leading to a myriad of problems, and there are both behavioral and emotional signs to watch for.

Behavioral signs of retroactive jealousy OCD

Some behavioral signs of retroactive jealousy OCD include:

  • Frequently checking a partner’s phone or computer for text or email messages
  • Repeatedly calling a partner when they’re away to make sure they aren’t connecting with an old romantic interest
  • Repeatedly seeking validation from a partner, such as asking Do you still love me? Or am I a better sexual partner?

Emotional signs of retroactive jealousy OCD

People with retroactive jealousy OCD tend to show the following emotional signs:

  • A tendency to judge a spouse/partner for their past actions. For example, feeling like they can’t stay married to someone who had a casual affair in the past
  • Worrying they “missed out” by not having as many experiences as a partner
  • Being convinced that a partner’s past actions will occur again — actions may have happened in the recent past or long ago
  • Becoming angry about a partner’s actions in the past
  • Being anxious about the future of the relationship


If you notice any of these signs in yourself or your partner, consider seeking an OCD diagnosis.

Causes of Retroactive Jealousy OCD

We don’t fully know what causes retroactive jealousy OCD, or any type of OCD for that matter.

However, we do have some understanding of the causes of OCD, though. It’s generally understood that multiple factors will contribute to someone developing the condition.

  • How the brain communicates: We know that one cause is likely to be in how the brain communicates.
  • Neurotransmitter levels: People with OCD also typically have low levels of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine.
  • Genetics: Research supports that there is a genetic component to OCD. As many as 20 – 40% of people with OCD have a close family member (first degree relative) who also lives with the disorder.

“Retroactive jealousy OCD may seem exclusive to insecurity, but root causes can lie in personal history within relationships, sometimes previous traumatic experiences, and even anxieties as it can often relate to painful memories.”

Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical, (LCSW-C), LICSW, MSW Elizabeth Keohan

Treating Retroactive Jealousy OCD

As you can imagine, retroactive jealousy OCD can wreak havoc on any relationship, partnership, or marriage. No one wants to be doubted or not trusted. Having past mistakes or behavior being constantly focused on is enough to wear down the most patient of partners.

It’s important to find ways to deal with and treat this type of OCD.

While there’s no retroactive jealousy cure, per se, there are treatments that can help alleviate many of the symptoms of the disorder. An effective and consistent treatment plan can allow someone with retroactive jealousy OCD to live a more balanced life and have stable, healthy relationships.

The most common OCD treatments include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — CBT is a type of therapy for OCD that teaches people how to identify, and then alter, unhealthy, intrusive, negative thoughts and behaviors that are common to OCD.
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) — ERP is a type of CBT and is typically considered the gold standard for treatment. Exposure therapy for OCD is done by exposing people to the triggers that typically spur the compulsions they engage in. People with retroactive jealousy OCD can slowly, in a safe and controlled environment, learn to control how they react.
  • Medication for OCD — While it isn’t always the first form of treatment suggested, medication can be extremely effective for people living with OCD. The most commonly-used medications for OCD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are antidepressants that work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. In the event SSRIs don’t work, other types of medication can be tried. Note that medication is rarely used to treat OCD on its own. It’s virtually always used in combination with therapy.

“Coping and management take time and sometimes when we’re restless with our fears, we need to dedicate effort and work towards understanding things we need to accept. Talk to a professional to help you understand your limitations and to find ways to accept what’s hard for you within your relationship. Further delving into underlying issues can help you maintain and thrive in a healthy mindset and relationship.”

Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical, (LCSW-C), LICSW, MSW Elizabeth Keohan

The bottom line is that you don’t have to suffer from the impact that retroactive jealousy OCD can have on your relationship. Even though there isn’t a cure, with treatment, you can nurture a loving and healthy relationship.

If you, your partner, or someone you care about is living with retroactive jealousy OCD, know that there is help readily available for you. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that takes a new, convenient approach to therapy. You can get the help you need from experienced, qualified therapists, so you can learn to manage your condition and become stronger, healthier, and ultimately, happier in life. Find out why so many people trust Talkspace for their mental health needs.

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Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

Licensed Talkspace Therapist, Elizabeth Keohan has enjoyed working with clients in communities from Washington DC through rural Maine over the course of her career. While she has worked extensively with those experiencing anxiety and depression, she embodies a unique comfort working with the bereaved. Elizabeth combines a compassionate, holistic approach with Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT), to help clients counter their somatic response to stress, anxiety, mood, grief and loss.

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