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.
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.
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.
I would question my girlfriend incessantly. I would try to make her feel guilty about having had relationships in the past. I was incredibly hypocritical, considering my own past life had been similar to hers. And in stark contrast to me, she barely seemed to give my past relationships a second thought.
It was very hard on her. Try to imagine your lover constantly wrestling with your past, judging you. And then trying to make you feel bad about it, obsessed with things that don’t matter any more… silly things, insignificant things. Events you have no reason to feel shame or regret about.
Despite this, for the most part my ex would be very calm and loving, trying to reassure me, making it clear that I occupied a special place in her heart. And that would help, for a little while – until the same recurring thoughts and questions would return, often with a renewed intensity.
It became a vicious cycle of unwanted thoughts and curiosity, followed by reassurance from my girlfriend, followed by a bit of relief. And then right back to square one.
Our relationship lasted for a few years but eventually it came to an end. My jealousy was a central factor.
After we broke up I felt guilty and embarrassed for a long time. I’d replay certain scenes from our relationship back in my head, and just cringe. Stupid fights, unnecessary arguments, that sort of thing. I harboured tremendous guilt for acting like such a jerk. That person didn’t feel like “me”. I knew it was me, but it almost felt like I’d been hijacked by some annoying little demon. That might sound melodramatic, but I really felt as though I had lost control.
Confiding in friends and family, even therapists and counsellors, wasn’t fruitful. No-one seemed to really understand. The common advice was generally to “just get over it”.
I started Googling phrases like “obsessed with girlfriend’s past” and eventually came across the phrase “retroactive jealousy” on internet forums. People are Googling left and right but they don’t know the name for this condition. It wasn’t and isn’t a common term.
People suffering from retroactive jealousy get caught in a loop of obsessive thoughts, painful emotions, inconsiderate and irrational actions, and subsequent self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it appears that many psychologists believe it falls within the spectrum of obsessive compulsive disorders.
In these internet forums I found some sympathetic voices, but the vast majority of rhetoric felt toxic – there are a lot of men online who really don’t like women. There were several who would justify their jealous behaviour and use the forums to demean women. And that was confusing. This was the first place that people had some understanding of what I was going through, but there was a tremendous amount of misogyny and negativity.
Other people in these forums would go to the opposite extreme. For them anyone who struggled with any aspect of a lover’s previous relationships was a bad person acting irrationally. I disagree with that.
I was unable to find a ready-made community and I wanted to put that right.
Ammanda Major, a counsellor at relationship advice service Relate
We do see cases in the counselling room where a person is fixated with their partners’ previous sexual relationships. Jealousy is something most people recognise, however this kind of jealousy is quite different. A person sometimes has flashbacks to events they didn’t see, that they were never part of. This often leads to an obsessive cycle of thought and an unquenchable desire to get to a “truth” of what “really happened” between a partner and their previous lovers. They can end up tormenting themselves and their partner and in some cases the relationship can turn abusive. Whether you’re the person obsessing about the past or the person on the receiving end, I would recommend you get professional help and support.
Firstly I needed some spiritual balance so I went to meditation retreats and started learning more about Buddhism. That was a significant step towards diminishing my ego. Then I began to do my own extensive research.
After that I started blogging and then I wrote a book – originally published under a pen name, because I was still ashamed. There was an overwhelming reaction to it, so I created an online course.
Today, there is an online community people can turn to for help on how to cope and tips on how to overcome the condition.
I have been surprised by the sheer number of people visiting my website – more than 120,000 people over the past year, from nearly every country in the world. And about half of them have been women.
I used to think retroactive jealousy was a condition rooted in men and the heterosexual male ego, but that just isn’t the case. I get contacted by heterosexual women, lesbians, gay men – and people of all ages, from people in their mid-teens to their late 70s.
I also receive a lot of emails from people in Saudi Arabia and India, countries where people aren’t generally as open about sexuality. When I started making YouTube videos the response became even larger.
The partners of retroactive jealousy sufferers have sent me heartbreaking emails, asking what they can do to help their partner through this problem. But I always emphasise that this is ultimately their partner’s problem to solve, not theirs. I know this well from my own experience. My girlfriend could not cure my retroactive jealousy, no matter how hard she tried.
Further help and resources
If anyone is reading this and recognising themselves, the number one thing I would say to them is, “Don’t assume what you have is something you have to live with forever. It’s not.”
It’s absolutely possible to overcome retroactive jealousy – I’m living proof of that, and so is a small army of former sufferers, spread out all over the world.
In terms of my ex, it’s a long story. We have had some difficult conversations but the long and short of it is we’re OK now. I consider her a friend, and I think she feels the same about me. Looking back, I can’t imagine my life without that relationship, without having her in my life. She inspired me to grow in ways I didn’t think possible.
As told to Megha Mohan
Illustrations by Katie Horwich