I’m a woman and I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months. I’m head over heels in love with him. He’s handsome, kind, funny, and I can see him being an incredible husband and father – and we are having conversations about that being our future. We’ve also talked about our pasts, including our exes, and that’s where the problem lies. Before me, he was with his ex for four years. They had also planned to get married and have children but started having lots of fights about other things and had a very stretched-out break-up.
A few months ago, I looked her up on social media and I’ve become obsessed. She’s beautiful, travels a lot and seems so glamorous and successful. She doesn’t live in Ireland anymore and my boyfriend says they’re not in contact so I don’t think he’s cheating or anything, but I’m still obsessively jealous of her, thinking she’s so much better than me, that he must be missing her, that I’m his second choice. She is model-beautiful with my dream body, and I’ve even started thinking about them in bed together; I’ve made myself cry just thinking about it.
I’ve even said no to sex with my boyfriend a few times because I was feeling insecure about how I look compared to her. I feel edgy and anxious and just want to get back to normal, but keep obsessing over her.
The bad news is that you appear to be suffering from a pretty severe case of retroactive jealousy. The good news is that you can start to reframe your thinking and get out of this obsessive spiral, though you may have to be strict with yourself and even ask for a bit of support.
Retroactive jealousy occurs when we become jealous or upset thinking about someone’s previous relationships or sex partners. As you are experiencing, it can often result in obsessive thoughts; comparisons between yourself and the other person(s); feeling anxious, upset or angry or worried when thinking about your partner’s exes; and excessively worrying that your partner may be thinking about their exes or that they might leave you for their ex.
It’s a really horrible feeling that can leave people feeling edgy, anxious and out of control, and can really damage their self-esteem. It’s a hard thing to feel – and it’s creating distance between yourself and your partner, which is of course the last thing you want.
Jealousy, as you are experiencing, can have damaging impacts on our relationships and mental health
There are ways to get out of this rut – some you can do alone, some you might need to ask others for support, and some involve speaking with your boyfriend.
Firstly, stop looking at this woman’s social media, immediately. This one requires willpower and discipline. You know that looking at this woman’s photographs is making you feel bad about yourself, so every time you are tempted to look at her glamorous photographs of her latest sun-kissed adventure, ask yourself two things: “How do I feel right now?”, and “How will I feel after looking at her pictures?” Ask and answer these questions out loud, so that you actually have to say the words and hear the answers. I’m guessing that both answers will be some variation of: “Sad, lonely and bad about myself.”
You have latched on to the idea that this woman is better than you and that you are not worthy of your partner – and in these moments of low self-esteem, your brain is telling you to confirm your suspicions by looking at her photos. It’s emotional self-harm, and you need to start actively breaking that cycle. When you do feel tempted to look at her pictures, find something else that will address those feelings of sadness, isolation or low self-esteem instead – call a friend, do something nice for yourself or someone else, or try to connect with your boyfriend. Start finding ways to regulate and address these emotions instead of exacerbating them.
But while I don’t want you to dwell in your obsession with this woman, I do want you to explore the contours of your own jealousy for a moment. Jealousy, as you are experiencing, can have damaging impacts on our relationships and mental health when we act on it in ways that are distancing, controlling, possessive, or when we use it to put ourselves or other people down. But when we sit with jealousy and reflect on it, it can be harnessed in more beneficial ways.
[ I’m falling for a man, but he’s still living with his ex-wife ]
When you think about this woman, you are imagining an utterly idealised version of her that’s largely based on her social media presence. We all know that social media often presents hyper-edited versions of people, minimising both their flaws and their complexity to a two-dimensional filtered image – and you have bought into this image of her, completely. But even with that idealised image – what are you jealous of? Is it her travels, her confidence, her career success, her social life? Think about the qualities that you imagine she possesses. Then think about which of these qualities you value and would like to bring more into your life – and bring the focus away from her, and on to you. How can you start living a life that you want and that you’re proud of and that aligns with your values? Jealousy can often feel passive and disempowered, but by using jealousy as a guide, we can empower ourselves and take back control by focusing on ourselves and taking small actions that move us toward the life we want.
These are both ways of interrupting your thought processes about this woman – and you also need to interrupt your thought process around your boyfriend and his ex. When you start to obsess over his relationship with her, remind yourself that he is with you now; that having previous relationships has made him the person you love today; and that you have also presumably been attracted to or been with other people in your life, and that doesn’t mean you don’t love your boyfriend. Your brain is playing some very emotional, irrational tricks on your right now; interrupting these thoughts with logic is important.
[ My ex has been waiting for me for two years – do I go back to him or let him go? ]
It might also be helpful to express your insecurities to you boyfriend, not as a way to try make him feel bad or to indicate that you want to police his interactions with exes, but purely focusing on your feelings. Admit that you have looked at his ex’s social media and feel intimidated by her and a little insecure. Tell your boyfriend that you love him and care deeply about the relationship and somehow, she has become a symbol of how much you fear losing him. If he really is a wonderful and kind person, he will appreciate your honesty, look to validate you, and it may lead to an open and connecting conversation. Again, this is about bringing your focus away from this woman and back to you and your boyfriend.
If you try all of this and you still find yourself obsessing, it may be worth chatting to a therapist about any underlying insecurities and techniques that will help you soothe your anxiety and interrupt these thought spirals.
But just remember: you have a wonderful boyfriend who you are crazy about, and you are planning a life together. You’re not in competition with anyone, and you get to shape the life you want. Focus on that. It’ll be wonderful.