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Narcissist’s Retroactive Jealousy Of Your Past Relationships

Uploaded 1/12/2024, approx. 23 minute read

Romantic jealousy is the name we give to a fear of loss.

The imminent ambient threat when our intimate partner, our spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, even friend with benefits, starts to be interested in another person.

There is an implicit competition between us and that other person, and there is no certainty who is going to win the race.

Losing a partner is one of the most difficult, conceivable traumas.

Heartbreak is not just a simile or a metaphor. It actually happens.

There is a medical syndrome of broken hearts in the wake of breakups and divorces and so on.

So today divorce is recognized as the second most traumatic experience in life.

When your partner starts to pay attention to another person, when she gravitates towards someone else, when she laughs at the jokes, when she hangs around, and I say she, of course applies to he.

The genders are interchangeable in this case.

But I'm going to use he and she, okay?


When this happens, your world is crumbling, falling apart.

There's a sense of doom and gloom, ominous menace, a democless sword hanging above your head.

And this is translated cognitively into romantic jealousy.

Romantic jealousy is actually a cognitive process, not only an emotional one.

It's an emotional reaction to the cognitive realization of potential likely loss.


Today's topic is about romantic jealousy, but a very peculiar variant of romantic jealousy, known as retroactive jealousy.

Retroactive jealousy, and we're going to put an emphasis on retroactive jealousy in narcissism.

How do narcissists experience retroactive jealousy, and even more importantly, why?

And a proper retroactive jealousy, my name is Sam Vachnin, I'm the author of Malignant Narcissistic Personality Revisited, a former retroactive visiting professor of psychology and a very current member of the Faculty of CEAPs, Commonwealth Institute for Advanced Professional Studies.

Retroactive jealousy, just to be clear, is jealousy.

It's not distinguishable from jealousy on a psychodynamic level.

It's jealousy.

It has many of the same causes, the same emotional and effective manifestations, and the same cognitions associated with it.


When your partner still values or treasures someone in their past, when your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse are in touch with their exes on a regular basis, spend quality time with them one on one, when affection can get easily out of hand, love could be rekindled, old flames and all this, there's jealousy.

And this jealousy is justified and is therefore not retroactive jealousy.

Retroactive jealousy is when you're feeling threatened by your partner's past, especially past lovers.

When you're reacting to lovers, spouses, exes, people in your partner's past were no longer there, even dead people, people who have died, and this is retroactive jealousy.

Retroactive jealousy, as distinct from classical romantic jealousy, is not founded, is irrational.

How could you be jealous and why would you be jealous of someone in your partner's past who has passed away, someone she's no longer in touch with, someone whose name she can barely recall, someone who hasn't been too meaningful, a one-night stand?

Why would you be jealous of these people?

And while retroactive jealousy is not a formal mental health diagnosis nor is it a clinical entity, it is still a symptom of many mental health disorders.

In 2017, there was a systematic review of 230+ studies on romantic jealousy, and they found very strong correlations between romantic jealousy and a variety of other mental health issues, for example, an insecure attachment style, insecurity, low self-esteem, past experiences of infidelity with other partners, substance abuse, health challenges, hormonal fluctuations, brain injury, chronic medical conditions such as Parkinson's disease and some dementias.

Generally, general insecurity characterizes all these situations.

And when retroactive jealousy is persistent, cannot be eradicated and is severe, it negatively impacts many important areas of the relationship and life.

And so then it is usually associated with bipolar disorder, depression, psychosis, personality disorders, especially cluster B, but not only paranoid personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, others, and anxiety disorders.

And today we're going to focus on one of these diagnoses, narcissistic personality disorder.

Another point to ponder, retroactive jealousy is somehow connected to obsessive compulsive disorder.

We are not quite sure how and we are not quite sure why, but there is an element of obsession in it.

Retroactive jealousy is much more obsessional than classic run-of-the-mill typical daily romantic jealousy.

And it involves emotional and mental fixations.

Also, retroactive jealousy, OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, involves intrusive thoughts, obsessions about the partner's past relationships, followed by some repetitive rituals, compulsions, for example, continually stalking the social media of your ex, reading all kinds of messages and signals into totally innocuous exchanges or posts or whatever.

That's an example of a ritualistic ceremonial behavior intended to fend off the anxiety incumbent upon retroactive jealousy.

So, retroactive jealousy is when you are romantically jealous of your partner because of her past relationships with others.

And these relationships could be as brief as a one-night stand, as long as a marriage, as non-committal, as friends with benefits, as invested as a classic dyad or couple, boyfriend-girlfriend, boyfriend-boyfriend, and so on.

All past lovers, all past relationships, even friends of your current intimate partner, are reasons for jealousy in retroactive jealousy.

They provoke retroactive jealousy.

Now, in the second half of this video, I'm going to discuss retroactive jealousy in healthy people, people without any mental health diagnosis.

But right now, I'm going to give you the lay of the land and the motivation and psychodynamic processes behind retroactive jealousy in narcissism.

Why is the narcissist much more prone to retroactive jealousy than anyone else?

Why is that? What retroactive jealousy caters to the narcissist's psychological needs?

And how does retroactive jealousy sit with other components or ingredients or elements of narcissistic personality?

What is the synergy? What is the collusion or the mutual feedback of retroactive jealousy with other elements of the shared fantasy?

So let's start with idealization.

Idealization is unlike a scientific theory.

It is inconsistent and it is not falsifiable.

In other words, no amount of information from the outside can negate the idealization of the intimate partner.

In other words, idealization is a form of delusional disorder.

And like every delusional disorder, it's also externally inconsistent.

It doesn't sit well with the facts.

It's counterfactual.

Because it is so fragile, the idealized version of the intimate partner is open to attack, open to challenge, can be easily undermined.

Because it is so brittle and so vulnerable and so fragile, it provokes anxiety.

It is dissonant.

When you idealize your partner, somewhere in the back of your mind as a narcissist, you know that it's not true.

That it's a piece of fiction.

That she is not as ideal as you make her to be.

That it's a story you're telling yourself.

That it's part of some larger process, some need of yours.

And has very little to do, has very low correlation with the actual partner, the external object to which you have no access.

So the second idealization starts in the narcissist's mind.

It becomes dissonant and it creates anxiety.

Anxiety is very uncomfortable.

And the narcissist tries to reduce the anxiety by reshaping the ideal internal object, the idealized internal object by playing with it.

By creating new narratives all the time to accommodate countervailing information, undermining data.

So when the narcissist finds out that his partner has had numerous or other lovers in the past, she has had relationships in the past.

She has had other partners in the past, especially sexual partners.

This undermines the idealized version of the partner.

Remember that the narcissist creates a snapshot of the intimate partner.

This snapshot is internalized as an internal object.

And then it is photoshopped.

It's idealized.

It is driven far away from the external object.

And the narcissist continues to interact with the internal object, not with the external object, not with you, not with the intimate partner.

And then when the external object diverges or deviates from the internal object, this creates a lot of anxiety in the narcissist.

A lot of dissonance.

And he tries to coerce the external object to conform to the internal object.

And this is what I call coercive snapshotting.

Now, if your partner used to be promiscuous, if she has had numerous sexual partners, or if she has had relationships of deep, abiding love with someone, if she has been married before, etc., etc., if she has had other intimate partners in her life in the past, this renders idealization very difficult, if not impossible.

It's like the narcissist says, here's my potential intimate partner.

I'm taking a snapshot of her.

Literally, I'm introjecting her, internalizing her, I'm taking a snapshot of her.

And I'm idealizing this snapshot.

I'm telling myself, for example, she's gorgeous, but she's almost a virgin.

She didn't have many men before me.

I'm her first or her second.

She's chaste. She's virginal. She is moral. She is someone I can rely on, not to cheat on me, not to abandon me, not to separate from me, not to dump me.

Why? Because she hasn't had much experience with others, despite her amazing unprecedented spectacular beauty and her sex appeal and the way she dresses provocatively.

So, as you see, the idealization requires to reconcile the irreconcilable.

If she's gorgeous, she's likely to have had many partners.

If she dresses provocatively, it's because she's promiscuous, maybe.

So, you have to reconcile this somehow in the idealized internal object that represents your partner inside your mind as a narcissist.

And it becomes more and more difficult.

The more information the narcissist has about his partner's past.

Ideally, the narcissist likes to pretend that his partner has never had a past.

She just materialized out of thin air in his life.

Unblemished. Unblemished, untouched, pure, virginal, unadulterated.

So, this is problem number one. This is one of the main routes of retroactive jealousy in the narcissist.

There's a fear of loss, what we call in psychodynamic literature, object loss.

There's a fear of object loss, but it's not the external object.

The narcissist is not afraid of losing his partner.

He's afraid of losing the idealized version of the partner and thereby losing the shared fantasy.

So, the narcissist's object loss, exactly like everything else about narcissism, is internalized, not externalized.

Whereas a healthy person would be afraid to lose his actual partner.

The narcissist is afraid to lose the idealized image of the partner in his mind, which would render the shared fantasy null and void.

This is problem number one, and it gives rise to retroactive jealousy.

Problem number two. In order to engage in the shared fantasy and to impose it on the partner, or to incorporate the partner in it, if the partner voluntarily submits to it, the narcissist needs to infantilize the partner.

Remember that the narcissist regresses the partner to early childhood.

He treats the partner as a child.

In order to allow for the dual mothership concept or mechanism to operate, the narcissist needs to become the mother of the intimate partner, and the intimate partner needs to become the mother of the narcissist.

And so, for the narcissist to become the maternal figure in his intimate partner's life, she needs to become a child.

She needs to regress and infantilize.

She needs to become an infant.

But how could she become an infant if she had had other intimate partners, if she has slept around, if she had been promiscuous, if she had had other lovershusbands and friends with benefits?

How could you infantilize a partner like this?

This kind of partner is an adult, not only an adult, but a contaminated, infected adult.

And so how could you take this adult and regress her to an infantile stage?

Because infants are pure. They're untouched. They're unadulterated. They're clean.

And a partner who used to have many other lovers and many other sexual partners and many other relationships, she's anything but clean. She is adulterated. She's touched.

And so this creates a conflict. The narcissist is unable to infantilize a partner with a rich sexual and relationship history. He is unable to treat her as a mother would because she is not an infant.

And so instead what the narcissist does, he devalues and demonizes his partner's past lovers. He says, "My partner is pure. My partner is clean. My partner is uncontaminated and unadulterated.

Therefore, my partner can easily become a child that I could love."

Her past experience with other men is because those other men are animals. They've taken advantage of her. They've raped her.

So he devalues and demonizes past lovers, sexual partners, husbands, intimate partners, romantic interests.

In the past, they all become devalued and demonized. The narcissist accuses them of having defiled and degraded and demeaned this perfect ideal child that has become his intimate partner now.

So you can find narcissists who are actually misogynists. They consider women as inferior. They consider women as evil. They hate women. They reject women. But at the same time, because they are narcissists, they consider women to be childlike and in need of protection.

So these kinds of narcissists have a dissonance between their hatred of women and their compulsive need to protect women.

Because by protecting women, they render women infantile. They render women toddlerlike, childlike, and then they can safely idealize them.

Anything that has happened in the past to the narcissist's intimate partner, the narcissist's partner in the shared fantasy, anything that has happened in her past was not her fault. It was the fault of her brutal husband, her abusive boyfriend, her exploitative friend with benefits. She did nothing wrong. She's just been taken advantage of. She's been drunk. I don't know. Not her fault. So there's a duality here. The narcissist actually hates women, but he also is very protective of women because he regards them as inferior creatures in need of being defended and rescued and saved and healed and so on and so forth. We have seen already two roots, two reasons, two psychodynamic founts and foundations of retroactive jealousy in narcissism. Number one, the inability to idealize. It's very difficult to idealize someone with a rich sexual and romantic and relationship history. And the second problem is the inability to infantilize. It's very difficult to convert someone into a child if she has had a long history with other people, with other men. So that interferes with the formation, the seamless and smooth formation of the shared fantasy and provokes in the narcissist enormous anxiety. So the past versions of the intimate partner, the intimate partner's very past interferes with idealization, with infantilization, with the dual mothership and with a very establishing and foundation of a shared fantasy.

As far as the narcissist is concerned, your life starts and your life ends with a narcissist in an eternal, fantastic present in space.

Nothing that has happened to you before you've met the narcissist should be of any importance. Nothing should affect, have any impact on the narcissist's ability to idealize you and infantilize, regress you to childhood.

Past lovers and past versions of yourself as an intimate partner, as a colluding associate in the shared fantasy.

Your past, but not only your past lovers, past sexual partners, past relationships, past romantic partners, past husbands, not only, not only, but past renditions of yourself, past versions of yourself.

Anything to do with your past cannot be snapshotted.

The narcissist cannot introject your past. So he cannot control your past. He can control you now. He can control your present. He can deform your future. He can destroy your future.

The only thing the narcissist says no power over is your past. And the narcissist hates to be out of control. He hates the loss of control because it creates in him enormous separation insecurity, also known as abandonment anxiety. He needs to own you and possess you and control you within the shared fantasy so as not to lose you.

And he can control every dimension of you except your past and the people in your past. He cannot control them either.

It's pretty easy to prove this.

The narcissist reacts extremely badly to sexual partners, lovers, romantic partners, intimate partners that you have had in the past. He reacts very badly to.

But at the same time, some narcissists don't react at all to your current sexual partners. So if you were to cheat on the narcissist, infidelity, the narcissist is likely to be far more jealous of your exes than of the guy you've just cheated with.

Past lovers provoke jealousy. Past sexual partners and past relationships provoking the narcissist retroactive jealousy because he cannot incorporate your past and people in your past into the shared fantasy.

But current lovers, current sexual partners are less threatening, ironically, less threatening because he can snapshot them. He can introduce them as figments of the shared fantasy. He can somehow control them by modifying the narrative of the shared fantasy. So we find many narcissists in open relationships, group sex, and engaged in betrayal fantasies, narcissists who push you to be with other men. And of course, again, she, he, he, she, it's all interchangeable. Current lovers, the men you're cheating with, the men you're sleeping with, these current lovers, the narcissists can snapshot. He can integrate them into the shared fantasy. He can instrumentalize.

In some ways they enhance the shared fantasy. This is the betrayal fantasy.

But he can do nothing about your past lovers. So he's much more jealous of them. That's one of the strongest proofs that what I'm saying is correct.

The narcissist inhabits an eternal present. Narcissism is the original form of mindfulness. To the narcissist and more so maybe to the psychopath, the future is either of two.

A hazy, fuzzy, abstract, merely hypothetical concept or an anticipated certainty, the preordained outcome of the shared fantasy and magical thinking.

The narcissist believes that he determines future events merely by thinking about them, merely by introducing them into the shared fantasy.

And these two misperceptions of time diffuse time on the one hand and teleological time on the other.

Inversion, these are cognitive deficits or cognitive distortions.

And we will not discuss it right now, but now the narcissist has a very conflicted relationship with time. And that's another reason for retroactive jealousy in narcissism.

So as you can see, retroactive jealousy in narcissism among narcissists is not the same as retroactive jealousy among healthy people.

Healthy people? Among healthy people? It's mostly about fear of loss. Yes, it indicates a mental problem, mental health problem, but it's not very deep.

Among narcissists, retroactive jealousy is a built-in feature, not a bug.

Now, what are the signs of retroactive jealousy?

So people who are retroactively jealous usually try to gain information. They're obsessed with information. They misidentify information with control.

The more they know, the more they are privy to data about the partner, the more they feel erroneously that they're in control of the partner. So they constantly question you about your past relationships. They conduct internet searches. They stalk you on social media. They stalk your former partners, former sexual partners, former romantic partners, exes. They stalk them on social media. They create fake accounts to view content. They investigate all kinds of old schoolbooks. They interrogate other people who used to be present in your life in the past.

Friends, academic records, college days, school days, they're all over you. They are like biographers. They are writing your biography. They go over private property like albums, souvenir boxes, letters. They hack your email, and so on and so forth. They're obsessed with information. They leverage social networking sites to find out about your past.

So there's been a study in 2018 that demonstrated a reverse connection. It seems that online social media, social networks, they actually encourage retroactive jealousy because they allow your current partner to compare himself to past partners. Your current partner can fact check past relationship details, can access remnants or souvenirs of past relationships digitally, and then compare himself and feel jealous because there's a sense of insecurity and inferiority built into retroactive jealousy at all times.

So this kind of person collects information and then makes sarcastic or degrading comments about you, your promiscuity, alleged promiscuity, about your exes, about your relationships.

He devalues, as I said, if he's a narcissist, he devalues your partners. He accuses them of having abused you and defiled you in some way. He comments about how your exes may be more attractive to you or more accomplished than you. He says, "You wish I were them, not me." He imagines scenarios where you choose your exes over him.

He snoops through your phones and browsers, of course, in order to construct this kind of script where he's inferior to the alternatives.

There's a lot of incel psychology in this. And he always accuses you of remaining in contact with your exes or cheating on him with your exes, whether true or not.

Again, when I say he, it's a she, she is a he. Gender pronouns are interchangeable. When you feel jealous about your partner's past, it's retroactive jealousy. And many people have passing retroactive jealousy.

But when this is intense, when it doesn't go away, when it's a feature of your relationship, when you interact and relate to your partner mainly through retroactive jealousy, there's a problem here.

Because the need to control your partner causes you to lose control of your partner. You're pushing your partner away. There's no way to control your partner's past.

And so your constant attempts to do so push her away.

This is exactly what happens essentially with the narcissist as well. The narcissist constructs scenarios of betrayal, of infidelity, become suspicious, incorporates these scenarios in the betrayal fantasy, pushes his partner to betray and cheat on him, for example.

And the narcissist is constantly taunted and tormented by his inability to somehow gain control over your past.

This is one of the main drivers in the devaluation phase, by the way. The realization that the idealized object inside the narcissist's mind, the introject, the snapshot, can never capture you or represent you totally, can never encapsulate your totality because there's a vast period of time to which the narcissist has no access and over which the narcissist has no control.

There's a part of you, your past, your relationships in the past, your exes, your previous marriages, your sexual experiences. They're out of the narcissist's purview, access and control.

And this is one of the main foundations that lead the narcissist to begin to convert the internal object that represents you to convert it into a persecretary object and then later devalue you and attempt to separate from you.

It's an identical dynamic to early childhood, to the dynamic in early childhood.

In fact, Freud was the first to observe this. The child wants to possess the mother. But the mother is a husband. The child is a father. The mother has friends. The mother has occupations and vocation and a job.

And I know why the mother has a family. The mother has a life. The child wants to monopolize this life. The child wants to take over the mother and symbiotically merge and fuse with her.

And it is this failure, the failure to do so, that leads ultimately to separation and devituation.

In the case of the narcissist, the child gets stuck in the face of merger, fusion or symbiosis. The child cannot let go of the mother. And the child cannot let go of the mother because the mother keeps broadcasting or hinting that the child can possess her totally. That it is possible. It is a fantasy, of course.

And it is the psychological root of the shared fantasy. The narcissist tries to recreatedisfable this life, this confabulation, this deception that his mother sold him on.

If you just try hard enough, if you perform, if you're a good boy, you can have me. And you can have me totally.

To the exclusion of everything and everyone else. That's why the child cannot separate.

And of course, this message from the mother, this signal, is intended to keep the child around, not to allow the child to separate.

It's a form of abuse. When the child grows up and becomes a narcissist, he re-enacts all this. He replays this conflict with the mother. He tries to monopolize and own you, but only within the shared fantasy.

And when he discovers that you have a life outside the shared fantasy, if not at present, then definitely in the past, then he wants your gun. He sees a chance, an opportunity to separate from you, to individuate.

This time, it may end well. He may grow up. He may become an adult. It's very exciting. There's a sense of relief and a kind of urge or compulsion or drive to do it.

But all this is because the narcissist realizes that there's a part of you to which he would never have access and can never control and dis-legitimizes, discarding you and thereby separating and individuate.

Everything pulls together. Everything comes and flows into one place. The perfect storm, which could lead to the perfect self-actualization, is a mature adult the narcissist wants to believe.

Of course, this never happens. Why this never happens?

Well, watch the videos in the shared fantasy playlist, especially the videos on hoovering. But you see that retroactive jealousy is the symptom of the inevitable inexorable progress of the shared fantasy towards devaluation and separation.

Retroactive jealousy is like a barometer or a thermometer. It is an indicator that the narcissist is beginning to realize that he can't have you all. He can't control you or own you or possess you or merge with you or fuse with you or become one with you.

He cannot because it's a part of you that he would never gain access to. And that leads to devaluation and separation and the story the cycle recommends.

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