Managing Jealousy over Boyfriend’s Past Relationship

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Reader’s Question

Simply put, I am jealous of my boyfriend’s previous relationships. I am a 19-year-old female student and my boyfriend is 28. Before meeting me, he had a five-year relationship and they were engaged to be married. Even though my boyfriend and I have been together for almost two years now, the fact that she broke up with him still makes me feel that he would still be with her if she hadn’t ended it. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m overshadowed, in a sense, because of the length of that relationship.

Despite my protests, my boyfriend used to unknowingly and randomly drop information about her and their relationship. This habit of his has lessened, thankfully, because it gets me upset. (I breakdown at the end of the day because of it.) I usually have breakdowns every time he or someone else brings up anything about him and his ex-fiancée. Usually, I get so angry and frustrated when this happens that I slap myself with my hands. I think it’s my unhealthy way of releasing my frustrations. Also, just recently, when I get so angry, I think of slitting my wrists in front of him. I’ve never done it, but sometimes, to relieve myself, I pretend my thumb is a knife, and when I pretend to slit my wrist with my thumb, I feel somewhat relieved.

I always end up hating things that are associated with my boyfriend’s past relationships. For example, he told me that his fiancée was a nurse, and now I find myself hating all nurses in general. He told me the place she’s from and now I’ve sworn to never go to that place, and I hope a natural disaster hits her hometown, and she dies as a result. I just simply unconditionally hate her, even though I’ve never met her.

I hate being like this. My boyfriend blames me because I can’t accept his past, but I blame him for telling me these unnecessary things, and getting them into my head. In my opinion, talking about ex-partners serves no purpose but to torture me. There are rare times when I can actually think of his ex-fiancée and him without being upset, and I want that to be the norm.

Psychologist’s Reply

Unless two people meet and start a serious relationship fairly early in their lives, one or both partners will have had experiences with other romantic partners (especially when one person in the couple is considerably older). When both partners have had serious relationships before, there is usually less jealousy over those past relationships because each partner realizes the role of those past experiences, and is not as threatened by them. In other words, when one has had past relationships, it’s easier to realize that, although important at the time, people and circumstances change.

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In your case, being the one without previous experience with serious relationships, it seems more difficult for you to be able to put your partner’s past relationships in context (especially since he was not the one to end the previous relationship). A mature outlook is to be able to appreciate the value of previous relationships, both at the time they existed, and for the ways they shaped your partner into the person you love now. It is likely that he is a better relationship partner now than he was five years ago, and he may appreciate you more because of his past relationship. Also, the fact that he was engaged to be married demonstrates that he is willing and able to be committed to one person.

On the surface, it may seem that the solution to your jealousy is to be shielded from any information about your partner’s past. However, a strong relationship is built on honesty and mutual self-disclosure. If your boyfriend ends up feeling like he can’t talk about large swaths of his past, your relationship together is likely to suffer. It doesn’t sound like his disclosures are meant to hurt you, but simply what comes naturally in an intimate relationship.

You noted that there are times you don’t react jealously to information about your boyfriend’s past. Notice what you think during those times, or what circumstances seem to predict a non-jealous response. For example, perhaps when you end up talking to yourself rationally about his past, you keep his past in perspective and end up staying calm as a result. I suspect that it’s easiest to do this when you feel close, or things are going well between the two of you. If so, perhaps when you find yourself feeling jealous, you could talk to yourself rationally (“Just because he had a life before we met doesn’t mean he loves me any less”) and ask for reassurance that he wouldn’t trade his relationship with you for his past. I’m afraid that if you react with upset and anger, the likelihood that the past relationship looks rosier increases accordingly. Use that image as motivation to reign in your irrational thoughts, and turn to your boyfriend for reassurance rather than let your jealousy drive a wedge between the two of you.

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