What Is Rebecca Syndrome, And What Do I Do If I Have It?

In 1938, a new book hit the shelves: Named Rebecca, it told the story of a young woman who marries a wealthy widower and moves into his estate, only to be continually psychologically tortured by the household’s and society’s devotion to her new husband’s first wife. Of course, it was a work of fiction – but unfortunately, the tendency for us to get caught up obsessing over our partners’ exes can be all too real. 

Sometimes termed “Rebecca syndrome” in reference to the novel, the phenomenon has recently seen an uptick in interest around social media. So what’s it all about?

What is Rebecca syndrome?

The term “Rebecca syndrome” goes back at least to the 1970s – although its exact meaning has meandered a little over the decades. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, for example, it seems to have been more of a business term than a relationship struggle; when it was used to describe romantic woes, it was more true to the plot of the novel than today, describing the trials specifically of new wives of widowers.

These days, however, the term seems to have taken on a more relaxed definition: it’s a sort of pathological jealousy of your current beau’s ex. It “is rooted in retrospective jealousy, where individuals become obsessively preoccupied with their partner’s past relationships, even if there is no rational basis for their jealousy,” chartered psychologist Louise Goddard-Crawley told Newsweek last year.

Day-to-day, it can take many forms. It might simply manifest as a weirdly high preoccupation with your partner’s ex, but it’ll often have you comparing yourself to them, too – imagining that your partner might have “traded down” by moving from them to you. Perhaps they were smarter, or more attractive than you; maybe they were better in the sack – whatever it is, you’re sure you don’t measure up, and it’s only a matter of time before your partner realizes it as well.

The result may be an obsession bordering on abuse. “The individual may engage in controlling or intrusive behavior, such as checking their partner’s messages or trying to isolate them from others, in an attempt to manage their jealousy,” Goddard-Crawley said. “They may harbor thoughts of suspicion or paranoia regarding their partner’s past, believing that the ex-partner remains a threat to the current relationship.”

But here’s the strange thing: as common as it may be to experience, Rebecca syndrome is surprisingly perplexing to experts in the field. After all, why be jealous of a relationship you know is over? 

Why do we suffer from Rebecca syndrome?

Like any psychological hurdle, the exact causes of Rebecca syndrome can be as unique as the people who suffer from it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any commonalities – and one major risk factor is (surprise surprise) low self-esteem or self-confidence.

“For example, you might have a client with quite a gap in their family till other siblings come along,” suggested Toby Ingham, a psychotherapist and expert on retroactive jealousy, in an interview with VICE last month. “And the client is left, I think, with a very early sense of being replaced, that they weren’t good enough.”

Linked with this is the issue known to psychologists as an insecure attachment style – that is, an approach to relationships based on fear or uncertainty. It’s a problem that manifests in many troublesome ways: insecure attachment is highly correlated with incidences of jealousy and hyper-vigilance toward the threat of being rejected by a partner. It can lead you to go searching in your ex’s past for reasons why your relationship is bound to fail, for example – or, paradoxically, the exact opposite may be true: you might end up idealizing your partner to such an extent that you become obsessed with their past.

“It can really bring up a lot of pain for couples,” licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy Kate Balestrieri told Women’s Health in 2022. “Because for the partner with [retroactive jealousy], they are often fixated on understanding the details of their partner’s past relationships, wondering if their partner is thinking or fantasizing about their ex, or even comparing their current relationship with their past experiences.”

And while Rebecca syndrome is not a mental health disorder, it’s worth noting that certain psychological issues may make experiencing retroactive jealousy more likely. “It may be that an individual’s OCD or anxiety takes the shape and form of relationship obsessions,” suggested Balestrieri, “because that’s one of the more common areas where obsessions can take shape.”

Is Rebecca syndrome becoming more common?

Rebecca syndrome is not a new phenomenon – but it’s definitely found a new lease of life in the modern world. That’s for a few reasons: firstly, we’re simply more likely than our great-grandparents to have a romantic history at all: “in the current climate of internet dating, many people are much more comfortable and relaxed with people hooking up and are not so surprised that people have had lots of partners,” Ingham said. “Some people, though, are really troubled by it.” 

“As soon as they know anything about their partner’s previous romantic or sexual history, it drives them into states,” he explained. “In that group, some people suffer more severely than others.”

But even past that, there’s something about our constantly-online lives that really makes obsessing over our romantic predecessors easy. While our parents and grandparents may have dealt with reminders of their exes by just taking down photos or throwing out mementos, today we’re virtually accosted by evidence of our partners’ previous flings on the regular.

“From the Facebook age onwards, people could start looking back over people’s pictures to see who they were with, to check their Instagram, to see who’s following them, to see if an old boyfriend is still liking their current girlfriend’s pictures,” explained Ingham.

 

And it’s more common than you might think. Some two-thirds of college students sampled in 2007 admitted to using social media to “monitor” their significant others, and while most of that was likely benign interest in what a loved one had been enjoying lately, it can easily turn into just another form of doomscrolling. 

“I think the digital age has accelerated a whole set of psychological problems, and I’m not sure if our psychologies have caught up with that,” Ingham said. “We’re still kind of analog people.”

What to do if you have Rebecca syndrome

The good news is that Rebecca syndrome is not doomed to ruin your relationship – though overcoming it will require some hard psychological work. 

“This can be a very painful, complicated area to get into,” Ingham warned. But “if you don’t get into it, most likely, your relationships are always going to fall apart because you’ll be plagued by some level of kind of paranoia that you don’t matter and that whoever came before you was a more satisfying and important partner.”

So what’s the prescription? Well, like so many problems, step one is to realize and acknowledge that you’re affected by it, Open University professor of sociology and intimacy Jacqui Gabb told Women’s Health. And be brutally honest: why are you feeling the way you are? After all – if you don’t know what the cause of the problem is, how are you going to figure out a solution?

“What surprises me is how little linking up we do between what’s happened to us and how we feel about ourselves,” noted Ingham. “There are things [people have] been through, things they already knew, but they just haven’t linked that up with what it’s like to be an adult dating in an adult world.”

But the main thing all the experts seem to agree on? Communicate. “We tend to get in trouble when we try to fill in the blanks, which leads us to creating our own narrative,” Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and head of clinical learning at Thriveworks, told Women’s Health. Instead, try having an open and honest conversation about what you’re feeling, and why – no trying to sneak around the issue – and ask for what you need from the relationship if you’re not getting it.

And that’s not just advice for those experiencing Rebecca syndrome, either – if your partner seems overly invested in your exes, it’s important for you to be patient and reassuring for them, too. “The more you shut down and the more defensive you get, the worse the pattern is going to become and the more they’re going to pull away,” warned Simonian. That “is an unhelpful situation to be in.”

Possibly the hardest step of all, of course, is also the most effective: just try to stay out of the past altogether. That was then; this is now – so for god’s sake, stop trawling Facebook for photos of your boo’s prom date from 2004.

“I tend to tell people to be careful about Googling problems,” Ingham advised. “If you Google ‘pain in my head,’ you’ll get everything from ‘did you bang it’ to ‘this a sign of a tumor.’” 

“People who look through their partner’s Facebook or Insta similarly create some options for worrying.”

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