It’s the modern equivalent of Pandora’s box. We know we shouldn’t open it, we’ve been told it will make us feel awful, and yet… well, and yet our curiosity always gets the better of us in the end. And, before you know it, it’s 11.59pm on a Wednesday night and you’re two years deep into the Instagram feed of your partner’s ex.
As in, yeah, the person they dated before you. That ex.
Of course, we all know that it’s a mistake to spend time obsessing over our romantic predecessor. Hell, we’ve read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and we completely get that it’s never a good idea to go poking around your partner’s (metaphorical) attic.
And yet… well, we all do it, don’t we? Even if we don’t like to admit that we do.
Take my friend Sarah, for example (obviously not her real name). “I’m really bad for checking out the exes of people I’m dating,” she tells me. “There have actually been moments where I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Get a grip, this is such embarrassing behaviour!’
“I think I mostly do it to compare myself – an act of self-sabotage,” she adds. “Plus, someone I was seeing once called things off and got back with their ex. So, yeah, that’s stayed with me and I just want to do the full check up on them!”
Cleo (again, a fake name), was exactly the same when she met her partner eight years ago. “He was a few months out of a two-year relationship,” she explains. “We had spoken about our previous relationships and, wanting to put a face to the name, I found myself searching for his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.”
When I ask her how that made her feel, she replies: “To be completely honest, I felt some unwarranted jealousy and something like bitterness towards her. We’d never even met and their relationship ended on good terms but there was something about her being his first-ever girlfriend that made me think she would probably always be special to him.”
Cleo adds: “Of course, it doesn’t mean anything deeper than that – I have ex-boyfriends, some of whom I’m still in contact with myself. But I think you naturally compare yourself because society usually pits women against each other.
“In fact, the first time I met one of my partner’s friends, his first (drunken) comment was comparing my looks to the ex. It’s almost impossible to ignore that niggling wonder of what they’re like.”
Nia (another pseudonym) is honestly one of the calmest, happiest, most serene people I’ve ever met – and yet even she felt the need to look up her partner’s exes on social media.
“When my now-husband and I were first dating, I definitely did some Facebook stalking,” she says, after I reassure her that she’s in a judgement-free zone. “Because he’s the first person I’ve been with that refuses to talk about their previous partners, and requests that I never talk about mine.”
Nia continues: “I found this strange because I’ve always had this conversation with old boyfriends and I find it incredibly fascinating. For me, it’s more about curiosity than jealousy: I want to know what these women’s personalities were like, why their relationships didn’t work out in the end and… fine, to find out if they’re more attractive than me.
“So, I guess you could say I wanted to see how they compared to me while searching for any warning signs of things to avoid that might lead to breaking up.”
And Katy, meanwhile, tells me: “When I was in my mid 20s I fell in love so hard it knocked me and all my brain cells out. That is the only way I can explain my awful behaviour when he dumped me, not once, but twice.
“I still used Facebook back then (deleted seven years ago now and have never looked back) so when I heard from a friend back at home in Ireland he was seeing someone new my stomach flipped and I actually almost got sick right there and then on my shoes. I was still so heartbroken, I felt like I was being electrocuted if anyone mentioned his name.”
She continues: “I knew it would do me no good but I went online to snoop and found pictures of her and him drinking alcopops in some awful bar that definitely plays Cotton Eye Joe once a night.
“I was crestfallen, stricken, and then I think I really did puke.”
Keen to share some of her hard-earned wisdom, Katy finishes: “Looking back now, I couldn’t care a jot if he’s kissing Gigi Hadid in Times Square and ringing a bell, as time heals all. I know the magnetic pull to stalk is strong, but it does nothing but prolong the agony of a break up.
“To co-opt a phrase, stalking your ex’s new partner is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”
Wise words, undoubtedly, but it’s easier said than done. Especially when social media is constantly throwing up throwbacks and memories left, right, and centre.
Thankfully, though, there’s a big difference between healthy curiosity and Rebecca-style obsession.
As psychotherapist Owen O’Kane, author of the bestselling book Ten Times Happier, tells me: “Jealousy is a very normal human emotion. Details of your partner’s past will naturally evoke a sense of jealousy, comparison or sometimes a sense of inadequacy. Acknowledging this and talking through is a healthy, human experience.”
He cautions: “If, however, you become stuck or obsessive with the emotion, that can lead to a lot of distress and many other relationship problems. It’s worth remembering jealousy is often fuelled by personal insecurity and has little to do with the other person.
“Don’t neglect dealing with your own insecurities, as this is where freedom lies.”
O’Kane goes on to list the signs that your curiosity has tipped into obsession:
- You become triggered almost every time there is a reference to your ex’s new partner
- Extreme emotional outbursts become commonplace.
- You obsessively search for updates on your partner or ex’s whereabouts
- Changing your appearance to match your partner’s previous partner
- Obsessive thoughts and replaying events
- Revengeful or spiteful thinking
- Decline in mental wellness
- Unable to concentrate or focus on everyday tasks
- Unable to see your worth or value in the relationship
Echoing Katy’s warning, O’Kane notes: “‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ is a well-known expression. Comparing yourself to a previous partner undervalues what you bring to the relationship. This in turn will prevent you enjoying the relationship, it will create mistrust and ultimately you risk pushing your partner away as tensions mount.
“It is worth remembering that if you fixate on the past, there is little chance you will fully enjoy what you have in the here and now. Your partner is now with you; sometimes you need to simply trust that.”
And if we can’t? Well, O’Kane suggests we spend a little time considering the following:
- Focus on what qualities and strengths you bring to the relationship
- Talk through with your partner to help them understand but don’t continually seek reassurance from them as this aggravates the problem
- Stop seeking information on the previous partner
- Focus more on future plans and what you have
- Deal with your insecurity and what is causing it. Sometimes talking to a professional can be useful.
“Remember, jealous thoughts and feelings aren’t facts,” he finishes. “Jealousy can sabotage relationships, but YOU have the power to prevent that happening.”