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What is Rebecca Syndrome, and why is it called that?

Jealousy can be a natural reaction to scrolling through social media and seeing the seemingly perfect lives of others.

But the green-eyed monster can be incredibly hard to keep in check for those fixated with a partner’s former love life – a condition known as Rebecca Syndrome – which can lead to self-doubt and even paranoia.

We take a look at the syndrome, its effects and how it came by the name.

What is Rebecca Syndrome?

Rebecca Syndrome is another term for retroactive jealousy, referring to fixated feelings of envy towards a partner’s former spouse or lover.

It stems from an obsession with a current partner’s past relationships, even when there is no rational basis for jealousy.

And it can manifest itself as insecurity or preoccupation with yours partner’s ex, sometimes comparing yourself to them.

This can mean obsessively looking at the social media accounts of your partner or their ex to look at photos of them.

Or it could entail checking a partner’s phone messages or trying to ensure they don’t encounter their former partner.

This can tip over into suspicion and even paranoia.

Rebecca, poster, Laurence Olivier (top), Joan Fontaine, 1940. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film version of Rebecca (Photo: LMPC/Getty)

Why is it called Rebecca Syndrome?

The term is a reference to the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, entitled Rebecca.

In the book, a young woman in her twenties marries an older, wealthy widower and returns with him to live at his mansion in Cornwall.

However, once installed there she is haunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife Rebecca who is seemingly lauded by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers and members of the West Country society.

The new young bride believes her husband must still be in love with his late wife, who is portrayed as being perfect.

Dr Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst and founding member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research in London, came up with the term of Rebecca syndrome to refer to retroactive jealoousy.

How can Rebecca Syndrome affect relationships?

Dr Leader said the “power of what has gone before can be overwhelming”.

He told the Independent: “For some people, Rebecca syndrome is torturous.

“A relationship between two people might unconsciously be between three people.

“The ghost is always there.”

Chartered psychologist Dr. Louise Goddard-Crawley described it in Newsweek as a “retrospective jealousy, where individuals become obsessively preoccupied with their partner’s past relationships, even if there is no rational basis for their jealousy.”

Toby Ingham, a psychotherapist, has written a book about the the syndrome, entitled Retroactive Jealousy, Making Sense Of It, which was published last year.

He said the fuel driving the obsessional, thinking and anxiety is much older than our current relationship and digging back into a client’s family of origin usually unearths an attachment problem which may have become the foundation for the syndrome.

“When we start dating, what we find is that our early attachment wounds resurface and become projected into our love relationships”, he said.

Rebecca Syndrome, he described as a “an obsessional type of problem”.

“Obsessional problems tend to create deep rabbit holes that we can disappear down and lose ourselves in” he said, “We can use up inordinate amounts of energy, making mountains out of molehills when we could be enjoying our new relationship.

“Instead of being able to appreciate our current love relationship and plan for the future, people in the grip of Rebecca Syndrome and Retroactive Jealousy become haunted by doubts.”

He recommends those who may be affected by the syndrome should find someone they can talk to in a confidential and safe setting to gain a clearer understanding and perspective.

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