'Rebecca Syndrome' Is Trending. We Got an Actual Therapist to Explain It.

Does having a catchy term for jealousy make it easier to deal with?
lovers hugging while nude in the shower
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The day’s biggest questions answered by the people who actually know WTF they’re talking about.

Social media allows us to know far too much about each other—including people we’d probably be better off not knowing much about at all. Our partner’s exes, for instance. It’s all too easy to pull up what these exes look like, what they do for work, what type of person they are. Maybe our partner even has old photos with them on their own Instagram. Of course, being jealous of your partner’s exes is a problem that predates the Internet—one term for this jealousy, “Rebecca syndrome,” takes its name from a 1938 novel. Even so, the concept of “Rebecca syndrome” has found renewed popularity online, both among people only learning of the problem and those experiencing it for themselves. 


Psychotherapist Toby Ingham is an expert in the phenomenon. He specializes in retroactive jealousy, which refers specifically to the type of jealousy toward a current partner’s previous relationships that Rebecca syndrome describes (in fact, he wrote the book on it). Below, we discuss the upside in these types of viral terms going viral, whether social media has transformed Rebecca syndrome from its earlier definition, and whether it’s useful to dissect the problem in relation to its psychoanalytic origins. 

VICE: Is the proliferation of the term “Rebecca syndrome” helpful or harmful?
Toby Ingham:
Behind these Google-able labels are obsessional problems, and obsessional problems tend to be quite complicated. They tend to have very long histories and go back to some quite old psychological injuries because it isn't the case that everybody suffers from problems like this. Particularly 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. 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. In that group, some people suffer more severely than others.


So, do these labels help, or are they covering up a bigger problem? I'd say they're a bit of both. For the people who are not too bothered, I think Rebecca syndrome might be quite a light touch. But there is a group of people for whom I would say the labels might be unhelpful because I think they can encourage people to think that they can expect a quick fix, that they can expect to get their heads and hands and minds around these problems without too much trouble. And that's, in my experience—and I see an awful lot of people that are bothered by these questions—not true. Really, if we're trying to get hold of the fuel that drives our unhappiness about our partners having had previous partners—if we're trying to get hold of that kind of jealousy—that can be quite a big project.

It might be helpful to start to develop some language for the problems that we suffer. But I think the individual reality is that this can be a very painful, complicated area to get into. 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. There may be some utility in the fact that we have a label to start approaching something, but I don't think we should confuse that with the care that's involved in unraveling our particular reasons why we are so bothered. 


What are some underlying reasons people become so consumed by retroactive jealousy? And how can we unravel them?
I always start with an assessment. At the assessment stage, I tend to draw up a picture of my client’s family tree. It just helps you to gain some sense of perspective. When somebody came along, what was the world they were born into? What were the sibling relationships? What was the parental relationship? When you have issues of retroactive jealousy, it's often possible to find a kind of fault line in the family tree. It's nobody's fault—it's just what happened. For example, you might have a client with quite a gap in their family till other siblings come along. And the client is left, I think, with a very early sense of being replaced, that they weren't good enough. Or you might find that the parents' marriage separated suddenly. 

What surprises me is how little linking up we do between what's happened to us and how we feel about ourselves. When I work with people, I'm often helping them link up. There are things they've 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. The label can give you a place to start, but after that, I think looking at it with greater depth is helpful. The other thing that's helpful is to be very careful around mood-altering things like alcohol or drugs. They tend to disturb our emotional stability. If we suffer from these kinds of jealousies and insecurities and we drink or take drugs, we're laying ourselves open to more acute experiences of jealousy.


Has social media made Rebecca syndrome more common?
I think that's certainly true. 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. 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. We're still kind of analog people. 

I tend to tell people to be careful about Googling problems. 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.

The term originated from Freudian psychology—is that relevant to how we understand it? Is Freudian psychology capable of handling the digital moment?
Freud wrote really interesting case studies about obsessional problems, and so did people who followed him, like Melanie Klein. They pursued these projects and wrote in fascinating, almost molecular detail about the problems people experience and ideas about where those problems have come from. Typically, the fault is in a parental relationship, usually a maternal relationship. Now, I think it's out of vogue today, certainly, to really put a psychoanalytic head on. And that's probably partly psychoanalysis's fault in that it hasn't remained as relevant and plugged in to the digital world. But the very popular modalities are much more cognitive, and I think they miss out on the depth of thinking that psychoanalysis brought to the table. When I work with people, I don't use technical language. I don’t talk about Freud at all. But behind that, I'm thinking about the history of thinking about obsessional type issues that originated with Freud. 

On a very superficial level, Freudian concepts like the Oedipal complex are popular on TikTok. Is there any risk of Rebecca syndrome being flattened and misinterpreted in the same way?
If people are interested in that kind of thinking, that's quite encouraging. Freud has this idea that in human development, we develop orally, anally, and then genitally. For Freud, obsessional problems are often situated in the anal phase, so they're pre-Oedipal. It's only when you get to the genital stage, in the Freudian model, that the Oedipal complex emerges. The anxiety of it is about how we live in a world where we can't have what we want. For Freud, the child's got to accept that it can't “have” its mother, that the father has the mother. That’s a bit of a clunky way of saying it, but Freud thought that obsessional problems like retroactive jealousy originated in the anal phase. They are in the shit, in the bowel, in the way we, as babies, liked holding on to things and not letting go of them. But you rarely get to have a conversation. 

Because we develop biologically, we develop and then when we kind of go dormant until we’re teenagers when the hormones come in and all of these early experiences kind of get supercharged. For many people, these jealousy problems go back to when they were going through adolescence, when they started dating before dating. That’s when the world suddenly became more dominant. 

When I meet people battling with their jealousy, the question is, how do you help to take people toward the nuanced, longer story? There's definitely a range in which people suffer. Some people suffer a bit like they’re injured, but they can still walk around looking OK. And there are other people who really can't move around very well. They've had to go back and live at home with their mom. Their lives fall apart. They become reckless.  I think there's often a link with addictive behaviors, which we could link back to early-stage development, too.