Olivia Rodrigo and why we’re all a little bit obsessed with our partners’ exes

a collage shows olivia rodrigo posing at a red carpet event
Why we’re all obsessed with our partners’ exesgetty images

Ever found yourself scrolling so deep into your partner’s ex’s social feeds that if you accidentally liked one of their posts it would make you consider leaving the country and changing your identity? Or perhaps you somehow know their mother’s maiden name and the breed of their childhood dog despite them only having dated your SO for a month in 2018?

Look, I’m not saying we’re all stalkers, but also, one Cosmo staffer admitted that despite being happily married, she still occasionally does a little snoop on her partner’s ex to see what she’s up to… even though she’s been with said partner for over a decade.

Even if we feel super secure in our relationships, the pull of your current flame’s former flame is real. Who were they? What role did they play in the relationship, and how did it compare to the one you play? Would you have been friends in another life, and if not, how does that even make sense if the person you’re with loved them?

The pull is so real, in fact, that Olivia Rodrigo’s new song ‘Obsessed’, dedicated to this unique fascination, has garnered 34 million views on TikTok alone. “I’m so obsessed with your ex / I know she’s been asleep on my side of your bed,” sings Rodrigo in the catchy single.

In the comments under one of numerous fan edits on TikTok, one person revealed she even asked her partner to buy a new bed to overcome the ghostly presence of their former lover and dubbed the song “validating”. Someone else feared the singer must have cameras following her every move because the song is “so relatable it’s scary”, while another said, “In high school I became obsessed with the girl my ex cheated on me with – I even felt like I had fallen in love with her.”

Regardless of whether or not you’ve had to go furniture shopping to avoid thoughts of an ex before, what’s glaringly obvious is that heaps of us relate to this sort of obsession in one way or another. Crucially, it isn’t all about jealousy or insecurity, it’s a curiosity-based obsession, one often characterised by near-admiration – which is the real focus of ‘Obsessed’. “Cause I know her star sign, I know her blood type / I’ve seen every movie she’s been in, and, oh God, she’s beautiful,” Rodrigo sings.

So where does this universal desire to know just that little bit more about who your partner loved before you come from? Well, for starters, it could be plain old curiosity. Undertaking a bit of harmless digital reconnaissance on our partner’s ex may be a way of getting to know them better in the early stages of a relationship, explains psychosexual and relationship therapist Tabitha Best. “While it can be because of comparison and jealousy, it may be, in part, to be gathering information about your current partner.”

Best also suggests there may be an evolutionary element to wanting to admire someone that our boyfriend or girlfriend was previously in a relationship with. She explains that we may be “more attracted to our partners if they have been desirable to other people”. In other words, if someone has an attractive ex, it positively reflects on our own decision to be with them.

Beyond that, depending on how serious your current relationship is, it can actually serve as a helpful tool to be ok with your partner’s past romances. Namely because, unless we marry our childhood sweetheart, all of us are likely to have one, so we kind of just have to deal. The problem only comes once we veer beyond the realm of harmless curiosity. Relate Counsellor Natasha Silverman explains: “As humans we often focus on potential dangers and anxieties rather than positives, which is an evolutionary mechanism to keep us safe and alive. This means we’re more likely to discard information we encounter that proves we are happy, safe, and secure, and instead makes us more likely to home in on potential threats – e.g. our partners’ ex.”

In an age when it’s often incredibly easy to find out every last detail about an ex – from where they get their hair cut to where they take yoga classes – thanks to social media, we can easily find ourselves down the Instagram rabbit hole before we’ve had the chance to pause and think about what we’re doing.

Another factor (as if this wasn’t already complicated enough)? “It’s become normalised to stalk each other even casually”, points out sex, intimacy, and relationship coach Lucy Rowett. We’re spurred on by figures like influencers, who sometimes encourage you “to become semi obsessed with them”.

Every Insta click can be habit forming. As Best explains: “The problem with checking behaviours is it can become habitual.” So, even if we find something upsetting it can fire up the reward centre of the brain, and then we find we start repeating the behaviour even if we don’t really want to – and may find we struggle to stop.

“Your partner’s past is not something anyone can control, and the upshot of unearthing this information, particularly through social media, is that it creates about more anxiety and somatic triggers which amplifies the problem. You can’t unlearn what you’ve discovered, and you can’t un-see that photo of your partner and their ex having a passionate smooch three years ago – so do your digging with caution!” adds Silverman.

So, how do we know if our obsession is healthy and helpful, or if it’s veering over to the bad place? Well, first things first, wondering about an ex is a totally natural thing to do and it’s certainly nothing to feel ashamed about. “Simple curiosity isn’t a negative reflection on you or your relationship,” says professional matchmaker Paul Brunson. When he’s not on our screens co-hosting Married at First Sight UK and Celebs Go Dating, he’s digging into dating trends as part of his role as Global Relationship Insights Expert at Tinder (so he knows how vulnerable many of us feel when we start new relationships and inevitably wonder about who has come before us).

But, Brunson is clear, you should try not to let curiosity consume you. Moreover, you’ll want to be sure that you and your partner are aware of each other’s boundaries when it comes to discussing past relationships. If your partner would rather not talk about the past or if the breakup was difficult, for example, finding out that you are in a deep one-sided relationship with the person that broke their heart might not go down so well.

Rowett suggests looking out for the signs that your interest in your partner’s ex may have gone too far. “If you find that most of your thoughts and obsessions keep going back to his/her/their ex, this spells trouble,” she warns. “Especially if you keep looking up their social media, keep worrying and comparing yourself to them, feel insanely jealous or triggered any time they mention them, if your behaviour becomes controlling where you forbid your partner to ever contact them again, or if you keep trying to contact them.”

As always, there’s really nothing like a good old-fashioned chat if you find yourself struggling. “Sit your partner down and have an open, honest discussion together,” advises Brunson. “Whether that’s simply answering questions about their previous dating habits or discussing any worries or fears you might have. Good equal communication is the base of any strong relationship, and you may find that a simple discussion is enough to resolve any unease that you could be feeling about their exes.”

Healthy boundaries? We’re obsessed.

A note from charity Relate: Jealousy is often very normal and even healthy, and generally reduces with time. However in some cases, it may be a case of retroactive jealousy, which is closely connected to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It is important to seek support for retroactive jealousy or relationship OCD (ROCD) as it can be debilitating if left untreated. ROCD can result in obsessive behaviours like checking their partner’s behaviours, devices, chronic questioning of their partner, and fixation on doubts and insecurities. Some individuals may feel unable to even hear their partner’s ex’s name without feeling triggered, may feel vengeful towards the ex, and their mental health may deteriorate as a result.

Where severe jealousy leads to coercive or controlling behaviours that cause their partner to change how they respond or behave, this may also be symptomatic of emotional abuse. In this case it’s important to reach out to an agency such as Women’s Aid. If you or your partner is struggling with jealousy or insecurity, consider reaching out to an organisation like Relate for support either individually or as a couple.

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