Shakespeare’s famous Moor (the one that loved ‘not wisely, but too well’) could at least blame the machinations of the malevolent Iago for his obsessional suspicion of the fair and pure Desdemona’s fidelity, but most people who suffer from Obsessional Jealousy (also known as Pathological Jealousy or the Othello Syndrome) cannot. The fear that their partners may love someone other than themselves drives them to do things that most normal married people would not. It goes beyond insecurity or control. It’s a very deep-seated fear that manifests itself in the belief that their partner could well engage in extra-marital relationships. And if the partner, driven by frustration, does end up having such a relationship, they feel absolutely justified in being suspicious of their fidelity. Despite its name, both men and women are equally susceptible to this syndrome.
Shadow of the past
Sometimes, the suspicious pattern of behaviour may be on account of the partner’s past relationships. It’s not uncommon today for people to have had a relationship or two before they get married. And it’s also not uncommon for couples to share details of their past relationships with each other when they first get married. More often than not, this does not produce any major issues, since most partners are able to deal with these as pre-marital issues as long as they don’t impact on the marriage. Unfortunately, some spouses, who haven’t resolved this issue in their minds, end up fearing that if their spouses could do this once, then they are liable to do it again. Usually this happens when only one of the partners has had a pre-marital relationship. In this scenario, the one who hasn’t may end up feeling that the other is not to be trusted and therefore maintains a constant vigil on any potential trespassers. And you don’t need me to tell you that when you look for potential trespassers, every person of the opposite gender that your partner interacts with, could well appear like one.
However, suspiciousness is not always based on perceived lack of morality on the part of the partner. Often, it has more to do with the fear that the partner is such a desirable person that others will definitely cross boundaries and poach. They feel that their partners may not recognise somebody hitting on them and might inadvertently encourage the latter’s advances. At this time it would be useful to distinguish between obsessional jealousy and a delusion. The former condition refers to a fear that some untoward activity may happen. The jealous partner may not believe that the spouse is actually having an affair, but fears that this might happen any time. In the case of a delusion of infidelity, the person is absolutely convinced that an affair is taking place and will take some extraordinary steps to try and prove this to both self and partner. By definition, a delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction even in the face of evidence against it, and nothing can convince the deluded person of the partner’s fidelity. A delusion is usually evidence of a serious mental disorder.
Some Othellos suffer from a condition referred to as ‘paranoid personality disorder’. This is easier to recognise though as difficult to deal with, since the individual tends to be suspicious of everybody’s intentions, not just those of the spouse. Whether it’s the Othello Syndrome, a delusion of infidelity or a paranoid personality that you are dealing with doesn’t really matter, for, in the final analysis, all of these require mental health interventions by a trained psychiatrist or clinical psychologist or both. There’s not a lot that you can do, other than escalate the matter to other family members or mental health professionals.
However, as a caveat, let me add that not all suspicious behaviour is necessarily a mental health problem. I have known several people who are uncomfortable with one particular relationship that the spouse has with a person of the opposite gender, whether co-worker or social acquaintance. They may be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, the most common one being that they feel that the person in question is overstepping boundaries and engaging in a pattern of communication that is unacceptable, such as overly intimate text messages and so on. The accused spouse usually responds in a shocked manner, for, there is absolutely no conscious experience of anything beyond a personal or professional friendship. But do keep in mind that intuitive spouses can pick up something that’s nascent. I have oftentimes found that the intuitions of some sensitive spouses have turned out to be prophetic. My advice here would be simple. If your intuitive partner, who is not usually jealous of your interactions with people of the opposite gender, expresses discomfort, don’t go ballistic. Just accept it and go easy on the burgeoning relationship. No co-worker or friend is worth destabilising your marriage for. Extra-marital dalliances, even potential ones, are best nipped in the bud. However, if jealousy is a predominant feature in your marriage and you do have an Othello on your hands, then don’t hesitate to seek help, for, early treatment always produces enduring cures.
The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org