Morbid jealousy

Examples of pathological jealousy are common in the cinema and literature. In the film L'Enfer, for example, Daniel Auteuil's character experiences angry, violent jealousy over his innocent and beautiful wife. In the dénouement, the wife is shackled to the couple's bed while the husband stalks the room wielding a cut-throat razor. The camera shifts suddenly to the view from the window, where ambulance men from the nearby psychiatric hospital can be seen approaching the house. Similarly, in Paul Sayer's novel Howling at the Moon, the anti-hero becomes obsessively jealous of his, again innocent, wife and resigning his job, sets off to work each day as usual only to inhabit the house opposite from where he observes his wife's every move through binoculars, recording the details minutely. Examples such as these are not merely flights of fictitious fancy. Consider the following case study from De Silva:

X, a woman in her twenties, and Y, her partner who was also in his twenties, were referred for help. The problem was morbid jealousy on the part of X. They had a close passionate relationship. She developed strong feelings of jealousy within a short period, a few months prior to referral. There was no clear reason for the onset of the jealousy, except that Y had been particularly busy in his job for several months. She became increasingly unhappy about his association with his female colleagues and secretaries etc. and began to accuse him of flirting with them. She interrogated him every day, and searched his briefcase and pockets for evidence of his involvement with other women. She also verbally abused him and physically attacked him at times, in the context of quarrels related to this. She was quite distressed at her own behaviour, and said she "could not help" acting in this way. (1994, p. 176)

What is it that makes jealousy pathological in all of these cases? Clearly, the extreme nature of the different types of behaviour involved is important. However, perhaps more central is the fact that in each case the jealousy is a function of beliefs that are unfounded. It is important to note that the truth value of the beliefs is not what is at issue. The belief may be a false one but understandable given the circumstances. For example, Othello's jealousy was a function of false beliefs; however, these beliefs were not unfounded, as they were grounded in Iago's deception and manipulation of the situation. Interestingly, morbid jealousy is sometimes referred to as Othello Syndrome, a label that, in this analysis, seems wholly unfair. A consequence of the ungrounded nature of morbid jealousy is the jealous person's attempt to provide a basis of reality to the feelings. As we saw in the novel Howling at the Moon, this can often lead to an obsessional attention to the minutiae of the other's life.

How can morbid jealousy be explained? The traditional Freudian view is that such unfounded jealousy is a projection of individuals' doubts about maintaining their own fidelity and ability to resist temptation. As Freud so neatly summarises, "A man who doubts his own love may, or rather must, doubt every lesser thing" (1920, p. 241). A more recent view from evolutionary psychology (Buss, 1995; Pinker, 1997; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992) is that morbid sexual jealousy should be more prevalent in men in an attempt to prevent sexual infidelity in their partners, whereas morbid emotional jealousy should be more prevalent in women in an attempt to avoid resource loss which might therefore endanger offspring survival. The evidence, however, is extremely mixed and offers little support for the proposal (Harris, 2003).

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