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Of Othello and Delusional Jealousy

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Morbid, also called, Delusional JealousyOver the years, many wives and girl friends have written Mental Help.Net about the fact that their husband or boyfriend is insistent that they are having an affair. These women express feeling utterly over whelmed and frustrated with their lover because, try as hard as they do, they cannot convince them of the errors in their thinking. As a matter of fact, the more they attempt to convince their lover that there is no cheating, the angrier the lover becomes.

The brilliant and classic example of a jealous lover is Shakespeare towering and tragic play, "Othello." Here is one quote of Othello, expressing his despair about his wife, Desdemona, who, he is convinced, is having an affair.

Othello:

"She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses. Yet ’tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death." (III.iii.267–279)

Othello, convinced that his wife, Desdemona, is
unfaithful, cursed both marriage and women. Ultimately, Othello strangles her to death and unwittingly falls into the deadly hands of his enemies. He also learns, too late, the folly and of his thinking.

A Modern Example of Delusional Jealousy:

Here is an E. Mail question from one of our readers with a modern day version of delusional jealousy:

E. Mail:

"I ended a relationship with a man who seems to suffer from this morbid / delusional jealousy issue, and is also diagnosed Bipolar. After 10 days with no contact with him, I have now received a message from him out of the blue saying that I am "sooooo busted," implying that he has learned something new that somehow proves his belief that I was unfaithful to him. I think? I am not dating now, have been basically only at home and work hiding since the breakup.

I need to know how to handle this. Do I engage and try to tell him what I see? Do I ignore him? Can I reason with him? Should I be worried? He is such an incredibly smart man, and is 50 years old with responsibilities and accomplishments. It is difficult for me to reconcile this crazy behavior with what I know about him. I keep thinking that if I could just reason with him he will finally break through. But after so much reasoning that only led to more insanity and our eventual breakup, I know it gets me nowhere, and seems to make him even angrier."

Discussion:

Jealousy is a complicated human emotion. In many ways, it is based on love, hate, paranoia, insecurity and self hate. Othello, in this quote and elsewhere in the play demonstrates his self hatred by comparing himself to a toad.

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that jealousy can be it be a normal human emotion experienced by most people at least at one time during their lives. Jealousy becomes a problem when it refuses to diminish in intensity and when the thinking of the jealous individual is fixed on that one idea.

It might be difficult to believe that jealousy can be based on love. However, the jealous individual wants to completely possess their lover. They believe that the loved one is so lovable that others may steal her away, resulting in tragic abandonment and loss. 

Yet, jealousy is also based on hatred. The loved one is viewed as having power, choice and great beauty that will make them want to leave their partner. In this thinking, the loved one must be carefully guarded or they will go astray.

The fixed paranoid, delusional thinking of this type of lover can be symptomatic of a more serious mental illness. In the E. Mail sample above, the former girl friend reports that her ex lover was diagnosed with a Bipolar Disorder. In the  throes of a manic or deeply depressive phase of the illness, a Bipolar patient can become quite delusional and even experience hallucinations. It should be said that having a Bipolar Disorder does not mean that a person will have a jealous delusion nor does having a jealous delusion mean that a person has a Bipolar Disorder.

The fixed delusional jealous thinking is marked by the constant suspicion that the loved one is guilty of infidelity. This paranoid delusion is accompanied by constantly harassing the loved one with questions and accusations about how they spent the day, where they went and who they spoke with. In the worst cases, the jealous spouse attempts to control the life of their partner and intrudes into every aspect of their life, looking for evidence of cheating.  As in Othello, the jealous delusion can result in murder.

It has been argued that Othello was not plagued by a delusion because it was his enemies who planted the idea in him that Desdemona was unfaithful. In contrast, a jealous delusion is based on no evidence at all.

It is additionally important to point out how our E. Mailer complains that her boyfriend became increasingly angry the more she insisted on her innocence. A fixed delusion is exactly what the term implies. It is fixed, meaning that an individual will not budge from their belief and because the belief is delusional it protests of incense only provoke more suspicions.

Sometimes psychotherapy can help a person with this type of fixed and unrealistic way of thinking. If it is part of a psychosis, medication sometimes helps loosen unrealistic thinking. For other people, fixed and delusional thoughts can be part of a personality disorder and, therefore, much more resistant to medication and psychotherapy. As with most personality disorders, psychotherapy requires a long term of treatment.

Your comments, questions and experiences with this type of experience are very much encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, Ph'd.