Othello Syndrome: The Women Who Suffer from Morbid Jealousy

Does watching a TV show about infidelity send you into a jealous rage? You might suffer from a little-known psychological condition.

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Jan 7 2016, 1:20pm

Illustration by Julia Kuo

There are those nights; the ones where you're home alone with a bottle of wine, your laptop, and a runaway mind. One moment you're contentedly browsing old pictures of Patti Smith on Google, the next you're traveling through the timeline on your boyfriend's Facebook page, torturing yourself with pictures of him smiling beside old girlfriends.

While a certain amount of jealousy is natural in a relationship, it can develop into a life-shattering psychological disorder for a small number of people. This rare condition is known as Othello syndrome, a term that was coined in 1951 by English psychiatrist John Todd, who described it as a "dangerous form of psychosis." As the name suggests, it is inspired by the Shakespearean character Othello, who murders his wife after becoming convinced of her infidelity.

For 21-year-old Charlotte, a student from the UK, Othello syndrome started during her first serious relationship. "The symptoms seemed to come out of the blue. I am not jealous of other females, and I'm very confident in my appearance and abilities, so I'd say that I was developing an irrational fear of infidelity or abandonment. The symptoms began small, but the small paranoid thoughts grew into full-blown breakdowns over believing my loved one was hurting me."

Her delusions of jealousy got so bad that she would often try to end the relationship. "The pain and depression it caused me felt like perhaps it wasn't worth going through. Sometimes I even thought it would be best for my partner to be unfaithful, because then I wouldn't have to wait for it to happen."

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After months of dealing with such paralyzing anxieties, Charlotte researched her symptoms and stumbled across Othello syndrome. "I felt relieved, I guess," she said. "I knew what I had was bound to be a mental disorder because it wasn't normal in any way, so I was happy to be able to name it."

Rachel, 31, is a private health care worker from Georgia, US, and suffers from the condition too. Morbid jealousy is something that she became acquainted with in her childhood. "My mother definitely had it. I can remember her finding Playboy magazines in a new house we moved to and thinking they were my father's. She stapled all the pages to the walls in front of me, saying to him, 'Look at your whores now.' She would accuse my father of wanting to sleep with anyone who was even slightly attractive, real or on television."

Rachel's personal triggers are "women on television, in magazines, just anyone pretty or anyone that looks similar to my partner's interests." For Charlotte, it's the depiction of unfaithfulness in pop culture. Songs, books, TV shows, movies, and even newspaper articles on the subject will set her off: "I will have a panic attack and be depressed for days if I witness infidelity."

Both men and women suffer from Othello syndrome. Photo by Brianna Morrison via Stocksy

According to Windy Drydon, the professor emeritus of psychotherapeutic studies at Goldsmiths University of London, those suffering from morbid jealousy have an intolerance to uncertainty and constantly crave reassurance. "It's fuelled by any kind of perception of a threat to your relationship that is surrounded by ambiguity, particularly at a time when you're already feeling unsure about your capacity to hold a relationship.

"It could even be things like your partner being polite to the opposite sex. Jealousy involves a desperate search for evidence that you'll never believe."

Left untreated, there's the chance that sufferers could spiral into ever more violent and unpredictable rages over such thought processes. In the most extreme cases, Othello syndrome has led to people killing their partners before committing suicide.

The internet doesn't exactly help anyone obsessed with doubting their partners, with a survey by the charity Scope last year showing that social media sites are making users feel "ugly, inadequate and jealous."

In the first years I would argue with my partner a lot, and accuse him daily of cheating.

At a time when keeping tabs on our partners is all too easy, monitoring their Facebook statuses, Tweets, and Instagram images; social media has become a quick route to finding relief from any paranoia.

The problem is that such behaviors only perpetuate the condition. The same goes for those who bow to their partners' illness, taking lie detector tests or easing their worry with rehearsed responses. In one of the best-known cases of Othello syndrome, a woman banned her partner from looking at pictures of women in magazines and even forced him to take a lie detector test every time he left the house.

According to Professor Drydon, the partners of those with Othello syndrome should instead reply, "I love you, but I'm not answering your questions." Constant and incessant reassurance does more harm than good.

He also mentioned that to overcome the condition, you must first recognize it and then tackle it from the perspective that it is irrational. "Those suffering have a world view that men are not to be trusted, which may be based on experience or observation. They must deal with the source of this uncertainty to deal with jealousy, contemplating the origins of each anxious thought."

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Othello syndrome is still relatively unknown. When Googling it I was only greeted with medical definitions and the odd sensationalist tabloid headline. This is likely because many sufferers feel ashamed to talk about it. "In all honesty I'm very humiliated to have Othello syndrome," Charlotte tells me. "I haven't told anyone except my partner and those who also suffer from the condition that I have it."

Due to the fact it can cause people to treat their partners badly, this leads to preconceptions that it's just an excuse for controlling behavior. "There is stigma around the condition that suggests it's simply overly jealous partners or girls who are self-conscious; that it's a made-up condition to excuse the behaviour of controlling your partner," Charlotte said.

The most complicated feature of Othello syndrome is that it often causes those suffering to lose their relationships, which then enforces the idea that they can't sustain one, and so the cycle of doubt continues.

Unfortunately this has meant I can no longer watch my favorite films, or listen to my favorite music.

After her self-diagnosis, she joined a closed Facebook group for those who also suffered from Othello syndrome. "We all help each other out, especially when we have episodes of extreme paranoia. For instance, others get nightmares like me, and we have the same triggers. This has made Othello syndrome easier to ignore, because seeing my experiences in others emphasizes the fakeness of the paranoia the condition causes."

For those that I spoke to, they cope by avoiding anything that could set off their symptoms. This hasn't come without complications for Charlotte. "Unfortunately this has meant I can no longer watch my favorite films, or listen to my favorite music." It also doesn't solve the problem in the long term.

As with any fear, you must confront it in order to defeat it. For Charlotte, this is a work in progress. "I no longer get the daily paranoia. In the first years I would argue with my partner a lot, and accuse him daily of cheating. Now however, thanks to my partner's support, my trust in him is very strong. Right now I'm trying to cure it by putting myself through my triggers."

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