Morbid jealousy is twice as common among men than women, says
psychotherapist Phillip Hodson
Published The Times April 24th 2004
Anthony Trollope’s 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right, currently being serialised on
BBC1, Sundays, 9pm, makes a major contribution to abnormal psychology. It
explains more about the nature of morbid jealousy than many modern textbooks.
The current International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (Volume
10) refrains from mentioning jealousy at all, except under ‘Alcoholics’, for whom
pathological possessiveness may be an additional burden. Such medical modesty is
unhelpful since fits of ‘diseased’ jealousy can cause homicide and suicide on a
widespread basis and are considered by at least one set of researchers to be a
significant risk for 27% of men though for only half as many women (Shestha et al,
Trollope’s achievement 135 years ago is to plot the growth of the black hole in the
mind of socialite, Louis Trevelyan, as he begins to suspect his young wife Emily of
falling for the charms of an ageing roué. We watch in disbelief as the gravitational
pull of ungovernable suspicion begins to distort the entirety of Louis’ behaviour.
Romantic anxiety turns into obsessional delusion then degenerates into utter
madness. I suspect viewers of the tv serial will feel moved to yell warnings at their
screens: “Don’t hector your wife like that”; “Don’t ban the Colonel from the house”
desperate to save our hero’s soul. But that is beside the point, an author’s tease.
The man Louis has an already incurable condition.
Of course, Shakespeare covered some similar territory 300 years before Trollope:
“Black guy kills in fit of jealousy. Dead wife innocent. Best friend implicated”. The
principal difference is that Othello had a pretty plausible excuse for questioning
Desdemona’s virtue once Iago had proved so economical with the truth. Although it
is possible to regard the response of the Moor of Venice as morbid overkill, perhaps
the better Shakespearean parallel with young Trevelyan’s breakdown is the comic
tragedy of King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Here is a man who simply imagines
himself into a frame of mind where his wife is “paddling palms and pinching fingers”
with every available male at court including his best friend whom he then seeks to
kill. [Leontes miraculously recovers by ACT V – but only after 16 years of obloquy
So how do we separate in our minds such pathological delusions like these from
perfectly reasonable jealousies?
As a therapist, I suggest (after Freud) that some degree of jealousy is a universal and
healthy emotion. For example, if you come home to discover your loved one in bed
with another, the proper response is not to offer to make them both a nice cup of tea.
The proper response is to say a collection of words at the top of your voice
unsuitable for printing on David Beckham’s mobile phone and in this newspaper. If
you love someone who betrays you it cuts like a knife. Most of us are attached in a
range of prioritised relationships and it remains reasonably conventional for “the one
you love” to be placed at the centre of your emotional universe and vice versa.
The reason we feel such normal jealousy is because we have a healthy sense of our
own value. By contrast, morbidly jealousy individuals give evidence of feeling little or
no inner worth. In the professional jargon – morbid jealousy is an insidiously unpleasant
condition stemming from a deep sense of insecurity and very poor self-image.
Such a sufferer may feel sexually incompetent, physically unattractive and
verbally inadequate (Louis is especially inept here). According to Consultant
Psychiatrist Dr Colin Wilson, the basic internal dialogue runs: “I’m useless – no one
would want to be with me – she’d be stupid to be with me – I don’t want to be with
someone who is stupid and if she’s not stupid then she must be deceiving me”, and
usually results in a progressive paranoia.
On a radio phone-in I once received a call from a distressed listener who said her
husband was accusing her of sleeping with every man she met in the street and all
the waiters in her local restaurant. The more she uttered denials, the less he felt
reassured. Where had she gone wrong?
It emerged that several years earlier he’d told the world he wanted to marry a virgin
and she was the only woman who claimed to fit this bill (not a huge surprise because
according to the Welcome Sex Survey, 1994: “First sex in British Marriage is now
practically unknown”). Everything was fine until at a party a few months down the
line she let it slip that she hadn’t “quite” been a virgin when they’d first met. The
husband flew into an incandescent fury, demanded to know the exact physical details
(of a not very extraordinary manual heavy petting session on the shingle beach at
Brighton) and at three in the morning compelled her to drive from the Midlands to the
offending spot on the South Coast which he proceeded to dig up while uttering a
series of manic imprecations at the sky. Could I possibly help?
I endeavoured to explain that his mental processing was no longer running on what
you might call common logic but on private, near psychotic logic. His jealous
excesses were surely not about her actions but his reactions to them. These would
best be explained in terms of his biography. The great fear of his life was that no
woman could ever be trusted. Why should this be? It argued that at some time in
his life (because new born babies trust everyone) he had learned to expect women to
let him down. Obviously as a youngster he’d felt insecurely attached, awkwardly
separated, rejected or abandoned by those who were supposedly parenting him.
This may have triggered complications bordering on
depression, personality or endocrine disorder.
But any man in search of such a pristine and sexually unsullied bride is either the heir
to the English throne or looking for an emotional lifeboat that no adult romantic
relationship can hope to launch. He is not really looking for a wife but an idealised
replacement Mummy with a full cargo of unconditional love. Instead of feeling like a
man divided against himself he hopes to climb back into the womb and rule. The
catch, we know, is that such fusion is mythical: you can never fashion such a living
puppet from your marital partner because in a divorcing society, romantic
relationships are always predicated on deals and subject to small print.
Dr Colin Wilson sums up: “The condition is especially difficult to treat because it
affects so many men who become violent. You feel sorry for them, of course,
because they often had terrible childhoods but they are among the most dangerous
of patients. The real remedy for the woman is to get out (and even then he may stalk
you). We’ve had some success with cognitive behavioural therapy and large doses
of anti-depressants but such a man will always look for proof of his suspicions and he
will always find it”.
And of course, being male, he “knows he’s right”. Morbid jealousy contains a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Finally driven to desperation by his malicious accusations, she
probably will fall into the arms of a sympathetic stranger. QED.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy – www.philliphodson.co.uk