Pathological Jealousy: Its Symptoms and Definition

Jealousy is a complicated and common emotion experienced by humans which varies in forms and multitudes across relationships and cultures. It is defined as a “feeling resentment against someone because of that person’s rivalry, success, or advantages.”i The definition indicates that the perception of a rival is essential for the emotion to exist; without taking into consideration if the rival actually exists. It is an emotion that could rise in families, in the workplace, in friendships, and in romantic relationships. The most common interpretation of this feeling from the lens of evolutionary psychologists comes from “The Specific Innate Module Theory”. According to this theory, jealousy is an innate emotion which is guided by a specific set of neurons in response to perceived threats in the context of sexual relationships. On one hand, the theory suggests that jealousy in men is an innate predisposition guided towards their partner’s sexual infidelity; and on the other hand, the theory proposes that the feeling of jealousy in women is innately predisposed towards their partner’s emotional infidelity ii. The feeling of jealousy is often confused with envy; which is defined as “a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage”iii. Envy differs from jealousy in the sense that the former emotion is experienced when an individual wants something that another individual has; while the latter is an intense emotion expressed when an individual fears that something or someone might be taken away from that individual himself/herself.

Healthy people experience jealously in response to firm evidence, are willing to adjust their views and reactions upon obtaining new evidence, and perceive a single rival. However, under certain circumstances, jealousy could turn to become delusional and dangerous; particularly in romantic relationships. Pathological jealousy; also known as morbid jealousy, delusional jealousy, or Othello’s Syndrome (which was suggested from Shakespeare’s play “Othello”iv), is an abnormal form of jealousy which often presents itself in the form of an OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and arises in romantic relationships v. Morbidly jealous individuals construct decisive evidence of disloyalty from irrelevant incidents, refuse to change their views even when confronted with contradicting information, and are inclined to accuse their partner of unfaithfulness with many other individuals vi. Under this form of jealousy, one of the partners considers that he or she has an exclusive ownership over another individual; and that this ownership is a necessity for preserving the relationship. Though the name “Othello’s syndrome” suggests that the disorder is irreducible; morbid jealousy should be considered to be a descriptive term for the result of a number of psychopathologies within separate psychiatric diagnoses vii. This emotion stems from profound insecurities, feelings of being unloved, and an anxious state of needing to be in control and to feel safe. The occurrence of this disorder could be linked to different variables which include addiction to alcoholic and non-alcoholic substances, organic brain disorders, schizophrenia, neurosis, personality disorders, or any mental disorder, such as depression or mania, which is characterized by abnormal disturbances of mood.

Some symptoms of pathological jealousy include viii:

  • Accusations of looking or giving attention to other individuals.
  • Questioning of the partner’s behavior.
  • Interrogation of phone calls and all other forms of communication.
  • Going through the partner’s properties.
  • Persistent questioning about the whereabouts and the company of the partner.
  • Isolation of the partner.
  • Retaliating the partner in pursue of personal interests.
  • Laying conditions in regards to contact with the partner’s social circle.
  • Claims of holding affairs when withdrawing or escaping abuse.
  • Accusations of holding affairs when sexual activity regresses as a result of the abuse.
  • Suffering from the lack of reassurance.
  • Lack of trust.
  • Verbal and/or physical violence towards the partner, the individual whom is considered to be the rival, or both.
  • Blaming the partner and establishing an excuse for jealous behavior.
  • Denying the jealous behavior unless cornered.
  • Overvaluing an idea, which is defined as “an acceptable, comprehensible idea pursued by the patient beyond the bounds of reason. The idea is not resisted and, although it is not a delusion, the patient characteristically attaches utmost importance to investigating and maintaining the partner’s fidelity at great personal disadvantage and to the distress of the partner”. Overvalued ideas are characterized by being existent in the individual’s own thoughts, being egosyntonic; meaning that the ideas project the behaviors, values, and feelings that are aligned with the desires and aims of the individual’s ego, or consistent with the individual’s ideal self-image, the ideas are also amenable to reason but are not resisted.ix

A pathologically jealous individual establishes suspicions concerning the unfaithfulness of their partner. As soon as the doubts are established, the individual then turns to become possessing, and symptoms of the disorder begin to emerge. In the eyes of the morbidly jealous partner, the indicted “significant other” is presumed guilty until evidence of innocence is found. The evidence however does not materialize, and brave efforts to demonstrate innocence or challenge guilt fail since irrational preoccupations in the mind of the suspicious partner cannot be refuted rationally. Moreover, the accused partner’s rejection of infidelity could incite rage and violence. Under certain circumstances, the tolerant partner, who becomes plagued by the repeated interrogation and accusations of infidelity, might provide false confessions which will provoke fury in the jealous individual.

In order to assess the psychopathology, a full psychiatric history should be considered. The assessment should include:

  • The history of affective and psychotic disorders.
  • The history of threatened and perpetrated violence.
  • The quality of the relationship.
  • The constitution of the subject’s family.
  • The history of substance misuse.
  • The full history of the individual prior to his or her commitment to the current relationship.

The psychopathological assessment should be followed by a mental state examination in order to characterize the shape of morbid jealousy, to study any related psychopathology, and to study the possibility of the existence of an organic disorder. Finally, a risk assessment must be performed on both partners, and should consider the risk of committing suicide, the history of domestic violence, the history of interpersonal violence including any third-party (e.g. suspected rival), and the risk on children (if there are any).


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President of Freethought Lebanon and a diligent Lebanese civil society activist. A theoretical physicist by profession, Sami is passionate about both pursuing scientific truth and defending basic human rights in Lebanon and the Middle East.