When we love someone we would like that person to be with us, that his presence be a more or less constant element in our lives and make him or her happy as much as possible. The idea of losing the person we love can be hard and difficult to accept , being something that causes us discomfort, anguish and fear. Sometimes this fear is transformed into the fear that someone will take it away from us.
In some people, this desire to maintain the relationship with the loved one can be transformed into possessiveness , constantly fearing that they will be left for someone else and believing on the basis of this fear that the partner is cheating on them with another person or persons. And within this group of people there are some in whom the beliefs that they are being cheated on with other people are persistent and rigid, appearing even when there is evidence to the contrary and can cause serious problems in the relationship, controlling behaviors and even violence towards the loved one or their possible lovers.
We are talking about people who have zeotypia, a subtype of delusional disorder .
Jealousy and zealousy
Being jealous of someone is relatively common. Jealousy is a negative emotional state that arises at the idea of losing something loved, of someone taking away a good, a situation or a relationship that we have and want to keep with us.
However, although wanting to keep the object or person we love by our side is logical, the presence of jealousy indicates a certain level of possessiveness that can end up destroying the very relationship that exists between person and object or person we love. In many cases, this situation occurs without any reason that could cause jealousy, as for example in the disorder that is the subject of this article.
Othello Syndrome: Celotypic-type delusional disorder
Sexual zealothypia or Othello syndrome is a subtype of a delusional disorder in which the person is convinced that his partner is unfaithful without any reason. It appears when faced with an apparently banal fact that the person interprets as suspicious and on which a belief system is subsequently built, seeking and interpreting data that seem to support them.
These beliefs about possible infidelity often cause the person to have a high level of control over the couple’s activities, even spying on their conversations and actions in order to try to catch them and confirm their suspicions. The information that the person seeks is biased, making anomalous interpretations of the answers, attitudes and ways of acting before other people of the loved one so that normal stimuli are interpreted as confirmatory, ignoring the evidence and information that contradict the alleged infidelity. In certain circumstances it is possible to attack the person loved or those who are interpreted as being third parties .
The delusions are systematized, that is to say that in spite of the fact that there is no evidence or motives that could provoke such thoughts, the ideas themselves present a certain logic and internal coherence that makes them plausible. For this reason it can be complex to make it seem that these are beliefs that are not limited to reality . In other words, although our partner may be faithful, it is not impossible that the people we love may stop being faithful and/or leave us for someone else, which makes it difficult to see that the thought that he is unfaithful is not realistic.
Who is more likely to suffer from this pathological jealousy?
According to the statistics used to analyse this disorder, the sex with the highest prevalence varies, but this disorder is generally seen in people over forty years of age (probably due to the consideration that with age one loses attractiveness and skills, which causes insecurity), although the fact that we are in a dynamic society with constant changes and that relationships have become more variable and insecure has manifested itself in people who are younger and younger.
Generally, people with zealousness tend to present a high level of insecurity, together with marked feelings of inferiority and a way of seeing the world according to which failures are usually attributed to external, global and stable variables, with which problems in the relationship are considered as indicators that someone else exists.
Because of these doubts and insecurities it is common for many of these people to consume large amounts of alcohol and other substances, which in turn worsens judgment and causes greater cognitive bias.
The other side of the coin: the couple
The spouse may initially think that the manifestation of jealousy of the person with zealousy is an expression of love and even interpret it as something positive, but with time and the repetition of the suspicions and doubts the situation quickly begins to become aversive .
The fact of being constantly controlled by the partner and the constant doubts of the person suffering from the disorder about the relationship cause a high level of stress and frustration, which can even lead to anxiety or depression. All these circumstances cause a high level of conflict with the couple, with frequent unfounded accusations and a high level of dissatisfaction and suffering on both sides.
Sometimes the persistence of the problem could even lead to a situation of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the subject, tired of the situation, decides to abandon the relationship or make the suspicion of infidelity a reality.
Causes of Pathological Jealousy
The causes of zeotype can be very varied . The fact of having lived previously in situations of infidelity gives rise to a high feeling of insecurity in some people and a tendency to consider that future couples can and will do the same to them.
It is also frequent to appear in people with dysfunctional families and parental models where the presence of insecurity in the couple and infidelity is frequent. Sometimes these people have considered that the situation or separation from their parents is their fault (as in the case of children with divorced parents), or that the presence of deceit and infidelity is a common occurrence in couple’s relationships.
In any case, it is known that family crises accentuate all the potential problems that can occur in this area, and jealousy is part of this. Uncertainty about what is going to happen and insecurity make people more suspicious and jealousy gain strength.
Zealoty from Psychoanalysis
Some authors with a psychoanalytic tendency consider that the cause of this type of phenomenon is a weakening of one’s own self and its limits , projecting parts of the personality onto other people, in this case the spouse. In this way, insecure and very sexual people would project their insecurity onto their partner, appearing the compulsive fear that they have doubts about the relationship and look for someone better. The feelings of inferiority of these patients, who feel they have little importance, are confronted through denial and projection.
Another possible explanation is that the delirium is due to an attempt to give a logical explanation to an apparently strange perception, an explanation that reassures the person about the uncertainty caused by the perception. Thus, a normal fact is interpreted in an anomalous way, deriving this interpretation in a belief system that is maintained over time even though it may be unfounded.
Treating a delusional disorder can be complex because of the many factors and agents to consider. In the case of the celotype subtype of delusional disorder some of the guidelines to apply in the treatment are the following .
1. Awareness and modification of dysfunctional beliefs
Treating this type of problem requires the modification of the patient’s dysfunctional beliefs, which is why a cognitive-behavioral treatment is usually used. The delusional issue should not be confronted directly, but rather a progressive approach should be made and a relationship of trust established for the patient to express his or her fears.
It is intended that, little by little, the patient makes aware and verbalizes his or her fears about this and what it would mean for him or her to be unfaithful . Thus, the patient himself reflects little by little on his beliefs, as he has come to have them and the logic and coherence of his arguments.
The patient has then been made to see that his interpretation is only one of many possible interpretations, making him reflect on other options. Blaming oneself or the other person makes the situation worse, so one must avoid and redirect the feelings that the situation provokes. Relativizing and decatastrophizing the presence of infidelity has also proven to be useful in some cases.
Likewise, it is necessary to make the patient see that if his/her partner is with them it is because he/she values them and wants to be with them . It is also necessary to make the person see that it is logical and normal that other people may find the person they love attractive and that this does not imply that they will reciprocate.
2. Exposure in imagination and prevention of control behaviours
As we have said, it is very common for people with Othello syndrome to carry out a series of behaviours in order to control and ensure whether their partner is being faithful to them or not. These behaviours are reinforced through a process of conditioning (checking that there is nothing temporarily reassures them, which causes later checks that avoid anxiety). In these cases it is necessary to make the patient able to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety.
For this purpose one of the most successful treatments is exposure with response prevention . Thus, the aim is for the person to imagine in a graduated way situations in which the partner is unfaithful and to control the need to carry out checks in this respect. This exposure must be gradual and guided by the therapist and the patient, in order to make it tolerable and effective.
3. Couples therapy
It has been mentioned before that the persistence of the cello-typical attitude causes serious problems in the couple’s relationship, affecting and causing great suffering on both sides.
For this reason it is advisable to carry out couple’s therapy, finding a space in which both people can express their doubts and feelings both individually with the therapist and jointly. In the same way, making both the person with zealousness and their partner see what the other should feel can be useful to evaluate the situation in a more correct way.
These types of interventions are important because they address the problem in a global way, not focusing on individuals but on groups and relational dynamics.
Encouraging communication is fundamental to improve the situation. And increasing mutual trust within the relationship is fundamental, making the cello-typical person see that the fact that his partner is unfaithful to him is less likely than he thinks and the partner that the attitude of the cello-typical person is due to a disorder that is being treated and that needs his help to overcome.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
- Belloch, Sandin and Ramos. (2008). Manual of Psychopathology. Madrid. McGraw-Hill (vol. 1 and 2). Revised edition.
- Burton, N. (2015). Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions. United Kingdom: Acheron Press.
- Parrott, W.G. (1991). The emotional experiences of envy and jealousy, The psychology of jealousy and envy. Ed. P. Salovey. New York: Guilford.