St Valentine's dark side

February 13, 1998

Love is ... often accompanied by a form of morbid romantic jealousy that is attracting the interest of psychiatrists. For such excessive emotion, known in psychiatry as the Othello syndrome, causes immense distress to couples and in extreme cases may result in violence or even death.

Padmal de Silva of the Institute of Psychiatry has studied the emotional turmoil caused by morbid jealousy. Empirical evidence is inadequate, but he predicts that the growth of academic interest in the subject will soon result in major developments in our understanding of romantic jealousy and in its clinical treatment.

Dr De Silva stresses the importance of distinguishing between jealousy as a natural and harmless human reaction and morbid jealousy which clinicians working in mental health regard as a growing problem. But what causes some people to lose their sense of proportion about their lover's feelings and how can we recognise the signs?

According to Dr De Silva, behaviour to watch out for includes repeated interrogations and accusations, attempts to control the freedom of the partner, spying, bugging of phones or hiring private detectives, collecting evidence of "wrong doings", threats or actual violence.

Morbid jealousy is often rooted in the fear that the sufferer is losing his or her place in the lover's affections. It can develop because of unmatched assumptions about acceptable behaviour. For example one man said his jealousy started when his wife began making regular business trips with a male colleague. Disagreements may reflect cultural or simply personal differences.

While one person may believe hugging a member of the opposite sex to be a friendly greeting, his or her partner may perceive it as a threat. When such discordances are not resolved early on in relationships, morbid jealousy may develop says Dr De Silva. The risk is particularly great among people prone to low self-esteem and with a general neurotic tendency.

As florists and chocolate shops brace themselves for peak business this week, psychiatrists may also find themselves busier than usual, thanks to St Valentine.

* Cupid's arrow falls short, page 13

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