Have you ever heard of Othello’s Syndrome? It comes from the Shakespeare play in which the title character (spoiler alert) kills his wife out of jealousy. Jealousy is part of the human condition, just one emotion out of a whole constellation of emotions natural to human beings. Some amount of jealousy is normal, but taken to the extreme (as in Othello’s case), it becomes pathological.
When you have an important love relationship, you are motivated to protect it. Researchers found that six-month-old babies display jealousy when their mothers ignore them and focus instead on a lifelike doll. Even canines experience some form of jealousy. Studies show that dogs will growl, snarl and snap when a rival comes between them and their owners.
There’s a prevailing notion that jealousy is a harmful emotion, and that’s sometimes true. It’s also true, however, that jealousy is a sign of attachment (the babies and moms, the dogs and their masters). As a therapist in couples counseling sessions, I was able to use jealousy as a diagnostic tool. For instance, I would often ask the husband to imagine walking into a restaurant and seeing his wife holding hands with another man. I would ask, “How would you feel?” The answer gave clues to how far the relationship had deteriorated. If he responded by saying, “Good riddance—she’s his problem now,” odds were that the counseling sessions were less likely to succeed. If he felt a pang of jealousy, a rush of territorial anger, it meant there still might be a chance he was attached enough to try to save the marriage. He was motivated. If not, we had to go back to the beginning and try to create an attachment that had vanished or broken.
In these kinds of sessions, we worked toward acceptance of jealousy as a natural part of the human experience, without judgment or blame. The sessions almost always eventually took a turn in the same direction: We talked about what it means to trust, whether it’s possible, and why anyone would risk trusting someone else. “I’ll never trust again” was a common refrain. When trust with a loved one has been broken and you’re feeling jealous and insecure, comparing yourself unfavorably to rivals, what is left for you to do is to trust yourself—trust yourself to be strong and resilient enough to handle the breach. It’s important to trust others, but far more important to trust yourself.
Jealousy creates some level of suffering, and at a minimum, you can draw strength from Bob Marley, who said, “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
The suffering can take on a life of its own. Sometimes I assessed clients for jealousy and found a more powerful variety with an intensity and paranoid ferociousness that went beyond a passing, run-of-the-mill jealous, insecure moment. When jealousy becomes unduly intense (remember Othello), it falls into the pathological category.
Researchers have isolated three components of pathological jealousy:
1. Belief that the relationship with the loved one is the only important thing.
2. Frequent misinterpretation of harmless behaviors, thoughts or feelings of a loved one.
3. A belief that the loss of that loved one would be catastrophic.
Where does this pathology happen? Just above the forehead, you’ll find a place called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The VPC is the region of the brain where we think about ourselves, think about others and process emotions. It is also the neuro-location where we try to predict the behavior of a loved one and process the possibility of loss.
Now look lower, place your hand over your chest and find your heart. If it’s broken or bruised, notice that it’s still beating. That means there’s time to assess your relationships for breaches, for brokenness, for jealousy or damage. There’s still time to accept the inevitability of loss and open yourself up to the possibility of reclamation. If jealousy is interfering with your relationships, remember that Washington Irving said, “There is never jealousy where there is not strong regard.”