Othello Syndrome is a rare psychiatric disorder that describes someone who is paranoid and delusional with an obsessive belief that their partner is untrustworthy and is either currently cheating, has cheated in the past, and/or would cheat given the opportunity.
The term “Othello syndrome” was coined in 1951 by English psychiatrist John Todd, who described the condition as a “dangerous form of psychosis.”
Todd’s inspiration for the name was taken from Shakespeare’s character Othello who killed his wife, Desdemona, after falsely suspecting she had been unfaithful to him.
People with this disorder may become so convinced of their partner’s infidelity that they extensively check their partner’s phones, emails, laptops, bank accounts, receipts, social media accounts, and may even go to the lengths of using a lie detector test in an attempt to prove their suspicions.
Severe episodes can be triggered by the slightest event, and this can result in paralysing anxiety and distress. For example: watching a movie where there is an attractive actor, hearing specific song lyrics, seeing their partner talking to someone or looking at them as they pass by, old photographs, mentioning the past, going to certain places that their partner has previously been to, and so on.
Anything that is perceived as a potential threat to the relationship can cause alarm bells for a person with this condition, and it can seem impossible for their partner to silence the noise, effectively reassure them, break the curse, and convincingly prove the fears are totally irrational.
Many of those with this condition are even go so far as to break up with their partner as a way of relieving the agony this syndrome causes them. Ironically, all this does is falsely reaffirm in their minds that their partner was never serious about them in the first place, because if they had been, they would have tried harder to save the relationship and to prove their trustworthiness.
For those in a relationship with someone with Othello Syndrome, life can be a rollercoaster, which is challenging to say the least—especially if they are honest and trustworthy, deeply in love, and are fully committed to their relationship. They face constant interrogations, derogatory name-calling, negative judgement of their character, and have to regularly reassure their partner about the genuineness of their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
The most important aspect that is often deeply misunderstood is that, despite how it appears, those with this disorder do not desire to dominate or control their partner. While this disorder often feels suffocating and oppressive to those on the receiving end of accusations, the only thing those with Othello Syndrome are obsessed with is, “Can I trust him/her or can’t I?”
Although the condition appears to express itself as severe jealousy with low levels of self-worth and insecurity, these factors do not play a main part. The root of the problem is believed to lie in early childhood or young adulthood experiences, or a traumatic period where a profoundly held trust in someone was savagely and permanently severed, which destroyed their trust in those closest to them. Couple this with their current partner telling little white lies, or withholding information (thinking it will help matters), only compounds their highly irrational belief that absolutely no one can be trusted, particularly with something as sacred as fidelity.
One way to look at this disorder is by perceiving it as a terrifying phobia. Some people are petrified of spiders, so much so that they will do anything to avoid them and others may think they act dramatically and irrationally whenever a spider appears. Much the same, those with Othello Syndrome are petrified of their partner’s cheating on them. They will do absolutely anything to avoid it, even sabotaging the relationship themselves if need be, just to ensure they don’t have to face up to the nightmare of what they believe is the “inevitable.”
The fear of being cheated on can be whittled down to a fear or abandonment and rejection. If there is even the slightest chance that their relationship could be at potential risk, they will move heaven and earth to avoid it. In their mind, they are keeping the relationship safe and secure.
There is no doubt that this disorder can cause one, or both, partners to feel as though they are losing their minds and going crazy. The person with the condition faces a whole host of traumatic imaginary scenarios that have been chalked up as a risk assessment to avoid any potential threat, which are then projected onto their partner.
Every move that their partner makes, particularly if it comes without warning, is scrutinised in fine detail to look for clues that would determine whether or not there is anything untoward occurring.
The reason that it is important to be aware of this potentially life-shattering condition is that, if unrecognised, unmanaged, and unsupported, it can spiral so far out of control that rage and violence ensue.
Therefore, it is absolutely vital that those who suffer with Othello Syndrome seek out help, guidance, and support so that their emotional and mental health does not deteriorate to such a level that both theirs, and their partner’s, well-being or lives are put at risk.
If you are in a relationship with someone who displays signs they have Othello Syndrome, I would recommend seeking professional guidance, and to further research the condition. However, unfortunately, there is not currently a wide amount of information about this relatively unheard of condition.
Below are some of the main signs to look out for:
Every time you leave the house, your partner gets high anxiety and asks where you have been, who you spoke to, and who you have seen.
Frequently monitors your internet browser history, social media accounts, emails, and telephone records. In more extreme cases, refuses to allow you to have any social media accounts or access to technology.
Following, tracking, spying on you, hiring a private detective, or suggesting you take a lie detector test.
Extensively questions everything you say.
Denies that they have trust issues and, instead says you are the cause of their insecurity.
Doesn’t want you to have any hobbies or interests outside the home due to fear that you will be attracted to someone else.
Checks your pockets, bag, wallet, and personal belongings to try to find evidence of an affair.
Dislikes all of your friends, claiming they are a “bad influence” on you.
If you try to end the relationship, they say it is due to you having an affair.
Threatens to harm you or themselves if you go somewhere or do something they don’t approve of.
They are convinced that you either have betrayed them in the past, are currently betraying them, or that you will betray them in the future.
Becomes aggressive and violent toward you when accusing you of having an affair, and/or may physically harm themselves.
Relentlessly calls you whenever you leave the house.
Their memories are distorted, and they are adamant that things happened according to their imagination instead of reality.
Please note that if you are in a relationship with someone who you feel displays the symptoms of Othello Syndrome and you are unfaithful and untrustworthy, it is likely that they are intuitively sensing this, and reacting uncontrollably to your infidelities. If this is the case, I would strongly recommend ending the relationship for the health, well-being, and sanity of your partner and yourself.
If someone is clearly in a state of distress due to suspected dishonesty and unfaithfulness, it is cruel and callous to continue torturing their mind if you know that their doubts and suspicions are founded, and you are the one causing the suspicion. If you cannot, or do not want to, end your relationship, at the very least end the affair and come clean with your partner.
The only way to build trust and have a strong and mutually respectful relationship is through being trustworthy.
Othello Syndrome can be managed with effective support. It is possible to alleviate and eradicate many of the signs and symptoms of this condition and for those with Othello Syndrome to regain complete trust and faith in their partner. However, for this to happen, both people involved need to admit that Othello Syndrome is causing the issues, and then fully commit to actively working on healing the past wounds that caused the insecurities and fears in the first place. Time should also be spent on focusing on structuring healthier thought processes, feelings, and behaviours going forward.
Disclaimer: The content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and does not serve as professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for any medical or mental health concerns. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please seek immediate assistance from emergency services or a healthcare professional.