How jealousy went from being a passionate issue to becoming pathological

How jealousy went from being a passionate issue to becoming pathological


Before his medicalization in the late nineteenth century, jealousy was such a confusing passion that many doctors complained about the lack of interest that his study had aroused in psychology, psychiatry or legal medicine.

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that these complex emotions began to be linked exclusively to the passions of the heart, and more specifically, to those suffered by those who felt deceived by their partners.

History of jealousy

Before the twentieth century, jealousy was discussed, of course, but in the context of a puerile drama that affected mostly the brothers during childhood.

The psychiatrist Moreau de Tours, for example, cited the case of a three-year-old boy who stabbed his twenty-month-old brother with a kitchen knife. Doctor Descuret also echoed the story of a 12-year-old boy who melted candle wax in his sister’s mouth and nose.

In 1888, a ten-year-old boy cut his brother’s throat with a razor, and 50 years earlier, in 1838, a twelve-year-old girl poisoned his sister for the same reason.


Boy feeling jealous of his sister.
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Image caption At first it was believed that jealousy only appeared in sibling relationships.

It is precisely this tragicomic nature of jealousy that we find in seventeenth-century dramas, whether it is “The Curious Impertinent” by Cervantes or the “Othello” by Shakespeare.

Almost all the treatises of the passions written in the first half of the nineteenth century shared the idea that jealousy was universal in nature and culture .

For these first students of emotions, jealousy was a characteristic concomitant to all kinds of love that only when it seemed excessive in degree or in intensity became pathological.


Copy of the first folio of William Shakespeare.
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Image caption Shakespeare was one of the writers who reflected the tragicomic nature of jealousy in his works.

Reasonable emotion and irrational passion were distinguished by their intensity, so that only when the passion was excessive, jealousy became a clinical condition that required treatment.

Degrees of jealousy

To clarify this delicate scale of intensities, Moreau de Tours proposed five different degrees:

  • the weak jealousy, which was expressed by small intellectual problems, as well as by some inconveniences for the couple;
  • strong jealousy, which gave rise to fights and scenes of violence, including ideas, although only ideas of murder;
  • violent jealousy, which led to determined thoughts of murder;
  • excessive jealousy, which end in the suicide of the jealous person; and finally,
  • the indignant jealousy, which ended with the murder of the couple and the suicide of the criminal.

In the context of this progressive graduation, the difficulty was to clarify the extent to which jealousy was normal and to what extent it acquired pathological characteristics.


Caricature of a man feeling jealous.
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Image caption He has divided jealousies into scales of five degrees depending on their intensity.

The easiest thing seemed to begin, as always, to analyze the expressive features of the jealous one, as well as his physiological constitution.

The treatises of the passions of the nineteenth century considered that the liver of the jealous man transformed large quantities of black blood into yellow bile, so that those affected by this passion manifested disorders in digestion and a significant decrease in their strength. The skin, in turn, acquired a greenish or yellowish tone.

Over time, this intestinal irritation was transmitted to the brain, which explained the presence of sad and tumultuous thoughts, the love of loneliness and darkness, as well as the presence of cruel insomnia that led to a form of melancholy or hypochondria , in less serious cases, or suicide and death, in the most serious cases.

A tradition was continued that, already present during the Renaissance, confused jealousy with envy. This mixture of love, fear and hate lacked an expressive form of its own. Perhaps because it was an emotion in which the person feels another number of emotions, said the naturalist Charles Darwin: anger towards those whose attention is claimed or with the rival who is envied; fear before the anticipation of a loss; I hate others, or towards oneself, just because I feel jealous.

Jealous hallucinations

Second, since the distinction between passion and disease was a matter of degree, it seemed likely to confuse normal passion states with the pathological condition.


Woman watching another man in front of his partner.
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Image caption Jealous people create fantasies that acquire a life parallel to reality.

In fact, the morbidity seemed to depend not so much on the presence of a fixed idea, (of the type “my husband or my wife deceives me”) when the hallucinatory character of that same idea (“without me having any reason to think about it”) . Morbid jealousy was associated with a misunderstanding of reality, whether based on a distortion of sensory impressions or its delusional character.

Passion became morbid when it had no correlation with facts, and not already, as before, when it was excessive in intensity. It was a passion that transformed suspicions into certainties and jealous into detective.

Those who are affected by this sad passion, said the doctors of the time, keep an active vigilance on their partners : they spy their faces, their mood swings; They try to reconstruct the chain of events with a remarkable insight. The jealous was not limited to following his partner everywhere, but examines his sheets and clothes in search of irrefutable proof.


Man watching a cellphone
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Image caption Pathological surveillance reaches internet accounts or cell phones.

It is this observational obsession that produces uncertainties, not only in patients, but also in physicians. For many of the latter, for example, the ideas expressed by these people seemed so plausible and realistic that it was sometimes very difficult to keep track of the limits of delirium. So much so that, as in other forms of neurosis, the clinical examination had to begin with the interrogation not of the suspect patient, but of the suspect couple.

From the time when the old bolero proclaimed that who could not feel neither love nor jealousy was not made of flesh and bone until our contemporary world, where pathological surveillance reaches the internet accounts or cell phones, jealousy continues to form part of a false idea of ​​the sentimental relationship, not only for sure on the part of who feels them, but also on the part of those who provoke them.

Whether as a form of obsession or delirium, passion still has a puerile protagonism that certainly does not deserve.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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