dilemmas

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This week's problem: Vicky's husband is becoming obsessively jealous. If he can't reach her at work, he panics; he gets upset when she chats to their elderly neighbour; he accompanies her shopping; when she refuses his offer to ferry her to and from work, he accuses her of meeting men in secret. Otherwise, he is kind and caring. Reassuring him makes no difference. What can she do?

Why do women get sucked into relationships with jealous men? Because, initially, the attention of a man with burning green eyes can be very flattering. He loves you madly ("madly" is, I'm afraid, the word). He loves you wildly (again, "wildly" is the word). You are his world. It makes the head swim.

But there comes a moment when it becomes an awful strain being someone else's world. When Vicky's husband has so blurred the boundaries between them, Vicky must be wondering where love ends and desperate need begins. Does he really love her, warts and all; or does he depend on her for his very existence?

You needn't be Freud to guess that this man had an experience, probably in early childhood, and probably involving his mother (natch), that has caused him chronic anxiety about being left, a fear that still feels threatening to his very existence. These legacies of fear can lead to a kind of post- traumatic stress syndrome that - without at least an awareness of where they originated and a realisation of where feelings that belong to the past end and present ones begin - can dominate a person's life for ever. These grooves of mistrust are so ingrained in this man's inner reality that even when he picks a reliable person like Vicky, he can't help but see even her most innocent actions as acts of betrayal. He's like a dog that cringes because it was once beaten with a stick, and now growls when its master so much as lifts a fork to put a tin of Pal on its plate.

But Vicky's husband isn't a dog. He has the intellectual capacity to detach himself from his ingrained instincts and deal with them. Reassuring him, as Vicky's found, doesn't help. Indeed, by treating his fears as real is a kind of complicity, allowing his irrational jealousy to dominate her life as much as his. Even were Vicky to give up work and physically chain herself to her husband for the rest of her life, he would still be jealous because that is his nature. He would accuse her of simply thinking about other men.

Vicky must throw the problem back where it belongs: with him. Why, she must ask, doesn't he trust her? Doesn't he realise that this lack of trust - and, ergo, his lack of love - makes her angry and upset? He has to depend on his own resources for his security, not her. And, if he's keen to make a go of the relationship, he may get the insight to make this possible.

But if he can't understand his own problem and get help, then worse, far worse, may follow. Vicky should consider leaving her "kind and caring" man before things get out of hand. Because in clinical terms this condition is known as Othello syndrome. And we know what happened to Desdemona.

readers' responses

This man is deeply insecure and has problems that you cannot deal with on your own. I lived for several years with a man like this, trying to convince him there was no one else. I gradually gave up all social activities in the hope of averting the scenes of jealous rage every time I did something on my own or spoke to an old friend. Even that didn't help - if I stayed in while he went out, he would accuse me of having men round to the house and interrogate me until the early hours.

It will only get worse - as Vicky says, reassuring him makes no difference and will never make any difference. Don't give in to him, don't lose your friends and self-respect as I did. Tell him firmly that he needs counselling or psychiatric help and if he refuses to seek it, leave - however much you love him.

Incidentally, although I remained faithful to my husband throughout our marriage - hearing day after day what he would do to me and my mythical lover if he ever caught us together - he eventually left me for another woman.

Anon, Stockport

I have been going out with my girlfriend for three and a half years now and, like your husband, I have felt the jealous need for my loved one to be "mine" exclusively.

Any infringement of that possession is extremely vexing, even when it comes to irrational things - in your case when talking to your 70- year-old neighbour, in mine about my girlfriend's interest in and respect for a favourite uncle.

Any and all encounters can make your stomach begin to churn with repressed anger, and you can feel a strange pair of emotions - the desire to fight against the infringement, and distance from your loving side. It is a very unhealthy feeling: you are fully aware that it is destructive both to yourself and to the relationship, but it appears to be an automatic reaction, an instinct. There is no thought process behind it and it can worry you that you are losing your sanity.

I am now mostly over it. Occasionally I get twinges of insecurity, but they seem more rational, when there may really be a threat to the relationship. We all get those, I think.

I love my girlfriend very much and see her as my partner for life. The obsession comes from constantly thinking about your loved one and not giving any thought to your own life. What helped me was my girlfriend telling me that she was feeling claustrophobic. She used that word too, and told me that it was causing her to love me less. I just had to relax, to take more interest in myself, to keep myself busy, to talk to my friends and gain some life of my own without her. The relationship improved beyond measure as a result, and I could bring more to it because my own life was important again.

Before, I would not talk about my own work, I would not express my preferences of things we did together - I'd just try to maximise her pleasure and fulfil her every wish. I guess that this is what your husband does for you and this is why you find him so perfect when you're at home. Now, I assert myself a little more, respect my own wishes and feelings, and although this is not quite as "perfect" as my girlfriend was used to, it is more real, more genuine and more honest. And the problem is solved, which makes us both far happier.

Anon, North Humberside

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