Othello syndrome and kitchen wars

Dear Dr Ash,

My relationship with my partner is great most of the time, but every six months or so she explodes in a fit of jealousy over something pretty trivial. When this happens it’s as if someone’s pushed the nuclear button. She says she can’t trust me and acts as if the relationship is over.

The most recent occasion was after I told her I’d had a couple of lunches with a female colleague (admittedly an attractive one) who I regard as a friend and who’s been having problems with her marriage. I felt as if it would be callous not to go out for a sandwich and listen to this woman’s problems – and would expect her to do the same for me if I was unhappy. I also thought I’d followed strict relationship protocols by telling my partner that I’d had these lunches. But then she asked me if I ever texted this woman and I admitted I do – but only because we work together. Following that, she didn’t speak to me for a week. I find her behaviour exhausting and unreasonable after six years together.

What can I do to put things on an even keel?

Bunkered, Bristol

While art imitates life, science imitates art

Dear Bunkered,

But for gender and a few centuries, your letter of course reminds me of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moorish king so obsessed with his wife’s imagined infidelities that he whips himself and everyone around him into a frenzy that culminates in catastrophe. While it is the “green-eyed monster” bit that we all remember, Othello’s psychiatric disintegration may be the most striking aspect of the play. “Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!” he cries, and as an audience we watch his inexorable descent into madness with more pity than outrage.

While art imitates life, science imitates art. This mental derangement is now known to neurologists as “Othello syndrome”, a label that describes a type of paranoid delusion in which people have absolute certainty about the sexual infidelity of a partner based on extremely distorted interpretations of evidence. Othello Syndrome can occur after certain strokes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other disorders of brain function. The evidence from these neurological patients suggests that a left frontal – right temporal brain network may be involved, an anatomical location that links regulatory areas in the frontal lobe to the strong emotions in the limbic system.

This isn’t to say that jealousy is a brain disorder of course, but as with Shakespeare’s play, the extreme can sometimes shed light on the usual. Your partner may have good reasons to question your lunches with an attractive colleague, and she may even be detecting something there that you aren’t fully aware of yourself. However, her “nuclear” reaction suggests that, at the very least, her emotions are spiralling out of control and destroying her sense of calm. She must feel tortured. When that happens to any of us, when the frontal lobe influence over the limbic system is weakened, reason and conversation are unlikely to be productive.

You write in your letter that after this incident your partner didn’t speak to you for a week. I wonder if, after that week had passed, you might have been able to discuss the situation more calmly. If it’s too difficult to attempt that on your own, this is a perfect situation to take to a relationship counsellor. A caring but neutral third party can act as a stabilising influence, a kind of surrogate frontal lobe. There is almost certainly much more going on with these arguments than may be apparent and it’s worth shedding some light on that.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

My husband insists on loading the dishwasher according to his own system, down to the last teaspoon, so since I work at home I have to pile my dirty dishes till he’s back. He also retains every last plastic or glass container, ostensibly for school projects (he’s a teacher) which means the counter is cluttered with serried stacks of yoghurt pots and rows of jam jars. He crams our kitchen drawers with used elastic bands, paper bags, pieces of silver foil and coils of string. People say separate bathrooms can save marriages, but in our case we’d need separate kitchens. He told me there’s a history of Asperger’s in his family, so I’ve tried to be tolerant of his organisational methods (and to be fair, he accepts my own cooking extravaganzas, involving every last saucepan) but I’d welcome any insights into our essential dilemma, which is that his slightly obsessive ordering of objects creates maddening disorder for me.


We can deduce things about the structure of the universe from the cosmic down to the quantum scale

Dear Exasperated,

There are occasions when I marvel at the immense bounty of nature. This afternoon, from the window near my desk, I can see a pair of jackdaws flitting back and forth to their nest under the eaves of the garage, taking turns bringing branches and standing guard. There is a new flash of primroses next to the back garden wall and glimpses of squirrels busying themselves through still-bare tree branches. In a world where so many creatures live together in harmony and joy, it is astonishing that after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution no two human beings seem able to share a kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard there are harmonious couples who laugh and splash each other with soap bubbles as the dishes gleam in the sunlight reflected off their perfect white teeth. But I’m unaware of any direct evidence that this species exists.

What evolution has given us instead is a brain which seeks pattern and meaning. It is our nature to connect the dots, to systematise and to interpret. This leads to astonishing insights into the natural world: we can deduce things about the structure of the universe from the cosmic down to the quantum scale. Patterns let us make predictions about the future, an incredibly useful cognitive skill. If we know what is about to happen we can prepare for it or possibly even change it, and we can plan what to do the next time a similar thing happens. The brain’s ability to see patterns and make predictions is the key evolutionary advantage of our species. Sometimes we also see a smiley face in a plate of eggs and bacon. We’re not perfect.

I write this only to explain why what seems to you like your husband’s efforts to systematise and organise the kitchen probably seem to him like nothing more than the obvious way to do things. He has detected patterns and created systems, his brain has organised information and tasks and tools into a comprehensible world in which he feels empowered. Unfortunately, that’s not the same world in which you feel empowered. The patterns that he recognises are different to the ones you recognise, and the systems which empower him disenfranchise you. Rather than trouble yourselves with a diagnostic family history, I suggest you recognise your shared human tendencies. You are both pattern-seekers and systematisers, each in your own way, and you both need to be able to use the kitchen in a way that feels joyful and easy. Therefore you need to compromise. You might try, as an exercise, making a list of the way you’d like the kitchen to work, and to have your partner do the same. Each of you could then take it in turns to agree to items from the other one’s list. Even a couple of compromises like this might go a long way to making you both feel your needs are being respected. This will always be a work-in-progress, of course, so when things seem particularly frustrating I hope you will remember there is much to recommend a romantic meal out at a restaurant.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

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