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Hong Kong Journal of Psychiatry (1995) 5, 18-24



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The evidence linking jealousy to violence is reviewed. The violence of jealousy is predominantly vented on the partner rather than the actual or supposed rival. Men are responsible for the majority of the killings and serious injuries resulting from jealousy, though this may reflect less a quality of male jealousy and more the qualities of male aggression. A number of the judgements constitutive of jealousy are associated with feelings and predispositions to behave which impel the jealous individual towards aggression. In morbid jealousies the risks of violence occurring appears to be increased. There is a tradition in Common Law courts of regarding jealousy either as a potentially mitigating factor or as laying a basis for both mental health defences and a defence of provocation. It should be remembered, however, that in those who resort to violence when jealous it is often not the quality of the jealousy which is critical but the individual's other characteristics such as impulsiveness, insensitivity and substance abuse.

Keywords: jealousy, violence, aggression, morbid jealousy, legal defences


Sexual jealousy is part of the experience of most adults at some time in their lives, and for many it creates significant disturbance and distress. Jealousy is all too often associated with threats and violence directed at the suspected partner. This paper will address the problems created by the violence of jealousy.

The contribution of jealousy to domestic violence and spousal homicide will be discussed but it is important to remember that violence usually emerges from a complex concatenation of influences in which jealousy may be prominent, but is rarely of itself sufficient. Jealousy is common and infidelity is common, but violence, though far too common, occurs in only a minority of such cases with killing as an extreme rarity. Jealousy may well be the prime motivation for an act of violence but this still leaves open why this individual, on this particular occasion, resorted to force. In considering the forensic implications of an offender's jealousy, it is not just a matter of establishing whether that jealousy is part of a mental disorder or considered morbid in it's own right, it is also a question of the relevance of such jealousy to the pleas being advanced.


In a recent community study of jealousy 15% of both men and women reported that they had, at some time, been subjected to physical violence at the hands of a jealous partner (Mullen & Martin 1994). The role played by jealousy in both initiating domestic violence and in attempts by perpetrators to justify their violence cannot be overstated. In a study canied out in Scotland nearly half of the 109 battered women inteiviewed identified their partner's excessive possessiveness and sexual jealousy as the typical precipitant of violence (Dobash & Dobash 1980). Two thirds of the women at a refuge for battered women in the London area reported that their partner's excessive jealousy was the primary cause of the violence and that in many cases the partner's suspicions were entirely without foundation (Gayford 1975, 1979). Studies from North America produced similar results with for example Hilberman and Manson (1977) reporting that extreme jealousy contributed to the violence in most of their group of 60 battered women; and Rounsaville (1978) noted similar findings with 52% of the battered women listing jealousy as the main problem and no less than 94% naming it as a frequent cause. Interestingly in one of the few studies to ask men why they battered their partners, they most often nominated anger at supposed infidelity (B1isson 1983). Whitehurst (1971) reporting

on 100 cases of spousal violence noted in nearly every case, the husband appeared to be responding out of frustration at his inability to control the partner, and that the overt accusation was that the partner was sexually unfaithful.

Jealousy would appear from such studies to be capable of both motivating domestic batterers and to offer an excuse, or rationalisation, for the violence. It tells a great deal not only about the attitudes of batterers but about the values of the cultures in which the supposition of infidelity can be appealed to as legitimising such violence.


The other issue highlighted by a number of studies on domestic violence and jealousy is the extent to which the batterer's jealousy was excessive or even frankly morbid. The violence can on occasion have fatal consequences for as noted by the 17th century divine Robert Burton (1621/1827 pg 428) "those which are jealous proceed from suspicion to hatred; from hairnd to frenzy; from frenzy to injury, murder and despair". Male sexual jealousy has been claimed to be the commonest motivation to killing in domestic disputes in North America (Daly, Wilson and Weghorst, 1982) and there is every reason to suppose that this is true of other societies.

Studies which have examined the motivations of those who kill have usually relied upon police summaries which often go no further than specifying, for example, that the killing arose in the context of a domestic quarrel. Those few studies that have tried to obtain greater detail have often identified jealousy as a significant component in the disagreements which culminated in the killing. Gibbens (1958) in his study of 195 homicide cases reported that jealousy was the prime motivation in 22% of the killings. In Wolfgang's (1958) study of 588 homicides and in West's (1968) study, jealousy was the third most common motivation. In a more detailed study of homicide in Detroit, jealousy emerged as the leading cause of domestic killing while among the male killers the violence emerged both in response to apprehended infidelity and to desertion. In a Canadian study covering over a thousand spousal homicides 20% were attributed to jealousy, with men being the killer in 195 instances compared to 19 for the women. Daly and Wilson (1988) argued these figures underestimate the role of jealousy, as many instances of jealousy are obscured by labelling the cause as "anger or hatred" or "argument or qua1Te1". Hafner and Boker (1982) examined a range of violent offenders, including homicide cases, and reported that 13% of all violent assaults were motivated by jealousy.

Studies of homicide among non-western and nonindustrialised societies have also indicated that the majo1ity of spousal killing was precipitated either by the suspicion about the wives infidelity, or by the woman deserting or indicating her intention to leave her male partner (Daly and Wilson 1988).


The anger stiJTed up by jealousy could in theory have as its objects both the partner and the supposed rival, but in practice it is the partner, not the rival, to whom the violence is usually directed. Ruin (1933) reported on 17 cases of homicidal jealousy and in 14 the victim was the partner. TI1e classic study of Lagache (1947) included 18 subjects who killed from jealousy and in 14 instances it was the partner who was slain. The extensive study of Mowat (1966) on morbid jealousy reported on 71 cases of homicide and 39 of attempted murder, the victim being the partner in 94 instances with the actual or supposed rival being attacked in only 7 cases. In the study of Mullen and Maack (1985) on 138 morbiclly jealousy subjects 71 resorted to physical aggression against their partner but only 7 attacked their rivals. In a community study when threats and violence were acknowledged in the context of jealousy they were also preferentially directed at the partner not the rival (Mullen & Martin, 1994).

The majority of published studies suggest that those who usually fall victim to jealous violence are the female partners of jealous males. In homicide studies it is predominantly male perpetrators and female victims, and even where women kill it has been argued that they typically act in self defence against the male partner's jealous rage (Daly and Wilson, 1988). The studies of domestic violence which have examined the contribution of jealousy have all employed groups of battered women so inevitably the perpetrators will be male. There is no question that the vast majo1ity of criminal violence in our society is perpetrated by males and that in spousal violence it is males who are responsible for nearly all the serious injuries inflicted. 111is may well indicate that it is specifically male sexual jealousy which leads to aggression but it is possible that what is gender specific is not the nature of the predispositions associated to jealousy but the facility with which males resort to violence, as well as their willingness, and capacity, to inflict injury.

Studies which have examined the behaviour of jealous individuals have not supported a dramatic difference between the sexes in terms of their resort to aggression. In a community study women were just as likely to acknowledge frireatening or striking their partner when jealous as were men and there were no differences in the frequency with which men and women reported being threatened or attacked by jealous partners (Mullen and Martin 1994). In a study which looked at a cohort of morbiclly jealousy patients 48 of the 85 men assaulted their partners but 28 of the 53 women also resorted to violence (Mullen and Maack 1985). Thus the preponderance of women among those seriously injured in disputes engendered by jealousy may reflect not a quality of male jealousy but the qualities of male aggression.


If sexual jealousy is a response to a perceived threat posed by an actual, or potential, 1ival to a romantic relationship there is no a priori reason why it should be associated with aggresion. TI1e apprehension of a rival could, and often does, evoke coping sh"ategies having nothing to do with aggression such as attempting to improve the relationship, increasing one's attractiveness to the partner or even beginning to search for alternative partners. TI1at aggression is in1manent in most peoples' expe1ience of jealousy is however suggested by the ease with which we understand, if not condone, anger and aggression in response to infidellty; and ihe extent to which cultural practices and legal codes have at least partially exculpated, if not actively sanctioned, violent responses in this situation.

Evolutionary psychologists have no difficulty explaining the llnk between jealousy and violence suggesting that males threaten violence, and resort to violence, to achieve exclusive sexual access to their female partner. The d1ive for sexual exclusivity, it is argued, has it's roots in the reallty of paternity uncertainty for the male who, unlike the female, can never be absolutely sure that he is not wasting his efforts and resources on raising the child of another (in the economics of sociobiology it is only the reproduction of ones own particular genetic mateiial which counts). Jealousy has evolutionary significance because it mobilises the male to protect the propagation of his genes and the exhibition of violence furthers this end by coercing fidellty and punishing infidellty (Daly & Wilson, 1988: Buss 1994). Female jealousy would in this model be directed at ensu1ing continued access to the resources represented by the male, for themselves and ilieir offsp1ing. 111is is claimed to manifest in men's focus on specifically sexual fidellty and womens greater concern with emotional attachment and relationship secu1ity(Buss, 1994). Such ilie01ies make much of the apparent tendency of males to resort to violence when jealous, as opposed to females' sh"ategies of reath"acting and secrning their mate. But, as already noted, such gender specific nature of jealous violence may be more apparent ilian real.

The views of sociobiologists on jealousy have been subject to considerable c1iticism by those who regard jealousy as a culturally mediated response which can vary according to the concrete reallties of the specific society, and in general terms represents ilie response to a violation of expectations and betrayal of trust within a sexual relationship (Hupka 1991). The expectations may vary between societies and between men and women in any particular society reflecting ilie interplay of econon1ic and cultural pressures as well as relationship specific factors such as ilie level of intimacy and emotional invesh-nent. TI1e diffe1ing impllcations of discovering a partner has another relationship in different social reallties leads to different responses and cross cultural studies in no way supports a specific llnk between male sexual jealousy and the resort to coercive violence (Hupka 1991).

TI1ere is no compelling reason to comn1it one's allegiance exclusively to sociobiological determinism or cultural relativism. It may be that cultures can and do exist where violence does not mar relationships challenged by infidellty, but in our societies there is considerable evidence for a llnk between jealousy and increased levels of violence directed at ilie suspected partner. Jealousy and its associated predisposition to aggression may, or may not, represent an evolutionary advantage but its management requires a finer psychological analysis then can be provided by such a formulation.

Jealousy llke other sh"ong emotions is experienced as something which happens to us railier than as a state which is chosen. We often experience ourselves as ilie object of emotional influence, rather tlmn the master of our passions. Emotions impose their meaning and the individual has a sense of being overcome bothby the event triggering the emotional response and their own feellngs (Frijda 1986). To propose therefore that emotions are ilie product of judgements is counter-intuitive. Reflection however reveals that before one expe1iences an emotion, a judgement or appraisal must have occrni-ed to the effect that a state of affairs exists which has the capacity to evoke ilie emotional response (Solomon 1980, Greenspan 1988). Injealousy as a minimum iliere has to be a judgement that the relationship is threatened by the intrusion of a third party and that ones partner has, or may soon, breach an assumed duty of loyalty. Similarly emotions impell us towards actions (anger to attack, fear to flight, love to approach, etc.) but ilie predispositions to particular actions in11erent in most emotions do not always lead to ilie expression of those impulses. Most of us control, modify and redirect our emotional hnpulses to a greater or lesser extent. TI1ose who fail to moderate their emotional impulses often damage themselves and those around iliem. Thus again reason and judgement insert themselves into emotional expeiience.

Jealousy is best regarded as a complex emotion involving judgements (appraisals), feellngs, desires, fantasies and predispositions to behave (coping efforts) (White & Mullen 1989, Mullen 1990). TI1e judgements constitutive of jealousy revolve around the suspicion, or knowledge, that a rival relationship exists and how that threat is appraised. TI1e judgements tend to bring with iliem specific emotional concon1itants. Table 1 llsts some of ilie judgements which h1itiate and sustain jealousy together wifu the llkely emotional concon1itants, associated desires and potential behavioural responses. In jealousy, as in most strong passions, ilie judgements, feellngs and desires evoked are often complex and mutually contradictory. We desire to know yet fear to know, we desire to hurt yet hope for reconciliation. Althusser (1994), who had direct experience of being homicidal, refers to this as the fractured unity of desire. In morbid jealousies, particularly involving delusions, the arnbivalence and ambiguities are often less apparent, with the certainty of delusion sweeping all before it. In most instances the behaviours predisposed to by such states of mind are intrusive and aggressive. Though it must be remembered that such behavioural predispositions are usually held in check by prndence and decency, they pose a potential for violence in most instances.

The combination of anger and self righteousness poses a particular risk producing as it does a sense of being justified in the expression of anger and even in the exhibition of violence. Destructive envy may lie behind the oft heard comment of the jealous killer that 'no-one else will have her'.

The judgements constitutive of jealousy will vary between cultures, at different historical periods in the same culture, as well as between individuals. In honour and status cultures, such as those characteristic of agralian and nomadic societies, infidelity presents a challenge to the power hierarchy of the whole society, based as it is on pedigree and inheritance, and represents a public shaming of the cuckhold. In such social strnctures violence may not only be condoned but mandated (Mullen 1991). The changing cultural consh'uction of jealousy in industiial and post industlial societies may have reduced the tendency to resort to violence when confronted by actual or supposed infidelity but it has not removed such behaviour. Even in some contemporary societies where jealousy appears to have been sbipped of all legitimacy, and reduced to the manifestation of possessiveness and personal weakness, the helplessness and resentment consequent on the sense of powerlessness can predispose to intimidation, just as vengefulness and destrnctive envy can obtain expression through violence.

Parrnt (1991) has hypothesised that jealousy consists of two separable states of mind, the first being 'suspicious jealousy' which occurs when a threat to the relationship remains unresolved and is characterised by apprehension and uncertainty, and the second ' accompli' jealousy when the relationship is irretlievably lost and sadness, anger and envy of the £aimer partner emerge as dominant themes. Some support for the utility of such a separation is provided by the contention of Daly and Wilson (1988) that spousal killing occurs in two contexts either when suspicions about the partners' infidelity predominate or when the desertion of the spouse has occurred or is imminent.

There is a strong impression, supported by clinical studies, that the level of violence in morbid jealousy is markedly increased (Shepherd 1961, Mullen & Maack 1985). Jealous delusions often bring with them an insatiable desire for confirmation of the suspicions combined with rage engendered both by the conviction of betrayal and the continued denial by the suspected partner of what the deluded individual believes is incontrovertible evidence. Violence is not however confined to those jealousies which qualify psychopathologically as morbid, and attempts to use the emergence of overt violence as the defining charactelistic of a morbid jealousy are misguided and potentially mischievous.


The risk of violence is an ever present concern in jealousy. The risk are, however higher when:-

  1. The jealousy is
  2. There has been previous violence motivated by
  3. The jealous individual is prone to violence in other
  4. The jealous individual is abusing drugs or alcohol
  5. There is a pattern of escalating conflict between the couple including threats
  6. The jealous individual is depressed, and even more so if suicidal preoccupations and behaviour is emerging
  7. The cultural and social background of the jealous individual is one which tends to condone the resort to violence in the face of infidelity

Jealous preoccupations tend to be more intense in younger rather than older subjects and the resort to violence is also more common among younger people. In morbid jealousy however advancing age seems to have less influence in ameliorating either the jealousy or the violent predispositions.

Clinicians managing jealousy must make careful and repeated enquiries about violence from both the jealous individual and their partner. Wherever possible infonnants outside of the immediate relationship should also be consulted. A general enquiry about violence is not sufficient. Specific inqui1ing should be made about the following behaviours on the part of the jealous individual:-

  1. The issuing of threats.
  2. TI1e desbuction of the partner's personal property.
  3. The throwing of objects at the partner.
  4. Pushing stoving and shaking the partner.
  5. Blows with hands fists or feet.
  6. Throttling
  7. Attacks with weapons : blunt instruments, knives or
  8. Any other action which could have inflicted harm (e.g. poisoning, driving at them with a vehicle )

In most cases serious violence is preceded by clear indicators of mounting danger, these are often ignored by the partner who cannot believe they are at risk from their loved one, they should not be similarly ignored by a prudent clinician.

The management of jealousy and the minimising of the risks of violence fall outside the scope of this paper. (For discussion see Pines, 1992; Crow & Ridley 1990; White & Mullen, 1989; Mullen, 1955 ).


Killings motivated by jealousy are, on occasion, glorified by the term ·clime of passion'. The response to such climes varies widely between societies and at different histmical periods (Mullen 1993, Van Sommers 1988). The jealous killer has often been accorded a remarkable degree of leniency by the courts. In English Law killings motivated by jealousy have long been regarded as one of the best established instances of provocation {Williams 1978). In the eighteenth century the famous jurist William Blackstone (1783) noted that killings provoked by infidelity were "of the lowest degree of manslaughter. ..... for there could not be a greater provocation". In Ame1ica in the nineteenth century they developed a notion of the 'unwritten law defence' one aspect of which was that those who kill an unfaithful spouse, or their lover, should not be convicted of murder (Steams 1989). Currently in most jurisdictions, appeals to having been driven to killing by exposure to infidelity no longer constitute a total defence to the c1ime of murder, but in many it can form the basis of reducing the conviction to manslaughter or its equivalent. The defense of provocation which if successful results in a manslaughter conviction remains available, though in most jurisdictions increasingly resbicted by the need to demonstrate an immediate, and essentially unconsidered, outburst of violence in response to the sudden exposure to the act or knowledge of infidelity. More usually jealousy is employed as part of a plea of diminished responsibility (or insanity where this plea is unavailable) or may be employed in mitigation where mandatory sentences do not apply. To pursue defence of dinnnished responsibility, let alone insanity, it is necessary to establish that the jealousy which gave rise to the violence was morbid in nature.


TI1e assessment of jealousy, and in particular coming to a defensible decision on whether that jealousy should be regarded as pathological is often central to the legal disposal of cases where violence has resulted from jealousy. Though a full discussion of the complex issues involved is beyond the scope of this paper, some general guidance is appropriate.

The truth or falsity of the jealous subject's suspicions is not a criterion which can be used to separate morbid from normal jealousy. Jealousy which is clearly pathological may neverfueless be correct in its central conviction about the partner's infidelity, just as jealousy in normal individuals not infrequently emerges on the basis of misinterpretations and hasty assumptions. What can assist in identifying morbid jealousy is not the truth of the conviction but the evidence on which the jealous individual relies to bolster their accusations. The advancing of extraordinary or bizarre "proofs" of infidelity is suggestive of pathology.

The clinical assessment of jealousy is complicated by jealousy being both a common reaction to apprehended infidelity and also forming the content of morbid preoccupations arising in the context of mental illness. Jealous reactions which fall within the limits of normality are:-

  1. Responses to events which can reasonably be related to fears about the partners current, or future, infidelity.
  2. Focussed on a plausible rival.
  3. Constituted by feelings, desires and behaviours which remain broadly within the limits acceptable to the jealous individual's own self concept and within the wide cultural norms.
  4. Characterised by a course and evolution which can be underst-andably related to the provoking situation and subsequent developments
  5. Capable of resolution either by the jealous individual accepting reasonable reassurance about the infidelity and the future of the relationship or accepting that the relationship is at an end.

Jealous reactions which can be considered morbid despite being responses to situations which might conceivably lead to the apprehension of infidelity are characterised by:-

  1. Exaggerated psychological and behavioural responses (having regard to the nonns for the individual and their culture).
  2. A focus on inherently unlikely rivals or a multiplicity of rivals
  3. A failure to respond to reasonable reassurance and a tendency to either prolong the conflict or seek complete subjugation of the partner.
  4. An unwillingness to accept the tennination of the relationship despite the partners INishes for this and/or a refusal to accept an end of their "right" to be jealous even after the partner has left the relationship.

In most pathological jealous reactions the jealousy is augmented by one or more of the following:-

  1. A personality deviation, such as a paranoid personality disorder.
  2. Past experiences of being deceived or deserted.
  3. Substance abuse notably involving alcohol or cerebral stimulants such as cocaine.
  4. A mental disorder, typically depression, which contributes to the exaggerated response though it does not itself give lise to the jealousy preoccupations.

In morbid jealous reactions the suspicions ovemde all attempts to reassure or placate and seek only confirmation of the worst, as the jealous despite contrary evidence is incapable of accepting refutation, or even modification, of their beliefs about infidelity. There are in many normal jealous reactions an element of unresolvable doubt but it is not the all consuming and unassuageable suspicions of the morbid reaction. In morbid reactions anger, resentment and self lighteousness are often prominent. Morbid jealous reactions can include those delusional developments which are occasionally encountered in abnormal personalities stressed beyond their limits, but in many morbid reactions the jealous preoccupations do not qualify as delusions.

Jealousy may form the symptom of a pre-existing mental disorder. In schizophrenia jealousy has been reported to be a prominent feature in over 10% of cases (Shepherd 1961). Delusional disorders may also have jealousy as there primary content and those 1Nith obsessive compulsive disorder may occasionally have doubts about a partners fidelity as the central concern. Depression and mania may also throw up delusions of infidelity. These symptomatic jealousies are characterised by:-

  1. Arising from an underlying mental disorder which emerges contemporaneously, or prior to the jealousy
  2. A course and evolution related to the progress of the underlying disorder
  3. Being accompanied by the clinical features of the underlying disorder
  4. Not usually being related to events which could reasonably be related to fears about a partners fidelity.

Though symptomatic jealousies owe their genesis to the underlying mental disorder there are often characterological, histolical and relationship issues which make the emergence of the jealousy at least partly understandable in this particular patient at this particular time.

This schema for classifying jealousy developed p1imarily to assist in the appropliate management of patients presenting INith jealousy problems. The translation of this classification, or of the competing systems of classifying jealousy, into the legal arena has to be performed INith care.

Inthe symptomatic jealousies the situation is usually relatively straight forward. The jealousy forms one part of a INider disorder and the coexisting symptoms be they, for example of depression or schizophrenia, can be appealed to as indicators of the individuals mental illness. From a legal perspective there is considerable appeal in deriving the criminal act from a jealousy, which it can be argued, is the product of a disease process, the onset of which was outside the control of the accused and the progress of which afforded little opportunity for the accused to modify. In reality even disorders like schizophrenia are profoundly modified by the premorbid personality, personal habits and social circumstances of the sufferer and the behaviour of such patients is not solely a product of their illness. However delusions, passivity experiences and misperceptions can clearly constrain and overbear understanding, judgement and volition. The expert INitness has the task not only of articulating the relationship of the climinaI act to the jealousy, and the jealousy to the underlying disorder, but of clalifying how coexisting abnormalities of mental state may influence understanding and volition.

The morbid reactions present an even more complex problem for the forensic psychiatrist. The dividing line between normal and morbid is wavering and uncertain. In the very nature if the context in which the question is posed there has usually been selious, if not fatal, violence which biases the exan1iner towards the identification of excessive, if not necessarily morbid, jealousy. Most of those who kill or maim when jealous would from a clinician's viewpoint have been suitable cases for treatment. The question for the courts is, however, whether they fulfil the criteria for legally defined categories such as insanity or diminished responsibility. The forensic expert should begin from the presumption of normality and there must be persuasive reasons for postulating the jealousy is morbid.


Jealousy deserves its sinister reputation as a harbinger of violence. It is worth remembering, however, that most people are caught up in jealousy at some time in their lives but in the vast majority this does not lead to overt violence let along killing.

In those who inflict serious violence when jealous, the jealousy may be morbid but often it is the individual's other characteiistics, such as impulsiveness, insensitivity and substance abuse, which tip the balance towards attack. Jealousy in and of itself rarely explains violent behaviour, even in the morbidly jealous, and just as there should be a certain modesty in advancing jealousy as the explanation of an assault so there should be reservations about how much it can properly be regarded as a mitigating factor.


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Paul E. Mullen MBBS, MPhil (Psych Med), FRANZCP, FRCPsych Professor of Forensic Psychiatry, Monash University; Director of Victorian Forensic Psychiatry Services, PO Box 266, Rosanna VIC 3084, Australia.

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