Lovestruck: A brief look at de Clérambault’s Syndrome

In previous blogs I have looked at both love addiction and obsessional love. Since writing my blog on obsessional love and noting that it is also known as erotomania, I have received a couple of emails from clinicians saying that obsessional love is not necessarily erotomania by definition. The problem with the wider area of obsessions, compulsions and addiction more generally is that academics and clinicians have different definitions of what it is to be obsessed or addicted to something.

In clinical circles, erotomania is known as de Clérambault’s syndrome (DCS), and was named after a paper published in 1921 (Les Psychoses Passionelles) by the French psychiatrist Gaëtan de Clérambault. Those with DCS typically have a delusional belief that another person (typically someone famous, high status and/or a stranger) is in love with them. Some of the scientific literature suggests that DCS sufferers may have experienced loss of people that were emotionally close to them, and that therefore they may feel emotionally and psychologically safer by attaching themselves to people who are unattainable. Such actions prevent any further losses. In a 1983 issue of Psychological Medicine, Dr. P. Taylor and colleagues described the main components of DCS:

  • The presence of a delusion that the individual (usually described as a female) is loved by a specific man;
  • The woman has had little or no contact with the man;
  • The man is unattainable in some way, because he is already married or because he has no personal interest in her;
  • The man is perceived as watching over, protecting or following the woman;
  • Despite the erotic delusion, the woman remains chaste.

One of the reasons I am personally interested in DCS is that back in the early 1990s, my then girlfriend (who was – and still is – a clinical psychologist) was the object of affection by a DCS sufferer. The man who fell in love with my girlfriend was slightly brain damaged following a bad motorcycling accident. The accident had also left him paralyzed and had to use a wheelchair. As part of her job, my girlfriend worked with the charity Headway (a brain injury association), and it was when she was caring for this head injured and paralyzed man that he fell in love with her and believed that the feelings were reciprocal. The condition was so intense that he even booked a wedding date, sent out wedding invitations, and told all his family and friends that he was marrying my girlfriend. I even started to question my girlfriend’s fidelity because I couldn’t comprehend that someone could organize a whole wedding if nothing had ever happened between them. (Even though I was a psychologist when this happened I had never come across DCS).

The research literature on DCS suggests that the delusional behaviour is usually part of psychotic behaviour (typically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder) and can therefore be treated using atypical anti-psychotics (however, most DCS sufferers do not ask for help or seek treatment as they don’t believe they are doing anything wrong). According to the Wikipedia entry on DCS (and based on a paper published in a 1998 issue of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience by Dr. C. Anderson and colleagues):

“During an erotomanic episode, the patient believes that a ‘secret admirer’ is declaring his or her affection to the patient, often by special glances, signals, telepathy, or messages through the media. Usually the patient then returns the perceived affection by means of letters, phone calls, gifts, and visits to the unwitting recipient. Even though these advances are unexpected and unwanted, any denial of affection by the object of this delusional love is dismissed by the patient as a ploy to conceal the forbidden love from the rest of the world”.

In a 2002 issue of the journal History of Psychiatry, Dr. German Berrios and Dr. N. Kennedy describe four convergences in the history of erotomania.

  • Convergence 1: From classical times to the early eighteenth century, erotomania was viewed as a ‘general disease caused by unrequited love’.
  • Convergence 2: During the nineteenth century, erotomania was viewed as a disease of ‘excessive physical love (nymphomania)’
  • Convergence 3: During the twentieth century, erotomania was viewed as a form of ‘mental disorder’
  • Convergence 4: Currently, erotomania is viewed as a ‘delusional belief of being loved by someone else’.

Berrios and Kennedy also note that there are differences between Anglo-Saxon and French views surrounding the meaning or coherence of “the much-abused English eponym ‘de Clérambault syndrome’. Erotomania is a construct, a mirror reflecting Western views on spiritual and physical love, sex, and gender inequality and abuse. On account of this, it is unlikely that there will ever be a final, ‘scientific’ definition rendering erotomania into a ‘natural kind’ and making it susceptible to brain localization and biological treatment”.

Empirical research suggests that women are more likely than men to suffer from DCS, and that DCS sufferers tend to have social and intimacy difficulties, and are therefore typically loners. Developmentally, they are likely to have a poor sense of self and may have suffered abuse during childhood and/or adolescence. Much of the published theorizing about erotomania is from a psychodynamic perspective or genetic/neurochemical presispositions. I’m far more eclectic in my approach to understanding human behaviour and believe that environmental, psychological, pharmacological and physiological factors most likely trigger a predisposed person into developing DCS. It’s also been speculated that learning through the media (television, radio, books, etc.) has influenced the development of DCS.

Dr. Louis Schlesinger in his 2004 book Sexual Murder: Catathymic and Compulsive Homicides writes about DCS sufferers in relation to possible stalking behaviour. He notes that: “some stalkers are unable to give up a prior intimate relationship (Zona, Sharma, and Lane, 1993). Some develop delusional beliefs about the target (Goldstein, 1987), while others develop strong obsessional thoughts about virtual strangers (Spitzberg and Cupach, 1994). Meloy (1992) and Kienlen (1998) believe that a disturbance of attachment begins in the offender’s early childhood and stalking starts when some type of loss in adulthood resurrects these early conflicts”

In some individuals, DCS can remain with the person for a long time. For instance, Dr. Harold Jordan and colleagues published a paper in a 2006 issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association. They reviewed two cases of DCS that they had followed for over 30 years making these some of the longest, single-case longitudinal studies yet reported”. They noted that DCS remains a “ubiquitous nosological psychiatric entity with uncertain prognosis”. De Clerambault’s original paper presented the case of a woman whose chronic, erotic delusion remained with her for 37 years, and the cases reported by Dr. Jordan and his colleagues also demonstrated that the delusion can remain unchanged for decades. I have yet to come across any research that estimates the prevalence of DCS among the general population but given most published papers are clinical case reports, it suggests the disorder is relatively rare.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Anderson CA, Camp J, Filley CM (1998). Erotomania after aneurismal subarachnoid hemorrhage: Case report and literature review. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 10, 330-337.

Berrios G.E. & Kennedy, N. (2002). Erotomania: a conceptual history. History of Psychiatry, 13, 381-400.

Jordan, H.W., Lockert, E.W., Johnson-Warren, M., Cabell, C., Cooke, T., Greer, W. & Howe, G. (2006). Erotomania revisited: Thirty-four years later. Journal of the National Medical Association, 98, 487-793.

Schlesinger, L.B. (2004). Sexual murder: Catathymic and compulsive homicides. London: CRC Press.

Taylor, P., Mahendra, B. & Gunn J. (1983). Erotomania in males. Psychological Medicine, 13, 645-650.

Zona, M., Sharma, K., and Lane, J. (1993). A comparative study of erotomania and obsessional subjects in a forensic sample. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 38, 894–903.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 14, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Crime, Fame, Gender differences, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Paraphilia, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think I may have this…..

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