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Erotomania: when the heart defies reason

If the woman next door keeps dropping love letters in your mailbox and waits for you down the stairs every single day, then perhaps the person you thought was just an admirer is in fact an erotomaniac.

Erotomania
© Thinkstock

Erotomania mainly affects women and wreaks havoc not only among those suffering from this disorder, but can also be a source of distress for the object of their fantasies. Read on and learn more about this form of irrational love.

French doctor Benoît Dalle worked at the Sainte-Anne Hospital for 15 years and monitored a dozen patients with erotomania for several years, thereby allowing him to arrive at an understanding of this condition.

Widely variable manifestations of erotomania

Sylvia shows up at her favourite writer’s each and every book-signing event. She’s an utterly dedicated fan. After receiving countless compliments about his work, the grateful author expresses gratitude with a few kind words, immediately construed by Sylvia as a declaration of love. Some signs, gestures and words leave no room for doubt, she knows it. This first illusion prompts her to write innumerable heartfelt letters, to wait for him after each of his public appearances and even to send him her apartment keys.

Never mind that he keeps politely turning her down, she just goes on and on misinterpreting everything as part of a conspiracy to defeat their idyllic love. “This almost comical side of the story eventually comes to an end and erotomania plays out publicly when the heartbroken lover flies into a rage. This can even followed by police intervention and medical treatment,” explains Dr Dalle. Something that we would probably consider as simply stalking, may in fact be a mental disorder.

According to some psychiatrists, erotomania follows the cycle “hope, disillusion, resentment, aggression” and love suddenly turns into hatred. Dr Dalle says that only a tiny minority of patients indulge in aggressive behaviour and, though he fell victim to this kind of attitude himself from one of his patients, he remains convinced that erotomania is less harmful to the loved person than it is to the patients themselves. Suicidal thoughts are indeed more widespread than attempted assaults.

The misplaced illusion of being loved

First described in the early 20th century, erotomania was defined as the sustained and irrational illusion of being loved. Since then, a similar definition of this psychological disorder has been added to the bible of American psychiatrists, the famous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Erotomania, which may be assimilated to a kind of insane paranoia, mostly affects women. Erotomaniacs are passionately devoted to the person they desire, whom they regard as the initiator of this love. The loved person often happens to be socially and/or intellectually superior (authors, actors, lawyers, priests, doctors for instance). In an erotomaniac’s mind, it’s always the other person who has chosen to love him or her: "he/she fell in love with me and made passes at me before I did".

Dr Dalle further explains that, “Erotomaniacs are firmly convinced that the person they love does everything they can to hide their passion, with the help of the people around them. Their fevered imagination allows them to construe anything the least bit unusual as a confirmation of what they believe is true.”

Delirium only affects this specific sphere of desire, and erotomaniacs suffer from no other mental disorders. Erotomania is also characterized by its sustainable quality. It is in no way comparable to “erotomaniac moments”, such as those experienced by some teens who are persuaded that their favourite singer or celebrity gave them a special look and waved at them in a special way during a concert for example.

“True erotomania can last for years, even a lifetime. I remember treating a patient whose passion outlived the loved person” says Dr Dalle. Though such delirium may at first sight seem appealingly romantic, as the desire involved is essentially platonic, it can soon make the loved one’s life miserable.

Erotomania’s mysterious causes

Erotomania is the delirious fantasy of being loved rather than a mere deviation from normal passion. What are its causes? As with a great many such disorders, experts can only formulate hypotheses, the most plausible of which rests on affection deficit during childhood.

Given the female prevalence of this disorder, it has often been inferred that affection deficit from the father may be responsible. To Dr Dalle, however, this version is not necessarily the most accurate. He explains that, “It’s often the female component that’s sought out in the loved person and therefore, the affection deficit from which erotomania arises may have more to do with the mother.”

Whenever erotomania leads to dangerous consequences, hospitalization is required. Treatment may depend on the degree of the condition, but psychotherapeutic treatment has proved to yield positive results. On the downside, though, is the possibility of developing erotomaniac feelings towards the therapist over the course of treatment.

Dr Dalle had experienced this firsthand until he decided to systematically recommend treatment by a group of specialists: “Erotomaniacs yearn for constant one-to-one relations with the desired person and don’t take others into consideration. They refuse to break out of this imaginary duo. The therapist should therefore introduce a third party into the process, including during treatment.”

Having gained vast experience with erotomania, Dr Dalle views the current situation through a rather critical lens: “At this point, hospital psychiatry is no longer capable of monitoring such patients for the long haul. As a result, treatment is mostly medicated and includes, among others, antipsychotic as well as neuroleptic drugs. These chemical solutions act only on the symptoms only and don’t solve the problem.”

"Bien que mon amour soit fou: érotomanies, du regard à l’écoute" by Benoit Dalle, Yves Edel and Alejandro, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1997 (only available in French)

Posted 22.09.2010

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