Obsessive love: What to know
Health professionals do not widely recognize obsessive love, or "obsessive love disorder," as a mental health condition.
Indeed, it is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, obsessive love can be a sign of other mental health challenges and conditions.
If the person experiencing feelings of obsessive love does not receive treatment for the overall symptoms, they may struggle to emotionally regulate these feelings. In very extreme cases, this may even trigger acts of violence or abuse.
Keep reading to learn more about what characterizes obsessive love, the causes and symptoms behind it, and some possible treatment options.
Obsessive love vs. real love
A person experiencing obsessive love may view their loved one as a possession rather than an equal.
Forming a definition of "real" love has eluded philosophers for centuries. Likewise, there is no single list of criteria that can distinguish obsessive love from real love.
Love is a potent force. People with feelings of love experience a rush of dopamine and other powerful brain chemicals.
For some people, these feelings are so powerful that they become obsessed with keeping and controlling the person they love. They may appear to worship their partner at times, but become angry or jealous at the slightest threat.
One hallmark of obsessive love is its focus on the partner as an object for "consumption" or ownership, as opposed to an equal. Rather than loving the person and wanting the best for them, people with obsessive tendencies may love the other person because of their own needs.
This, in turn, may mean that they show little interest in the other's well-being.
The following are some other distinguishing features of obsessive love:
Real love requires compromise and negotiation, while obsessive love demands that the object of affection submits to the demands of their partner.
Real love prioritizes the other person's well-being, while obsessive love may involve physical violence or emotional abuse.
Real love involves accepting the other person and acknowledging their flaws. Obsessive love may involve worship and a refusal to acknowledge any flaws.
In some cases of obsessive love, there may be "splitting." This occurs when the person sees the object of their love as perfect one moment and evil the next.
Obsessive love makes it very difficult for a person to let go. Although breakups are usually painful and can trigger unhealthful behavior, people with feelings of obsessive love may refuse to accept that the relationship has ended.
Obsessive love sometimes involves a relationship that does not actually exist, such as with a celebrity or a stranger.
There are many factors that may cause obsessive love. The sections below discuss these factors in more detail.
Erotomania and other delusional disorders
Mental health conditions such as bipolar I disorder and schizophrenia, as well as symptoms triggered by alcohol use disorder, may cause delusions of erotomania.
This is not the same thing as obsessive love, but it may be a symptom of a much more serious mental health condition.
Erotomania is a rare delusional disorder that may cause a person to believe that destiny requires a specific relationship. The person may even delude themselves into believing that a relationship that ended long ago is still loving and healthy.
Erotomania can also cause a person to believe that another person loves them. Sometimes, the object of their love may even be someone that they do not know. For example, they may believe that they have a nonexistent relationship with a celebrity.
Some delusions may be so extreme that they cause the person to engage in stalking, abuse, or violent behavior. Erotomania also involves symptoms of paranoia.
One 2017 case study argues that social media can make erotomania worse. This is because it allows people with obsessive tendencies to observe others from a distance, and to feel closer to them than they might otherwise feel.
It is important to reiterate that erotomania is very different to obsessive love.
Borderline personality disorder
People with borderline personality disorder may intensely fear abandonment and have trouble managing their emotions. For example, their emotions may appear disproportionate to the situation, and they may obsess over their relationships.
They often view things in black and white terms, alternating between seeing a person as completely good or completely evil. This can cause them to try to control others or manipulate partners into remaining in the relationship.
People with this disorder may not have a consistent identity or sense of self. This can worsen obsessive tendencies, since they may struggle to see themselves as real or worthy individually, separate from their relationships.
A person's ability to form healthful attachments with others begins early in childhood. People whose parents or caregivers were unstable or abusive may develop abnormal patterns of attachment. This can cause them to become obsessive, controlling, or fearful in their relationships.
People with insecure or reactive attachment styles may feel preoccupied by fears of loss. They may feel unable to cope without a relationship and be willing to do anything to keep their partner.
Sometimes, insecure attachment keeps a person in an abusive relationship because they fear loss. In other cases, it may cause a person to become abusive in a desperate attempt to keep a partner.
Trauma and fears of abandonment
Some people are so afraid of abandonment that they develop obsessive tendencies. This may stem from an attachment disorder or emerge after a trauma.
For example, a person whose spouse died may be terrified of losing their current partner. This could result in them taking unusual or unhealthful measures to "protect" them.
Other mental health conditions
A wide range of mental health conditions can distort or alter a person's perspective, making them more fearful, obsessive, or depressed. This can increase their risk of becoming obsessed with their relationship.
For example, a person with depression may believe that they are unworthy and alone, or that the only worthwhile aspect of their life is their relationship. This can cause obsessive feelings or behavior.
Social and cultural norms
Some social and cultural norms demand more of one partner than the other. This could mean that some parents and caregivers expose their children to these unhealthful relationship styles during their upbringing.
For example, being exposed to various relationship "norms" during childhood might cause some people to grow up believing that love means ownership, or that their partner must do everything they want to prove their love.
These thinking patterns are one hallmark of "toxic masculinity." People with this trait may believe that it is acceptable for males to treat their partners in a way that is physically or emotionally damaging. Those who display signs of toxic masculinity may also be controlling, demand more of their partners than they are willing to give, or abuse partners who break their "rules."
The symptoms of obsessive love vary depending on the reason for the obsession. For instance, a person with a delusional disorder may experience altered reality or demonstrate unusual behavior, while a person with depression may have low self-esteem or experience suicidal thoughts.
In general, some signs that love is obsessive include:
- an intense preoccupation with the relationship that is disproportionate to its length
- immediately falling "in love" with new partners, or even with strangers
- extreme attempts to control the other person
- threatening the other person if they attempt to leave
- refusing to listen to the other person's feelings or accept any boundaries they attempt to create
- demanding specific unreasonable behaviors from the other person
A mental health professional may decide that a person's relationship is obsessive based on the symptoms they exhibit and whether or not they negatively affect the person's life. There are no specific diagnostic criteria for obsessive love.
Because obsessive love is often a sign of another mental health condition, a healthcare professional may ask questions about a person's mental health history. They may also recommend psychological or medical testing to rule out other causes, especially if the person demonstrates delusional behavior.
Treatment for obsessive love focuses on identifying the cause of the obsessive thoughts and feelings, then treating that cause.
For example, a person with schizophrenia may need medication to control delusions and negative thoughts.
Treatments for delusional disorders tend to involve medication as well as psychosocial psychiatric interventions, such as family therapy or helping the individual replace negative delusions with positive thinking patterns.
For most people, therapy is key in managing obsessive feelings and developing healthier relationships. A therapist can often help with untangling a history of trauma, managing underlying conditions, and establishing more healthful relationship norms.
In the early stages of treatment, individual therapy is best, especially if the relationship is abusive. If each person in the relationship is able to establish better boundaries individually, couples counseling may then help them work together and move past the obsessive love.
There are also some basic management strategies a person can try at home. These include:
- writing down all feelings toward the object of the obsessive love, then tearing up that page as a symbolic destruction of those feelings
- removing all social media connections to the object of love
- removing all reminders of the person, including photos and gifts
- wearing a rubber band on the wrist and snapping the rubber band when obsessive thoughts enter the mind
- finding healthful and absorbing distractions, such as reading, painting, or playing a musical instrument
- spending time with friends and trying to keep busy
Some people wonder how long it takes to overcome obsessive love. However, there is no set time. It is a psychological and very individual experience that depends on many things, from the level of the obsessive love to the underlying condition that could be causing it.
When to see a doctor
If the above strategies do not work, there may be a more serious underlying issue, and seeing a mental health professional may be a good idea.
Also, people with obsessive love may not see their behavior as problematic. They might instead view the object of their affection as insufficiently loving or loyal, believing them to be the problem.
This can mean that the person experiencing feelings of obsessive love may find it difficult to seek treatment.
People who struggle to let go of relationships or who feel very insecure in a relationship should consider the possibility that their love is obsessive and try to seek treatment.
Obsessive love may be a sign of a serious mental health condition, and if it goes untreated, it can destroy friendships and relationships. It could also lead to other serious mental health concerns.
If obsessive love causes someone to pursue a relationship with someone who is not interested, it could even lead to legal difficulties or violence.
It is possible to treat the mental health conditions and other causes that can lead to obsessive love, especially with adequate support. However, this is only possible if the person with feelings of obsessive love feels able to seek help and support.