We talk a lot about relationships here on MyDepressionConnection because they can be so integral to our mental health and well-being. But what happens when a relationship goes wrong? How can we tell if the interactions we have with our partner are healthy or if they are contributing to a disaster waiting to happen? Are there certain signs or early warning signals which may indicate that your relationship is not fueled by love but by obsession? In order to answer these questions and more we have invited Eileen Bailey, author and Health Central blogger to share her expertise and experience on this topic.
Eileen Bailey, who writes for a number of sites at HealthCentral including ADHDCentral and AnxietyConnection, is the author of The Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, understands first-hand what it is like to be in an obsessive relationship.
What is the difference between "healthy love" and "obsessive love?"
Obsessive love is a confusing term. It really doesn’t have anything to do with "love." Love, healthy love, is built on trust and mutual respect. Each partner in any love relationship, whether partners, siblings, parent and child or friendship, want the other person to be happy and secure. There is no obsession, no jealousy, no possessiveness - you want your partner to reach for and strive for their dreams and you are happy for their achievements. In an obsessive relationship, these dreams and achievements are instead a cause of insecurity; they are seen as a threat to the relationship. That is because obsessive relationships are built, not on love, but on insecurity and fear. The obsessive partner is afraid of losing the partner, afraid of being rejected, afraid of being abandoned. And this fear causes jealousy and possessiveness.
In your book you make note that some people confuse obsessive love with passion. How does one know when "passion" is crossing over the line into obsession?
In young love (and I don’t mean young as in age but rather as the early stages of a relationship) passion is high. In the beginning of a relationship, you want to spend every moment with the other person, you thoughts are filled with the other person, you can’t wait to be together - and although this is similar to an obsessive relationship, it is also normal. But there are some distinct differences. An obsessive lover often moves quickly, deciding early in the relationship that "you are the one and only." He (and not all obsessive lovers are "he," many women are obsessive as well) worries constantly about the relationship, do you love him as much as he loves you, do you want to date other men, when you go out with friends are you rejecting him? His insecurities become more important than your personal needs. He may begin panicking at the thought of not seeing you or losing you, needing constant reassurance that you are committed to the relationship.
What are some of the common triggers for obsessive behavior in a romantic relationship?
Obsessive love is usually rooted in your past. Obsessive love comes from an insecurity about relationships - obsessive lovers may have been rejected or neglected by their mother or father or had difficult early romantic relationships and they have become afraid of feeling the pain of rejection again. Some, however, are obsessive because one or both of their parents were obsessive and they believe that obsession is what love looks like. When an obsessive lover is faced with a threat to the relationship - whether a real threat or a perceived threat - their insecurities take over and jealousy and possessiveness start to rule the relationship.
On MyDepressionConnection we get a lot of posts written by partners of individuals suffering from depression. In some cases, these relationships do not last and the partner left behind always asks, "If my girlfriend, boyfriend/spouse recovers from their depression, will they come back?" This is a question nobody can readily answer. Inevitably, there are also questions about "Should I keep calling just to let them know I care?" I am wondering about your perspective on such a situation where the depressed partner has ended the relationship but the other person will not let go because they believe that when their loved one feels better the relationship will resume. At what point does this become obsessive behavior? And do you feel that people who suffer from depression are more vulnerable to be the object of obsession or to be an obsessive lover themselves? Does depression play a role in any of this?
In my opinion, if someone truly cares about the other person, and respects their right to make their own decisions, then letting someone know you care isn’t a bad thing. This would step over the line to obsession if you don’t respect someone’s wishes. For example, if you continue to call to see if they are okay, even when they have asked you to stop calling, then you are stepping over the line. Even so, you have to look at your motives: are you calling because you are afraid of losing the relationship or are you calling because you care about the other person’s welfare? For example, in the question Merely Me asked, the phrase, "if my girlfriend, boyfriend/spouse recovers from their depression, will they come back?" focuses first on the relationship. The question instead should be, "how can I best help him/her manage their symptoms of depression?" In other words, in the first question, you are concerned about the relationship, in the second, you are concerned about the person first. The relationship must always be secondary to helping the person in the recovery process. If it is not, then you aren’t calling to check on him/her, you are checking on the relationship.
I am not sure if those with depression are more vulnerable to being attracted to obsessive lovers; however, those who are obsessive lovers are certainly at risk of depression once a relationship ends. They may not be able to overcome the rejection and can become despondent and depressed.
Can obsessive love ever become dangerous?
Most obsessive love relationships do not become dangerous but some can. Stalking and domestic abuse can both harm the victim of obsessive love both emotionally and physically. In many cases, the victim of obsessive love sees the attention and intensity of the relationship as a good thing in the beginning, it is only as the relationship continues and smothering, possessive behaviors deepen, that they want to get out of the relationship and find it hard to get away. Not all obsessive lovers become stalkers or get violent, but for those that do, the victims need to find ways to protect themselves.
HealthCentral has information to help those in dangerous relationships: Dealing with Domestic Abuse? Here is Some Help
What advice do you have for those who suspect that they may be in an obsessive or unhealthy romantic relationship?
Certainly, the first step is to reach out and talk to someone. Many people in obsessive relationships have become isolated from friends and family and reaching out will help you understand that there are people in your life willing and ready to help. This would be true in any obsessive relationship. You might want to read The Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love which addresses both the obsessive lover and the partner, giving strategies and ideas for finding and developing healthy love relationships.
It is important to understand your emotional needs within a relationship and stand up to make sure those needs are being met. If you find that you are constantly worrying about your partner’s needs and push yours aside, then you need to find ways to focus on what you need out of a relationship. Just as obsessive love’s roots are often in childhood, partners may have unresolved relationship issues. If you find you are attracted to the same type of needy, obsessive lovers over and over, you may benefit from therapy to find out how you can increase your self-esteem and learn to seek out healthy relationships.
Thank you Eileen for answering our questions about healthy vs. obsessive relationships.
For more information about depression and relationships please refer to the following Health Central articles: