The Difference Between Healthy and Obsessive Love
Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD
Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD
Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
The infatuation stage of romantic love usually occurs in the early months in a healthy love relationship. It can involve persistent thoughts of the love object and wanting to spend every moment with that person. A healthy love relationship usually evolves over time such that it no longer involves the near desperate intensity and fervor of infatuation. Healthy love tends to mature over the years to include commitment, friendship, and a solid respect for the other person as an individual and of their needs. Healthy relationships allow both people to feel loved, cared for, and respected and allow for each person's individuality and pursuit of their own professional lives, recreational activities, and friendships outside of the love relationship.
Unfortunately, obsessive love has been romanticized in literature for centuries, as well as by the media, once the media came into existence. From the mutual suicides of Romeo and Juliet to even many of the most recent romantic movies, being obsessed with the object of one's love is often held up as something to aspire to rather than having the potentially devastating aftermath of the behaviors when the movies fade to black.
The difference between healthy and obsessive love is that with the latter, those feelings of infatuation become extreme, expanding to the point of becoming obsessions. Obsessive love and jealousy that is delusional is a symptom of mental-health problems and is a symptom that occurs in about 0.1% of adults. Individuals who suffer from delusional jealousy often interpret minor experiences like a coworker saying hello to their spouse or romantic partner looking at a passerby as positive proof that their loved one is being unfaithful. Male alcoholics have been found to be particularly vulnerable to developing delusional jealousy. Females are more likely to develop obsessive love toward people they know rather than toward a stranger. The objects of love for women who love obsessively are often people who have been in the role of helper in their lives. In the uncommon instances that obsessive love involves violence, men and women seem to be perpetrators of such violence at equal rates. Risk factors for developing obsessive love include a lack of full-time employment as well as having family members who have psychiatric problems, particularly a delusional disorder.
Aside from delusional jealousy, obsessive love can be differentiated from a healthy love relationship by having addictive qualities. For example, the person who suffers from obsessive love tends to want to spend excessive time with their love object, such that they think excessively about and engage in behaviors that put them in touch with their love object to an extreme degree. They may limit how much they engage in recreational activities or other social relationships, even becoming incapacitated to the point of being unable to work. A person who obsessively loves may engage in tools of psychological control, or other forms of control, in an effort to keep their love object close. Examples of that include controlling money or food and in extreme cases, stalking or using violence. The individual who is obsessively in love, as well as the object of that love, may be dependent and codependent on each other, respectively. The person who loves obsessively may behave as if addicted to their love object. In turn, the object of obsessive love may have difficulty setting clear limits and boundaries on the obsessive behaviors.
The process that mental-health professionals engage in to assess obsessive love includes evaluating the person to ensure that mental disorders that may present with this symptom are considered and treated if present. Examples of some such disorders include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or organic (caused by a medical condition) brain syndrome. Warning signs that someone is suffering from obsessive love may include the following:
Treating obsessive love often involves psychotherapy for the sufferer and for their love object, particularly if the two people are currently in a relationship with each other. Counseling can help and may involve helping both people visualize their relationship in a healthier manner, as well as using affirmations and other techniques to enhance their self-esteem. If the individual with obsessive love has begun to manifest threatening or otherwise dangerous behaviors, then legal interventions like involving the police and implementing restraining orders may be necessary.
Last Editorial Review: 10/10/2013