Obsessive love disorder is an informal term used to describe one’s unhealthy sexual or romantic fixation on another person. This can often be identified by excessive, all-consuming desires to protect, possess, or be involved with the individual. Many people with obsessive love styles also experience underlying mental illnesses like OCD, insecure attachments, delusions, or low self-esteem.1, 2, 3, 4
What Is Obsessive Love Disorder?
Obsessive love disorder (OLD) is not a formally recognized mental illness but is instead more so a relationship style characterized by unhealthy obsessions for a particular person. These fixations could be romantic, sexual, or controlling in nature, and may lead to inappropriate and abusive behaviors.1, 3, 4
The object of obsessive love is sometimes a current partner, but can also be an ex-partner, current crush, or even a complete stranger. Cases involving strangers (i.e., celebrity obsessions) are less common and may be associated with delusional and psychotic disorders. Obsessive love that occurs within the context of a committed relationship is often referred to as enmeshment or codependency. Over time, these kinds of relationships tend to become more one-sided.2, 3
Symptoms of Obsessive Love Disorder
There is no standardized list of symptoms for obsessive love disorder, but being obsessed with a person who one has strong romantic or sexual feelings for is the most frequently reported sign of it. Symptoms may manifest as constant thoughts, longings, or fantasies about the person that make it hard for one to function or focus on other things. Fear and insecurity is often at the core of obsessive love, and may signal a deeper mental or emotional problem.1, 2, 3
Below are common symptoms of obsessive love disorder:
Falling in Love With Someone Hard & Fast
Someone who develops an obsession will often fall hard and fast in love with a person who they don’t actually know well. The sudden development of these strong feelings can be a red flag, especially when there’s a history of obsessive or abusive behavior in an individual’s relationships. This fixation is not always reciprocated, and can even still persist when the desired person rejects their advances.1, 3
Constant Thoughts of the Person
Obsessions are mental rituals someone practices when they devote their undivided attention to thoughts of a specific thing or person. These might include sexual or romantic fantasies of them that spark desire or affection. There may also be thoughts of this person cheating or leaving the relationship, which can induce fear and desperation.2, 3, 5 Ultimately, it can be difficult for the obsessed individual to focus on anything else
Feelings of Intense Longing & Desire
Obsessive love usually has undertones of longing to be closer to or involved with one’s object of affection. These feelings of desire are kept alive in the mind by the person summoning memories or creating possible future scenarios in which they and their obsession become involved in some way.1, 2, 5, 6
Neglecting Other Tasks & Relationships
The obsessive nature of one’s desires for another person makes it almost impossible for them to fully devote themselves to other relationships, activities, or responsibilities. This may start to affect their ability to function in certain parts of life, which can cause them to experience problems in their workplace, relationships, and personal lives.1, 2
Possessiveness & Jealousy
When someone develops an obsession with someone, they will often feel threatened by anyone else who interacts closely with their fixation. They will usually exhibit jealousy and possessiveness over the person which may escalate into abusive behaviors in the future.3, 5 This is especially true if there are other trust issues within the relationship.1, 4, 5, 6
Violating the Person’s Privacy & Boundaries
The emotions of fear and jealousy associated with obsessive love can cause urges to alleviate these feelings. This may include a perceived need to read the other person’s texts, go through their things, or even stalk and harass them. Jealous delusions and obsessive love are especially dangerous when combined because they’re closely linked with assault, abuse, and violent crime.2, 3
Delusional Beliefs About the Person or Relationship
Sometimes, OLD involves delusions (false beliefs someone holds with strong conviction) about the person or their relationship with them. For example, someone obsessed with a celebrity might become convinced that a relationship with their celebrity crush is possible, likely, or already real. In less extreme cases, the person may refuse to acknowledge or accept that a relationship has ended or a person no longer loves them.2, 4
Smothering the Person They’re Obsessed With
If the object of the person’s desire does get into a relationship with them, someone with obsessive love often becomes clingy and dependent quickly.1, 5 The new partner may complain of feeling smothered or wanting space from them, especially if they’re too controlling or have isolated the partner from support systems.
Recurrent Fantasies About the Person
People with obsessive love will often construct elaborate scenarios in their minds to re-enact, enhance, or rehearse. A variety of different kinds of fantasies (i.e. sexual, jealous, or romantic) can be created and fixated on, and play an important role in maintaining the intense emotions felt toward the person.1, 2, 6
Refusal to Accept ‘No’ From the Person
When one’s love becomes obsessive in nature, it becomes very difficult for one to tolerate the idea of being rejected or separated from the person they’re obsessed with. When the object of their affection asks for space, pulls away, sets a boundary, or ends the relationship, they will often refuse to accept this.1, 6 They may bulldoze over the boundary, become more earnest in their efforts to win the person, or in some cases, become hostile and dangerous.
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Causes of Obsessive Love Disorder
There isn’t one clear explanation or cause for obsessive love, but there are a number of factors that seem to increase one’s risk of developing OLD. Some of these are diagnosable mental health conditions like borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or psychosis with jealous or erotomanic delusions.7 Psychological problems such as low self-esteem, insecure attachments, or codependency may also increase one’s risk for OLD. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8
Possible causes of obsessive love disorder include:
- Insecure attachment styles: Having an anxious insecure attachment style can cause someone to become clingy, jealous, and controlling in relationships. This is normally a desperate attempt to avoid betrayal and abandonment, which are often core fears involved in obsessive love.6
- Childhood trauma: Experiencing traumatic experiences in childhood like abuse or neglect can cause lasting effects into adulthood. These may show up as unhealthy communication and relationship patterns, which may have even been seen and learned in early childhood.6
- Low self-esteem: People who develop obsessive forms of love often struggle with deep insecurities and low self-esteem. This makes them more vulnerable to a wide range of mental health and behavioral problems, including ones typically seen in relationships affected by obsessive love.1, 2, 3
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD are prone to obsessive thinking.6 When OCD obsessions revolve around a person or relationship, the compulsive behaviors can include many of those typical in OLD.
- Jealous delusions: People who struggle with psychotic delusions may become extremely paranoid, suspicious, or jealous of the person they’re obsessed with. Delusional forms of jealousy can lead to a range of inappropriate behaviors including stalking, surveillance, and even abuse or violence.2, 4, 5
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): Borderline personality disorder (BPD) can also be a potential cause of obsessive love. Due to a deep-seated fear of being abandoned, people with BPD often behave in erratic, controlling, or manipulative ways in relationships. When combined, poor emotion regulation and impulse control can lead to many of the dysfunctional patterns seen in OLD.7
- Codependency: Codependent relationships are characterized by low self-esteem, poor boundaries, and a one-sided dynamic. Codependent people often develop an obsession with their partner, which can cause them to neglect other roles, relationships, and responsibilities.
Treatment for Obsessive Love Disorder
Obsessive love can often be treated, but the treatment needed depends on the specific underlying disorder or problem. This can usually be determined during a clinical assessment with a licensed clinician. Treating a person’s symptoms is usually the first and most important step for addressing obsessive love. This often involves psychotherapy, sometimes in addition to psychiatric medication.
Many people who are looking for treatment begin their search online by using an online therapist directory and filtering their results based on location, insurance, and other preferences. People who already have received a diagnosis may want to find the right therapist who specializes in this disorder or a specific kind of therapy used to treat it.
How to Cope With Obsessive Love Disorder
People who are struggling with obsessive, enmeshed, or codependent relationships often benefit a lot from therapy. In addition to seeing a licensed professional, there are some coping skills and strategies that can help you address these issues, improve your self-care, and lessen your symptoms.
Below are some strategies and tips on how to cope with unhealthy or obsessive relationships:
- Stay busy and get out more: Getting out and doing things independently can help you take space from the person in healthy ways. Staying busy can also make it easier not to worry or obsess about them when you’re apart.
- Monitor your inner feelings: Paying attention to your inner thoughts, feelings, and desires is an important part of self-care. It can also help you become less focused on the other person in unhealthy relationships and more focused on yourself.
- Try mindfulness or meditation: Mindfulness and meditation are both mental exercises that involve training your attention on the present moment, instead of getting lost in your own thoughts. This can make it easier to distance yourself from obsessive thoughts about someone.
- Work on your boundaries: Boundaries are the ‘rules’ of a relationship that outline what is okay to do or say and what isn’t. Practicing setting and respecting boundaries is a great way to improve the health of a relationship.
- Strengthen your other social bonds: Obsessive relationships tend to usurp most of a person’s time, energy, and attention, which can weaken their bonds with other people. Because a strong support system is crucial to your mental well-being, reconnecting with other friends and family to maintain strong ties with them is beneficial.
In My Experience
In my experience, obsessive love is never a healthy or fulfilling model for a relationship. The good and wholesome kind of love always involves a blend of trust, respect, and intimacy. Obsessive love, on the other hand, is almost always driven by fear and deep-seated insecurities. Most of the time, a person’s imaginary version of a relationship destroys the possibility of a real and authentic one with someone. Most of these problems can be managed or treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of both.