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Obsession vs Love: What Is the Difference?

Janie Slabbert
January 20, 2024

Many people, when they speak about love, are referring to obsession and vice versa. Think about it: you meet an amazing new man, and suddenly, he is all you can think of day and night. He is your knight in shining armor.

He will be the answer to all of your past hurts, and you will finally have the love you deserve… Everyone has such fantasies from time to time, but when they have been a constant in your life for months, is that still healthy?

Is there a point where such thoughts become a detriment to your mental health and ultimately result in the end of your relationship? This article sets out to answer these questions.  

Differences between obsession and love

Obsession is something that keeps people prisoner. It is a little gremlin on your shoulder - the obsession monster - that whispers about all the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” He tells you that that new man you barely know is yours and that it’s only a matter of time.

Or that your girlfriend is certainly cheating on you when she doesn’t text you back the minute you send her a meme, although it is 9 a.m. and she is in a board meeting.

The thoughts about someone who is not part of your everyday life - such as an actor, an acquaintance, or a colleague - are clay in the obsession monster’s hands because, since you don’t know the person, he can craft elaborate stories to suit your wildest dreams. But fear not, and he can also dig his claws into your long-term boyfriend!

He convinces you that he will leave you and urges you to keep him close at all costs! No wonder the consensus among psychologists is that obsession is unhealthy, at best, or at worst, indicative of a mental disorder.

Unlike the obsession monster, love is your good fairy who tells you about positive things: your mother reading you a book as a child, the feeling you get when you buy your grandmother groceries, the way that your boyfriend shows his care by driving several miles to see you every weekend.

Love’s primary concern is not your fears and worries about various situations but the way you relate to others, whether these are family, friends, or partners. These relationships grow and deepen with time and experience.

According to attachment theory, love is a basic need in a child’s development. Scientists also describe it as biologically and physiologically beneficial.

How to know if you are in love or obsessed: 7 signs you are obsessed and not in love

The difference between obsession and love in romantic relationships is not always easy to define since pop culture showcases many obsessive behaviors as signs of romantic love. At its core, love differs from obsession, which is unhealthy and often self-serving.

Love is an instinct that is focused on cultivating, nurturing, and protecting the other person. It includes characteristics such as:

  • A genuine concern for the other person’s needs.
  • Unconditional acceptance means that the other person doesn’t need to “earn” your affection by living up to certain requirements.
  • Taking action for the sake of the other person, such as defending them when others speak badly of them, making deliberate choices to benefit them, and making sacrifices for them.

Obsession, on the other hand, is focused on the person who is obsessed. Its aim in romantic relationships is to meet an unmet need, to alleviate fears, or to possess the other person. This may include:

  1. Constantly calling to determine their whereabouts.
  2. Controlling their friendships.
  3. Excessively scrolling through their social media.
  4. Constantly asking them to prove their love.
  5. Putting them above every other relationship.
  6. Overly accommodating them when it comes to plans, desires, or even conflicts.
  7. Building your identity around the fact that you are romantically involved with them.

Is obsession a form of love? When love is mistaken for obsession

In the 2000s, Stephanie Meyer published the Twilight saga, a vampire romance where the protagonist, Bella Swan, sacrificed everything to be with her love interest, Edward.

She ate, slept, and breathed Edward when he was with her, and even when she suspected he would not be returning, her world revolved around his memory.

Based on the cult following the series garnered among teenage girls and young adults alike, you could argue that society thought this level of obsession made for a good love story. It would not be a stretch to assume that this also had an effect, consciously or subconsciously, on the way they expressed love in their romantic relationships. 

When observing pop culture and its influence on society’s views on love, it is clear that, mostly, society gets it wrong. In the same way that obsessive tendencies are seen as characteristics of love, love is also often mistaken for obsession. This happens in the following ways:

  • Just as love is unconditional, obsession is overly accommodating
  • Just as love is focused on the other’s well-being, obsession is overly protective 
  • Just as love requires action on the other’s behalf, obsession excessively tries to prove commitment and loyalty with grand gestures

Can you be in love and obsessed at the same time? 

A loving relationship can veer into the realm of obsession. But this is a problem that can be fixed with therapy, advice from more experienced couples, or through the work you put into your healing from past trauma.

Most sources point out the difference between love and obsessive behavior, which implies that once romantic feelings become obsessive, help is needed. In short, it is possible, although you genuinely love someone, to begin to behave obsessively.

If this pattern continues, it may mean the end of the relationship, but if it is detected and action is taken to fix the situation, growth and healing are possible. 

At what point does love turn into obsession? 

Although it is normal to prioritize your relationship above everything else at the start or during important milestones, such as the day you get engaged, the wedding day, or anniversaries, mostly it is not healthy for it to consume your world.

It is important to maintain an identity apart from the relationship and to continue pursuing the passions you had before. It is also very important to cultivate healthy conflict within a relationship instead of blindly agreeing to everything your partner wants.

Disagreements will inevitably happen when both of you are honest about your wants and needs, but there are constructive ways to handle them. If, at any point, you are overly accommodating towards your partner or neglecting yourself and others in a relationship, this is a clear sign that you are being more obsessive than loving.    

 Why obsessive relationships don’t last

As explained in the previous section, obsession in a relationship involves an unhealthy level of denying your own needs and desires in the hope of keeping the affection of your partner.

The focus on keeping the relationship becomes so important that there is a constant need for reassurance and a level of control, which comes from the fear of losing the person.

Extreme denial of self, which may eventually lead to resentment, along with the fear of losing the other person, which may lead to your partner feeling smothered and controlled, will ultimately be harmful to any relationship and may even end it.  

Obsessive Love Disorder 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder where a person has repetitive, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and performs certain actions to relieve the anxiety caused by these thoughts (compulsions). Intrusive thoughts are about different themes, such as harm, religion, and relationships.

When an OCD sufferer’s obsessions are about relationships (R-OCD), this could, of course, lead to obsessive behavior within their romantic and other relationships, leading to many of the factors described in this article, such as a fear of losing their partner and extreme actions to keep their relationship. 

The condition known as Obsessive Love Disorder is built on the desire to shield and own another person. Unlike R-OCD, Obsessive Love Disorder is not recognized as a mental health condition.

But it often comes from low self-esteem or similar psychological difficulties, which, according to Oxford Bibliographies, are often the result of early childhood neglect. This could lead to obsessive behaviors that are similar to the compulsions of OCD sufferers. 

Conclusion

The journey has been taken, with discoveries along the way. The obsession monster was identified, and the ways he could be identified were pointed out. You also met the good fairy, love and learned about the benefits of inviting her in. May your life from here onwards be filled with healing, growth, and, most importantly, love.

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Janie Slabbert

Janie is an experienced writer with a passion for understanding people and deciphering the enigma of love and relationships and all things creative. She obtained a Master's degree in English from the University of Stellenbosch. Her other qualifications include a Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Afrikaans and Dutch, and ancient Greek.

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