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Yearning power: A beginner’s guide to obsessive love

In a previous blog, I briefly looked at to what extent love can be addictive. However, recent history has seen the rise of the term ‘obsessive love’.  Obsessive love is typically associated with unrequited love, but there are relationships in which individuals could be said to obsess over each other and relationships in which one member obsesses over their partner. According to Dr. Helen Fisher in her 2005 book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, some people believe that all love is obsessive as it can be characterised by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection. One common view is that love and relationships are a specialized kind of mutual addiction.

It may be useful to categorise obsessive love as an addiction because the behaviour is often similar. It is possible to see the resemblance between the definitions given for obsessions and addictions. In 2003, Griffin and Tyrrell stated that “obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that cause marked degrees of anxiety or distress”. Similarly, Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky in their 1975 book Love and Addiction defined addiction as “a single overwhelming involvement with one thing that serves to cut a person off from life, to close him or her off to experience, to debilitate him, to make him less open, free, and positive in dealing with the world”. From this it is obvious that there is a resemblance in the fact that both can be debilitating. However, though it seems that certain aspects of obsessive love resemble a behavioural addiction, it has not been fully investigated.

Current literature uses the term ‘obsessive love’ to describe erotomania or love addiction. Obsessive love can therefore be seen as an umbrella term that covers subgroups such as erotomanics and love addicts, although no literature has been found that uses both concepts within the context of obsessive love. A common conception of obsessive love is generally that of a person being infatuated with a particular individual. However, another category includes those who feel the need to be in love generally. These are commonly known as ‘love addicts’. A more medically accepted category of obsessive love is that of erotomania.

Erotomania is a ‘rare delusional disorder’ also known as De Clerembault’s Syndrome. This type of obsessive lover develops a fixation on a person and becomes convinced that they are having a romantic relationship regardless of attempts by the recipient to convince them otherwise. Although erotomania and love addiction are dealt with as individual disorders, they share a number of characteristics. Obsessive love is seen predominantly in women although it has been realised that there are male sufferers. Also, more specifically, erotomania usually occurs in unmarried women that are isolated and lonely and have low self-esteem. However, recent studies have shown the disorder to be present in men who have a history of substance abuse or mental illness.

Obsessive lovers lack the ability to develop and are obsessed with impossible needs and unrealistic expectations. They engage in desperate hopes and unending fears. Obsessive lovers often have a past history of mental illness and/or a criminal record. Erotomania is also often associated with other mental disorders, in particular paranoid schizophrenia. Only ten percent of those that suffer erotomania do not suffer any other forms of mental illness. Typically the recipient is often higher in social status – often a boss or a celebrity. Symptoms of this form of obsessive love include delusions of passion followed by delusions of persecution. The individual creates reasons as to why the recipient cannot be with them such as their job or shyness. The person also believes that the recipient is more in love with them than vice versa.

Obsessive love can take place both in and out of a relationship. It can be a past partner, a friend, an acquaintance or even a stranger. Characteristics shared by all types of obsessive love include addictive personalities and low self-esteem. Obsessive lovers also have a tendency for violence and self-destruction. A person with such an obsession is likely to avoid change, and is typically dependent with a need for security. As this disorder is of an obsessive nature, the love the person feels is not particularly intimate. It is often the case that the love interest is the biggest thing in their life and so they dedicate lots of time to it.

Generally, the obsessed person’s life revolves around the person they are obsessed with. Whether in a relationship or not, the happiness of the obsessed is a direct result of the actions of the love object. As a result of this, the obsessed may beg to be told of how to make the other person happy so that they become the person the love object would want them to be. Obsessive lovers will go to great lengths to achieve or maintain the love of the love interest. Behaviour can become unpleasant for the recipient. Such actions include obscene phone calls, criminal damage or even physical violence and stalking. Their behaviour may necessitate the interest of the law.

This is frequently an occupational hazard for celebrities. In 1995, Madonna was stalked by Robert Hoskins. The man suffered from erotomania and believed that she was his wife. In an attempt to see his ‘wife’ he gained access to her home and assaulted a security guard. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. There are always fans that take their love for their idol into obsession.

Stalking is clearly a form of obsessive behaviour, and it has been found that those patients who have been stalked have described it as ‘psychological rape’. This can only further illustrate the devastating consequences of obsessive love. Stalking has even been given the clinical term ‘obsessional following’, and can be defined as the wilful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person. There is no single stalker profile and no two research centres can agree on what to call different types of stalkers.  The only exception is erotomania. This is the only psychiatric diagnosis routinely associated with stalking.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bogerts, B. (2005). Delusional jealousy and obsessive love – causes and forms. MMW Fortschritte der Medizin, 147(6), 28-9.

Debbelt, P. & Assion, H.J. (2001). Paranoia erotica (de Clerambault syndrome) in affective disorder. Der Nervenarzt. 72, 879-83.

Fisher, H. (2005). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Graziano, W.G. & Musser L.M. (1982). The joining and parting of the ways. In Duck, S (Ed.). Personal Relationships 4: Dissolving Personal Relationships (pp.75-106). London: Academic Press.

Kennedy, N., McDonough, M., Kelly, B., & Berrios, G.E. (2002). Erotomania revisited: Clinical course and treatment. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 43, 1-6.

McCann, J.T. (1998). Subtypes of stalking (obsessional following) in adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 667-75.

Meloy, J. R. (1998). The psychology of stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives. New York: Academic Press.

Orion, D. (1997). I Know You Really Love Me: A Psychiatrist’s Journal of Erotomania, Stalking, and Obsessive Love. London: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Peabody, S. (1994). Addiction to love. California: Celestial Arts.

Peele, S. & Brodsky, A. (1975). Love and Addiction. New York: Taplinger.

Sinclair, H.C, and Frieze, I.H. (2000). Initial courtship behaviour and stalking: how should we draw the line? Violence and Victims. 15(1), 23-40.

Stanbury, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Obsessive love as an addiction. Psychology Review, 12(3), 2-4.