While obsessive love is often romanticized in movies (looking at you, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Twilight,” and yes, “The Notebook”) — in real life, it’s harmful and problematic for all parties involved.
While many people get butterflies and heart pitter-patters for their true love, some people take those feelings to the extreme. Obsessive love disorder is one of those extremes.
What is obsessive love disorder?
A person with obsessive love disorder (OLD) becomes obsessed with someone they think they’re in love with, which turns into controlling behavior.
But, obsessive love disorder isn’t an officially recognized mental health condition by the American Psychological Association (APA), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), or other psychology organizations.
Instead, it’s usually part of another mental illness like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and attachment disorders.
Here’s what to know about obsessive love disorder and how to seek help.
Noah blackmailing Allie into a date mid Ferris wheel spin? Edward stalking Bella and keeping her from her friends? Yeah, IRL, that’s not cute or healthy.
Obsessive love disorder goes beyond a little perusing a love interest’s Insta or adoring their quirks. Instead, you might feel an obsessive urge to protect a person and know their whereabouts at all times — almost as if they were a possession.
Most people want to protect and care for their loved ones. But with obsessive love disorder, this desire to protect turns into a desire primarily to control.
Obsessive love symptoms vary, but may include:
- an overwhelming or even debilitating attraction to the person
- obsessive thoughts about the person
- feeling an urge to constantly “protect” the person
- possessive thoughts and actions
- extreme jealousy over other interpersonal interactions
- repeatedly or quickly falling in “love” with new partners, acquaintances, or strangers
- refusal to respect boundaries
- low self-esteem
- suicidal ideations
People with OLD often don’t take rejection well. For that reason, symptoms sometimes get worse after the person exhibiting obsessive love has been broken up with or rejected.
Other obsessive love symptoms that may occur during or after a relationship may include:
- constant texts, calls, snaps, emails, tweets, etc. to the person they’re interested in
- a constant need for reassurance
- difficulty maintaining friendships or contact with family due to obsession over the person
- monitoring the person’s actions
- attempting to control where the person goes and what they do
Obsessive love disorder typically goes hand-in-hand with the following mental health conditions.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition that affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and can seriously interfere their quality of life. People with OCD engage in obsessive, uncontrollable thoughts and compulsive rituals.
OCD can also cause someone to feel the need for constant reassurance, which can negatively impact relationships. According to the International OCD Foundation, when the obsessive thoughts and actions primarily revolve around the relationship, this is called Relationship OCD (ROCD).
Obsessional jealousy is a fixation with the idea that your partner might be cheating or betraying you in some way. According to a 2013 case report on the condition, this concern can lead to repetitive, compulsive behaviors that almost mimic those of OCD.
These behaviors might include monitoring your partner’s whereabouts constantly or checking your texts nonstop to see what they’re doing.
Unlike obsessional jealousy, delusional jealousy involves insistently believing false facts or events. For instance, someone with delusional jealousy might say “I know you were with so-and-so after work today,” even when their partners has already proven they were at the laundromat.
Folks with delusional jealousy, might also believe the person they’re pursuing has the same feelings of love of attraction — even if they’ve made it clear they don’t.
Erotomania is a rare condition where someone believes a person they don’t really know is in love with them. This can be without any evidence to back up these feelings. A person with erotomania, might believe a celebrity or someone they’ve never even met is in love with them.
In a 2017 case study, researchers found that social media use may worsen erotomania symptoms.
Sometimes, this delusion leads to harassment of the person, like sending them messages constantly or showing up at their home or workplace. You may remember Taylor Swift’s unfortunate run-in with a stalker who seemed to exhibit symptoms of erotomania.
According to a 2020 review of delusional disorders, factors like low self-esteem, social isolation, and envy may contribute to the formation of a disorder like erotomania.
The ability to form healthy attachments starts in childhood.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, those with unstable or abusive parents or caregivers may develop abnormal attachment patterns that follow them throughout life. This may cause them to feel obsessive, controlling, or fearful in their relationships.
People who have an insecure or reactive attachment style might feel overwhelmed by the fear of losing a loved one. They might also feel unable to cope outside of the relationship and be willing to do almost anything to keep their partner by their side.
Due to a persistent fear of loss, insecure attachments often keep people stuck in abusive relationships. In other cases, it may lead someone to become abusive in attempt to maintain the relationship.
Fear of abandonment and trauma
People who’ve endured serious trauma also sometimes develop obsessive tendencies. For example, after losing someone they love to a car accident, someone might live in fear of losing their current partner.
As a result, these anxieties may fuel unhealthy behaviors like obsessive texting every time their significant other gets behind the wheel.
Borderline personality disorder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with borderline personality disorder endure disturbances with self-image, struggle to manage emotions, and have an intense fear of abandonment.
They may obsess over relationships and often have emotional outbursts that seem outsized for the situation at hand.
They tend to see the world in black and white terms, which causes them to alternate between seeing a person as all-good or all-bad. This can cause them to try to control partners into staying in the relationship or to attempt to manipulate them in other ways.
Due to a lack of a consistent sense of self, obsessive tendencies may worsen as they cling to external relationships in attempt to maintain a sense of security.
If you think you or a loved one might exhibit symptoms of OLD, it’s important to see a psychiatrist or other mental health professional for help.
It’s normal to feel some level of guilt or shame when coping with OLD. You may realize that you’ve harmed people with your behavior — and initially, that can be hard to accept. But if you want to break these toxic cycles, acknowledging your behavior and seeking help is the first step.
Because obsessive love disorder isn’t an officially recognized mental illness, it’s often diagnosed with another mental health condition after an evaluation. You’ll likely be asked questions about your symptoms, your relationship patterns, and your family history.
A medical diagnosis from your primary doctor might also be needed in order to rule out other potential causes.
What if someone you know has Obsessive love disorder?
If you think someone you know or are in a relationship with has OLD, talk to someone you trust, visit a therapist, or head to a behavioral health center for support. First and foremost, you need to take care of your own immediate safety, mental health and well-being.
In the case of physical abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). If you’re in immediate danger, always call 9-1-1.
Treatment for obsessive love disorder depends on the underlying cause. In general, though, it might involve therapy, psychotherapy, or medication.
Therapy is a very useful tool for all types of OLD. Sometimes, the therapist might recommend that family members or loved ones attend these sessions, especially if the disorder has prevailed since childhood. However, individual therapy is usually best when the relationship in question is abusive.
Different therapy options may include:
Doctors may also prescribe certain medications to diminish symptoms of the disorder, including:
- anti-anxiety meds like Valium or Xanax
- antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft
- mood stabilizers
It can take several weeks for the medication to kick in. And since everyone’s different, you may need to work with your doc and use trial-and-error to find the prescription that works best for you.
OLD doesn’t have to be a life-long condition. If you or someone you love seems to exhibit symptoms of obsessive love disorder, visiting a doctor or therapist can help. These professionals can help you identify the causes and create a customized treatment plan that works for you.