Love and obsession are kissing cousins, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart.
Because the two mental states lie along a spectrum, there isn’t always a hard line between them, and you may not know if you’ve crossed from love into an unhealthy obsession. You can drive yourself crazy, too, trying to figure things out, because many of the symptoms of obsession are also the symptoms of love, only more so, or much more so at times.
One big problem is the way our popular culture teaches us about love, through songs, television shows, books and movies. Hollywood loves crazy stories where people practically kill themselves trying to impress their love interest. But that’s not usually how love works in the real world. It’s not a big surprise, or shouldn’t be, since movies don’t usually reflect reality very closely.
Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide whether you feel love or obsession, or something in between. It’s very important to take some time to figure things out and to be honest with yourself.
Here are some differences that may help you decide whether what you’re feeling is a positive love or a questionable or negative obsession.
First, how do you feel about it? When you take some time alone, in a quiet place, and think about your relationship, how do you feel? Get some paper and write down your feelings and your ideas about your relationship and about the object of your affection. Even just writing single words – “dizzy” or “delirious” or “warm” or “safe” or “wild,” for example – is a good way to get started. Scribble them down on the paper and then take a few minutes to read them over and think, really think, about what they mean. Are there any patterns? Is there a preponderance of negative or positive words?
Obsession turns inward, focusing only on the subject you’re obsessed about. But love turns outward and focuses on your relationship with the other person, and with others around you, and on you yourself. Obsession is a one-way street, whereas love is a two-way street. Obsession often leads to toxic resentment and ultimately to crippling jealousy. If you’re obsessed, it’s easy to grow resentful if the other person doesn’t match your level of attraction or intensity. Resentment eats away at you from the inside and can poison you by making you angry and jealous. Neither of those emotional states are good for you or for your relationship.
How do most fairy tales end? The couple get together after many hardships and then they walk off into the sunset and “live happily ever after.” And this is the way too many modern people think about love – as a very lazy kind of commitment. They pour tremendous energy into the passionate, early stages of a relationship, but can’t possibly sustain that level of involvement and interest for the long term. Remember, love is a marathon, while obsession is a short sprint.
If your focus is on the short term, i.e. getting to the “happily ever after” part where you can relax and stop working and stop trying, then you’re more likely dealing with obsession than with love. Love is about building a relationship together, and about keeping yourself healthy to participate in it, while obsession is one sided, drains you dry, and is often not reciprocated to the same degree.
You may not want to hear it, but love relationships often get harder and require more work as time passes. So if you are focused only on the chase, then your obsession will probably not do you much good, as it will burn you out and leave you exhausted and unable to keep contributing to your relationship.
Love is also balanced, whereas obsession tips the scale too far to one side. Love can and does include some obsessive feelings for another person. But it balances that energy with other passions and interests – career ambition, family dreams, hobbies and vocations, education and training, artistic expression.
Think about it – if you have some other things to be interested in, not just in the object of your affections, then you can return to your relationship refreshed and renewed by whatever you’ve been doing that doesn’t involve this other person. A love relationship means you are interested not just in what’s good for you, but also in what nurtures and strengthens the other person. It also means taking “time off” to pursue other interests.
This doesn’t always make sense. But if you are a more well-rounded person, with a strong career, some social interests like a bowling league, baseball team, dance troupe, fencing club, and some creative interests like cooking, painting, reading, writing, or listening to music, you are a healthier human being and also a more interesting and attractive person.
The old saying that goes, “If you love someone, set them free,” is correct, but maybe not in the way you think. If your relationship is truly love, rather than obsession, then you will want to let the other person go sometimes, so they can pursue their other passions, whatever they are, and so you can pursue yours. You may not take every vacation together, or spend every minute of every weekend doing the same things. Instead, you both spend time recharging your creative, physical and mental batteries, and then you come back together with your love for each other strengthened.
Obsession, on the other hand, will tolerate none of this. If you’re obsessed, you never want to be parted from the other. They become like a drug you can’t live without, and you actually start to have weird withdrawal symptoms when you aren’t together. Beware of this! Obsession isn’t healthy, and it will burn you out and wreck your relationship.
One good thing to know is that you can transmute obsession into love, if you’re aware of it and willing to do some difficult work. What you have to do is let go of the other person. It may be very difficult at first, like going cold turkey to quit smoking. But don’t make the mistake of letting go of the other person and then just sitting alone in a dark room brooding. Instead, take breaks from the other and fill them with all the nourishing activities of life – travel, friendship, work, creativity – that restore and nourish you and make your life richer. You will be surprised how much you can deepen your love for another person simply by paying more attention to yourself and your own life.