There’s nothing like the thrill of new love; the intensity, the excitement, the obsession. We think about him constantly. Our moods shift in parallel to her smile or frown. It’s purely a matter of willpower that keeps us in touch with our family and friends because, if truth be known, s/he is the only person we want to be with.
Then, generally somewhere between 6 months and 2 years, our relationship becomes real. The chemistry of the initial attraction is replaced by a conscious assessment of how the other person’s vision and values mesh with ours. Whether or not the relationship deepens into something that is substantial and long-lasting depends on how suitable we are for each other as life partners. It also depends on the psychological health of the individuals involved.
In fact, for a minority of unstable individuals, the mutual infatuation stage morphs into something quite different—a one-sided obsession in which one partner increasingly attempts to mold and shape the other into an object with which s/he can play out his or her fantasy. Individuals who develop these obsessive interpersonal relationships often have psychological problems that prevent the normal progression of a love relationship. Independence is seen as rejection; physical or emotional distance is viewed as a threat.
As a result, there is a repeated attempt to possess and control the other partner’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When the object of the obsession tires of all the attention and pressure and neediness and—inevitably—tries to pull back, the perpetrator’s worst fears are confirmed, setting up a vicious cycle where each side escalates in response to the other. At the extreme, the end of the relationship can lead to the end of a life.
The Triple A Stages of Obsession
Obsessive love is based on fantasy and illusions. Interactions are based on a pre-written script that requires an often-suspecting partner to memorize the lines and never expects to alter them. There is a constant expectation of reassurance and an intense focus in the relationship that doesn’t subside regardless of the length of time in the relationship or the amount of time spent together. However, the relationship does change over time and can often be divided into three definite phases:
Absorbed Stage: Due to the consuming nature of infatuation, it can be hard to spot red flags of an obsessive relationship during courtship. However, even during the throes of infatuation, some individuals are extreme in their initial attachment – wanting to know everything about you, showering you with gifts, talking about marriage/commitment within the first few days of meeting, referring to you as his or her “soulmate.” Looking back, many survivors of obsessive relationships can see that early on their partner was putting them in the role they were supposed to play.
One of my clients once told me about a successful doctor she briefly dated who, after three dates, asked her when she was going to move in with him. On all three dates, he had asked her to dress up and taken her to extremely expensive restaurants, where he insisted they both order (and eat) appetizers, a main course, and desert. When she made the comment that she couldn’t continue eating like this if she wanted to maintain her “girlish figure,” he looked her in the eye and stated, “well, you can always go in the bathroom and throw up.
Eating out is the one thing that helps me relieve stress.” Needless to say, that was the last date the two of them had; although he obsessively called her for a few weeks after their last date, she later learned that her former date had moved in with another woman within the month.
Agitated Stage – As the relationship progresses, the obsessive partner increasingly attempts to control his or her partner. S/he texts, calls or emails you numerous times a day. S/he is jealous of anyone or anything that takes time away from your relationship and attempts to sabotage your participation in enjoyed activities and isolate you from friends and family. S/he becomes increasingly anxious about losing you and, as such, begins to doubt or mistrust what you say even though there is no reason to do so.
Aggressive Stage – This stage typically starts when either a) previously “successful” attempts at controlling you have failed or b) you end the relationship. At this point, the perpetrator ups the ante. S/he may threaten suicide if you don’t acquiesce to his/her demands. S/he may disrupt your life by things like calling your home or work, boss or friends. S/he may suddenly show up uninvited. S/he may alternate between pleas to reunite and vows of vengeance. For some desperate or disturbed individuals, the behavior can escalate to stalking, threats, or physical violence.