Obsessive love can cause a person to fixate on their loved one as though they are an object or possession. This can have many causes, ranging from mental health issues to delusional disorders.
Health professionals do not widely recognize obsessive love, or “obsessive love disorder,” as a mental health condition.
Indeed, it is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). However, obsessive love can be a sign of other mental health challenges and conditions.
If the person experiencing feelings of obsessive love does not receive treatment for the overall symptoms, they may have difficulty regulating these feelings. In very extreme cases, this may even trigger a person to commit acts of violence or abuse.
This article discusses obsessive love, the causes and symptoms behind it, and some possible treatment options.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Forming a definition of “real” love has eluded scholars for centuries. Likewise, there is no single list of criteria that can distinguish obsessive love from real love.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines love as:
- a complex emotion that involves strong feelings of tenderness or affection toward the other person
- experiencing pleasurable sensations in the presence of the other person
- devotion to the other person’s well-being
Love can take many forms, including the love of family members or friends, concern for other humans, erotic love, and self-love.
Some experts suggest that romantic relationships have three essential components, called the triangular theory of love:
A 2020 article noted that the element of passion may include behaviors such as:
- focused attention
- intrusive thinking
- obsessive following
In some cases, these thoughts or behaviors may tip into obsessive love.
Love can also cause physical changes in the body and may involve:
- hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, cortisol, and testosterone
- neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin
- nerve growth factor
For some people, these feelings may be so powerful that they become obsessed with keeping and controlling the person they love. They may appear to worship their partner at times, but become angry or jealous at the slightest threat.
The authors of the article suggested that the four components of love are:
- resonance or connection
Some of these factors may be missing in obsessive love. For example, people with extreme jealousy may not trust their partner which may lead to them trying to control their partner or constantly monitoring their behavior.
Obsessive love may focus on ownership of a partner, rather than seeing them as an equal. Rather than loving the person and wanting the best for them, people with obsessive tendencies may love the other person because of their own needs.
Relationship obsessive compulsive disorder (ROCD) includes obsessions over a close or intimate relationship or partner and may include an obsessive focus on how a partner is unreliable or untrustworthy. Obsessive distrust in a relationship may link to depression, anxiety, and violence in a relationship.
Obsessive love may sometimes involve a relationship that does not actually exist, such as with a celebrity or a stranger.
Erotomania is a psychiatric disorder
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There are many factors that may cause obsessive love, which can include delusional disorders and mental health issues.
Erotomania, or de Clérambault’s syndrome, is a psychiatric condition in which a person has a delusional belief that another person loves them, usually someone of a higher status.
Secondary erotomania may be linked to other psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia or major depressive disorder. Erotomania may also be linked to head trauma, pregnancy, alcohol abuse, or certain medications such as amphetamines.
One 2017 case study suggested that social media may worsen erotomania. This is because it allows people with obsessive tendencies to observe others from a distance and to feel closer to them than they might otherwise feel.
Borderline personality disorder
People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may intensely fear abandonment and have difficulty controlling emotions. They
People with BPD may act impulsively, with intense mood swings. The condition may have a negative impact on a person’s relationships. People may feel an extreme closeness to another person, which may then suddenly change to dislike.
People with BPD may not have a consistent self-image or sense of self. This may worsen obsessive tendencies, since they may find it difficult to see themselves as real or worthy individually, separate from their relationships.
However, each person with BPD experiences different symptoms and at different levels of severity.
A person’s ability to form healthy attachments with others begins early in childhood. People whose parents or caregivers were unstable or abusive may develop abnormal patterns of attachment. This may cause them to become obsessive, controlling, or fearful in their relationships.
The attachment styles people develop as a child can influence how they behave in future relationships as an adult.
If people had a stable and responsive caregiver as a child, they develop a secure attachment style. This means a person is likely to be independent, manage their emotional experiences, and value close relationships.
If a child has an unstable caregiver, they may develop an insecure attachment style. This can make a person anxious, avoidant, or fearful in a relationship. People with insecure attachment styles may express emotions in a heightened way with an increased dependency on others.
Trauma and fears of abandonment
Trauma or experiences in childhood that lead to an insecure attachment style may lead to fear of abandonment. People with a fear of abandonment may develop obsessive tendencies.
People may be fearful to be alone and they may make threats or take impulsive actions in order to prevent a partner from leaving.
Other mental health conditions
A wide range of mental health conditions can distort or alter a person’s perspective, making them more fearful, obsessive, or depressed. This may increase their risk of becoming obsessed with their relationship.
People with dependent personality disorder may be clingy toward a partner, need constant reassurance from others, and feel helpless if they are alone.
Social and cultural norms
Some social and cultural norms demand more of one partner than the other. This could mean that some parents and caregivers expose their children to these unhealthy relationship styles during their upbringing.
For example, being exposed to various relationship “norms” during childhood might cause some people to grow up believing that love means ownership, or that their partner must do everything they want to prove their love.
These thinking patterns are one hallmark of harmful masculinity or toxic masculinity. People with this trait may believe that it is acceptable for males to treat their partners in a way that is physically or emotionally damaging.
Those who display signs of toxic masculinity may also be controlling, demand more of their partners than they are willing to give, or abuse partners who break their “rules.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for People of Color, here:
The symptoms of obsessive love vary depending on the reason for the obsession. For instance, a person with a delusional disorder may experience altered reality or demonstrate unusual behavior, while a person with depression may have low self-esteem or experience suicidal thoughts.
In general, some signs that love is obsessive may include:
- an intense preoccupation with the relationship that is disproportionate to how long people have known each other
- immediately falling “in love” with new partners, or even with strangers
- extreme attempts to control the other person
- threatening the other person if they attempt to leave
- refusing to listen to the other person’s feelings or accept any boundaries they attempt to create
- demanding specific unreasonable behaviors from the other person
Other symptoms may include different types of jealous behavior.
People with obsessional jealousy have excessive jealous thoughts alongside compulsive behaviors. People with obsessional jealousy may recognize their thoughts are irrational. Symptoms of obsessional jealousy are more extreme than the normal emotion of jealousy, and include:
- intrusive and excessive jealous thoughts, which may be difficult to stop thinking about
- limiting a partner’s freedom
- checking on a partner’s behavior
According to a 2018 article, delusional jealousy occurs when a person has absolute certainty that a partner is being sexually unfaithful to them, but having no evidence for this belief. Delusional jealousy is a type of psychotic disorder, which people may also refer to as Othello syndrome.
Symptoms of delusional jealousy include:
- false but certain belief that a partner is being unfaithful
- persistent delusions about a partner’s infidelity
- preoccupation with a partner’s infidelity
- paranoid and irrational thoughts and emotions
- unacceptable or extreme behavior
A mental health professional may decide that a person’s relationship is obsessive based on the symptoms they exhibit and whether or not they negatively affect the person’s life. There are no specific diagnostic criteria for obsessive love.
Obsessive love can be a sign of another mental health condition, so a healthcare professional may ask questions about a person’s mental health history. They may also recommend psychological or medical testing to rule out other causes, especially if the person demonstrates delusional behavior.
If a healthcare professional suspects a condition such as ROCD, they may use the obsessive distrust inventory (ODIS), which is a scale assessing how the person perceives their partner.
Treatment for obsessive love focuses on identifying the cause of the obsessive thoughts and feelings, then treating that cause. A person with a personality disorder may need psychotherapy and medications to manage any symptoms, such as anxiety or mood swings.
A treatment plan may involve learning more about the condition, learning healthy coping strategies to process emotions, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Therapy may help people to manage obsessive feelings and develop healthier relationships. A therapist may help with processing trauma, managing underlying conditions, and establishing healthier relationship norms.
In the early stages of treatment, individual therapy is best, especially if the relationship is abusive. If each person in the relationship is able to establish better boundaries individually, couples counseling may then help them work together and move past the obsessive love.
There is no clear treatment plan or timeline for recovering from obsessive love. It is an individual experience that depends on many factors, from the level of obsessive love to the underlying condition that could be causing it.
If people with obsessive love are aware of their behavior, seeing a doctor is important in finding out the underlying cause and starting a treatment plan.
A person with obsessive love may not see their behavior as problematic. They might instead view the object of their affection as insufficiently loving or loyal, believing the other person to be the problem. This can mean that a person may find it difficult to seek treatment.
People who struggle to let go of relationships or who feel very insecure in a relationship may wish to consider the possibility that their love is obsessive and try to seek treatment.
If people are on the receiving end of obsessive love, they can contact a healthcare professional for advice. People can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help or call 911 if they are in immediate danger.
Obsessive love may be a sign of a serious mental health condition, and without treatment, it may be destructive to friendships and relationships. It could also lead to other serious mental health concerns for anyone involved. In severe cases, obsessive love may lead to legal difficulties or violence.
It is possible to treat the mental health conditions and other causes that can lead to obsessive love, especially with adequate support. However, this is only possible if the person with feelings of obsessive love feels able to seek help and support.
If a person is on the receiving end of obsessive love, they can contact a healthcare professional, support group, or hotline for help.