Psychological Triggers Affecting Romantic Obsession
Which main psychological trigger can cause a person to become romantically obsessed with another? In modern North-American society, romantic love is often portrayed by the media as the one goal we, collectively, must attain in order to live a fulfilling life. From the all-consuming romance displayed by the characters Edward and Bella in the popular Twilight franchise, which is marketed to impressionable young adults, to television shows in which women compete against others for the affection of a bachelor, love is marketed and sold to the eager masses, people conditioned to believe that without validation from another in a romantic way, they will never be complete. However, what happens when love really is all consuming, such as the love we read about in classic plays like Romeo and Juliet, or novels such as Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë? And how does one cope with love that is dangerous, obsessive and frightening, such as the terrifying situations that could arise when a young woman is faced with her desperate stalker?
In order to decipher which psychological triggers can cause the escalation from affection to obsession, psychologists and neuroscientists alike must agree on a proper method to quantify love. Operational definitions of what constitutes a love disorder would allow medical professionals to be able to diagnose romantic obsession as a legitimate, recognized mental illness or addiction and help stop the cycle of abuse many people are going through. From neuroimaging data versus surveys, or a biological approach versus a purely psychological one, there is not one definite, correct method of measuring love, dependency in romantic relationships or love “addiction”, allowing for a lot of new developments on research in this area. There are many types of love and many types of people, making it very difficult to measure exactly when emotions are too extreme and whether or not a medical professional needs to intervene. [Although there are a plethora of factors that could cause a person to become romantically obsessed, the closest thing to a main psychological trigger affecting the attachment one may have to another is the care they received as an infant from their mother or primary caregiver. Using this knowledge, one can predict the attachment style of another and determine whether or not they are at risk of becoming romantically obsessed.]
According to Stanton Peele (1975), “A love relationship is based on a desire to grow and to expand oneself through living, and a desire for one's partner to do the same,” however, this is not the case in an obsessive love situation, in which one (or both) partners have an urgent, all-consuming need to be wanted by their partner in the most extreme of ways. Those who are romantically obsessed often have a void to fill, and can only fill that void with a romantic relationship (Peele, 1975). This void starts off a dangerous cycle of abuse, in which the obsessed attaches themselves to their partner and adamantly refuses to let go, and can result in mutual harm, substance abuse and/or suicide. In their article, Reynaud et al. (2010) state their belief that love passion is a “universal and necessary state for human beings” and should not be confused with “what could be defined as a ‘love addiction’”. In their article, the authors state that “the stage where desire becomes a compulsive need, when suffering replaces pleasure, when one persists in the relationship despite knowledge of adverse consequences,” is when you can classify obsession as an addiction. However, is love obsession really an addiction, and if so, why isn’t it recognized by the medical profession?
Love obsession is a very serious issue for thousands around the world, and some even consider their obsession an addiction; however, it is controversial whether or not love obsession could be classified as an addictive disorder. In his article, Peele (1975) states, “there is an understandable resistance to the idea that a human relationship can be equivalent psychologically to a drug addiction,” and due to this resistance, many medical professionals are skeptical to call it an addiction. However, using neuroimaging data, Reynaud et al. (2010) gather that “the honeymoon phase of amorous ecstasy that initiates the attachment to a love object, shows numerous similarities with acute substance intoxication”. This research suggests that the euphoria experienced from love is comparable to a drug, and, like a drug, it is possible for some to abuse it. Another aspect of an addiction is withdrawal, which Reynaud et al. (2010) discuss in their article:
The absence, especially the uncertainty, of the loved person has neuropsychological manifestations similar to the symptoms of substance withdrawal, including negative mood (irritability, anxiety, depression, anger), suffering and sensations of emptiness, sleep disturbance, and cognitive preoccupation with seeking and meeting the other, and craving for this other.
(p. 262, 263)
Further neuroimaging data shows us that “activation in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain associated with obsessive thinking, was implicated in romantic love, but was shown to be lower in well-established relationships,” (Graham, 2010). The neuroimaging research in this field demonstrates that it is possible for extreme obsession to occur, especially at the onset of a romantic relationship, and this obsession could potentially be treated as a true, psychological addiction.
Although there is an abundance of knowledge on this topic, and neuroimaging is a useful tool professionals can use to witness the brain when experiencing romantic feelings, it is very difficult to quantify love, a phenomenon which involves a variety of emotions. Keeping this in mind, it would be a challenge for any medical professional to accept that obsessive love can be an addiction – because all upbringings are different, all brains are different and every individual relationship is different, and it is almost impossible to compare romantic relationships with all of these differing factors. However, there are commonalities between romantic relationships; almost all of them begin with euphoric feelings by both partners, and often these feelings can be overwhelming. “Anyone who has been passionately in love has experienced not only the exquisite pleasure but also the desperate longing for the other person who becomes the most important goal of their life,” writes Reynaud et al. (2010). This “honeymoon stage” ends quickly in most relationships, but for some, it does not – and in the mind of the obsessed, cannot - end. It is then a relationship can turn sour, and can potentially end with one partner resorting to frightening acts; suicide threats, stalking and even murder are among these. If obsessive love was diagnosed as a legitimate addiction, and this type of abuse more commonly known, the health and well-being of many people would be saved and the dangerous cycle of abuse could end.
There are many factors that affect the likelihood of someone becoming obsessed with another in a romantic relationship. Lack of self-worth is one of these factors; those who do not have any self-love have a void to fill, and often as soon as someone shows interest in that person, they are drawn to them like a moth to flame. Peele (1975) explores this phenomenon by stating that those with a void can only subside it “by subsuming someone else's being inside [themselves], or by allowing someone else to subsume [them]. Often, two people simultaneously engulf and are engulfed by each other. The result is a full-fledged addiction.” Another factor is socioeconomic status. In his book, Peele (1975) explores a study conducted by Lee Rainwater, an expert on differences in human interactions depending on class. In Rainwater’s study he found that “Two-thirds of the middle-class children (compared to only one-fifth of the children from lower-class families) showed evidence of a ‘social dependency constellation.’ The latter can be defined as the need to cling to one human object for love and support.” Although these are just two of the many potential factors, the greatest of these can be defined using attachment theory (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
Attachment theory demonstrates that one’s level of dependency in a romantic relationship can be predicted by one’s behaviour by their primary caregiver to them as an infant (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Stephan and Bachman (1999) discuss attachment theory in their article on attachment and sexuality:
Mothers who are consistently available emotionally to respond to their infant’s attachment needs produce infants who form secure attachments, as manifested in exploratory and affiliative behaviors. Mothers who treat their infants in an inconsistent manner, sometimes being overprotective and sometimes being non-attentive, produce anxious/ambivalent infants who are preoccupied with their mothers, and exhibit fewer exploratory behaviors. Mothers who are unresponsive to their infants’ attachment needs produce avoidant infants who actively avoid their mothers when distressed. (p. 111)
According to attachment theory, the attachment style one has as an infant is most likely the one they will have throughout their entire life (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) and can predict the obsessive behaviour of those caught in the throes of a love obsession. Those who receive little care from their mothers (or primary caregiver) find attachment in other areas of their lives, often in another person in a romantic setting. This attachment is harmful both to the attached and the person the obsessed is attached to, and can lead to a harmful love obsession. By using our knowledge of attachment theory, we clearly see that the care we give to our children as infants is pertinent to their adult lives. By being attentive, loving parents, we can reduce the chances of our children suffering from romantic obsession and therefore the potential dangers that accompany the mental illness.
Which main psychological trigger can cause a person to become romantically obsessed with another? By researching this topic and considering the truth behind psychological theories such as attachment theory, we see that romantic obsession is a mental illness that could and should be treated as a psychological addiction. Diagnosis of this mental illness as a genuine disorder would benefit every member of society who either suffers from or is affected by romantic obsession and its potentially dangerous consequences. It is clear that through further research and active discussion by the medical community, we could prevent obsessive love behaviour and promote healthy, loving relationships for all.