Pop culture's conflation of love and obsession is screwing up our real-life relationships.
The Notebook / Warner Bros.
Just before Valentine’s Day, people swarmed theaters to catch the third installment of the Fifty Shades franchise. But in my opinion, the kind of love Fifty Shades Freed depicts isn’t exactly one worth celebrating. In addition to an abusive dynamic in which Christian controls Ana’s every move, their love for each other is completely obsessive. When she’s not leaving the office to see him or calling a meeting short to have a talk with him, she’s daydreaming about their sex life. And when they go on a trip intended to give her time with her friends, they isolate themselves from the rest of the group.
They’re part of a long history of movie couples perpetuating the idea that a satisfying relationship means being completely consumed with each other. In The Notebook, Noah writes Allie a letter every single day for an entire year. I mean, damn, if you’re going to write every day, at least consider working on yourself by journaling. In Fatal Attraction, Alex attempts suicide just to keep Dan in her life. Bonnie and Clyde celebrates lovers who literally killed for each other. And perhaps the OGs of all-consuming passion were Romeo and Juliet, who were more foolishly emo than necessary. If they held off on drinking that poison, they could have done the whole white picket fence, kid, and French bulldog thing.
It’s not just movies that glorify obsession either. Obsessive love is rampantly romanticized in music. Some of my favorite examples: Halsey and G-Eazy celebrate “that love, the crazy kind” in "Him & I," where he raps, “we'd both go crazy if we was to sever.” In 1993, Mariah Carey sang, “I can't live if living is without you.” A decade earlier, Sting stalkerishly proclaimed, “Every move you make, every step you take, I'll be watching you.”
We’ve historically recognized obsession as evidence of love, but in real life, it can have harmful consequences for our relationships and the rest of our lives, according to both James Pawelski, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, and well-being consultant Suzann Pileggi, authors of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts.
Couples who experience obsessive passion report lower-quality relationships than those with “harmonious” passion that “does not encompass the entire self,” according to a 2013 study in Motivation and Emotion. The study also found that women in relationships with men who were obsessed with them were less sexually satisfied.
During the first few weeks or months of a relationship, it’s normal to think about each other all the time and be attached at the hip, Pileggi tells me. But it can become a problem if this stage doesn’t end and becomes so extreme that you lose interest in other things. You may feel out of control, as if your urge to be with your partner is ruling your life.
Another sign of being stuck in the infatuation stage is idealizing your partner, says Sherry Gaba, family therapist and author of The Marriage and Relationship Junkie: Kicking Your Obsession. “They become dependent on the person they love in an unrealistic way, hoping somehow this person will create a kind of happily ever after for them,” she explains. Ironically, though, these kinds of couples may not develop strong trust because they haven’t truly gotten to know each other.
People who habitually become obsessed with their partners often didn’t get enough attention from caregivers earlier in life, Gaba says, and they’re looking to fulfill this craving through their romantic relationships. They may be scared of being alone or desperate for connection. This possibility is particularly worth considering if you tend to jump from one unhappy relationship to another, Gaba adds.
All-consuming love can also be driven by desire for validation, which may be why obsession can negatively affect couples’ sex lives. “Obsessive passion is associated with insecurity and protecting one’s ego,” Pileggi says. “So you can understand how these type of traits don’t play out well in the bedroom.” The other problem with being overly obsessed with your significant other is that you may sacrifice your own desires to do what they want or put up with poor treatment from them, Gaba says.
The more you build a life you’re happy with through your career, your friendships, and your hobbies, the less susceptible you are to getting lost in a relationship, Gaba adds. “These things anchor you in a positive way so that you do not need to rely on a relationship to make you feel centered or complete.”
If you’re worried that your relationship could be taking over your life, Pawelski suggests getting an honest opinion from your friends (or an opinion from your most honest friend). “Obsession is hard to recognize in ourselves, but it’s pretty easy for friends to recognize it,” he says. For example, they might notice that you’ve pulled away from them or your other interests since you got into the relationship. If this is an issue for you, Pileggi recommends throwing yourself into as many other pursuits as possible. “It’s very hard to have multiple obsessive passions, so if you add a few other things into your life, there's just frankly not enough time,” she explains.
And if you’re concerned that you’re the one taking over your partner’s life, Pawelski advises reassuring them that you don’t mind them spending time without you. You could suggest they have a night with their friends or re-engage with one of their hobbies, even if they do it with you. You could also remind them that their independence, creativity, or talents are part of what attracted you to them in the first place, Pileggi says.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.