what is “in love”? (or, how to distinguish between love and obsession)

this post is inspired by a series of ongoing conversations i have had with therapists, friends, and loved ones. i hope i am able to get my point across, sometimes it’s hard to get things out of one’s head the way they are inside it. i once again this evening find myself talking about love and “in love” with a dear friend, or more importantly: what is the difference between “in love” and obsession?

this is something that i’ve been actively trying to figure out for the last three years, but it goes back much further than that. a few self-help (personal growth, whatever the heck the bookstores are calling that section these days) books have come into my possession over the years. the first was “how to break your addiction to a person” by howard halpern which my then-therapist, holly, suggested that i get when i was separating from my husband almost eight years ago. i’ve re-read it several times since then, which i guess means that i’ve never successfully broke my person addiction, or really “love” addiction as i’ve come to think of it. then, three years ago when i was dealing with that particular situation i happened to be working in a bookstore, so there was no end to the books that i could read without buying them. i read and then purchased such horrifying titles as “obsessive love: when it hurts too much to let go” by susan forward and “addiction to love: overcoming obsession and dependency in relationships” by susan peabody. i even broke down and read “codependent no more” by melody beattie, a book that i had been fighting the desire to pick up for most of my life. when i was promoted to “merchandising specialist” at the bookstore and someone left a copy on the endcap of teenage vampire trash i was to reset, i thought maybe God or fate was sending a message i needed to finally stop ignoring.

i felt a bit like the character of charlotte in my favourite tv series “sex & the city” when she was embarrassed to buy the (fictional) book “starting over yet again”, and pretended to be looking for the travel section, going home to buy the book in the safety and anonymity of her own home, via the internet. is it the horrific titles of these books that shame us? “when it hurts too much to let go” really does send a message; or is it the fact that having a problem, a crisis, something internal that we need to do some work on is so socially unacceptable that we cannot fathom letting anyone know that we are not perfect? whatever the reason, i was getting to the point in my life where i was tired of hiding the fact that i am a flawed person on a journey; so i picked up each and every one of those titles, and i sat on my lunch half-hour each day reading them at the bar of the coffee shop in the bookstore. “what are you reading?” a co-worker asked, making a face as she saw the title.
“A very good book.” i replied, “It’s helping me a lot.” there wasn’t a soul there that didn’t know i was in a really weird relationship with my boss who was also having an affair with my other boss, i don’t see how reading “obsessive love” was going to make them think any less of me. lol.

that was the first step in reclaiming my authenticity. we don’t need to be ashamed of our journey, we are all on one. sometimes we need a little help, whether it’s a book with a mortifying title or going to therapy, whatever it is we need there is absolutely no shame that should be found in being honest about the fact that we do no have all the answers. no one has all the answers, there’s really no point in lying about it. over the last year or so, i have gotten a few more “personal growth” books, either because i bought them or because my mother decided she didn’t need to grow anymore once she got back with my dad after divorcing him. some of the books i’ve read in part, or over and over a few times. what sticks with me is the fact that i’m still on a journey, that i don’t quite know all that i need to know yet. i shouldn’t, i’m not even thirty.

so tonight i was having a conversation with a very good friend about how we can distinguish between “in love” and obsession. how do we ever know? she wondered. i can’t have answers for her, i don’t even have answers for myself. i learned that i don’t need to feel bad about not having answers for her when i read “codependent no more”. 😉 what i can do is share with her what i’ve learned on my own journey, if it helps her that’s awesome, if not well, it’s not my job to help the people that i love grow – i need only support them while they grow in their own way. she said, “obsession must be stronger than ‘in love’.” i said, “oh yes, obsession is 1000 times stronger than in love, because obsession is about us. how we feel, how they make us feel. love is about what we can give to someone else. how we want them to feel.”

i didn’t say it, because i didn’t need to cloud her personal journey with this, but i thought to myself, “except when you’re codependent and then you have to deal with that part of it too…” then i thought, my God, when the fuck does anyone catch a break? if you’re a codependent and a love addict, which i am, how the hell do you find a happy medium between it being all about how you feel (obsessive “love”/love addiction) and codependency (how they feel, protecting them, controlling them)? i wanted to tell her, “you need to seriously reconsider getting better, because it’s a hell of a lot harder trying to get well than it is just dealing with the aftermath of our addictions.” of course that wouldn’t be good for her in the long run, but the part of me that has been in therapy for the last decade trying to work through all this shit felt like screaming, “RUN! SAVE YOURSELF!” i mean, when do we deal with any addiction? at the point where it’s going to destroy us, of course. it’s much easier to be a raging alcoholic/drug addict/sex addict/love addict/codependent/etc than it is to be in recovery from that addiction; and even though they took addictive personality out of the DSM i can tell you with absolute certainty that those of us who are addicts will just trade one addiction for a more socially acceptable or easily hidden addiction until we either die or have to deal with the next one. it would cause a stir probably if anyone read my blog, but i’m pretty much convinced i was born an addict as much as i was born non-heterosexual.

i have watched my friends trade one addiction for another (it was always really odd to me that i had so many friends who were in AA or NA) booze turns into relationships turns into anorexia turns into cutting turns into eventually you work your shit out because otherwise you die. it may not be true for everyone, but then maybe every alcoholic or drug addict doesn’t have an addictive personality. addicts want highs. i don’t care what the high is, where the control or release from the need to control comes from doesn’t matter, but i know i have it and i know addicts know each other. i may not be a drug addict or an alcoholic or a sex addict, but i am an addict. i’m just addicted to something that is a socially condoned addiction that we are taught to seek out, like caffeine. i am addicted to “love” or more accurately i am addicted to the high that i get off of “falling in love”. there’s not a hell of a lot of resources out there for love addicts. six years ago i joined an SLAA group (sex and love addicts anonymous) but everyone was a sex addict and as much as i love and support them i just didn’t have anything in common with a sex addict aside from addiction.

i got to where i missed the love of 12 step groups. i have never felt more accepted than when i walked into a room full of 12 stepping addicts. you feel like you could say “i killed your grandmother and i liked it.” and they will just love you and say “it’s ok, you’re among family now.” unconditional love, i’ve never felt it any other place before, not church, not with family, nowhere; but you do get to the point where you need for people to understand your experience, and i’m not a sex addict, i’m not an alcoholic. it may be personal to me, but i need to be authentic. i’ve been told, “well you can go to open AA meetings and just work the steps for your addiction.” well sure i could, i suppose. i love the LAMBDA group here in jackson, but they don’t get where i am in a literal sense, only in the sense that we’re all addicts. i haven’t been where they are, nor have they been where i am. i can hide my addiction. i’m not going to be pulled over by a cop for having a series of monogamous relationships that i end when the high goes away. i’m not going to go to jail for that, no one is going to force me into rehab for cheating on my partner with my boss because i’m in love with her and i just had to throw away someone i was “in love with” for six years because of how i felt when she looked at me.

it’s not going to land me in jail or rehab but i am secure in saying now that it absolutely destroyed my life. i can excuse it any way i want to, sure i was unhappy, yeah we had problems, we fought like any couple will, but it is not normal, it is not natural to go from being head over heels in love with one person to being suddenly head over heels in love with someone else. if you think that is normal, you need to examine your own life. we are bombarded with images of what “love” is supposed to be like, from the time we are children. it’s not like our parents’ relationship, it’s disney princesses and happily ever after, and meeting on the top of the empire state building with someone who you have never seen before but you heard on a radio show and knew that they were “the one” just from the tone in their voice. this is fucked up, people. this is a sick, fictional, and for some of us it causes us to keep seeking out the unreality that is complete “love” addiction. it’s obsession. for me, acknowledging it took falling “in love” with someone i couldn’t have. slowly i realized that of course she was “the one”. she was never given the opportunity to not be “the one.” i could romanticize her in my head as much as i wanted. i could excuse away anything by saying “if only we were together…” finally i realized that she, like everyone else i had ever been “in love” with was only a fictional character, romanticized in my head. the only difference was that she never have the opportunity to really disappoint me. i never got to be with her, so i could chalk any problem, any disappointment up to the fact that she was never “mine”.

well, what about all the people that were “mine” before that? every person that wasn’t what they seemed, everyone who disappointed me, everyone who hurt me, everyone i abandoned because the “spark” was gone? what made more sense? that this one woman, the first unobtainable woman, was “the one”? or that i had a serious problem that i had never acknowledged before? it helps that we stayed close for a long time after that. i saw exactly how she would’ve disappointed me if we had ever been in a relationship. the romanticized her that i was in love with wasn’t who she is. i do love who she is, but i know we’d kill each other if we ever lived together. she’s one of my best friends, and probably always will be, but now i get to love her and see her for who she is, not this made-up character in my head that i thought she was. it wasn’t everyone i’ve ever dated letting me down and disappointing me, it was me making them into something that no one could ever live up to, because i’m a love addict. i hate to burst your bubble if you believe this, but there is no “perfect person”. there’s no one out there that is meant for you who is just going to love on you when you’re an asshole, and not want anything from you, and not disappoint you, and not annoy you or piss you off occasionally. ask couples that have been together for 20 years, they will tell you (i know, i’ve talked to quite a few) that they bug each other, they make each other mad, they do stupid thing sometimes. we’re all only human afterall. i remember a really beautiful moment talking to someone i dearly love who i don’t get to see nearly often enough, where she was talking about how she knew she would do something unconstructive that upset her partner and didn’t help their relationship at all. she smiled, ruefully, and they are to this day a couple that many cite as ideal.

there’s no such thing as a happy ending. we don’t have an ending except for death. we do end chapters of our lives, and begin others but there isn’t a moment where in reality it goes “and they lived happily ever after. the end,” that doesn’t involve a headstone. relationships are compromise, disagreements, fights, but in the good ones, the ones that last, those are overshadowed by a mutual respect, a caring that we term “love”. there’s nothing remotely sexy about that. that’s what comes after “and they lived happily ever after.” if you don’t want to be romeo and juliet. my apologies to john lennon, but life is what happens after “and they lived happily ever after.”

where we find the balance between obsessive love and codependency i am not really sure because i’m still learning the lessons, but stick with me. i’m going to figure it all out; and then i’m going to write a new story. a story about what comes after all of the hollywood film, nyt bestselling novel bullshit, and it’s going to be based on my life.


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