Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D.

Me Before We

How to Let Go of an All-Consuming and Boundless Obsession

Maybe if you keep gambling, you'll hit the jackpot and he'll love you back

Posted Jul 09, 2013

Is he your obsession? Image: Flickr/xlordashx

You want him. You love him. He’s broken but you can fix him. You know you’re everything he needs. Not that you actually know that much about him. He’s there and then gone like a beautiful idea or taste. And every time you see him, you want him even more. He is your obsession.

The difference between obsession and the first stage of what could be love is reciprocity. Does he return your infatuation? Or are you doing most or all of the work while projecting your hopes, dreams and needs onto this "blank screen"? If you really don’t know him and he stays a mystery, he can be whatever you need him to be. He can be perfect.

Ask yourself if the object of your desire really is someone of substance who reciprocates your affections, or if it’s more like sticking coins in a slot machine. You wait for the big payoff, but like all slot machines, the payoffs come intermittently and variably, just enough to keep you compulsively putting coins in and waiting for your reward.

This process is literally addictive. Studies show that winning a free-ride token unpredictably and at random makes commuters ride the bus more frequently in hope of winning the reward. And in video games and slot machines, unpredictable, intermittent payoff with some high and some low rewards keeps kids and gamblers hooked.

It feels like this: Maybe this time when you pull the lever it will finally pay off! Maybe this time you’ll hit the jackpot and he will love you. Though you want to believe you understand this person better than he understands himself, you really don’t know him and so you can project all the intensity of your needs onto the prize – he’s everything you’ve ever wanted. His attention or acknowledgment is as intoxicating as winning a $250m Powerball jackpot. When he spills coffee on his shirt at work, he asks if you’ll drop what you’re doing to bring him a new one. Then when you arrive breathless with a clean shirt he dismisses you. It doesn’t matter. You’re so honored and overwhelmed and excited that it’s you he called! It keeps you hoping that maybe next time, maybe if you feed that machine just one more coin, that just around the corner could be the big win, and he will want you fully, because look how much you have invested In him.

Like a gambling addiction, this process feeds your obsession. It makes the fleeting times you’re together even more intense and those payoffs feel so good you have to keep coming back. It’s not a choice. It feels like a need.

Here’s the bad news: of the many people suffering with romantic obsessions I’ve worked with, not once have I seen this kind of relationship work out. Even worse than playing Powerball, in my experience it’s is an empty gamble. You’re not going to win him – you won't hit this jackpot. It's a broken machine, which is why reciprocity in the relationship hasn't happened in the first place. If the relationship isn’t reciprocal and he only intermittently returns your attempts at connection it’s almost impossible, no matter how hard you try, to actually "win" him in the end. You can feed the machine all you want, but over time you will eventually end up emotionally broke.

Obsession can also be an excruciatingly difficult pattern to break. First, you never know the person well enough to allow him to fall from grace. You put him on a pedestal and then never have the chance to test this position enough to make him tumble. Sure he can be awful to you, but that’s part of his brokenness you are trying to fix – you know he’s broken, but you understand him. You can rescue him and then he in turn will rescue you. The intermittent-variable reinforcement and the needs you project onto this person always outweigh the emotional reality of what he really is and what you really are as a “couple.”

The fact that he remains mysterious leaves you wanting so much more. You can’t help but want to mend that broken boy who can’t control the pain he causes you or himself. You can heal both of you by being constistently available, devoted, and trustworthy and through your consistency and devotion to him, you hope he can learn to love you and himself. Or maybe you fantasize that he will eventually pull you out of your mundane factory job and carry you off into the sunset, like what Richard Gere does for Debra Winger in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.

Also, like a true addiction, it can be almost impossible to admit you have a problem. From inside the obsession, it’s so hard to see it’s a one-sided fantasy and not the reciprocal experience that might lead to love somewhere down the line. To break free, it can take the experience of spending heartbreaking years in this obsession until you mature and realize it will never be.

Of course your friends and family tell you to be less available, care less and he will come to you. As good as this advice may be, for the obsessed it’s intolerable in practice. You can’t choose to care less, and it’s virtually impossible to be aloof when every fiber of your being is compelling you to stay available to him, because if he can trust you, you believe he can love you.

Despite these struggles, you can begin the process of proactively breaking this obsession now. If you can see yourself objectively in this post, you can start to change your addictive behavior. It’s hard to stop calling him or “accidentally” bumping into him while you’re out or letting him come over late when he texts, but it’s possible to change your behaviors right now, even if you can’t change your feelings. It’s you who continues to feed coins into that machine.

Consider what you’re missing by devoting so much of yourself to a slot machine that’s almost certain to never pay off in any meaningful way. Are you missing other known or unknown chances for actual love? Or maybe he’s distracting you from your own pain, which feels good in the moment, but stunts your growth as a person.

To start letting go, remember, first and foremost that your feeling of powerlessness in the face of this obsession has nothing to do with how amazing you are. He doesn’t define you. I promise you will find ways to fill the spaces in your head and heart that have been consumed by him, and it will be a relief when you do. You will feel free. It’s an unbelievable relief.

Eventually, with time your deepening understanding of your obsession can create distance, and distance can create perspective. With perspective, your rational mind can slowly begin to understand how painful, degrading and humiliating this obsession has been – how much of your life it has consumed, how imprisoned you have felt. Maybe with this excruciatingly difficult distance you can start to see your obsession the way your friends and family already see it: as a soul-sucking addiction pulling you deeper and deeper into an emotional abyss.

I said it in my last post and in fact I may say it in every post: Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.

Only once you know yourself and recognize your addiction, can you choose to create a deeper understanding and compassion for yourself. This change is difficult and painful, but eventually by breaking free of the power of obsession fueled by intermittent-variable reinforcement you can hope to find the true experience of reciprocity.

Letting go of obsession can help you find real love.


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