A Big O is a person, an Other, who generates strong emotion and attachment compulsion in us. They are different to others (small o's) who do not. We can be in "love" with all sorts of Big O’s including our partners, children, celebrities, political and religious figures, and gurus.
Infatuation, adoration, idolisation, and unquestioning allegiance characterise Big O love and when we are in the grip of it, we become vulnerable to obsession (I need you in order to live), over-identification (your success or failures are my success and failures), mood swings (between passive and aggressive), hyper-compliance (your wish is my command), and depression (I am worthless in comparison to you). Big O love is neither satisfying nor healthy, although it might take us some time to recognise this.
To understand and break free of Big O relationships we must first turn to our own motivations and recognise the process and purpose of this submissive love.
Renowned psychoanalyst C. G. Jung wrote about the "mana personality," a term he used to describe the extraordinary power emanating from a human being. Yet, as the anthropologist Ernest Becker reminds us, "the mana of the mana personality is in the eye of the beholder … the mana personality ... is still Homo Sapiens, standard vintage."1
A well-known example of this "standard vintage" is depicted in the film, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, having invested all her hope and belief in the power of this wizard to return her home to Kansas and to perform various miracles for her friends, finally discovers that this wizard is just an old man creating images of a powerful being through a movie projector. Dorothy reacts angrily to her disillusionment and accuses him of being a bad man. He replies, “Oh no my dear … I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” The "wizard," an ordinary conman from Nebraska, has been doing his best to sustain the myth, perpetuated by the people of Oz, that he is a great sorcerer.
Like the wizard, Others are just ordinary people, like us. It is through our own doing that we confer magical powers onto them. We make them into the Other we seek. Sometimes this is helped by the other person’s desire to be a Big O, for example, narcissists and others with inflated ego needs. Often though the Big O's we create have no desire to be placed on a pedestal or to become the object of our need and attention.
When we are under the spell of our Big O we are in a state of submission and surrender, which is one way we try to cope with the many problems that come with being human. In submitting we believe and hope that Others will save us from our pain and insecurities. Submission is a threat brain response that corresponds to the freeze pattern of our fight-flee-freeze survival repertoire. What we ‘freeze’ are our needs, truths and experiences in order to focus on the Other. Submission in the animal kingdom is often a successful way of dealing with threat, however, in humans it has become a more complex, and sometimes ineffective, response.
Over the course of our evolution, the basic fight-flee-freeze responses have evolved into three complex human relational patterns—moving against (fight), moving away (flee), and moving towards (freeze).2 These patterns, when we are not in threat, can represent healthy ways of relating. For example, moving against can be confident, assertive, and proactive, moving away can be autonomous, impartial, and sensitive, and moving towards can be collaborative, adaptable, and compassionate. When we are in threat, however, moving against becomes aggressive, domineering, and controlling, moving away becomes disengaging, avoiding and isolating, and moving towards becomes submitting, placating, and over-complying. Our Big O relationships generally involve moving towards a seemingly more powerful Other.3
The three patterns of moving against, moving away, and moving towards, when used too much or indiscriminately, represent our threat brain responses to the relationship, and we have probably tried them all out in our childhood attempts to discover how best to survive our particular environment and circumstances. Eventually, most of us develop a threat brain "habit" where one of the three patterns comes to dominate our response when we are under stress. However, underneath our habitual response, the alternative strategies are still available and we may resort to them when our primary solution is not working. Thus, our submissive, moving towards pattern, which characterises Big O love, can turn into a demanding, aggressive and rejecting response. We see this "swing" in the passive-aggressive tendency, which is triggered when (we feel) our Big O fails to fully appreciate our "love." Mood swings of this kind are an indication that we are, or have been, caught in a threat-motivated, Big O relationship.
Our attraction to Big O’s fulfills not just the need for protection and security but also for purpose and direction in our life. We cannot live, as animals do, in simple patterns of instinctual drive because consciousness has separated us from that possibility. We think and our thoughts lead us to questions of existence and purpose. When we cannot find "answers" to these questions our thoughts frequently turn against us. We ruminate, worry, feel anxious and depressed. Big O's captivate and soothe us because they seem to provide convincing answers, or at least they help us to forget our own unconvincing narrative. For example, when we turn our children into our Big O, we can feel worthy and needed, or with our Big O lover we can feel attractive and special. When we turn celebrities into Big O’s our life can feel more exciting than it actually is, and when we idolise gurus or leaders we can feel enlightened, protected, and safe.
You may doubt whether you are the sort of person who gets involved in Big O relationships. You may think of yourself as mature, "normal," and perfectly capable of finding and sustaining healthy, reciprocal relationships. However, my observation is that most of us, have been or will be caught in the spell of the Other. It may not happen until, for example, we have a child—and suddenly we fall in Big O love with our angelic bundle. When children become our Big O we over-protect, pamper and idolise them, which is neither good for the child nor us. More often Big O love happens in intimate relationships. The majority of us can identify with the intensity, madness, and ephemerality of romantic love.
We may also doubt the existence of Big O relationships in our life because, when we are in the midst of them, we are too enthralled and dependent to see beyond the pleasure, relief, and release they bring. It is usually much easier for us to see other people making relational mistakes than it is to admit to our own. Or we may not recognise the Big O pattern in our lives because during the course of life our attraction to Os may change. When we are young we may submit over and over again to the promise of romantic love, only to replace this by adoration of our children. Or we may give up our obsession with a particular group, only to re-channel that same yearning and need towards a spiritual guru. These changing affiliations may obscure our underlying pattern of submission and need that defines Big O relationships.
The habitual over-valuation and deference to an Other almost always involves the de-valuation and diminishing of our selves. Unless we are prepared to notice and honestly appraise our relational habits and resist the compulsion to use others to sort out our problems, we will repeat our mistakes and continue to suffer the disappointments of Big O love.
1. Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. The Free Press.
2. Horney, K. (1950) Neurosis and Human Growth. The Struggle Towards Self-Realisation. WW Norton.
3. Wickremasinghe, N (2021) Being With Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy Press.