The 3 Stages of a Dangerously Obsessive Ex

The obsessive ex, love, and murder.

Posted Aug 14, 2017

RobinE/Shutterstock
Source: RobinE/Shutterstock

There’s nothing like the thrill of new love — the intensity, the excitement, the obsession. We think about him constantly. Our moods shift in parallel to her smile or frown. It’s purely a matter of willpower that keeps us in touch with our family and friends because, if truth be known, he or she is the only person we want to be with. 

Then, typically somewhere between six months and two years, our relationship becomes real. The chemistry of the initial attraction is replaced by a conscious assessment of how the other person’s vision and values mesh with ours. Whether or not the relationship deepens into something substantial and long-lasting depends on how suitable we are for each other as life partners. It also depends on the psychological health of the individuals involved.

In fact, for a minority of unstable individuals, the mutual infatuation stage morphs into something quite different — a one-sided obsession in which one partner increasingly attempts to mold and shape the other into an object with which he or she can play out their fantasy. Individuals who develop these obsessive interpersonal relationships often have psychological problems that prevent the normal progression of a romantic relationship. Independence is seen as rejection; physical or emotional distance is viewed as a threat. As a result, there is a repeated attempt to possess and control the other partner’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When the object of the obsession tires of all the attention, pressure, and neediness and — inevitably — tries to pull back, the perpetrator’s worst fears are confirmed, setting up a vicious cycle in which each side escalates in response to the other. At the extreme, the end of the relationship can lead to the end of a life. 

3 Stages of Obsession

Obsessive love is based on fantasy and illusion. Interactions are based on a pre-written script that requires an often-unsuspecting partner to memorize the lines and never alter them. There is a constant expectation of reassurance and an intense focus in the relationship that doesn’t subside regardless of the length of time the relationship has endured or the amount of time spent together. However, the relationship does change over time and can often be divided into three definite phases:

1. Absorbed Stage: Due to the consuming nature of infatuation, it can be hard to spot red flags of an obsessive relationship during courtship. However, even during the throes of infatuation, some individuals are extreme in their initial attachment — wanting to know everything about you, showering you with gifts, talking about marriage and commitment within the first few days of meeting, or referring to you as his or her “soulmate.” Looking back, many survivors of obsessive relationships can see that, early on, a partner was putting them in the role they were supposed to play. 

One of my clients once told me about a successful doctor she dated briefly who, after three dates, asked her when she was going to move in with him. On all three dates, he had asked her to dress up and taken her to extremely expensive restaurants, where he insisted they both order (and eat) appetizers, a main course, and dessert. When she made the comment that she couldn’t continue eating like this if she wanted to maintain her “girlish figure,” he looked her in the eye and stated, “Well, you can always go in the bathroom and throw up. Eating out is the one thing that helps me relieve stress.” Needless to say, that was the last date they had; although he obsessively called her for a few weeks afterward, she later learned that her former date had moved in with another woman within the month. 

2. Agitated Stage: As the relationship progresses, the obsessive partner increasingly attempts to control his or her partner. They text, call, or email numerous times a day. They are jealous of anyone or anything that takes time away from your relationship and attempt to sabotage your participation in enjoyed activities and isolate you from friends and family. They become increasingly anxious about losing you and so they begin to doubt or mistrust what you say even though there is no reason to do so.    

3. Aggressive Stage: This stage typically starts when either previously “successful” attempts at controlling you have failed; or you end the relationship. At this point, the perpetrator ups the ante. They may threaten suicide if you don’t acquiesce to their demands. They may disrupt your life by calling your home, boss, or friends. They may suddenly show up uninvited. They may alternate between pleas to reunite and vows of vengeance. For some desperate or disturbed individuals, the behavior can escalate to stalking, threats, or physical violence.   

The Psychological Profile of a Violent Ex

No matter how hurt or angry, most ex-lovers never engage in illegal behavior. Those who do have an underlying psychopathology that blocks their ability to let go and move on. In particular, two personality profiles are likely to engage in serious or lethal violence after a breakup. 

The first — the generally violent, antisocial ex — tends to have a history of impulsivity, substance abuse, and/or violent and criminal behavior inside and outside the relationship. This person was likely abusive and controlling in the relationship, using violence as a way to keep a partner in line or regain control and feel powerful. The obsessiveness displayed reflects a sense of ownership and entitlement: You belong to me, and I have the right to tell you what to do. Lethal violence is an extension of these dysfunctional relationship beliefs: You have disrespected me by leaving, and I can’t allow that. 

Unlike the chronic batterer, the second type of potentially lethal ex may have never laid a finger on a partner; in fact, in 20 percent of relationship homicides, the murder is the first act of violence. The personality profile of this obsessive ex is an immature and self-centered individual who, in the relationship, constantly craved or demanded attention and affection. Emotional blackmail — crying, threats of self-harm, inducing guilt — may be used to control a partner during a relationship. It is only when these no longer work that violence becomes an option.

Stalking and other forms of unwanted pursuit may be used after a breakup in an attempt to maintain or re-establish an intimate relationship. Taken to the extreme, the obsessive ex may explode in a murderous rage out of the mistaken impression that the very essence of who they are will be psychologically destroyed if they don’t respond to the situation.

The Bottom Line

No one can accurately predict which individual will murder someone they once loved. We can, however, spot the dark clouds in a relationship that predict thunderclouds after a breakup. Whether out of insecurity and neediness, or a sense of entitlement and ownership, exes who kill their former partners attempt to manipulate and control the relationship long before it ends. Ending such a relationship safely requires planning, strategy, and help. Don't go it alone.