science of us

How to Tell the Difference Between Healthy and Obsessive Passion

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During my junior year of college, I fell in love with someone I met on OKCupid, a fellow student. He left Xs and Os on my Facebook wall, and I scribbled poems for him during class. When I wasn’t with him, I was either daydreaming about our next date or worrying he’d break up with me. We were madly in love, I told myself.

At the time, I thought this was a good thing, a signifier of the strength of our shared bond. From Romeo and Juliet to Fifty Shades of Grey, our culture tends to glorify what psychologists call “obsessive passion” — but while it might make for good entertainment, it doesn’t exactly make for a good real-life relationship.

Obsessive passion is “an overriding urge where you can’t make rational decisions,” explains Suzann Pileggi, who co-authored the book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts with her husband James O. Pawelski, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. Research suggests that this kind of romantic obsession correlates with shorter and less satisfying relationships. On the other hand, the less all-consuming “harmonious passion” — which is linked to better relationships and better mental health — occurs when “you’re in charge of the passion, as opposed to being controlled by the urges,” Pileggi says.

There are ways to self-diagnose whether the intense love you feel for your significant other is actually an unhealthy obsession: For one thing, those who are obsessed with their partners may lose interest in their own jobs, hobbies, and friendships. And when you’re doing things on your own, you may have trouble concentrating or feel guilty that you’re not with your partner.

Insecurity, too, can be a sign of obsessive passion. “There’s a relationship between feeling uncertain and nervous about whether a partner will stay in the relationship and being overly preoccupied with a partner,” says psychologist and Harvard lecturer Holly Parker, author of If We’re Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone? How to Build Intimacy With an Emotionally Unavailable Partner. A 2002 study in Current Research in Social Psychology found that those with insecure attachment styles tended to have relationships with more “mania” — “an obsessive, intense, possessive, and anxious kind of love.”

If you’re unsure whether your feelings cross the line into obsession, your friends are usually a good barometer. Pawelski recommends asking them if you’ve changed since the relationship began. Some of the signs of obsession are similar to the excitement of a budding romance, Pileggi adds — but if they continue for months, you may want to explore strategies to tune out that voice in your head that’s constantly thinking about your partner.

It’s something that’s best attempted gradually. If you try to stop obsessing cold turkey, you may run into what’s known as the white bear problem, or the tendency to think about the exact thing you’re trying to avoid. Instead of suppressing these thoughts, Pawelski recommends adding to them. “It’s hard to be obsessively passionate about more than one thing at once,” he says. “The place to start is diversifying.” Throw yourself into your job, your hobbies, or other relationships, and there will be less room in your mind for your partner.

Exploring other passions can benefit your well-being even if you’re doing it with your partner, especially if these activities remind you of who you are. Pawelski and Pileggi recommend “strength dates” — activities chosen based on what you’re already good at — to bond as a couple while reinforcing your sense of self. If you need a push to get started, the VIA Institute on Character offers a free 15-minute strength survey to discover five of your best characteristics; based on these results, or just your own self-knowledge, plan dates that bring these qualities out in each of you. If you’re creative and your partner is intellectually curious, for example, you might visit an art museum together.

Another way to develop a more stable connection is to combat the insecurity that often defines obsessive relationships by getting to know each other and cultivating trust, Pileggi says. One exercise for this is sharing progressively bigger secrets, starting with small disclosures and working up to larger ones as your comfort grows. The more secure you feel that your partner loves you as you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel spending time away from them — and giving them less space in your thoughts when you’re apart.

“We tend to think passion for our partners is the key to well being, but it’s autonomy and support,” Pawelski says. “If [my wife is] obsessing over me, that’s not going to make me feel good. But if I am supported by her in the development [of] my full range of strengths and capabilities, I’m going to be grateful to her to aid me in that development.”

How to Know When Healthy Passion Becomes ‘Obsessive Passion’