With Valentine’s Day at hand, it may seem an odd time to reflect on love gone overboard, into obsession, but to be honest, I was never much for Hallmark cards.
Genuine, balanced romance and over-the-top addictive attachment actually have the same chief ingredient: the object of the emotion has to trigger core, deeply-rooted psychological dynamics in the person who feels it. These dynamics often reach back to childhood; they’re loose ends that the object of love seems to tie into a neat bow.
So often, people who were unsure that a parent would remain committed to them, or remain living at home, will choose partners who are faithful and predictable—sometimes even to the point of being unexciting. A woman who moved frequently will marry the boy next door. A man who had an intrusive, emotionally absorbing mother will marry an emotionally distant woman.
We commonly seek to balance the disequilibrium from the past with an equal and opposite force in the present. This can create difficulties in people who are psychologically stable—when feelings of monotony or isolation or lack of stability set in—but in people who are psychologically unstable it can set the stage for extremely intense feelings that are only sparked by the love object, then turn into a bonfire that has nothing to do with that person and can even destroy him or her.
A man who was, for instance, abandoned by his mother can experience deep despondency—even major depression or psychosis—when faced with losing the object of his romantic love. Never having processed and overcome the irrational notion inside him that he was responsible for his mother’s departure, the recent loss can reawaken all those incendiary, buried feelings stored away for decades.
A woman who believes if she had only been prettier or sweeter, her father might have stopped getting drunk and started working again, can be irrationally committed to a man who gives her the idea she can “cure” him of infidelities or compulsive gambling or even criminal behavior. Conversely, such a woman—in rare cases—can become violent when she senses she is not the cure for anything. All the frustrations and rage of a traumatic childhood can erupt like lava from a long dormant volcano.
Years ago, I testified in court about Dr. Richard Sharpe, a Harvard dermatologist who shot and killed his wife while they were preparing to divorce. For Sharpe, his wife was actually the only thing holding together his deep feelings of being unworthy and unlovable. Her separating from him reminded him of everything he had ever suffered, including ceaseless beatings by his sadistic father. He literally pointed a gun at her as if to steal back the self-esteem he needed, which he had found only in her embrace. When she went to close the door to the house, to close him out, he fired. He later killed himself.
We glorify love gone overboard with exclamations like, “I could never live without him!” Or, “She’s my whole life.” Or, “I’m crazy for her.”
But for some among us, these are not just clichés, nor excited utterances fueled by romantic love. They are perceived as the truth. And when life without another person looks like a black hole of despair, the way life without drugs seems to drug addicts at their worst, then men and women will occasionally do anything—even (and quite irrationally) kill the object of that “love”—in order to try to keep it.
Dr. Ablow is the author of "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony." He is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at email@example.com. His team of Life Coaches can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.