So why was Nancy so obsessed with Ron? Why, for example, did she become instantly attached to him so early in their relationship? Why did she manipulate her pregnancy and, for that matter, him? And why did she engage in acts of revenge against the women whom he was having affairs with? Is there an explanation for the abuse that she directed toward her children? How did her past influence her present?
Nearly all of Nancy's behaviors are common for people who believe that being in love means being in control. One thing is for certain. Becoming a person who confuses love with obsession does not happen randomly. In fact, the clues to this phenomenon can be traced to the past, where child- hood memories that should be filled with love and support are instead filled with loneliness, fear, and deep sorrow. The following traits, characteristics, and behaviors are common among people who confuse love with obsession.
Common Traits, Characteristics, and Behaviors of People Who Confuse Love With Obsession
1. We were emotionally abandoned and may have been verbally, psychologically, or physically abused (or all three) during childhood.
2. We trap partners into relationships by withholding emotions or finances, or through other means of manipulation.
3. We engage in acts of revenge against people we perceive as a threat to our relationships.
4. We are constantly preoccupied with our significant other's whereabouts, spending most of the day monitoring and tracking her physical and financial moves.
5. We restrict a partner's ability to communicate with and/or have friends.
6. We use food as a way of keeping a partner overweight, hoping that he will appear unattractive and thus undesirable to others.
7. We may be coaddicted to alcohol, other drugs, food, or sex.
8. Our worst fear is being abandoned, and we will do anything to stop a partner from leaving.
9. When we are unable to control the relationship with a partner, we transfer our need to control to other people.
10. We are unable to stay at a job for long periods of time because of anxiety, or we refuse to let our partner work because we cannot be there to monitor her.
11. When we do not receive the attention that we want from a partner or other loved ones, we fall into a state of depression.
12. We suffer from stress-related gastrointestinal problems. These may include ulcers, esophageal reflux, constipation, diarrhea, or general stomach upset. We may also suffer from chronic stress-related headaches or backaches.
13. When a partner or loved one tells us that we are being controlling, we refuse to listen and insist that our behavior is normal. We hear what we want to hear.
14. We use sex as a tool of control and manipulation.
15. We stay in emotionally and/or physically abusive relationships, believing that we can fix a partner and somehow control his behavior.
Let's examine Nancy's past and relate it to her present. Several weeks prior to Nancy's visit at my apartment, she had telephoned me for support after a nasty argument with her husband regarding his whereabouts. During that conversation, I asked Nancy questions about her childhood and her relational history with men. The information she revealed to me then first made me suspect that she is a person who confuses love with obsession.
She told me that her parents were alcoholics who worked during the day and drank heavily at night. They argued often, and these angry words would sometimes escalate into physical violence. During particularly nasty fights, her father would storm out of the house and disappear for days at a time. When this happened, Nancy remembered feeling con- fused, abandoned, and alone. In fact, she recalled that these feelings overwhelmed her, causing her to become depressed and unattached to her world.
She went on to explain that at eighteen, she dated a marine named David who was emotionally unavailable and extremely abusive. She looked past his temper, however, believing that if she showed him enough love, she could somehow change his angry ways and thereby control the uncontrollable. So each time she was mistreated, she showed David that much more love. Their relationship abruptly ended in just two short months when she was hospitalized after David broke her arm and bruised her ribs. She reported that she would have stayed with him, despite his abuse, had her father not insisted on the breakup. She recalled becoming depressed for several months after their separation, totally drained of energy and unable to function. Sometime later she met Ron and "knew," as she put it, that she wanted to be with him forever.
Nancy's childhood was marked with parental alcoholism and violence, leaving her feeling neglected, alone, and confused. When her father disappeared for days at a time, she experienced deep feelings of abandonment that, unbeknownst to her, would stay with her into adulthood. Thus during the early part of her life, the first storm clouds of destruction appeared on the horizon. The storm would eventually grow into a powerful and uncontrollable force, ultimately obliterating every meaningful relationship she was in and leaving her emotionally devastated. The fuel for the storm, as with most people who confuse love with obsession, was overwhelming fear—fear of abandonment wrapped in distrust. She lived in a world of constant fear, believing that the men in her life would eventually leave her, just as her father had left her as a child. In her adulthood, she mistakenly believed that she could prevent relational collapses through controlling behaviors.
What Nancy did not realize is that the more she tightened her grip, the more her suitors felt trapped. That she had managed to stay in a relationship with Ron for twelve years was a miracle, given some of her behaviors in the marriage. To be sure, Ron's behavior during their relationship was inexcusable and selfish. He is not, though, totally to blame for what happened. Nancy's obsessive need to control him caused him to feel trapped. Although I could not be sure, I suspected the only reason Ron had stayed with her for so long was out of concern for their children. I also suspected that it was no coincidence that the boys moved in with his parents. The entire family had grown tired of Nancy's obsessive ways and wanted out.
So what happened to Nancy? Months after her visit to my apartment, she informed me that Ron had filed for divorce and had moved with Denise to another city. The children were still living with Ron's parents and custody was being negotiated. She also told me that, through the help of her therapist, she was beginning to understand how her childhood and life experiences had contributed to her current predicament. More important, she said that she was learning to love herself with the help and support of others.