“Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been lost without a trace/ I dream at night, I can only see your face/ I look around, but it’s you I can’t replace/ I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace…” — Every Breath You Take (the Police).
“If you want to hold onto your possession/ Don’t even think about me/ If you love somebody/ Set them free.” – If You Love Somebody Set Them Free (Sting)
Surely, we’ve all experienced the first kind of love, and, at least at moments, the second. How close is love to obsession? Is it possible to feel one without the other, or is obsession integral to love?
I could break the relationships I’ve had into two distinct categories: the ones where I’m head over heels for someone and the ones where someone is head over heels for me. The men who were crazy about me, I now remember as loyal and steadfast, imagining they never would have left me, had I not left them first. The others I chased after shamelessly and caught, at least briefly, until they broke my heart, often in a way that felt sudden and awful.
Is it any small surprise that, according to NPR, one study found “under an MRI scanner, the brains of the heartsick can resemble the brains of those experiencing cocaine withdrawal”?
In the last six months, I’ve found myself on the giving and receiving end of obsessive love – at opposite ends of two relationships. Last fall, after two years together, the man I thought was the love of my life broke up with me a day before our engagement party. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. I approached my damaged heart in the most practical way possible: by Googling “how to get your ex back.” I decided upon the No Contact Rule, which, with an estimated 50-60% success rate, left me certain I’d beat the odds. Then I Googled Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance, not necessarily in that order) as a back-up in case I didn’t. In retrospect, it’s good I let myself mourn, because I wasn’t in that 50-60th percentile.
Two months later, feeling sufficiently healed, I got back in touch with my ex. This propelled me several paces backward, and I convinced myself that he must still (somewhere, so deep down that he just wasn’t aware of them) have feelings for me, and, if he didn’t, I could convince him that logically we needed to be together, since emotion, of course, is logical. My ex didn’t re-develop feelings for me, and, since this wasn’t the result I wanted, we had a falling out. We repeated this pattern a couple of times until the final crash-and-burn when he told me to stop contacting him.
At that point I’d been spending an hour a day trolling my ex’s and each of our mutual friends’ Facebook pages for any sign of a change of heart, or a new love in his life . Still, I did all the “right” things to move on, but after a disappointing date or a rough day at work, my go-to behavior would be to text or email my ex in hopes of an ounce of connection to feed my hungry brain. It was used to cocaine, after all.
Not only is dopamine responsible for the obsessiveness we feel after a break-up, but it’s at fault for the highs of infatuation:
Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., suspects that love’s initial all-consuming sizzle is part pure lust, part pure dopamine. “My prediction is that dopamine is an essential part of infatuation,” says Fisher, who is now scanning the brains of wildly infatuated people, probing for that dopamine drive. “Dopamine,” she notes, “is already associated with euphoria, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and a rush of motivation.” In other words, the dazzling beginnings of love.
This leads me to Tom. About four months after my break-up, just at the point where I felt 99% over my ex, we met for a date. I saw Tom as a warm, comforting, and intriguing figure (who had an equal passion for DimSum), and we commenced to become pretty intimate, pretty quickly. Within a couple of weeks, we were spending nearly every day together, feeding off of our mutual dopamine high that lit up the pleasure centers of our brains over and over again like strings of fireworks.
The high lasted for another week. Then I could no longer ignore the warning signs: Tom’s interest in me went beyond typical infatuation and veered into dopamine overload. It began with him leaving me multiple voice mails, texts, and emails when an outing with a friend went ten minutes longer than anticipated – in addition to the normal volume of phone calls, page-long texts, and emails he’d send me daily. The last red flag was when he contacted me several times when I told him I needed a “day off.” I broke up with him, which warranted a barrage of calls, 3-minute long voice mails, emails, texts, and Facebook messages for weeks until I blocked him and told him to cease all contact with me.
Though Tom’s seemed excessive, obsession is an integral component of being “in love.” Does that mean that, on this day celebrating love, we shouldn’t strive for Sting’s version? Perhaps we have no choice but to give ourselves over to obsessive love — at the bookends of a relationship — but in the middle we can we strive for one that’s freer and more noble. Or at least a little less possessive.