Attachment and obsession are commonly mistaken for love. There is a significant difference between genuine love and obsession/attachment. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that they are polar opposites. If you’re thinking that only romantic love is subject to such confusion, you’re wrong.
As you will see from the cases in point that follow, familial love such as love between mother and child, or platonic friendship, or even love for a pet, are also just as vulnerable to such a mix-up. In fact, oftentimes true love is insulated with a sheathing of selfish obsession, which is neither healthy for the self, nor for others. A gentle uncovering is needed to reveal healthy, happy love. This is why it becomes important to be able to discern what love truly is and what it is not.
What is genuine love
Love is about nurturing and helping the loved one grow. When we feel genuine love towards another, we are concerned about the wellbeing of the loved one. In feeling so, we are willing to let go of our own wants and desires. When we love someone, we want to ensure that s/he becomes emotionally independent, self-reliant and possesses a healthy self-respect. We want our beloved to be able to think as an individual, and be strong enough to experience life’s ups and downs without getting bogged down.
Sometimes, this requires difficult decisions on our part. Like when we know that someone we love is making a mistake, we allow him or her to do so, knowing fully well that making mistakes are part of growing up and overprotecting impedes the development of the person.
Love frees, obsession cages
When we are obsessed, we lose objectivity and want a dependency-relationship. This dependency could be one-way or two-way; either way, it turns out to be a cage.
We have all known, or heard about, individuals who threaten to commit suicide if they don’t get their object of love. Fervent statements such as, “I can’t live without my boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife,” are usually the result of obsession, not love.
In The Road Less Traveled, M Scott Peck defines dependency as the inability to function adequately without the certainty that one is actively being cared for by another. He differentiates “dependency” from “dependency needs, or feelings” which, he reckons, is normal. All of us like to be cared for, but it is only when such desires begin to rule us and dictate the quality of our lives that we become “dependent.”
Obsession is a neurosis and it is detrimental to our wellbeing. In acting obsessively we hinder our growth and that of our loved one. When a mother doesn’t let her teenage son leave the city/country for higher studies because she is “afraid” that he won’t be able to take care of himself, is she demonstrating love or dependency? Certainly her concern comes across as love, but it might actually be dependency. She probably likes to be needed by her son because she feels worthwhile that way. If she lets him go away, she might be making him take his first step towards independence—he may, thereafter, not need her.
Love, on the other hand, encourages risk-taking and independence. In the above example, if the mother genuinely loves her son, she would risk her own feelings of concern for her son in lieu of his growth towards self-reliance. Any relationship comes bundled with the risk of loss. People who love genuinely acknowledge and accept this fact.
Love gives, obsession depletes
When we are obsessed, which is in contrast to true love, we care little for anything else except self. What does this mean? An obsessed person is concerned only about his own feelings, and consequently all his acts are motivated by a desire to meet his own expectations. Therefore, even when s/he’s acting generously towards his/her beloved, the motivation is selfish. For example, an obsessed man showers his girlfriend with gifts, because that makes her happy, and she thinks he’s so caring and loving which, in turn, delights him. The intention then is to purchase delight for oneself in return for a gift.
On the other hand, a man who loves his girlfriend genuinely doesn’t care about his own feelings. He simply wants to give. The loving man may also feel delighted, but his act of giving is not motivated by a desire for feeling good himself, but for the sake of giving alone.
Obsession controls, love lets go
An obsessed person is insecure and his/her actions are dominated by fear. As a result s/he’s always trying to control behaviours and emotions of the one s/he loves. S/he wants to know where you are going, what you’re doing/thinking/dreaming. S/he may also dictate how you should dress, what you ought to eat, how you should part your hair, what career you should opt for, and so on. The key word here is “dictate”. The one who loves may only suggest what s/he thinks is in your best interests, whereas the obsessed will only insist. The loving individual respects you and your choice, but the one who is obsessed doesn’t trust you.
Is it love?
True fulfilment can only be possible in true love. Obsession is a self-defeating phenomenon. It is a no-win trap that only causes harm. The trouble is that it is often difficult to draw the line between love and obsession. Thankfully, there is a simple test to figure out the difference.
When confused, ask yourself what is your deepest thought. If it’s selfless, it is love. Ironically, you can’t love someone truly unless you love yourself. For how can you give away what you don’t have?
Loving yourself should not be confused with narcissism, which is obsession with oneself, and just as harmful. Loving oneself is about being secure in the knowledge that you are worthy and have an important role to play in this world, and so do others. Those who love themselves genuinely have no desire to control anyone, because they are in control of themselves.
Yes, loving the self and others unconditionally is not easy. It requires hard work and mindful practice. But, the result is worth the endeavour, you will agree.
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