NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 28, 2014

The Connection Between Obsessive Love as an Adult and Unmet Childhood Emotional Needs

Most relationships start out with heady, romantic feelings and frequent thoughts about the beloved, as well as eager anticipation about seeing each other.  This is a common experience during the initial stage of a relationship when people fall in love.  

Eventually, if all goes well, these heady feelings develop into a more enduring, mature kind of love.  This is a very different experience from the topic of this blog, The Connection Between Obsessive Love as an Adult and Unmet Childhood Emotional Needs, where a person, who experiences painful romantic obsessions, is feeling more than the usual heady feelings.  This person tends to form dependent romantic relationships.

The Connection Between Obsessive Love and Unmet Childhood Emotional Needs

Obsessive Love is also Known Informally as "Love Addiction"
Although there's no formal diagnosis for this condition, obsessive love, also known informally as "love addiction," can be excruciatingly painful.

It's painful enough when the love is reciprocated, but it's even more emotionally painful where there is unrequited love (see my article: Letting Go of Unhealthy Relationships: Unrequited Love).

Even when the love is reciprocated, the person who experiences obsessive love puts a heavy burden on  his or her romantic partner.  He or she often has unconscious expectations that his or her partner will fulfill all their longstanding unmet emotional needs.

Obsessive Love Can Affect Both Men and Women

People, who are usually high functioning in most areas of their lives, can regress emotionally to the emotional equivalent of a young child who is starved for love and attention because these core needs, which were unmet in childhood, get triggered in adult romantic relationships.

In many cases, it's as if an emotional chasm, which was sealed off, suddenly opens up and the person feels a bottomless pit of emptiness and an urgent need for love and attention.

The vignette below, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates this phenomenon:

Sally, who was in her late 20s, came to see me in my psychotherapy private practice shortly after she began seeing John.

In her career, she was well respected as a manager who was hard working, highly competent and confident.  She had many close friends, an active social life, and found meaning in her volunteer work.

The Connection Between Obsessive Love as an Adult and Unmet Early Childhood Needs

Generally, she felt relatively happy, self confident and positive about life.  But all of that changed within a few months of developing romantic feelings for John, the first man that she had really fallen in love with since college.

She couldn't understand how she changed, within a short period of time, from being a cheerful, confident woman into what she described as "a needy, obsessive wretch" who needed constant reassurance from John that he loved her.  And no amount of his reassurance would alleviate her obsessiveness about his feelings towards her.

Aside from her obsessive thoughts about John, the worst part for her was that she was afraid that John, who was very loving and attentive, would get fed up with her need for constant reassurance and he would leave her.

This thought only made her feel worse and she was caught in a vicious cycle of obsession, angst, and regret for asking for his constant reassurance.

She described how she feared that she would never be able to break this cycle and, if she couldn't, she was doomed to be alone because no one would be willing to endure her obsessiveness.

When she described her childhood, it became evident that she was emotionally neglected as a child by parents who weren't around for most of her early childhood.

It was also obvious that, as a resilient and resourceful child, she fended for herself a lot and she did well academically and, later on as an adult, in her career.

But her unmet emotional needs were getting triggered, even though John was a loving and attentive romantic partner.

Sally maintained enough objectivity to see that John wasn't the issue--it was her, and she wanted desperately to stop feeling these obsessive emotions.  She felt like she was losing her mind.

I started by helping Sally develop coping strategies to keep her from acting on her obsessiveness.  I helped Sally to learn basic breathing techniques to help her to calm down when her thoughts and emotions felt like they were going to overtake her.  She practiced these techniques every day and felt some relief.

In addition to coming regularly to weekly therapy sessions, I also encouraged Sally to keep a journal to write down her thoughts, instead of pouring out her fears to John over and over again.  And, as Sally wrote in her journal, she experienced some relief in being able to vent and discharge her emotions in her journal, as well as in therapy, instead of having them all come spilling out with John.

Sally continued to feel very judgmental and self critical about her emotional needs.  These feelings developed as a young child when her mother would tell her to stop being "a cry baby" whenever Sally was left alone, lonely and frightened.

Even though, as an adult, Sally knew, on a rational level, that no child should be left overnight by herself, she found it very difficult to stop judging herself for her emotional needs.

After we worked on coping skills, we began the work on dealing with Sally's unresolved emotional trauma from childhood.

Over time, we used a combination of EMDRclinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy), and Somatic Experiencing, which all take into account the mind-body connection and are often more effective than just talk therapy by itself.

The therapeutic work was not easy or quick, but Sally stuck with it.

At the end of each session, we either did the Safe Place Meditation or we used the time for Sally to debrief about what came up, so that she felt calm enough to leave the session without feeling overwhelmed by the work that we did.

Working Through Unresolved Childhood Trauma in Therapy

By the time Sally terminated therapy, she developed a greater sense of self compassion and understanding for how her early unmet needs were at the core of her obsessiveness in her relationship with John.  And, just as important, she no longer felt obsessed and she was able to enjoy the relationship feeling like an adult.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people, who were emotionally neglected or abused as children, don't understand why they become so obsessed in romantic relationship.  Since they don't have psychological training, it's understandable that they don't make the connection between their unmet childhood needs and their current obsessiveness in their relationship.

If the composite vignette above about Sally resonates with you, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has a mind-body orientation to therapy and who has expertise in working with clients on this issue.

Once you've been able to work through your childhood trauma, you have an opportunity to have more fulfilling relationships as an adult.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.  

I have worked with many clients who have struggled with obsessive love and who were able to work through their emotional issues to live more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.