When You Can't Let Go

Jeanne Safer, PhD, has been a psychoanalyst in private practice for 40 years, specializing in problematic sibling relationships and obsessive love.  She is the author of six books on "taboo topics," the things people think about but never discuss publicly.  Her latest book is The Golden Condom and Other Essays on Love Lost and Found.


Book Excerpt from Chapter Two, “Of Human Bondage”

Obsessive Love

He had a beautiful body (at least she thought so), and he knew—or seemed to know—his own mind.  He experimented with shooting heroin and never called her, but toyed with whatever woman was close at hand. All these obstacles, which would horrify and repel a less besotted person, simply made him more fascinating and desirable to the naive, studious, and insecure nineteen-year-old who was in thrall to him.

He still had a beautiful body and a beautiful wife, but this fifty-five-year-old actor and former heartthrob fell for a wannabe filmmaker whose body was not only beautiful but half the age of his.  After a brief affair, he continued to pursue her desperately and fruitlessly for five more years, driving hours for even a glimpse of her, jeopardizing everything and everyone he held dear.  He put his emotional well-being in her inadequate and unwilling hands.

He was an appealing, multitalented, academic star at twenty, and he charmed myriads of young women who yearned to be his.  But he spent his last two years of college as the self-proclaimed “love slave” of one who, though she had a deliciously sexy body, rarely had fewer than two other boyfriends.

She was a forty-something executive, warm and vivacious, with devoted friends, who had caught the eye of more than one sophisticated and accomplished man.  Yet for days at a time, she sat in front of her computer screen transfixed and tormented, surreptitiously scanning the Internet postings of a depressed, uneducated loser whom she found overwhelmingly desirable, even though his body was far from beautiful and his life was a shambles.  For eight years, she had remained bound to him even though he continued to live with his ex- wife after they divorced and never even called to ask how she was when she had a dangerous illness.


The young are not the only ones wasting themselves on objects of desire who are unwilling or unable to reciprocate; the middle-aged, and even senior citizens, fall under the same spell.  This predicament is so common that it can hardly be called an aberration.

Even though it inspires some of the world’s greatest literature, music, and art, obsessive love is one of the most potent and compelling of tortures and one of the most difficult to overcome—especially because it feels beyond conscious control.  Tormented lovers try the patience even of those who truly love them, because the sufferers do not desire help extricating themselves though they claim to be seeking it; this is an illness from which nobody wants to be cured.

Obsessive love, while it creates widespread misery, only becomes cause for alarm and an indication of deeper psychopathology when it goes on for decades, involves compulsive stalking (either digital or literal), self- destructive behavior serious enough to interfere with health or the ability to function for a significant length of time, massive anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, or delusional thinking.

To be consumed by unsatisfiable desire is to live in an altered state of consciousness.  You are in a private realm, saturated with intense emotion, both positive and negative, that seems impossible to describe accurately to an outsider.  In retrospect, when the person around whom your world revolved—who has been your world—shrinks back to human proportions, it is often difficult to imagine what you ever saw there.  Only when the folly and pain of a doomed romance is recollected in tranquility (a state not easy to attain, because the shame, the longing, and the bitter disappointment can persist long afterward) does the constricted perspective open up and insight and awareness become possible.


Contemporary brain research confirms that obsessive love does indeed share many characteristics with physical addictions and also with gambling, a habit that can be as compulsive and destructive as alcohol or cocaine, though no substance is involved.  This commonality explains the primitive urgency and the sense of being in the grip of forces beyond rational control that the obsessed experience; every compulsive lover I spoke to felt this way.

Functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), a recently developed noninvasive brain- mapping technology for observing activation patterns that underlie mental states, has led to a proliferation of research about “the brain on love” that has captured the popular imagination.  Anthropologist Helen Fisher, whose studies of the neurophysiological foundations of love are among the best known, used fMRIs to explore the brains of newly enamored and recently rejected lovers.  She discovered that romantic passion and drug addiction have similar effects; both stimulate regions in and directly above the brain stem, including the hypothalamus, which synthesizes and secretes neurochemicals from which sensations of plea sure, arousal, focused attention, and high- risk behavior arise.  The spurned lovers’ brains registered an inclination to pursue risky investment strategies and to make efforts to manage anger, but also to ruminate and to engage in obsessive-compulsive behavior; they couldn’t stop thinking about the one they had lost.

The mind has a compelling need for closure, a desire to end uncertainty and to resolve unfinished business—which helps explain the lasting impact of the “business” of hopeless love affairs, which can never be resolved, at least not with the other person.

Is there any value in compulsive remembering?

Reconsidering failures may be useful in finding solutions to similar problems in the future. 

To my mind, the best possible use of this dogged cognitive persistence is to apply it to figuring out why one continues to pursue relationships that lead only to grief.