Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

Love is a relationship of caring and giving. Obsession is a display of power. Love is submergence of ego, while obsession involves display of ego. Confusing obsession with love is like drinking poison when one wants to have milk.

They had just got married after a short passionate affair. The girl had been my wife's friend for many years. They had visited our house for a friendly courtesy visit. But, they had no courtesies for us. All their courtesies were for each other. All attempts to make conversation with them failed since they were either trying to talk to each other or were just staring at each other. When snacks were served, they picked up only one plate. The boy started spoon-feeding the girl who in turn was spoon-feeding the boy. This display of mutual adoration and absorption left us deeply embarrassed. They had visited our house and we were feeling as if we were intruding on their privacy. Thankfully, they departed soon after.

In our hearts, we remembered them and even wished them well, but we lost contact with them. It just did not seem proper to intrude on their privacy and visit them or even call them telephonically. Years passed.

Almost six years after their visit to our house, one evening, we met the boy in a children's park. No, he was no longer a boy. He was now a man. He looked older, more mature and even a bit tired. A young girl aged about four and a half years was holding his hand. We guessed that the girl was his daughter. After the initial courtesies, we enquired about his wife. He told us that his wife had gone to her mother's house a week back and for some time he was doing babysitting. This sounded strange to us. We guessed that something was amiss.

A few weeks later she came back from her mother's house. She rang up my wife and talked for a long time. She bitterly complained about her husband's rude and violent behavior. We had enough worries of our own and had no intentions to get involved with their marital problems. Time kept passing. We heard that they lived a bad married life - husband often assaulted the wife, she used to go away to her mother's wife and return when he apologized. This pattern continued for many years. A few years back, we heard that the husband was involved with another girl. And then, last year finally came the news that he was living with that other girl and had filed for divorce. At the time of writing, the wife lives with her mother and daughter, struggling to delay and obstruct the divorce proceedings.

That is a true story - tragic, but true nevertheless. Unfortunately, one keeps hearing more and more of such sad stories where boy meets girl; they fall madly in love; they get married; but they do not live happily ever after. Based on such instances, some (especially Indians) have a tendency to criticize all love marriages and argue for arranged marriages. Some others tend to look down at love as a temporary and unreliable phenomenon. However, the reality is that in all such cases, there is just no love - neither when the two are doting over each other nor at any time thereafter. Most such cases are of obsession by one or the other and in a few rare cases of both being obsessed with each other.

The word, "obsess" (or "to be obsessed") is defined by Concise Oxford Dictionary as "preoccupy continually or to a troubling extent". Obsession can be for a person or thing or act. It is a psychological condition that in its extreme form needs medical attention. The person affected by an obsession desires the object of his obsession with enormous passion, ferocity and even madness. When the object of obsession is a person of opposite sex, there is a tendency to confuse the obsession with love. However, there is a fundamental difference between love and obsession.

Love is focused and centered on the needs of the beloved. Obsession, in contrast, is self-centered. The obsessed is always focused on his (or her) own desires and the object of obsession is incidental. Love treats the beloved as a human being and in extreme cases lovers treat love and beloved as divine. For the obsessed the centre of his attention is an object with no desires, no life independent of the intense desire that the obsessed has for the object. He (or she) is almost like a child who is mad for a toy and will take the toy with him (or her) to bed, to garden, and even to the toilet. But if one day the toy hurts the child, there is immediate rejection. The child is now looking for a new toy while the old one is thrown mercilessly into the dustbin.

Obsession is, unlike love, not just passionate; it is ferocious and cruel. The pathos of cruelty that an obsessed displays can be seen in an innocent form in the craving that a child has for a favorite toy. Take the favorite toy away and the child will cry for days and may even stop eating food. The child can be cruel to himself in such a situation. The same cruelty may turn outwards to the toy when the toy is no longer the favorite one. An adult, who expresses obsession in terms of erotic love, is even more dangerous. He (or she) may go to any extent to get the object of his (or her) desire and may even turn violent if the object is taken away. Intensity of such passion is destructive in case of any denial; the obsessed one either destroys oneself or destroys the object of obsession. Newspapers are full of stories of some young boy or girl committing suicide after being turned down. One also hears stories of some boy killing or throwing acid on the face of his girl friend after knowing that she is getting married to someone else.

Violence at denial is only one facet of obsession. The other facet of violence manifests when the obsessed gets hold of and becomes the owner of the object of his desire. No, they do not live happily thereafter. The relationship of the obsessed one with the object of obsession is not a relationship of caring. It is a relationship of power, a display of brutishness, a game of ego. The ownership has to be absolute, to the exclusion of everyone else, and the obsessed needs to demonstrate it every moment to get any pleasure from it. One is not concerned if this stifles or even hurts the object of obsession. Too bad, if it does. The case is typical of a child who sees a beautiful singing bird in the garden, gets hold of it and puts it in a glass jar besides his table, without any concern for the life of the bird. By the end of the day the bird is dead and the child is back in the garden looking for a fresh bird.

Surely, it is very difficult to distinguish between love and obsession during the initial stages of a relationship. But some telltale signs should not be ignored. Let us say that a girl has to decide whether her boy friend is treating her as an object of obsession or as his beloved. Some of the questions that she must ask herself are as follows:

The above questions have been written in first person as if a woman is thinking about a man. They will not change much if a man has to ask similar questions about a woman. In either case, being an object of obsession is painful and more often than not tragic.

Confusing obsession with caring selfless love and becoming an object of obsession amounts to stepping unwittingly into the greatest tragedy of one's life. It is like drinking poison when one wants to drink milk.

My wife's friend and her husband were obsessed with each other. There was intensity of desire but no caring, no sharing and no desire to give joy. The focus was on one's own desires and possibly on getting pleasure. It is not unlikely that one of the two was obsessed, while the other was just playing along and reciprocating actions in a loveless mechanical way. Irrespective of whether one of the two was obsessed or both were obsessed, lives of both have been ruined.

It may be too late to do anything about the lives that have already been ruined. But, there may be many other cases where it may not be too late. Caution against falling into a trap of obsession is necessary because obsession ruins both - the obsessed as well as the object of obsession. Moreover, it gives love a bad name. Let us spread love that is truly divine and gives freedom. Let us be on guard against the pathos of obsession that stifles and chokes.


30 April 2003


Hello Anil,

This is Chandra, an ex-IITian, currently at San Diego, CA, USA. I read your article about love and obsession with interest. You're right in observing the differences between love and obsession, and I have a few comments I would like to share.

First, it is important to recognize that love and obsession are equally basic to human nature- two sides of the same coin. So, instead of trying to suppress or banish obsession while nurturing love, one should try to be aware of the two contrasting feelings within oneself, and with this awareness comes the one true love. Instead of trying to struggle with decisions and and fighting with emotions, we should celebrate them and use them to understand ourselves and our loved ones better. Specifically, regarding your "checklist" for deciding whether a particular relationship is based on love or obsession, I am pretty sure that if you took the average joe and asked him for an honest answer, he would find that it's always obsession, not love - it is very natural, and normal to "expect" something from any relationship. Yeah, I love you but I'll not see you or talk to you again for years- this is never going to work, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Neither is "I'm going to be who I am, but if you love me you'll accept everything as it is and (obviously) change for me" - there are practical aspects to every relationship that will need compromise from both parties.

Another important point that the checklist really misses is that it does not check whether "I am in love with X", it only checks whether "X is in love with me": at least, to be fair, people should ask the questions both ways, for example, when asking "does s/he accept me as I am", it's equally important to ask "Do I accept her/him as s/he is?", or when asking "how does he handle disagreement with me?", one should also ask "how do I handle disagreement with him?".

Love and obsession are both part of our basic nature, just as greed and generosity are, and as are arrogance and humility. They both have their role in making us who we are and making life what it is - worth living.

Sincerely yours,

12 May 2003


Dear Chandra,

Thanks for your comments. I wholeheartedly agree with all that you have written. I agree with you that love and obsession are both part of our basic nature. No disagreeing on that. But, everything that is a part of our basic nature is neither desirable nor advisable. For example aggression arising out of sibling rivalry is fundamental trait of all creatures including human beings. Yet, one does not encourage one's children to fight. One encourages them to love each other. Similarly, obsession is part of human nature but it leads to undesirable results and should be avoided.

An article is not supposed to be a statement of biblical truth. I consider my efforts successful if my article leads the reader to think, discover other aspects of the issue and make his/her own decisions. To put the matter into a perspective, it does become necessary at times to overemphasize the contrasts and make some greys look either white or black. Love and obsession is a complex issue and I have made the two look as if the two have no common ground between the two. In reality there is a continuous spectrum of emotions between the two extremes of divine love and pathos of obsession. Your comments emphasize this point in different words. In a way, your comments compliment and add to the points made in my article. Thanks once again.

Thanks and Regards,

Anil Chawla

The above article is a part of the trilogy on love. Please try the other two articles of the set.


If you like to read about love, please download the author's trilogy of short stories about love, lust and friendship in man-woman relationship.



Download the above three articles and three short stories in printer-friendly pdf format. Beautifully illustrated, the mini-book (33 pages) is an ideal gift for someone you love.

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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