Falling in love, or even just having a crush, can involve a whirlwind of emotions. We get swept up by feelings of euphoria, romance, excitement for the future—as well as potential bouts of anxiety and nervousness.
If you are a particularly reflective person, or if you struggle with a mental health condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you might question this barrage of feelings to avoid getting hurt—or causing someone else to get hurt.
You ask yourself, am I actually in love or am I obsessed? It’s natural for this question to be a passing thought. To ask it to yourself, realize you can’t know the answer for sure, and then come back to the present moment.
For some people, though, questions like these might feel urgent and pressing—as if they have to figure out if what they’re feeling is truly love. Keep reading for why you might be struggling with this and how you can get help.
What does it mean to be “obsessed”?
“Obsessed” means different things depending on the context. There are definitions of the word that we use in conversation, and then there’s the diagnostic definition used by mental health professionals. Let’s get specific about what you’re asking when you’re wondering if you’re in love or if you’re obsessed.
In a diagnostic setting, to have an obsession is to suffer from chronic, unwanted, and repetitive intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that are characteristic of OCD. Obsessions cause distress, anxiety, shame, guilt, or other uncomfortable feelings. Obsessions are then followed by compulsions, which are physical or mental actions done in an attempt to relieve oneself of those uncomfortable emotions or avoid an unwanted outcome.
In more conversational terms, we use “obsessed” with both positive and negative connotations. For example, someone might say with exasperation, “That guy is so obsessed with me,” or they might say, “I’m obsessed with that shirt you’re wearing!”
When examining your feelings for someone, and whether or not it’s indicative of being “obsessed,” you may more specifically be wondering about the difference between love and infatuation. In the article “Regulation of Romantic Love Feelings: Preconceptions, Strategies, and Feasibility,” the researchers define infatuation as “the overwhelming, amorous feeling for one individual” similar to the idea of “passion.”
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, a therapist who specializes in OCD and anxiety disorders, says, “Your brain, as you meet someone new, is kind of designed to be infatuated. The relationship is new, you’re getting all these great dopamine hits—it’s part of the bonding process.”
Infatuation tends to be most intense at the beginning of a relationship. “It can take time for love to develop beyond infatuation,” Kilduff says. “Certainly if you’re in love with someone, you can be infatuated, but if you’re infatuated, you’re not always in love.”
So, how do you know if you’re in love?
You’ve probably heard someone say something like, “When you know you know.” That can be an incredibly frustrating adage for those of us who crave certainty in our lives. We want a list of checkboxes that we can use to assess our relationship and feelings.
Alas, there is no neat, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Love is an individualized experience, and as such, we cannot answer this with precision. The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines romantic love rather blandly as “a type of love in which intimacy and passion are prominent features.” This definition then calls for more definitions—what is intimacy? What is passion?
You could follow these questions down a long rabbit hole. You could find out what these things mean for other people. Yet if your definitions don’t align with theirs, it won’t help you get any closer to knowing whether you’re in love. There are at least a few signs of romantic love that seem to be agreed upon by relationship experts, as evidenced in various magazine interviews.
Some of those positive signs include: you like and are attracted to this person, you have a deep well of empathy and compassion for them, the relationship doesn’t bring constant drama or emotional rollercoasters, you can see beyond present feelings and into the future, and while you think highly of them, you also recognize them as a flawed human whom you accept anyway.
Thus, it seems, being in love comes from a place of pure feeling and from a place of logic. It makes sense to both your head and your heart. All that said, I’m not here to tell you whether or not you’re in love—and no one else can give you the perfect answer you may be searching for.
What others, especially mental health professionals, can do is help you accept and tolerate uncertainty in order to live a life that is focused on your values, hopes, and identity—not fear and doubt. If you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out whether or not you’re “actually” in love, if you treat it like a math equation that you just have to find all the “right” figures for, it’s possible you’re experiencing relationship OCD.
What is relationship OCD?
As defined above, obsessive-compulsive order consists of intrusive thoughts, extreme distress, and mental and/or physical compulsions. Relationship OCD is focused on (typically romantic) relationships. One experiences a high level of doubt about their relationship, their feelings, and/or their partner’s feelings.
Intrusive thoughts can vary widely between individuals, but they commonly sound like this:
- What if I’m not actually in love?
- What if I think I’m in love, but I’m really just infatuated?
- What if I become too obsessed with them and scare them away?
- What if I’m imagining my feelings?
- What if I’m not in love ‘enough’?
- What if they’re not in love ‘enough’?
- What if I’m not attracted to them ‘enough’?
- What if they’re not attracted to me ‘enough’?
- What if we don’t have sex ‘enough’ and that means we’re not in love?
- What if we have sex too often and that means we’re just obsessed, not in love?
Relationship OCD tends to come with feelings of intense guilt, as you worry about how your partner would feel if they knew what you were thinking. It also probably comes with anxiety over what these thoughts mean for your and your partner’s future—am I going to break their heart? These intense, uncomfortable, seemingly uncontrollable feelings lead you to engage in compulsions, for example:
- Reassurance-seeking. This can sound like asking, “Do you think we’re going to break up?” or “Can you tell me more about your feelings for me?” or “Do you think we’re really in love?”
- Confessing. It’s common for those with relationship OCD to confess their intrusive thoughts to their partner. This often leaves you with a brief feeling of relief, as you feel like you’re not keeping “secrets.”
- Mental tracking/mental review. You might keep a list of “evidence” that either proves or disproves your doubts. For example, any time your partner does something kind, you may take note of it as evidence that you really are in love.
- Rumination. This looks like extreme overthinking/overanalyzing. You continuously ask yourself the same questions, such as, am I actually in love? and hope that you can “think your way” out of it.
- Excessive online research. For example, you may read article after article about “how to know if you’re in love” or “am I obsessed with someone?” You then try to compare your own situation to the information you read.
- Comparing. You might examine the relationships around you that you perceive to be loving and look for things that are similar or dissimilar to your relationship.
Compulsions are time-consuming and, while they attempt to relieve distress, they ultimately just bring more. They feed the obsessive-compulsive cycle, reinforcing the notion that intrusive thoughts need to be taken seriously. The goal of OCD treatment is to stop engaging in compulsions and, therefore, de-escalate your reaction to intrusive thoughts.
Should I get help to figure this out?
“Being in a state of infatuation is often fun, it makes you excited about the future, it makes you excited to think about this person, and you’re hoping it will go further. When it becomes a problem,” Kilduff says, “is if it starts to cause a lot of distress and impairment—if it’s coming from a place of fear, and you’re looking for absolute certainty in the answers to your questions, as opposed to trusting how you feel and going with it.”
Be honest about how trying to “solve” this question is impacting you. Are you having routine feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, or worry? Are you losing hours a day thinking about this? Is it distracting you from things that you value or your ability to function in your relationship? If you answered yes to any of those questions, it’s likely that you’d benefit from seeking help.
What kind of treatment is available for relationship OCD?
The gold-standard, evidence-based treatment for all themes of OCD is exposure and response-prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP contains two essential components: confronting discomfort around your obsessive worries, and resisting the urge to engage in compulsions to feel better.
To begin the ERP process, you and your therapist will work together to catalog your intrusive doubts and worries, the situations that tend to trigger them, and what you do to feel better when they occur. From there, you’ll come up with an individualized treatment plan to confront your obsessions and sit with the discomfort you feel without engaging in your compulsions.
In this case, here are some some examples of therapy exercises you might do:
- Reading/watching a story about someone who thought they were in love but realized they weren’t once infatuation wore off
- Reading/watching a story about someone who fell out of love
- Writing out a “worst case scenario”, such as, If I am actually just obsessed with this person and not in love, then…
- Writing down a triggering statement and reading it back several times, such as, Maybe I am just obsessed. Maybe I am not in love.
Your therapist will give you tools to resist compulsions, including techniques to separate yourself from your intrusive thoughts, remain aware of your thoughts without giving too much attention to them, and respond to your thoughts in a way that dismisses them, disengages from them, or even agrees with them.
Over time, this teaches you how to tolerate uncertainty and discomfort about whether your feelings are truly “love.” You will realize that lingering uncertainties about your feelings don’t need to be taken so seriously, and they certainly don’t need to rule your life and relationships. Ultimately, this reduces the anxiety that’s caused by your doubts, giving you greater freedom to engage in relationships while accepting uncertainty.
You can start building confidence in your relationships, starting today
You can learn to make choices that are based on your values and not on fear. Whether or not you’re in love, you can receive treatment that allows you to more clearly assess your wants and needs.
I encourage you to learn more about the evidence-based, accessible relationship OCD treatment provided by NOCD. You’re not alone in your worries, and you can work with trained professionals who are able to help you gain confidence in your feelings and relationships.