When People Become Obsessed With Other People

By Fred Penzel, Ph.D.

I recently visited my local library searching for current articles on OCD that might be of interest to my support group. The periodicals file is computerized so I conducted a search of articles on Obsessions, Compulsions and both together. I suppose a system is only as good as the knowledge of the person who programs and updates it. What I discovered under the topic headings was a mix of a few articles in the more well-known magazines, together with a group of writings which were shockingly out of place and so misleading that at first I thought I had accessed the wrong topic.  I came across such titles as “I Love You To Death,” “Crazy Love,” “A Stranger Was Stalking Our Little Girl” and “Twisted Love: A Deadly Obsession.”

To the uninformed reading these, it would appear that people with OCD are either a bunch of dangerous sweet-talkers, or delusional or violently jealous maniacs, posing a risk to anyone foolish enough to get into a relationship with them and who then want to break up. While I was aware that this misconception existed, it seemed to me to be more widespread than I had ever imagined. How could they be so ignorant? After all, these articles were from widely distributed popular magazines.  There are those with OCD who actually have obsessions which involve others. I have met and treated quite a few over the years, but they are hardly dangerous, delusional or violent. These types of OCD seem to fall into the following categories:

1. Obsessions that one will have to break up with someone they care about,
2. Obsessions that the person will want to break up with them,
3. Obsessive and doubtful questions about why one has broken up with someone,
4. Obsessive and doubtful questions about why the other person has broken up with them,
5. Obsessive doubts as to whether one has harmed, injured, insulted or embarrassed a particular person, often someone close, or
6. Obsessive questions about the other person’s past.

These types of obsessions are usually accompanied not only by compulsive rumination and analysis, but frequently by attempts to question the other person, either face-to-face, by phone, mail, or via a third party or parties. Here is where, I believe, the confusion about this type of OCD occurs. Generally, the OCD sufferer, when tortured by doubts, may repeatedly question or search for information. This may be the result of the individual with OCD being unable to process information on their particular obsessive topic, even though they might actually have enough to answer their question. Therefore, they erroneously believe that more information will solve their problem. The more they question, the more the doubts increase. Gradually, this questioning strikes the other person as strange and begins to bother or annoy the other person who is being questioned inappropriately. They may respond with annoyance, graduating to hostility and in many cases, withdrawal from the relationship and finally from all contact with the OCD sufferer. This withdrawal, of course, only serves to increase the sufferer’s distress due both to rejection by the other person, and to their source of information being cut off. If, in addition, their obsession is about losing the other person, this can really drive anxiety and distress levels through the roof as the behavior paradoxically served to make the obsession come true.

This is where some of the really desperate behavior on the part of sufferers begins to be confused by many with that of individuals who are delusional, pathologically jealous, or otherwise out of touch with reality. (None of which, by the way, have anything to do with OCD.) The person with OCD may go to great lengths to pursue the person to ask their relentless questions, and I have seen several cases where they would even manipulate to the point of threatening to harm themselves or do desperate things if their questions went unanswered. The other person may, at times, be driven to seek legal help, such as an order of protection, fearing harm from the person with OCD, not realizing the actual basis of the pursuit. The harassment here is unintentional on the OCD sufferer’s part, but it does turn out this way, unfortunately. The disorder can become so all-consuming that they may overlook the needs of others without meaning to. I have never heard of anyone being harmed by a person with such an obsession,. nor can I imagine they would do more than simply be persistent and very frustrating to talk to or deal with, at times. Naturally, when they recover, they would never dream of behaving this way. Some have described it to me as feeling “like waking up from a nightmare” to find out that you have lost relationships with friends and loved ones, sometimes permanently. Fortunately, there are also cases where the sufferer has gone back and explained what the problem was and was treated with understanding.

There is another type of non-OCD disorder called “erotomania” in which the sufferer has delusions that they have a relationship with another person, that the other person knows about, but is “keeping secret.” Sometimes the other person can be someone famous. A good example is the woman who believes she is David Letterman’s wife and keeps breaking into his house. Again, this is not OCD.

My hope is that as the facts of OCD become better known we will no longer see such articles listed under OCD as I saw in my town library. Perhaps some of you can help in this effort. Simply informing those close to you that you have a problem isn’t enough — you must make efforts to help yourself if you want others to be sympathetic. If you suffer from any of the obsessions mentioned earlier, you can get help and you can recover. Behavioral therapy and medication help a lot, but only if you utilize them. Don’t wait until you have damaged an important relationship in your life.

Fred Penzel, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of OCD and related disorders since 1982.  He is the executive director of Western Suffolk Psychological Services in Huntington, Long Island, New York, a private treatment group specializing in OCD and obsessive-compulsive related problems, and is a founding member of the OCF Science Advisory Board.  More of Fred’s work can be found on his website.  Dr. Penzel is the author of “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: A Complete Guide To Getting Well And Staying Well,” a self-help book covering OCD and other obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders.
Share this article: