"Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option." —unknown
Some people see connections everywhere. They perceive feelings and relatively insignificant interactions and events in the world to be signs of significant meaning—signs that something is “meant to be.” In some cases, this kind of thinking can translate into a delusional love.
Delusions are generally misunderstood. When we think of delusions, we usually think of what are known as “bizarre” delusions, such as those that coincide with psychotic disorders. “Aliens are stealing my thoughts.” That’s bizarre.
But without those severe psychotic symptoms, delusions can be more benign and non-bizarre. What the person believes could actually be real. His wife actually could be cheating on him. That person actually could be in love with her. German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, tells us that people with this less severe and fairly uncommon type of delusional disorder tend to be coherent, sensible and reasonable. In other words, these people aren’t crazy. They aren’t talking to themselves or seeing things. They’re highly functioning just like you and me. And they believe whole-heartedly.
The delusional side of love
Some of us know people like this in our daily lives—women (or men) who are “in love” with someone who doesn’t seem to love them back in the same way. These aren’t purely fantasized relationships. These are relationships that may have started, but never really got off the ground. There was probably some dating and “hanging out.” Most definitely, there was probably sex. Usually, there was never any talk about actual commitment beyond an ambiguous conversation. But at some point, she feels connected to him on a higher level she might describe as “meant to be.” And he is not on the same page.
So she starts to spin. The messages she receives from him don’t fit with what she is feeling—what she knows to be true. She can list the evidence—all the signs that prove that she is right. She interprets his words, his tone of voice and body language, the way he looks at her, all in ways that give credence to her belief that the relationship was meant to be. She construes coincidences or otherwise irrelevant events in the world in ways that add to that belief.
She might initially shower him with empathy and understanding for his inability to see what she sees. That empathy gradually fades to frustration and often results in angry outbursts. She is up all night writing long emails expressing every feeling, every thought, crafting every plausible explanation that might trigger his understanding to match hers. She leaves him messages. Texts. She finds ways to influence him through other means… his friends and family. Social media. Sometimes, women go so far as to drive by his home, his work, or “run into him” accidently (on purpose)— en route to stalker-like behavior. As time goes on, she continues to have little success. She vacillates between the role of thoughtful and patient spiritual superior (“he’s going through a lot and isn’t ready yet, but I’ll be there to see him through it) and breaking down into the rejected lover.
She might contact everyone in her life in an effort to understand what is wrong with him and what she needs to do to make him recognize that they are connected on a higher level. She wants everyone around her to answer the “why” question that really can’t be answered: “Why is he denying this connection?” But she has a line up of friends to say all the right things that, ultimately, only enhance the delusion:
• You’re the one and you’re so perfect for him, but he’s afraid of that.
• He’s just out of a relationship and isn’t ready.
• He’s been hurt before, so he doesn’t know how to love again.
• He’s going through so much right now.
Finally, when she doesn’t get results from her support system, she might seek spiritual guidance, psychics, or a therapist. All of this effort is a way of supporting her frantic efforts to understand why he does not respond the way she knows he should and to help her determine what she needs to do to compel him to see the light.
The key to remember is that she finds meaning only where it enhances the story she created. The story is, “we were meant to be together.” So the meaning comes from everywhere. “See? All the stars have aligned? We bought the same coffee. We use the same grocery store. We both like the beach. We have the same favorite book. I can’t stop thinking about him, so it must be meant to be.”
Meanwhile, she has skipped the other 600 million details in daily life that have no connection at all to the story: “We were meant to be.” She has over-emphasized, even subconsciously created opportunities to reinforce her story.
When is a delusion not a delusion?
The problem with labeling this behavior and thinking as “delusional” is that there are many spiritual and cultural beliefs that accept, even promote belief in the fate—in the idea that something is “meant to be.” And it would be irresponsible to judge an entire way of life. However, in this case, at some point, the belief and the subsequent behavior have evolved to a level that has become very disruptive of her otherwise highly functioning life. She isn’t sleeping. She is distracted and probably having trouble concentrating. She is overwhelmed with thoughts of the relationship and is compelled toward the behaviors that reinforce that. She might have a strong emotional reaction to being questioned or challenged. And for those who know her outside of this relationship, the behavior is uncharacteristic and sometimes, alarming. Her life, and often his, is completely disrupted. This is beyond any acceptable spiritual or cultural explanation.
It’s a question of “why?”
In their book, He’s Just Not That Into You, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo make light of the tendency that some women have to see connection where there is none. Greg talks about being surprised to learn that women, in general, put so much thought and energy into what are probably passing relationships. The authors also contend that women who speak of getting “mixed messages” are not getting mixed messages at all, but that they are avoiding—maybe ignoring—the fact that, “he’s just not that into you.” It’s a hard pill to swallow.
So what is this love delusion that has some women pining, deliberating and suffering for the very irrelevant “why” question? Why do we hold and insist on hope where there is little to none?
The real question isn’t: “why doesn’t he see that we are meant to be?” The real question has nothing to do with him at all. The real question is: “why am I putting my precious life force, energy and effort into someone who isn’t ready/willing/able to receive me?” Fear? What are we afraid of? Loneliness? Being alone? Never finding love? Not being worthy of real love? And more importantly, where do those beliefs come from and what needs to change to create a healthier expectation of love?
The book pokes fun while making some, admittedly, very good and humorous points. But the kind of belief that takes over a life like this is painful. And that pain is real. It is important to reiterate: these women aren’t crazy. Their beliefs infer a longing for deep connection. And those are the meaningful connections we all long for.
Bobbi is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Sherman Oaks, California. She focuses primarily on couples and individuals (adolescents and adults) with particular emphasis on developing personal relationships with deeper connections and overcoming obstacles to living a whole life.