Episode 27: Obsession

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In the state of obsession, the person you desire becomes the person you must have. You want to own and control them. Your mind won’t have it any other way. Hear three stories that explore the drama, patterns and lessons of obsession First, hear about a real-life laboratory for studying obsession. Second, the story of one woman’s 36-hour triumph in obsession. Finally, a scientific inquiry with a personal twist, into the nature of obsession.


Woman: This program is intended for mature audiences only.

J: The cycle of a new relationship usually goes like this. You meet someone, it's exciting. The attraction feels almost like a miracle and it's thrilling and invigorating. This [xx] for a little while. Then there's a point in the relationship where you know that you are no longer safe. You no longer view the relationship or the person with detachment. You’ve fallen, you care, you're attached.

For some people, there's a point just beyond that first sign of attachment where you're sinking deeper. You stop seeing the other person as just a person. They become an object that you must have. If you already have them, you have to have more of them. You monitor their every move. Who they talk to, where they look if you're in the room, and how much time you get to spend with them. When things aren't going your way, your mind goes crazy. It spins and spins, plotting, manipulating, and forecasting into the future. You are obsessed.

From One Taste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco, we bring you “A Taste of Sex: Reality Audio,” a podcast featuring stories and perspectives from people engaged in the conscious exploration of connection, sensuality, and relationship. This week show, “Obsession.”

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In part one, we'll hear about some of the real life studies that go on at One Taste; part two, the 36-hour triumph of one obsession; and part three, a scientific inquiry with a personal twist. I'm J, stay tuned and turn on.

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Part one, a real life study of obsession. In a way, obsession is like a right of passage at One Taste residents’ Immersion Program. When I say this, I don’t mean that the 45 people who live together in a large [xx] space with very little privacy are any different from people anywhere else. We are all normal to the extent that anyone is normal. We're of all ages and from all walks of life. It just so happens that we've chosen to live a lifestyle of community. Living in such close proximity, it can get pretty intense.

In a way, it's like we're living in a Petri dish, a verifiable research laboratory for human interactions. Almost all of the dynamics around relationship heat up. What this means is that relationship dynamics that happen outside of One Taste become all the more obvious inside. You start to notice you patterns in relationship. You also notice that there are certain--shall we call them trends, obsession happens to be one of them.

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“Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “are you implying that all relationships are obsessive?” No, I'm not. But I do think that obsession is often a hidden part of romantic love. It's a matter of wanting to possess another person, own them, control them. You’ve fallen in love with someone and they are all you can think about. Or, you go through a break-up and all you want is to get back together again. Or, a crush-turned-serious even torturous because the other person is out of reach. You feel losing the person and so you do everything you can to keep them including holding them tighter than they want to be held.

In your mind, you can't imagine letting go. Letting go would mean death. Letting go would mean that you cannot have the life that you want. Letting go would mean that you are alone and that would mean living a miserable life. It can seem like there is no relief. Like you are not the author of your future. Nothing the person does can satisfy you for long. Say you want more attention. When you get it, you're satisfied for a flitting moment, but then your mind starts to do contortions again. Miserable because whatever the object of your obsession gave you, it wasn’t enough and you're convinced that you can't have it again.

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About three years ago, I developed a pretty deep crush on this guy who was just out of reach. He seems so perfect. He was tall, I like tall men. He was Jewish, so am I. He was smart, pretty good-looking and I felt like I could relate to him. So I waited patiently as he went through girlfriend after girlfriend as if I were a customer in the checkout line of a grocery store. All of my attention, many of my thoughts, and all of my hopes for the future were bound up in him. My mind would twist and turn as if it were solving a very important problem.

If I do this, how will he respond? If I do that, will it [xx] the odds that he will want to be with me? And then, it happened, we got together. But even then, the obsession did not abate. Once I had him, I had to plot how to keep him. Then, when I did lose him, I had to figure out how to get him back. I was miserable in the not having, and the aching for something that seemed so right in my mind. Then I remember one day, consciously deciding that I had to let go. As painful as it was, I determined to untwist my mind away from him. And I did.

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It's horrifying to remember how obsessed I was. But in looking back, I can say I'm glad I had the experience. It was a chance to watch my mind, to see where it held on tight and why. It was a chance to know that there was a way out. I now know that I can work my way out of pretty much anything. I just have to get to the point where I'm willing.

Part two, a 36-hour triumph. In general terms at One Taste, your research partner is the person you share a bed with. By research, we mean simply an inquiry, a bringing of consciousness into what is already happening. In the context of One Taste, research partners can mean many things. It can be a partnership of convenience, because you need somewhere to sleep. A partnership of friendship or partnership that’s more like a traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.

No matter the exact nature of the relationship, it's very intimate to share a bed with someone. You see them in ways that no one else does. When One Taste New York established its first community house, the idea of a research partner brought up a lot for Karen. But she had no doubts about whom she wanted. The one man who was totally out of reach.

Karen: He was tall, dark, and handsome. He knew how to look at a woman with just enough sex in his eyes that her body would ignite but not enough to threaten her with the perceived impropriety of her desires.

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He knew how to find that spot in me that made me melt, made my face get hot and red at the mention of sex; made me check my make-up before seeing him; made me burn with jealousy anytime he and his partner would lock eyes or lock lips in my presence. I had projected on to him all my dreams and fantasies of the previous 28 years of my life. When One Taste New York’s Residential Center opened and it was time to start planning for a research partner with him to share my bed and, presumably, the deepest recesses of intimacy, I decided that if I was going to be sleeping under the same roof with him, it was going to be in his bed. I would do whatever it took to make that happen.

I was fixated. I wanted my fantasy. I wanted to meet him in the dark of night, in the warmth of our bed and feel his arms around me. I wanted passion, heat, fire. I wanted to prevent him from spending nights with other women. The more often I knew the day would culminate in possessing him, the more I could tolerate the sex in his eyes when he looked at another woman across the dinner table. I was gripping on to someone who is not mine and I didn’t care, I had an agenda.

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The test message went out, “I want a research with you.” My phone sat there in the palm of my hand, silent, waiting, mocking. Then the LCD panel lit up and a little jingle I'd chosen to hail the arrival of a message began to chime. “I'm interested. Let's talk.” Victory was imminent. That night, we sat around the poker table, stealing glances at one another, waiting for that fateful conversation that would seal the deal. My heart beat wildly in my chest. My cheeks flushed, my hands shook. I felt like we had this little secret that no one else at the table knew about. I felt special, important.

My attempts to keep it cool were useless. There is no bluffing with him. He could read me in a second from across a crowded room. My shy glances downward every time he turned towards me or our legs brushed against one another under the table were brutal betrayal of my attempts to hide how turned on I was. Like good little researchers, we sat down and discussed who we’re each interested in exploring. He was concerned about Aurin [sp], my partner of three and a half years. I didn’t care, I knew what I wanted. I wanted him.

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My mouth was watering from the prospect of being fulfilled but I couldn’t tell him what I wanted. Instead, fed him lines that seemed appropriate, professing the higher goal of intimacy and getting to know him. The raw and ugly truth was that I really had no interest in getting to know him.

Obsession is a dangerous game. It erases human beings and in their place, puts characters from romance novels and wet dreams. All that’s left in the eye of the beholder is a specter of perfection. A reflection of the inner cathedral of the lovers’ desires, dark and light. I would not see him, I could not see him as he was simply a container for the character I'd created and with whom I was engaged in an imaginary love affair.

He scheduled to talk with Aurin. I was invited to join them after about an hour of sitting downstairs, feeling the weight of their discussion descending upon me through the ceiling. I must admit that I gained a measure of satisfaction from their battle of wits, foolishly convincing myself that they were fighting over me. That I was the golden prize to be won by the knight in shining armor who could more strongly profess his desires for me. My appetite for drama had been whetted and I sat patiently licking my lips and waiting for the moment that my Byronic hero would profess his intentions and slay the opponent that stood in the way.

But my hero had a different plan. He gave the reins to my partner. “It's your call,” he said to Aurin, “it's your yes or no.” At this point, Aurin was nearly done with me. We have embarked on an open relationship to widen our scope of connection and it seemed to be tearing us apart. Beneath the fun and excitement of make outs and sexual exploration was also grief over the end of our relationship as it had been and fear over what would me. My being in another man’s bed was a point of no return.

It was a no until about 11:30 that night when I walked into the bedroom to see my bed no longer empty and a playful smirk on my new research partner’s face. I had won this battle and a yes had come through. I clutched the edge of my nightie like the little girl I like to pretend I still am, not knowing what to actually do now that I had my desires fulfilled. “Come to bed,” he said, as he reached out to pull me in.

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Strong arms around me, hot lips on my mouth and on my neck, rough stubbly skin scratching my surfaces, hands pulling, teeth biting, my fantasy had come true. I had it, I was on fire. I guiltily savored my position, wondering who I was making jealous rather than being the one burning with jealousy as I was used to. There was a sense of conquest, but not over him, over my little girl. The one who never thought she was good enough. The one who listened to other people’s romantic tales and then went home to daydream about her own, non-existent fairy tale.

Just like that, it was over. It became clear the next day that jumping head first into this adventure was going to be a real drain on my primary relationship. My new research partner wasn’t having any part of this drama. So our 36-hour research partnership ended. He said I had been manipulative, “This is too messy.” He doesn’t want to get in the middle of my relationship with Aurin. I'm a dirty player. He doesn’t need this. He has plenty of sex. I was being selfish. Ouch! It all burned through me like acid. Shame and humiliation, anger and hostility, every sensation pulsated through my vessels. My body was a raging pot of lava pouring back out through me in the form of angry emails laced with hurt and blame.

Instead of sitting with the hurt and feeling the loss of something I wanted, I blamed everyone I could set my eyes on. At the time, I refused to acknowledge it, but this was what I'd asked for. This was high sensation. This was intimacy, being confronted in my deepest, darkest places by someone who had spent several months just drawing up a road map of my psyche and who know exactly where to go.

J: You’ve been listening to “A Taste of Sex.” We'll be back soon with more from Karen after this short break. I'm J.

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J: Welcome back to “A Taste of Sex.”

Karen: As a fat, little girl who refused to ever open herself up fully to boys, I was a sexual novice until my early 20’s.  I did it a bit, had a little sex but never went in deep. Never developed real intimacy, commitment, or open my sex to anyone until Aurin. There is always a sense of a big empty void of my sexual past, a black hole that existed in place of the richness of other people’s middle school make outs and high school prom dates and sweaty summer deflowerings.

An inadequacy had pervaded my bloodstream and my blood boiled hot and steamy for the sexual attention I'd always craved. I was used to admiring from afar and living in my daydreams, having the attention of the object of my affection, being the predator and hearing a yes in response was a new game for me. I was no longer simply the passive receiver of male lust and desire, settling for whoever gave me the attention I was so hungry for. I was choosing, I was empowered. I want that one! The rejection I perceived from his adamant no was overwhelming. I felt humiliated, rejected, unworthy. Not getting what I wanted threw me into a spinning loop. All of a sudden, I went from turned on and hot and sexy to the little fat girl who got made fun of for having a crush on the most popular boy in the class.

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How strange and mysterious human beings can be? I moved in to One Taste to push my edges, explore relationships--all types--and research intimacy. Here I was, confronted with the situation that threatened my sense of balance, my perceived safety, my usual comfort and equilibrium. My system went into panic. We all have a desire to be seen, to be known. But when it happens, we are apt to look away, disconnect, take a moment to regroup.

When someone is sleeping right next to you though, there is no escape. They are in front of you every morning and every night, and sooner or later, it becomes much harder where to hide and to show yourself. I ran away, spent time outside the house, slept at Aurin’s place. Anything to avoid seeing the person I felt so rejected by, anything to avoid feeling. But avoidance never worked for long and, eventually, I came back with my tail between my legs and got back in the game.

The cold hard truth was that I hated him. I hated him for not giving me what I wanted. I hated him for seeing me, really seeing me beyond my games and beyond the sexually empowered woman I was attempting to play. I resented him deeply for not having the desires from me that would me give me the control in the situation. I resented him for seeing a much bigger picture than our short-lived tryst because it forced me to see beyond it to the next phase. The next phase would not be any easier. It was only the beginning of what would be a bumpy and accelerating ride.

It took a while, but eventually, it did sink in that I was being handed an opportunity to play a bigger game, a chance to be truly empowered. I was starting to learn that power comes from more than simply asking for what you want and then basking in the glow of receiving it, but being able to accept change and take responsibility for all of my choices and desires. Not just the ones that are convenient or pleasurable in the moment. It means taking responsibility for the fat little girl and telling her that she can have her life the way she wants it if she's willing to step up to the plate and stop feeling sorry for herself.

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The obsession has all but burned out completely and I'm learning to take responsibility to not make anyone the assigned author of my sexuality. Yet, there's still a glimmer of desire when I see him. When we talk and we hug after a long absence. I still indulge in wondering if he has the desire to kiss me in that moment or if he thinks I look sexy in that dress. I haven’t let that one go yet. There's a warmth and comfort in the fantasy, a spark with the power to ignite my system. Lucky for me, I'm already ignited and the spark is simply a flash of fireworks, a lovely diversion, an exhilarating game that I can choose to play. I've realized that playing the game is much more important than winning.

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J: Part three, a scientific inquiry into obsession. In the planning of this podcast, I ask my friend, Yvette, if she wouldn’t mind doing a little bit of research. I wanted to know the official scientific line on the topic. To her surprise, the request, as well as the research, brought up uncomfortable feelings.

Yvette: When my friend, J, asked me to do a bit of research on the topic of obsession, I said, “Yes.” I was happy to be able to help a friend. Yet, I also noticed a contraction inside me around the topic. Obsession had a definite dark connotation for me. As I assumed, there would be a lot written on the topic though, I thought it’d be easy enough to gather information to write about. As prevalent as obsession dramas are on TV and in popular paperbacks, I guess, there were tons of real life stories of obsession and a lot of scientific research that would shed light on the underlying causes.

To my surprise, I found only one book in the well-stocked bookstore in San Francisco’s SoMa District. I thought this a bit curious, but then I checked with my own feelings and noticed the constriction again. It was a place I didn’t want to look, and maybe it was the same for a lot of other people. After all, I might find, after reading about obsessive love, that I was obsessive in my own relationships and I certainly didn’t want to consider that. I kept going though because this adventure was for a friend, to help her with her work objectives and so was business and business must be taken cared of.

I turned to introduction of the book I had just bought, “Obsessive Love: When It Hurts Too Much to Let Go.” Here we are, a definition. This is what I had been looking for. There are--according to Susan Forward, a practicing psychologist who wrote the book--four conditions that are almost always present in obsessive love. A painful, all-consuming preoccupation with the real or wished for lover, an insatiable longing either to possess or to be possessed by the target. The object of the obsession must have rejected them or be unavailable either physically or emotionally and for the target’s unavailability or rejection must drive them to behave in self-defeating ways.

Susan Forward points out that obsession has two parts. There are the obsessive thoughts and then there are the compulsions or the actions that result from the thoughts. For simplicity, it's all referred to as obsession in her book. The author goes on to point out that obsession has little to do with love, instead, she said it's all about longing. I thought about the dramas on TV where it's not love that is portrayed but the longing for love or, at the very least, the longing for that evidence of love.

As I read on, it became apparent that so much of what occurs for the obsessor is fantasy from thinking about what could be to dreaming up reasons about why things did not work out as imagined. The person who becomes obsessed spends little time acknowledging what is. Love, as I'm beginning to understand through my own life, has a lot to do with accepting what is. To see what is, we have to step out of our thoughts about the past or the future.

The first topic of the first chapter is “The one magic person.” Most people can relate to having, at some point in her life, an idea of meeting one person who would meet most, if not all, of their needs. For many of us, our childhood storybooks were filled with such images. To be perfectly honest, the six-year-old inside of me still gets a bit miffed that the real life, this 38-year-old keeps insisting as true does not look like the one she keeps reading about. She tosses her head with a, “Hmph!” and walks back to the sunlit corners of my mind where she can read her books in peace.

According to Forward, it is after the “falling in love” stage that obsessive love can begin to set in. Even after a certain period of time has passed, the obsessor will still cling to ideas of fantasies instead of starting to see where the partner is human and where things might not be a good fit between them. For other people, the obsessive behavior starts years after being with someone when life changes bring them into new conditions that unleash a fear of loss. It is then that obsessive lovers amp [sp] up efforts to control their partner. Instead of saying that the efforts to control life and others is the very thing that pushes people away, the obsessors think of them as ways to hold on to or bring back those lovers.

Rarely at this point, as the obsessor really thinking about the life of his or her target, the object of the obsession becomes a pond in their mental game of finders-keepers. The rejection triggers denial and pursuit; the pursuit, of course, only leaves both sides frustrated and increasingly angry. The anger can become rage and as its desire for control becomes heighten, may turn into acts of revenge. The inclusion of this dark side maybe the reason why some of us cringe at the mention of obsession.

In movie, we want revenge to be justified, the good guys winning against the bad guys. The stories of obsessors do frame their experiences in this way, but when the camera lenses pulled back, you can see how self-serving this view is. The rage and the thoughts of revenge have the obsessor feel connected, passionately connected according to Forward to the target. If acted on, these things can interfere with or damage people’s lives and this is where real life separates from the TV drama so clearly. The targets cannot just press the off button and the obsessors cannot either. There's a sense of being out of control.

The idea of being out of control is scary for a lot of people. If an obsessor does not seek intervention from friends, support groups, or therapists and get a reprieve from the tenacity of their thoughts, the [xx] obsessed may well go into an out of control state but without any bumper guards. There's no one to look out for them and remind them that all those feelings are human and can be felt and then can be let go.

Imagining this one-sided rage or desire for revenge interestingly enough, brought up feelings of embarrassment for me. Why would anyone continue to pursue someone when his advances are so clearly not wanted? I would feel so foolish. In thinking about it further, I realized that the embarrassment stems from a deep-seated fear that people would see how much I have grasped for love, how I've stretched and morphed my life in the shapes I thought would guarantee safety, security, a place to call home forever. It did not always show up in the form or relationship though. For a while, it was a driving pursuit of a career that would assure me of a rightful place in the world. Still, who wants to be seen as having clung to something or someone that did not reciprocate all that energy?

I can now say that I [xx] closely enough with obsession to know that relentlessly chasing after something mostly showed others that I did not see clearly what would serve me in life. I happened to have a belief that we all do have what we need in life. That being the love, security, and well-being so many of us seek. But certainly, there are many times when I forget. In reading about the lives of those in the grip of obsession, I got a sense that they weren’t really connected to anyone. They’ve narrowed their world to one other person, the object of their obsession who is increasingly distant from them. This is the part of obsession that has its realm in darkness.

To shine some light on the topic seems to require some understanding of the universal need for connection. Connection between people is a natural and healthy part of life. In the book, “A General Theory of Love,” numerous examples are given whereby young humans and primates suffer emotional stress and even death in the absence of connection with others. But as Susan Forward presents in the eighth chapter of her book, “Early disruptions and family connections can leave a covered or uncovered pit of loneliness and abandonment that one can fall into unexpectedly.”

“The desire to connect back to one particular person who may just be the current stand in for a long ago lost attachment is overwhelming. Not only are the feelings about the current situation, but there are likely layers of unfelt feelings, feeling the desire from the shadows. Instead of a free connection that brings feelings of joy, support, or fun, there is a longing for connection that stirs that feelings of desperation or terror. In that state, it's easy to see how almost any form of connection, be a thought or action, is preferable to the experience of isolation.”

The top selling novels and fictional stories rarely go into the transformative stages of people’s lives. So our psyches [sp] are filled with only the darkest outcomes. But there are ways to work through obsessions. When I read the words, “I didn’t know where to go with these feelings. I didn’t know what to do with the pain.” In the retelling of one person’s struggle with obsession in Susan Forward’s book, I immediately thought of the value of learning to sit with feelings, feeling them fully, and then experiencing the relaxation that follows, letting them go.

This is the kernel of the process that Forward details in the remainder of the book. From taking inventory of where one is starting to dismantling the parts that keep an obsession going. The reader is walked through the process of letting go of the habits that no longer serve and regaining the fullness of life. The more you hear about the universal needs of people for connection and love, the more relax about my own often unconscious maneuvers to obtain them. That relaxation brings about a letting go, which in turn, brings with it feelings of happiness and, contrary to stubborn belief, more love.

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J: Thank you for listening to “A Taste of Sex.” We’d love to hear from you. You can write us at [email protected]. For more information about One Taste and our classes, lectures, and events, check us out at OneTaste.us. Finally, if you'd like a transcript of this show, go to PersonalLifeMedia.com. I'm J. Tuned in next week.

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Karen: Obsession is a dangerous game. It erases human beings and in their place puts characters from romance novels and wet dreams. All that’s left in the eye of the beholder is a specter of perfection, a reflection of the inner cathedral of the lovers’ desires, dark and light.

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Woman: Find more great shows like this on PersonalLifeMedia.com.