The One Magic Person
I can’t believe I did all those things. The phone calls, the drive-bys, the letters, the tantrums, the threats ... it just wasn’t me. But it took me so long to get him out of my head. The way he looked, the way he smelled, the way he touched me ... he drove me crazy. — Margaret
It was Margaret’s last day of therapy. She had worked hard to break free from the painful obsessive patterns that had been plaguing her for the past three years, and she had largely succeeded. She was a very different woman from the depressed, desperate, volatile Margaret I had first met a year and a half earlier.
Margaret is a willowy, red-haired, thirty-four-year-old divorcée who works as a paralegal with a large law firm. She came to see me because her preoccupation with Phil — a lover who was clearly not interested in a monogamous relationship — was making her feel like she was losing control of both her personal and her professional life. She was becoming increasingly short-tempered with her ten-year-old son. She was making careless mistakes at work. And she was alienating her friends by avoiding them, not only because she wanted to be available in case Phil called, but also because her friends were virtually unanimous in their criticism of Phil.
The Thrill of a New Romance
Margaret met Phil about six years after she divorced her husband. She had been dating on and off but had been unable to find anyone with whom she was interested in establishing a serious relationship. After six years, she was getting pretty discouraged. She hated the bar scene. She had already met most of the single men her friends knew, but nothing had developed. She had even gone to a video dating service — both the dates she’d had as a result had been disappointing.
Margaret met Phil at the courthouse while she was assisting her boss in the defense of an embezzlement suspect. Phil was a police officer, testifying in a highly publicized murder case. Margaret first saw him in the cafeteria during the lunch break.
This gorgeous hunk sat down across from me and it was lust at first sight, which hadn’t happened to me in years. We started talking and he asked me out that same night. I remember coming home after that date and as soon as I closed the door I broke into this little victory dance. Within a week we were seeing each other almost every night. It was an incredible high. During the day he’d call me at work and I’d get the most delicious butterflies in my stomach just hearing his voice. I was really in heaven.
Even though Margaret was describing the beginnings of what was to become an intensely obsessive relationship, there is nothing in her description that could not just as easily describe the beginnings of some healthy relationships. Most of us relish the giddy feelings that Margaret talked about. When we first fall in love, we feel like we’re walking on air. Flowers smell more fragrant, music sounds more beautiful, the sky seems bluer, our pulse quickens, our mood soars.
These heightened sensations are not just imaginary. Physical changes are triggered in our bodies by romantic feelings, hopes, and fantasies. Our heartbeat quickens, we become flushed, our adrenaline pumps, we experience hormonal changes, and our brains release endorphins — the body’s natural opiate. As a result of all this chemical activity, love is a physical state as well as a state of mind.
The Idealized Lover
In the thrill and passion of a new romance, it is only natural to see a lover through rose-colored glasses. We go out of our way to see only what we want to see, filtering our perceptions through romantic expectations and dreams. This optimistic filtering of reality is called “idealization.”
You can see idealization at work in Margaret’s description of Phil.
After a couple weeks, he told me he was in love with me. I was ecstatic. He was so perfect. I felt like my life was finally rounding out. Not only did I have a job I liked, and my son seemed to be doing okay, but now, finally, I had this fantastic guy. The sex was great, the talk was great, he cooked these romantic meals, he even fixed my car for me. I felt totally safe with him, not just physically but emotionally. I’d finally found the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. He made me feel like I was more than I’d ever been before, like I was finally a whole person. And I knew there was no one else on earth who could make me feel that way.
Margaret jumped to a lot of conclusions about Phil simply because he was a good lover and fun to be with. She really didn’t know much about him. It would have been impossible for her to have learned much about his character or his past relationships in the two short weeks of passion that they’d shared. Yet she was convinced that he was “perfect,” that he would make a lifetime commitment to her, and that he — and only he — had the power to make her feel like “a whole person.”
I certainly don’t mean to imply that Margaret did anything unusual. We all idealize. This is especially easy to do in the early stages of a relationship, since new lovers are typically on their best behavior. We all put on our best face when we are attracted to a new person. We make a special effort to be as alluring, charming, witty, sympathetic, flattering, and accommodating as we can. This is part of our mating ritual.
However, while this behavior might reveal certain facets of our personality, it can’t possibly tell the whole story. We all have our moody days, our petty jealousies, our knee-jerk reactions, our rigid opinions, and our unattractive habits. And we certainly don’t want to reveal any of these to a new lover.
In the heat of a new relationship, as we downplay our own shortcomings, we don’t give much thought to the fact that our lover is doing the same. Under these conditions idealization can’t help but thrive.
The One and Only
In healthy relationships, idealization helps lovers believe that — maybe — they have found the person of their dreams. But healthy lovers give themselves a safety net called reality. They hope their relationship will work out but also recognize that it may not.
Obsessive lovers, on the other hand, work without this net as they struggle for balance on the high wire of romantic expectations. In the heightened reality of obsessive passion there is no room for doubt. Obsessive lovers live by an unshakable credo:
This is the one — and only one — magic person who can meet all my needs.
Obsessive lovers truly believe — sometimes without realizing it — that their “One Magic Person” alone can make them feel happy and fulfilled, solve all their problems, give them the passion they’ve yearned for, and make them feel more wanted and loved than they’ve ever felt before. With all this power, the One Magic Person becomes more than a lover — he or she becomes a necessity of life.
There are no prerequisites for the One Magic Person. It is not necessary that he or she be especially attractive, intelligent, witty, or successful or possess any other qualities we usually associate with desirability.
In fact, some obsessors fall in love with deeply troubled or even addicted lovers. These obsessors are irresistibly drawn into relationships by a deep-seated need to be needed and a belief that they alone can save their lover (as we’ll see in Chapter Four).
Obsessors’ fantasies and expectations about their One Magic Person may have little to do with who that person really is and everything to do with what they themselves need and how they expect that person to fulfill those needs. No one really knows with absolute certainty why one person has such a powerful effect on another. But something about the One Magic Person clearly taps into the individual needs and yearnings that lie deeply embedded in the obsessive lover’s unconscious.
The Mental Sculptor
In healthy relationships, as lovers grow more emotionally intimate, they begin to feel secure enough to reveal themselves as real people with shortcomings. The romantic expectations of these lovers naturally evolve to reflect the changes that this increased honesty brings to their relationship. If they don’t like what they find, they have the choice to leave the relationship.
But leaving is not an option for obsessive lovers. No matter what the reality may be, they create the relationship they want in their minds. Like mental sculptors, they shape their expectations, using wishes, rather than truth, as their clay. These expectations are remarkably resistant to the inevitable hammer blows of reality.
My friend Don is a regular Rodin when it comes to mental sculpting. Don is a stocky, balding, soft-spoken, forty-two-year-old attorney whose James Joyce glasses give him a distinctly academic look. He was born and raised in Georgia and still retains a charming trace of a southern drawl. When he heard I was working on this book, he told me the story of his torturous, on-again-off-again, five-year-long obsessive affair with a married woman.
I met her when I was in my last year of law school. I was working part-time in a bookstore and she came in — the most gracious, elegant, gorgeous woman I had ever seen. I was captivated from the moment I saw her. My first response was “God, I would love to be involved with her.” As fate had it, I was talking to a friend when she walked over and just kind of entered into the conversation. She had this gorgeous British accent and this beautiful translucent skin and these eyes ... she just knocked me out. We talked for a while, then my friend left and I suddenly had this impulse to ask if I could take her to dinner. She looked at me, and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m married.” Normally, that would have been the end of it, but this time the words didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t just let her walk out of my life. I needed to find a way to spend time with her, no matter what. So I asked her if she’d be willing to join me for a cup of coffee, just to talk. When she said “okay,” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Don fell in love at first sight, just like in the movies. But there was a problem — from the first moments of their meeting, Don knew Cynthia was married. In other circumstances this would have discouraged him, but Don was convinced that he had found his One Magic Person. So he began to mold his own reality to eclipse the magnitude of this stumbling block.
We began to have lunch together pretty regularly, and we’d talk and talk and talk. She was very British, so she wasn’t used to discussing her feelings openly, but that only intrigued me more. Then one day we took a walk on the beach. The sun was shining, the water was shimmering.... I looked at her and I just ... leaned over and kissed her. It was the most amazing moment of my life. After that, all I wanted to do was be with her, all I could do was think about her. As we got to know each other a little better, she finally began to talk more about herself and her marriage.
Cynthia had come to the United States when she was eighteen to study piano at Juilliard. A year later, she had met her husband, a physician fifteen years older than she. They married, and she gave up her studies to move to the West Coast with him.
She’d always resented giving up the music, but she never talked to her husband about it. She never talked to him about anything. She said she’d never been able to open up to him like she could with me. She said no man had ever been so tender and warm and caring and sincere with her as I was. Here was the woman I’d dreamed of since I was a teenager, and she was making me feel like I was the only man for her. I knew it was only a matter of time before she’d leave her husband, even though she never talked about it. I started checking the paper to see how much it would cost to get a bigger apartment when she was ready to move in with me. I even asked around for the name of a good divorce attorney so I could give her a reference when she was ready.
At this point in their relationship, Don had only established a platonic friendship with Cynthia. They had ventured as far as a kiss on the beach, but that was it. But from this one kiss and a few tender words, Don had become convinced that he and Cynthia were destined to be together.
Don began to fantasize extensively about what their life together would be like. First he would help her through her divorce and settle into an apartment with her. She would continue working as a travel agent until he finished law school. Then he would be able to support them both, freeing her to quit her job and go back to her music. He pictured her sitting in their living room at the piano, beside a blazing fire, bewitching him with the sensual strains of Chopin and Brahms. He saw them jetting to London to visit her family, then hopping over to Paris to share a bottle of young Beaujolais on the banks of the Seine. And always, always, these scenes would culminate in a frenzy of passionate lovemaking.
Cynthia gave Don no indication that she was inclined to leave her husband, but this in no way prevented him from developing the conviction that she would. Don’s extravagant fantasy constructions reduced the fact of her marriage to little more than a minor annoyance.
Worshipers From Afar
Most mental sculptors have at least some romantic encouragement from which to springboard their fantasies, even if it’s only a few dates. But it is not necessary for a target to encourage his or her obsessor. In some extreme cases, the One Magic Person may not even know the obsessor’s name.
Laurie, a registered nurse in a large midwestern hospital, called in to my radio program one morning in tears. She told me she was in her early thirties and had left an abusive marriage two years earlier. She hadn’t been involved with anyone since. But now she was madly in love with a doctor at the hospital where she worked — a doctor who may have seen her in the hallways but otherwise had no direct contact with her.