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The prison of possessiveness

“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself, Love possesses not nor would it be possessed: For love is sufficient unto love,” wrote Kahlil Gibran in his book The Prophet. However, many a time, love for someone could easily incline towards possessiveness. In our relationships–romantic or non-romantic, we may have inadvertently suffocated the other person by intruding his/her personal space. Or we may have felt stifled and controlled by others.

The phrase ‘to possess’ literally means ‘to own’. While it is relatively easier to own materialistic things, it is downright impossible (and wrong) to own another’s free will. We may already know that and yet, we attempt to do just that, albeit unintentionally.  According to clinical psychologist Tishya Mahindru Shahani, we often get carried away by emotions caused by a deluge of hormones. We start feeling vulnerable and therefore as a self-defense mechanism, we look for ways to prevent getting hurt. “The wish to possess arises because of an illusion that if we display ownership of our loved ones, we would be able to prevent the other person from distancing themselves,” she explains.

Of course, it never works that way. We cannot control the way people choose to express themselves in a relationship. An old saying goes ‘The more we try to hold sand in our fist, the more it slips out.’ Similarly, when we exert control over our loved ones, out of insecurities, we only end up pushing them away.

Software engineer Santhosh Swaminathan can relate to this. He recalls how his girlfriend’s possessiveness added spice to their relationship during the initial days of dating. “Her attention even made me feel special,” he says. But over the months, Santhosh began to feel smothered. The more possessive his girlfriend got, the more distant he became. “I consciously started working late hours. Although, I did feel terribly guilty for ignoring her,” he confesses.

While possessiveness might play out more intensely in romantic relationships, it does occur in non-romantic relationships as well. For instance, best friends may be possessive about each other. Either or both may feel threatened when a new friend comes along. Varsha Vardan, a college student, recalls feeling jealous when her childhood friend started making new friends. “I felt ignored, but I did nothing to fix the issue. Maybe I had ego issues. So, I simply watched us grow apart. One fine day, I could not stand it any longer and I confronted her. We ended up having a nasty fight,” she shares.

Filling our daily lives with interesting hobbies, activities, projects and friends can make us more independent. Being proactive not only increases our self-worth but also leaves little room for unhealthy relationship dynamics. 


No wonder people say we should keep possessiveness under check. When we start believing that the other person belongs to us, we take the right to direct their choices and the way their life goes. Often, when we go overboard with possessiveness, power struggles erupt.

According to Shahani, such power struggles stem from fear and insecurity. Individuals who lack confidence usually rely on someone to boost their self-esteem. They constantly need validation from the other person to feel good about themselves. This dependency causes them to hold on to someone far too tightly, for the fear of losing them. Partners of possessive individuals withdraw themselves once they feel constricted. This amplifies the fear of desertion even more and both the parties get caught in a vicious cycle, she explains.

Business analyst Vasanth Kumar, who is newly married, has a hard time keeping peace between his mother and wife. “I sometimes find it really difficult to tackle the two women. Whenever I spend time with one of them, the other seems to feel ignored,” he observes. He supposes his mother is unable to accept that he has a new woman in his life, and perhaps, that is why he gets caught in the midst of their power struggle.

Clearly, wanting to own another can eat away at any relationship. True, we are easily susceptible to slide the slippery slope from love to possessiveness. But with some effort, we can stay on the good side. Here are a few ways to overcome possessiveness as clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Firestone suggests in her book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice:

Have a heart-to-heart

It is very possible that our controlling behaviour could have caused resentment in the minds of our loved ones. Having an open and honest conversation about our deepest insecurities can help cement the bond we share with them. It can help them understand us better.

Bolster self-confidence

Many a time, the root cause of possessiveness is poor self-esteem. There are ways to improve self-esteem.  For example, making a list of individual strengths can help us understand our own unique qualities and appreciate them better. Filling our daily lives with interesting hobbies, activities, projects and friends can make us more independent. Being proactive not only increases our self-worth but also leaves little room for unhealthy relationship dynamics. 

Recognise and alter past patterns

Often, possessive behaviour stems from our past. For instance, if as children, we built defences and strategies to manoeuvre difficult or painful conditions, they may find their way to adulthood too. Therefore, by making sense of our own attachment patterns, we can understand the reasons behind our possessive behaviour. 

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