What makes someone a potential limerent object? What special something tickles the arousal circuitry in just the right way to trigger escalating limerence?
It may be a fool’s errand to try and untangle this particular knot, but it’s fun to try.
There are some correlations between limerents and LOs that seem too common to be coincidence. The first is sexual attraction, but this is just kicking the can down the road a bit, because it just raises the question of what causes that. The second is gender. Tennov reported complete consistency in her sample population in having a single gender focus for limerence – either heterolimerence or homolimerence – and a certain amount of frustration in individuals in their inability to become limerent for the other gender (which for social or personal reasons they felt they should prefer). I have a lasting memory of an interview with George Michael where he was talking about sexuality, and commented something along the lines of “It’s not who you can get it up for, it’s who you fall in love with.” Tennov failed to find any bisexual subjects who were limerent and therefore was unable to assess the possibility of bi-limerence, but that may have been an issue of sample size or societal mores (her research in the 1960s would presumably have been in an environment where honest expression of such matters would have been more inhibited). The third correlation is to socioeconomic class. This one is more mutable, but there does seem a majority of limerence-matches within a social stratum than between them.
The limerents in Tennov sample were also able to clearly articulate surprisingly specific – but objectively trivial – features of the LO that first attracted them:
“I liked Betty’s hair. It was long and very dark brown with waves, the kind of hair that moved when she turned her head.”
“The first thing that attracted me… was his height. Barry was exactly the same height I was, and I loved it.”
And, with a nice touch of self-awareness:
“I fell in love with Bernard because I thought he might love me in return. I must also admit that his money and success and all the power that seemed to go with them probably also played a role.”
The commonest and most potent trigger was the LO’s eyes.
So how can sense be made of all these subtle cues that tip some people into the LO category, whereas others (perhaps with equally charming eyes) don’t measure up? Although this is all a bit speculative, I think there are some key unifying ideas.
1) Gender archetypes
Childhood is formative in unexpected ways. My personal experience is that many of the women that I feel a glimmer towards fit into broad categories defined by the adult women who were present in my life as a child. Friends of the family, occasionally-seen aunts, teachers, librarians, etc. became laid down in my memory as (pre-sexual) archetypes of womanhood. I’m beginning to notice clusters of traits that I now realise are evocative of a certain notion of womanliness, which can be anchored to an important role model from my youth. This is in a non-literal sense. I don’t actually seek out versions of my aunts. I’m not weird. I am normal.
Smell is a big thing. A potent intoxicant. Lots of studies have borne this out – that the scent of certain individuals is especially pleasing to other certain individuals. Theories abound as to why, and the leading one at the moment seems to be that the immunological markers that can be detected in scent are an indication of fitness in a mate; different markers imply different immunological backgrounds that would complement nicely and result in vigorous babies. There’s a touch of the evolutionary just-so story about this idea (just how good are the olfactory receptors at encoding immunological antigens, really?), but there is no doubting how glorious my wife’s sweat smells.
Similar arguments are often made about visual complementation, although curiously the claims here can be contradictory. Sometimes the idea is that we seek counter-traits (if you have a big nose you seek a button-nosed partner to balance out your children), sometimes that we seek those that look like ourselves or our parents. I’m not sure how important this is for limerence, beyond the need for sexual attraction; especially as limerence has the extraordinary ability to transfigure your (let’s be honest, probably pretty average looking – you know, fine, but not Stunning) LO into the epitome of true beauty. God, her button nose is so gorgeous. Especially when she smiles and it wrinkles up on the edges. *Sigh*
3) Bonding archetypes
Spend any time on relationship help forums and you will come across the term “FOO”, meaning “family of origin”. It always makes me think of Larkin’s acid poem (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad…”). The idea here is familiarity; what feels right in terms of behavioural dynamics. Do you like mutual mocking, or does it make you feel insecure? Do you compete with your partner, or do you need constant affirmation and support? Does it feel satisfying to prioritise your partner’s needs? Does sacrifice feel like an expression of love? Most of these sorts of preferences will have developed during your immersion in similar dynamics during childhood. An especially powerful scenario is one in which childhood attachment was not secure. As an adult, these individuals (and how many of us had perfectly secure attachments?) can subconsciously seek to repeat the patterns of an unhealthy bonding experience and “get it right this time”. It doesn’t end well, usually.
There is a whole body of literature on attachment styles (are you anxious, avoidant, or secure? Take an online test today!), which is probably a bit much for now, but the basic idea is that you are particularly drawn to a style you recognise from childhood. And that triggers a subconscious need to recast disordered bonding with a similar individual in your past, and make your emotional world right at last. As they say on Limerence.net, limerent and LO have “complementary pathologies”. There is nothing so alluring as a damaged soul you’re sure you can fix.
As with all aspects of limerence – in fact pretty much all aspects of life – self-knowledge is your best hope of making sense of this rag bag of subconscious drives. Spot the glimmer, and spot the triggers for glimmer in yourself, and the next time you meet limerence, you can laugh in her beautiful button-nosed face.