Why does uncertainty have such power in cementing desire for a limerent object? It makes sense that rejection would (hopefully) kill limerent desire, but it seems a bit counterintuitive that consummation would also limit the duration of a limerent experience. And yet, it is an experience that many limerents report. Uncertainty seems to be extremely important for the reinforcement of limerence, and deeping of the craving for reciprocation.
It’s likely that reinforcement is the key. Reinforcement learning is a well studied area of animal (including homo sapiens) behaviour. What makes some experiences rewarding and desirable, but others neutral or of diminishing interest? Well, in keeping with the counterintuitive experience of limerents having consummation, many animals become desensitized to predictable rewards.
The classic example of this is the Skinner box. There have been many variants of the classic experiment, but the basic scenario is that an animal (in Skinner’s case, pigeons, but it’s true of mammals too) is placed in a box with a button or lever, and a hatch through which food pellets can be delivered. This is its tasty reward. Yum.
However, once acclimatised to the box, the schedule for delivery of the pellet can be varied. Sometimes, the delivery is very predictable (say, every third peck results in a pellet), but at other times it is unpredictable – pellets are delivered with complicated patterns of pecking. What was found was that the most effective schedule of reinforcement for pecking behaviour was variable, intermittent delivery. This schedule resulted in more frantic and persistent pecking, and also resulted in a more lasting memory (or, perhaps urge). If, at the end of these experiments, the delivery of food was switched off, eventually the pigeons gave up their pecking – so called extinction of the memory. Those pigeons that had a variable rate of reinforcement were slowest when it came to extinction.
In a final set of experiments, the delivery of pellets occurred independently of button pecking, so the pigeon is not able to predict when a pellet will be released. In this case, the pigeons basically lost their minds. They started to exhibit bizarre behaviour – bobbing their heads, weaving from foot to foot, turning circles, pecking random parts of the box, and so on. What was happening was the pigeons were failing to learn what behaviour had led to the release of the pellet. Because it was impossible to learn, as it was intermittent reward that wasn’t in fact linked to anything within the pigeon’s power. In a desperate attempt to impose order on a maddeningly random event, the pigeon was futilely trying out any of the various moves and behaviours that had preceded reward. They became superstitious.
So how does any of this relate to limerence? Well, it turns out we’re not that special as a species when it comes to reinforcement schedules. Skinner himself made a direct comparison between the behavioural conditioning of his pigeons and gambling addiction in humans. The gambling companies have studied reinforcement learning very carefully, and slot machines are designed to optimally link audiovisual stimulation (flashing lights, and beepy jingles) to intermittent schedules of reward. Also, there is often a big payout early on, to really cement the positive reinforcement and condition behaviour.
The behavioural work has since been complemented by neuroscience investigations into reward signalling in the brain. The neuromodulators associated with reward (dopamine and serotonin, principally) are released throughout the brain soon after positive reinforcement through reward. For a predictable reward schedule, the dopamine release becomes desensitized over time, meaning the same reward no longer gives the same neurochemical “high”. However, for intermittent rewards, desensitization is less pronounced and occurs more slowly. Unpredictable rewards have more lasting impact than predictable ones.
Limerence is sometimes termed, in my opinion very accurately, person addiction. It would not be too surprising if what we knew about addiction, neurochemistry, behavioural reinforcement and the nature of reward stimuli did not apply to limerence. It’s now easy to see why uncertainty could be so powerful. Any limerent knows the potency of the emotional high linked to limerent “reward” – a positive interaction with LO and some sign of reciprocation. If that reward occurs on an unpredictable or intermittent schedule, occasionally interspersed with the negative reinforcement of an embarrassing or negative event, you have an optimal pattern for evoking stable behavioural conditioning.
Matters are complicated by the ability of love addicts to reinforce themselves with the second-class hit of reverie. Imagination can give a minor relief from the negative sensation of absence from the LO, but the principal stimulus (a happy, reciprocating LO) is the key determinant of reinforcement.
So, given all that background on reinforcement and behaviour, let’s analyse a few cases of limerent uncertainty.
1) The mutually-limerent LO. Without obstacles, this case leads to ecstatic union. But potential obstacles abound. Perhaps the commonest is that the LO is already in a committed relationship.
If the relationship is a good one, then the LO will be conflicted, and this is likely to result in unpredictable and inconsistent behaviour. Moments of happy mutual flirting or evidence of affection, will be followed by guilt and overcompensating aloofness. To the limerent, this would be powerfully reinforcing as it would not be predictable before each encounter whether the happy or guilty LO was more likely to manifest. If the relationship is less good (or even toxic) then matters are even worse – the LO is likely to be highly conflicted, and the swings of behaviour more extreme. For a limerent with white knight or rescuer syndrome this is even more motivating. The LO is behaving erratically and with uncertainty, and only you can save them from their awful relationship! Unwittingly, the two limerents spark uncertainty between themselves, deepening the potential for full blown limerent obsession.
2) The non-limerent LO. Here the primary uncertainty comes from the inability of the non-limerent to reciprocate with mutual limerence, and the difficulty of the limerent in recognising that they are on to a losing proposition.
This is another very common scenario. The non-limerent innocently generates uncertainty, by neither comprehending nor being able to return the limerent’s obsessive need for mutuality. It’s also maddening for the non-limerent, of course, because they were blithely enjoying the company of someone they like and want to be with, maybe even embarking on a sexual relationship, but then their new paramour turns all jealous and needy and weird. So they pull back. Perhaps start to see other people too, as they are now more fun to be with than the mad limerent. Meanwhile, the uncertain affections of the LO plunge the limerent deep into rumination and obsessive thoughts, and iron-cast reinforcement. Tragedy unfolds.
3) The narcissistic sociopath LO. Yeah, these ones are the worst. They’ve learned that unpredictable rewards help them to manipulate people to get what they want, so they play games.
I suppose one end of this spectrum are the pick up artists who use negging or seduction or other methods of manipulation to pull. Worse from the point of view of a limerent, are the pros who “love bomb” at the early stages of a developing relationship, but then start to play hard to get, or start to undermine the limerent’s self-confidence in order to manipulate them into uncertainty. Once the limerence is established, the sociopath can dial up the exploitation and manipulative behaviour, triggering the limerent to start behaving like the insane pigeons in Skinner’s experiment, desperately but hopelessly trying to figure out how their behaviour can lead to reward rather than punishment. If trauma bonding sets in, this can end up with a properly abusive relationship characterised by lying and cheating and devaluing of the limerent.
So, you know. Be careful out there.