Why does limerence exist?

One of the curious consequences of learning that non-limerents exist, is that for the first time we limerents can start to wonder both “who has it better”, and “what is limerence for, anyway”?

The first question should keep the philosophers busy indefinitely, but the second question does seem more open to analysis.

Limerence seems, it is fair to say, an exaggerated response to the stimulus of meeting a potential mate. It’s hard to reflect on this issue without thinking from the perspective of reproduction, because the drive for limerence is almost always associated with romantic and sexual desire.  Non-limerents clearly live fulfilled and happy lives, having children and long-term relationships and deep bonds of love and affection. Obviously the massive initial emotional maelstrom of limerence isn’t essential for reproductive success or personal security and survival. So, what benefit might it serve? Especially in an environment in which potential mates could be fellow limerents who will reciprocate in kind, or non-limerents who may be driven away by the asymmetry of romantic obsession.

Amazingly enough, my thoughts on this fit into a convenient list form!

1) Pair bonding

This seems the most obvious benefit. Humans frequently adopt pair-bonding as a stable evolutionary strategy for increasing the survival prospects of offspring. Having two parents who share and are committed to the task of raising children through the vulnerable (and, for us as a species, relatively long) early years, increases the odds that those offspring will survive to adulthood and reproduce themselves, thus propagating the parent’s genes into future generations, flooding the gene pool. It is an obviously beneficial and stably inheritable trait.

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I love puns

It is blatantly obvious that limerence would really help with this process. The surge of positive feeling for LO, the powerful need to be in their company, the urgent desire for reciprocation and consummation – all of this stabilises the pair bond. It’s also been noted (by Tennov and others) that the typical duration of limerence (around 2 years) corresponds with the period needed to conceive and deliver a child and nurse them through their most vulnerable period.

Oftentimes, happily, the limerence will give way to stable affectional bonding, and the pair bond is cemented for extended periods beyond the limerent ecstasy. But other times, the limerence turns out to have been masking an incompatibility that makes longer-term bonding (once the mania has passed) intolerable. So, for all the benefits for pair-bonding, limerence also seems to increase the risk of misfires: bonding that barely lasts beyond conception. So, could there be other forces at work?

2) Handicap signalling

One curious evolutionary strategy that is best exemplified by the peacock’s tail, is the so-called handicap principle. The reasoning is that if an individual can so conspicuously display a handicap and yet still thrive, they must have extraordinary fitness. “Think how powerful I must be to be able to carry this millstone”. For the example of the peacock, the idea would be that the male is so strong that they can afford to squander their strength in carting around a cumbersome tail – and indeed, only a healthy and strong male could achieve it.

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can strut despite this beast, ladies

As humans we can of course question the wisdom of signalling our value by squandering it – gorging on cake to demonstrate how much cake we used to have – but it is an interesting thought that limerence could fit into this model.

The idea here is that limerence is such an disproportionate response to attraction that the limerent is signalling their willingness to completely commit to LO, even to their own potential detriment. The benefit, from the LO’s perspective, is that their emotional capture of the limerent is so complete, they have no anxiety that they could lose out to another mate. The limerent reaction is like the peacock’s tail – a handicapping obsession that demonstrates the limerent’s capacity to pair bond par excellence. In human terms “I am so absurdly besotted with you that even a rich, beautiful, healthy, powerful competitor could not turn my head.” In less human terms, the LO can be confident that they will not invest in reproducing with a mate who will flit away when an alternative individual of higher mate-value appears.

3) Maths

As a final thought as to why we seem to live in a population of limerents and non-limerents – this sometimes awful farce of mutual misunderstanding – we need to consider the power of dynamic equilibria. Limerence is, from an evolutionary perspective, a bit like altruism. It seems as though selfishness in both survival and reproduction would be a good strategy, and yet altruism exists. Similar concerns arise with limerence. Why should a limerent sacrifice their openness to other potential mates? Surely non-limerents have an advantage by not being handicapped by obsession.

Indeed, why do non-limerents and limerents both exist?  Surely the “better” evolutionary strategy would win out.

Well, it turns out that at a population level, the optimal strategy for propagating genes doesn’t have a lot of meaning, because populations are dynamic. For altruism, a convincing mathematical argument can be made that neither selfishness nor selflessness are optimal strategies all the time. It depends on the behaviour of other individuals within the population. This makes intuitive sense – if everyone is an altruist, then the first mutant selfish person (I suppose, strictly, combination of genes that result in selfish behaviour) to appear would have a selection advantage by exploiting the rest of the population. “Selfishness” genes would start to spread through the population. Eventually, if this led to a preponderance of selfish people, competition becomes detrimental, no one can be trusted, and suddenly, altruistic behaviour (especially within kin groups) becomes an advantage. The goodies gang up and out-compete the selfish gits.

Ultimately, formulating these sorts of arguments mathematically shows that the most “stable” situations are actually dynamic equilibria, where the abundance of traits in a population shifts around an optimal ratio (of, say, selfish to altruistic individuals). It seems likely that the same argument applies to limerence. In some circumstances, non-limerence is an advantage because your relative emotional independence can allow for freer mate selection, without the anxiety that your (limerent) partner of the moment may leave you. Conversely, with too many non-limerents, the presence of a limerent mate is an advantage, if they form a better pair-bond when the main concern is finding a mate who won’t leave you. So, the most stable situation is a mix of limerents and non-limerents – a bet hedging strategy that results in a dynamic equilibrium within the population.

And evolution cares not a wit about the emotional turmoil that any of us poor replication engines suffer.

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