Article on long-term love

Following on from the post on libido, here’s an interesting article in Psychology today about long term romantic love. It is possible to sustain the romantic/erotic connection for many years. It suffers slightly from the common current obsession with fMRI (blob-ology), but is fascinating nonetheless.

The key take away is that many of the same neurophysiological processes are active in short-term and long-term romantic love, with additional gains for long-term love related to regulation of anxiety. The key question is: are the long-term romantics blessed with a physiology to sustains romantic behaviour, or do they cultivate the behaviours that sustain the physiology?

Only one is within our control…

Limerence, libido, and the challenge of long term romance

In the last post I analysed the sometimes strange intersections between lust and limerence. One thing that both phenomena share is transience. For lust, it can be very short-lived. Limerence is more persistent, but only for the months-years needed to establish a bond lengthy enough to bear fruit.

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Juicy!

 

A complicating factor in trying to understand limerence and lust is libido. If lust is the immediate sensational overload that triggers urgent sexual desire, then libido is the background propensity to experience lust during everyday life. Libido can be very powerfully affected by limerence. Both men and women report an increase in libido when experiencing limerence: an increased awareness of, and interest in, sex. Particularly with LO, of course, but also in a less directed way.

Curiously, the hormonal basis for this is a bit confused. Normally, increased testosterone leads to increased libido, and this is observed in women, but men can exhibit reduced testosterone during limerence (thought to correlate with a drive for bonding). Nevertheless, when around LO and when in the thick of limerence, libido… rises. *snigger*

Obviously, this is entirely compatible with the reproductive designs of limerence. It is also, unfortunately, the cause of an enormous amount of unhappiness.

One of the commonest causes of arguments in long-term relationships is sex. Right up there with money and children. Top three finisher.

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Symbolism? What symbolism?

 

Almost inevitably, between any two people there will be an asymmetry in libido. If the difference in inherent sex drive is modest, then your luck is in. If the difference is pronounced, then… bad luck. The problem pages of the world are filled with men and women who are deeply unhappy about the loss of sexual intimacy in their relationship, and the worst of it is, it’s all relative. Some people complain “it’s only once a week!” Others complain “it’s been three years.” But the perennial, repeated refrain is “it’s less than it used to be.”

Now part of the explanation for this is that libido does normally wax and wane over life, and with what’s going on in life, and in how you change and your SO changes, and how well you have managed to sustain emotional intimacy. However, I would argue that limerence is a much bigger factor.

We all know the old jokes about marriage and libido. “What food decreases a woman’s sex drive over 90%? Wedding cake.” *guffaw* It’s kind of expected that sex drive will drop off as a relationship matures – we can’t sustain the heightened libido of the early stages of romance indefinitely. To many people, this is just the loss of “new relationship energy” or boredom due to familiarity. To a limerent, this is the loss of limerence due to consummation and the aligned dwindling of libido back to the background level inherent for that individual.

So, a logical strategy for anticipating whether your LO would be a compatible long-term partner, would be to try and determine what their libido is like in the absence of limerence. Not easily done, when they are limerent. I suppose it would be possible to talk to them about how sexy they felt before they met you. Or ask their friends. But it would be a bit weird. And how confident are we about our own baseline libido when we’re in the reality-distortion field of limerence?

But I think things are even more insidious than that. I think repeated episodes of limerence can lead to a tight psychological association between libido and the onset of limerence. It’s not just that libido goes up with limerence – libido is impossible to disentangle from limerence. For these people, any attempt to “rekindle” romance, or stimulate their libido is impossible without a new LO. Sexual desire is anchored to limerent desire, and feeling sexy is inextricably linked to feeling limerent. Given that it is pretty much impossible to re-establish limerence in a long-term relationship (although Esther Perel sort of seems to be promoting the attempt) that psychological association seems doomed to lead to serial monogamy or a sexually dull long-term attachment. They mentally link love to stability and comfort, and limerence to passion and sex.

For many people, the latter scenario is fine: that was their expectation of what marriage/LTR would be like, and they’re not that bothered. But their partner may well be. And it does seem that they would be vulnerable to having an affair if a new LO comes along and reignites what was “lost”.

How to cope? The huge number of couples wrestling with this issue suggest there is no easy answer. For me, the answer is the same as always: self-awareness. Understand your drives. Recognise patterns of behavior that are not serving you well. Seek to take purposeful steps to develop yourself as a person, to be the sort of person that you want to be and act positively. If you are the low-libido SO, then explore why you have lost your desire, how it relates to your psychological associations of love and sex, and decide whether you want to work to redirect your libido away from limerence fantasies and towards other stimuli. Or, find a new partner with more compatible baseline libido. Or no partner. Or many partners.

The same advice goes for the high-libido SO: what is the food that your libido feeds on; are you happy with that?

As ever, if you do make big changes in your life, do it with integrity. It will protect your self-esteem and wellbeing in the long run.

Limerence and sex

From the time it was first defined, limerence has been closely associated with sexual desire. LO is wanted as a sexual partner, rather than an intimate friend or companion.

[Aside – it would be interesting to find out whether asexuals experience the other symptoms of limerence, including jealousy].

Despite the significance of sex as a component of limerence, it is not the central issue. Limerence is distinct from lust, and in fact, limerence can complicate sex even if the LO is a willing partner. So, what is the intersection between limerence and lust and how do the drives relate?

1) Lust

It is obviously possible to feel sexual desire for someone other than a LO. Lust can be provoked even in the absence of any other positive feeling for an individual, and some people seek lust and sex in an addictive way, in parallel to the person-addiction of limerence. The key issue is that lust is the drive for mating, the hyperstimulus that seeks gratification, and is almost independent of the specific features of the individual involved. The exemplar case for this argument is pornography: a stimulus tailored to provoke extreme lust in the absence of any personal connection with the parties involved.

Now, individuals clearly differ in their susceptibility to erotic stimuli – the cliche being that men favour visual stimuli and women psychological (porn videos versus erotic fiction) – but most people have fantasies that do not align with the personal and emotional goals that they have in real life.

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And that’s before we even get started on kink

 

So at some level, we all understand the experience of dislocating lust from more rational desires. Lust, in this context, is the direct mechanism for getting us hot. Getting us to copulate.

2) Limerence and performance anxiety

In contrast to the simple drive of lust, limerence is a much more holistic and encompassing desire. Limerence does not wane after orgasm (or cold showers). In fact, limerence can introduce something of a paradox into sex. There is strong sexual desire (lust), but this can be compromised by anxiety or insecurity around the LO. Many limerents report a maddening conflict between the desire for a fulfilling sex life with their LO and an undermining performance anxiety that frustrates them. This is explained in terms of the exaggerated need to impress LO, and a self-fulfilling fear that they might not measure up. Some limerents report raising their LOs onto such a pedestal that they suffer from loss of sexual desire, because of an ingrained subconscious association of sex with sin (the implication being sex is dirty and LO is pure). Whatever the underlying basis, sex with LO is elevated into an interaction of extreme importance and significance, making relaxation and sexy fun difficult to experience. Nevertheless, the significance of sex is so pronounced that limerence must at some level be an aspect of reproductive behaviour – so why the apparent risk of counter-productive anxiety?

3) Reproductive strategies 

The common sense view of sexual politics is that men sow their wild oats as widely as possible, whereas women are choosy because of the additional physical cost involved in bearing children. So, for men the optimal reproductive strategy is to find as many mates as possible in a rather indiscriminate way, whereas women should guard their wombs against attack, except by the most fit of males. Like many common sense notions, this is of course wrong.

From the perspective of an individual man, indiscriminate mating is a lousy strategy. And not just morally lousy – mathematically lousy. Women are only fertile for a fairly limited period of their oestrous cycle, and so the chance that an opportunistic sexual encounter will result in pregnancy is low. A much more effective strategy for the man is to remain with a woman for a prolonged period, having regular intercourse, thereby increasing the probability that fertilisation and implantation will occur during the most opportune period of the woman’s cycle. From this perspective, male and female goals are aligned – and it likely requires mutual sexual attraction for this arrangement to be stable enough to persist for the weeks or months required. To increase the odds even more, the male would strive for exclusivity from the female throughout.

This optimisation strategy is basically pair-bonding.

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Admittedly, expressed in an unromantic calculus. 

As previously noted limerence is a mechanism for pair-bonding par excellence. It makes sense from a mathematical perspective to embed lust within a framework that also promotes pair bonding. Lust can occur independently, but the focussed, repetitive mating needed for optimal fertility requires both partners to stick around.

There are complications to this simple explanation, of course. For one thing, the actual, optimal strategy for a man is to have a harem of women that can be regularly mated with. This conflicts with the optimal strategy for a woman which is to have the undivided attention of a mate during pregnancy and nursing. In fact (and this is just a hunch) it may well be best for a woman to be serially limerent for different (but evolutionarily fit) men, to maximise the genetic variation of her offspring.

Ultimately, most attempts to intuit optimal strategies collapse in the arms race of evolution where traits such as infidelity, mate-poaching, sexual jealousy and monogamy are variably advantageous depending on population dynamics.

Overall, however, it is easy to see why pair-bonding and limerence have coupled to sexual desire as an effective strategy for reproductive success.

Limerence and the friendzone

We’ve all been there. Limerence is nucleating, and you are getting the euphoric thrill of connection with a new person. They are rapidly becoming your LO, and you are trying to gauge the degree of reciprocation. Every word, action, smile, laugh – all of it is fodder for your attempts to read their feelings for you.

It can go two ways.

Well, three.

OK, four at most, but two important ways.

1) They like you too.

Now begins the dance. How much do you push? You’re a limerent, so romantic restraint is not in your nature, but the world is also full of non-limerents and so you don’t want to blow it with being too keen. In fact, given the path to limerence, overkeenness would kill that too. So, you do enough to show interest, but not so much that they are spooked by your intensity. It’s a delicate balance, and if you play it too cool, you risk them misreading you. Too much deliberation, and you might start to lose their good opinion. What to do?

2) They don’t like you like that.

No spark. Which means, no glimmer, which means no mutual limerence for you. Drat. But they want to be friends, and you do get on well…

It’s tough to handle the early stages of limerence. In both these scenarios, there is the risk that you will miss your window of opportunity, and instead end up in the Dreaded Friendzone.

What is the friendzone? It’s the term people use to describe their inability to manage their romantic lives purposefully.

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Ouch. Burn.

OK, that sounds harsh.

But it is true.

For a limerent, the friendzone (“real” definition here) is an absurd place to be. If you have felt the glimmer for someone and then settled into a prolonged friendship with them you are basically an addict who thinks they can get away with irregularly sampling their drug of choice on someone else’s schedule without craving more. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you cannot be an authentic friend to an LO. You are too invested, and there is an asymmetry in desire that is dishonest to conceal. You know what limerence feels like, and you know that it cannot be gently cultivated over a prolonged period by cleverly demonstrating your virtue as a worthwhile friend. It doesn’t work like that.

Now, some people could rightly protest that their LO initially seemed really keen, and then, once the limerent was hooked, seemed to cool, and act a bit weird. But by now you are hooked, and they really seem to like you as a friend. I mean, they’re hugging you and telling you how sensitive you are and gratefully accepting favours. You can’t read the mixed messages!

Yeah – I think you can read those messages, actually, and they say that your friend is pretty manipulative and is stringing you along for those favours (or for shits and giggles). We could get into a discussion about narcissism, and if you were really hurting, you might start to judge large numbers of other humans with similar features to your LO (based on e.g. the anatomical configuration of their genitalia) as being temperamentally manipulative and narcissistic. But deep down, you probably know that what’s happened is you’ve become limerent for someone who is actually quite selfish and unpleasant.

How to avoid the friendzone

Given how tricky it is to find the perfect game plan to avoid relegation to the friendzone, what can be done to avoid it? Happily, it’s really simple (but not necessarily easy):

Don’t play games.

Seriously. If you have feelings for somebody, tell them. You don’t need to be all gushing and romantic. I caution against the use of mood music. Just be straightforward and honest. Your heart will be hammering like a bastard, but you know who never ends up in the friendzone? The person that, once they’ve realised they’re feeling the glimmer, just outright says something like “You know LO, you’re pretty dazzling. I’d like to be more than friends with you.”

A quick, direct route to discover if case 1 or case 2 applies. Then you can decide what to do next. And whatever it is, do it with the same purpose as everything else in your life.

Hard choices

Here’s a great presentation by the philosopher Ruth Chang on how the choices we make create the distinct person that we are.

It’s not specific to limerence, of course – more related to the concept of living a purposeful life. The basic message is that when faced with a hard choice (defined as one in which it is not possible to identify a superior option, because each depends on a nebulous collection of unknowable and parallel outcomes), it is an opportunity to both decide the kind of person that we are, and assert it through our actions. Our hard choices define us – both by communicating to others who we are, but also by literally reshaping our lives through the outcomes of the choice that we commit to.

Good brain food.

 

Integrity

Integrity, n.

1 Moral uprightness; honesty. 2 wholeness; soundness.

Concise OED 

How does integrity relate to limerence? I think both meanings are relevant. The first relates to leading a purposeful life, and the second comes from protecting oneself from external stressors (such as LOs). Let me expand.

1) Living with integrity

When faced with difficult, confusing or conflicting desires, it is easy to become paralysed by indecision. One reliable shortcut for making the right decision is to choose the option that is consistent with acting with integrity. This might not be the easiest option. For example: when trying to choose between setting up a business selling hyped-up “nutritional supplements” or one selling exercise training programmes, you choose the latter because it doesn’t involve misleading people. If choosing between deepening an emotional affair or going no contact with LO, you choose no contact. If both options are ethically neutral then choose the one that is more likely to allow you to feel pride in yourself.

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Within the sensible limits imposed by vulgarity

The choice of integrity does not always mean doing things for other people. Integrity is not obedience. If your boss asks you to do something distasteful or unscrupulous, it is appropriate to say no. Similarly, if you are offered a job by a competitor employer, it is not a sign of integrity to refuse because of the commitment you made to your current employer. In a transactional relationship, moving on or renegotiating is legitimate. Where integrity may be strained would be accepting the new job without intending to do it, so you can leverage against your current employer. Not illegal – not even unethical – and certainly advocated by many, but not a choice of high integrity. Similarly in personal relationships, doing someone a favour because they are a friend is a fine principle, but if the friend is asking you to cover for them (providing an alibi for an affair, for example) then choose not to do it. No need to lecture the friend, just a simple “I am not willing to do that.”

So why would the “integrity choice” be the right one? The benefits of this approach are manifold.

First, you can live with the knowledge that you are a decent human being, and you should not underestimate the impact that has on your wellbeing.

Second, if consistently applied, other people will come to think of you as a person of integrity. Again, it is easy to underestimate the impact this has on your life. Trust is a hugely important aspect of all interpersonal relationships of value. Once lost, it is very hard to regain.

Third, it draws other decent people to you. If you role model integrity (simply by exhibiting it) then people that value the trait will be attracted to you. It is one of the most reliable ways of excluding spivs and players from your life: make it clear from your actions and opinions that you do not cut corners, blur ethics, push boundaries, or lie to get what you want. This also plays out in romantic relationships – avoid the game playing and you will make players uncomfortable, and so cleverly select out the decent people that are worth bonding with.

A helpful consequence of this approach to life is that shady LOs will also be put off by your straightforwardness and honesty, saving you from becoming limerent for an arsehole.

2) Integrity of self

The second meaning of integrity is also apt for living with limerence. Integrity as wholeness, without division or fracture, is another protection against the danger of unworthy LOs. An intact self-image, resilient to external forces, is a stable state to aspire to, and a good guard against attempts to break down your confidence or self-belief. How does one cultivate this sort of integrity? Well, curiously enough, from practicing the first form of integrity.

We all of us have wounds. Past experiences that have undermined our confidence in ourselves, shaken our self-esteem, and led us to make poor decisions that we regret – often for a long time. Sometimes, these wounds are very deep and profound, and can be astonishingly hard to overcome at an emotional level. Living with integrity can help with this. Most of us have a fairly clear ethical and moral framework – even if we can’t necessarily articulate it well or deal with clever-clever “what if?” scenarios that exercise the philosophers. For everyday choices, most people have a clear view of right and wrong. Do not take the £20 note that the person in front of you just dropped – return it to them, even if they are ungrateful about it. Do not string along someone who is attracted to you if you are not attracted to them. Do not trick someone who is confused into doing something in your interests and against theirs. Simple stuff.

Choosing to do the right thing does not take a lot of emotional energy. There is no need to deliberate for long. If you become conflicted, short-circuit the emotional confusion by choosing the course of integrity. You may not always benefit financially, or always outwit the conman, or “win” in some perceived game of oneupmanship against the rest of the world, but you will know that you have integrity.

That sense of confidence, wholeness and satisfaction with who you are, comes from action – deliberate, purposeful action – not from words or thoughts. Or from other people. This is a mistake that a lot of limerents make: if only they can fuse with LO then at last they will have purpose and self-confidence because at last they will have affirmation of their value – and from their beloved LO. But it’s a fool’s errand, because if you rely on other people for your self-confidence they can undermine it just as easily as bolster it.

The only safe way to build self-confidence, to build integrity against emotional attack, is to consistently act in a way that your subconscious mind will know is the principled and morally-sound choice. After adopting that method as a life choice, slowly but surely you will  programme yourself to do it from habit, and the foundation of self-esteem (true self-esteem based on actually being someone admirable) is laid.

So, integrity. One meaning flows from the other, and both can protect you against the vagaries of an LO’s behaviour.

Article on limerence as pathology

Here’s an interesting article from The Week that outlines some of the history of Dorothy Tennov’s work, and the current tendency to push limerence as a term reserved for pathological obsessive love.

As I’ve said before, I’m not convinced of the value of rebranding limerence as a disorder, as it is a normal part of many people’s experience of love. Tennov certainly didn’t intend this meaning. It will be interesting to see how the field develops.

The two tribes

In her landmark book, Dorothy Tennov described how she had crystallised the concept of limerence around an interaction with a friend (who she liked and admired) on a plane journey, in which she came to realise that her friend had never experienced the suite of emotional sensations that she associated with infatuation. For the first time, Tennov understood that there were people who did not feel this obsessive need for another person – that even in the heart of a love affair, they did not experience the intrusive thoughts and desperate craving for reciprocation that she had assumed everyone experienced during the early stages of romantic love.

This discovery of non-limerents came to inform a lot of the analysis of limerence that Tennov carried out. What was it that distinguished limerents from non-limerents? Could people be non-limerent for most of their lives, but then unexpectedly experience it with the right LO? Could people be limerent for more than one person at a time, or more than one gender? It was one of those moments in research where the observation of the counter-example – the mutant that lacks the phenotype you are studying – helps illuminate the mechanics of the phenomenon you are interested in.

On reflection, it is perhaps not too surprising that the existence of non-limerents had gone unnoticed for so long. From the perspective of a limerent, popular culture makes perfect sense: all those pop songs and novels and films depicting soul-consuming love fit comfortably into the limerent’s life experience. Non-limerents, however, may be a bit more confused. But like any cultural phenomenon that others rave about, most likely the non-limerents just assume people are exaggerating. When asked what they thought was going on in romantic comedies, non-limerents may reply that they treated it just like an action movie – an unreal but entertaining embellishment of what is actually possible for humans to experience.

For me, the best analogy I can come up with is my response to sport. As a kid I played football for my local team, even getting as far as the county championship and winning a few plastic-gold trophies. I also went to matches, and hoped that my team would win. But when I looked around me at the grown men and women who were obviously so much more emotionally invested that I was, I wondered why they were pretending to be moved by deep emotions.

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What am I missing?

I can remember being at University and wondering why the streets were so deserted one night, to find that every bar was filled with people anxiously watching England play in the European championship. I grasped then that a substantial fraction of the population genuinely and sincerely cared about the eleven strangers on the pitch kicking a ball around. Indeed, my last LO told me that she had cried when her team had been knocked out of a tournament (I forget which – tellingly). She shed honest, heartfelt tears of loss.

I lack that trait. I just can’t muster the emotions. It’s some blokes kicking a ball around for massive salaries, and it has basically no bearing on my life. I kind of want my country to win, but actually, I also quite like it when they lose quickly and the national fervour subsides.

So, that for me seems a good analogue for non-limerence – accepting that everyone else really does feel these things, even if you don’t yourself, and assuming that that is the normal variation that makes us different and contributes to life’s rich pageant.

Now, with time to reflect further, I am really very interested in how common non-limerence is. Is this genuinely a trait that splits fairly evenly through the population (as Tennov seemed to assume), or does everyone have some degree of limerence? In the parlance of biology – is limerence a dimorphism (like sex) or a continuous trait (like height)?

In a previous post I suggested that the existence of limerents and non-limerents in a population is likely to be an evolutionarily stable scenario – but how would a continuum of limerence work?

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for these questions. As I’ve previously lamented, limerence has not been studied in much detail since Tennov established the concept, and where it has, it has largely been from the perspective of a mental disorder. Anecdotally, people do seem to either immediately relate to the description of limerence, or shake their heads in wonder. But that could be confounded by the same cultural forces as football fanaticism: those with a predisposition to like it get drawn into the tribe and validated and reinforced by camaraderie, those without the predisposition feel excluded from the tribe. Many also have the experience of “trying it out” though, and attempting to cultivate a love of sweaty men being kicky, but fail. So, do they lack the ability altogether?

Why does any of this matter? I would argue that it matters because our understanding of how to relate to other people depends critically on tribalism and our ability to predict how others will respond to our disclosure of limerence, how to moderate our own limerence, and whether it is possible to cultivate it in others or whether we should save ourselves the heartache and only seek limerents (or non-limerents) for our partners.

A good example of how this can come to bear on our emotional health are the frequent attempts by various gurus to devalue limerence as infantile or retarded love. From a non-limerent’s perspective, this makes perfect sense: there is no need to become so needy and obsessed, so obviously those people are less developed or liberated than I am. Monogamy is unnatural, and a product of jealousy. And jealousy is objectively bad, and so I am right. You should have sex with me.

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I’m paraphrasing slightly.

A limerent who lacks confidence or self-awareness can easily be drawn into the logic of such an argument, and try to deny their limerent tendencies in a bid for enlightenment. This could make sense if limerence was a continuum and we could strive to minimise it as a goal, but it makes a lot less sense if limerence is dimorphic and there are two distinct populations (with variation therein). In that case, this argument is probably closer to the “pray the gay away” mentality – that limerence is a lifestyle choice that can be eliminated by willpower.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the best response to limerence depends on the prevalence of the two “phenotypes” that Tennov outlined. If non-limerents are approximately as common as limerents, then the likeliest strategy for finding happiness would be based around tribal compatibility. Non-limerents are likely to always find the obsession of limerents tiresome. Limerents are likely to always find the lack of obsessive reciprocation from non-limerents distressing. However, if non-limerents are a relatively minor population – like asexuals, for example – then it’s a reasonable assumption that any given person that you meet has the potential to be limerent for you. Non-limerents would need to respond thoughtfully to this scenario and adapt their expectations to match.

I’d love to know how prevalent non-limerence is.

Maybe I should start a survey…

 

Help! Someone is limerent for me…

That laugh was a bit loud for your feeble joke, wasn’t it? That gaze was quite prolonged. Why do they keep touching their hair? Is their hand shaking? Why have they bought you a gift?

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Just a little something to say thanks! I hardly went to any trouble.

So. You think someone might be limerent for you. What can you do?

Here is a step by step guide for how to cope.

1) Are you limerent for them?

If yes – you lucky devil! Bliss awaits. Unless of course you are already married. Or they are. If so, read this and this.

If no – oh dear. You are going to cause someone pain. Sorry. Keep reading to find out how to minimise it.

2) Have you ever experienced limerence?

If yes – you know what they are going through. Show empathy. Go to 3.

If no – believe me when I tell you that your intuition is probably not going to be a good guide on how to handle this. Go immediately to 3.

3) Are you in a professional or educational relationship with them, that has a power imbalance?

If yes – Stop talking about personal stuff. Do not spend unnecessary time with them outside of the professional needs of the job. Go to 4.

If no – Phew. That makes things simpler. Go to 4.

4) Have they disclosed their feelings to you?

If yes – Communicate to them in clear terms that you do not reciprocate their feelings. Do not try to spare their feelings by giving vague or non-committal responses. You are not lessening their pain by “letting them down gently”, you are prolonging their limerence through ambiguity. Go to 6.

If no – Consider asking them directly how they feel about you. Radical honesty can be surprisingly effective in resolving life difficulties. High risk, though. If you don’t fancy it, go to 5.

5) Are you enjoying the attention?

If yes – well, I suppose that’s natural. It would be quite flattering. Don’t milk it though. No need to be a greedy narc. Go to 6.

If no – avoid their company. Don’t worry about hurting their feelings; they already hurt like mad, and you’re making it easier for them to get over you. Go to 7.

6) Do you want them to remain limerent for you?

If yes – you’re a narcissist. Go and take a look in the mirror and repeat the mantra “I suck. Every day I will strive to be less selfish.”

If no – Good for you. Go to 7.

7) Is it possible for you to go completely “no contact” with the limerent?

If yes – do so. Your problem is over. Congratulations!

If no – I’m afraid you’ll just have to weather this one. Their limerence will fade eventually. Until then, don’t give any mixed messages or try to be their friend. They won’t be able to manage it, and you’ll have to put up with their weirdness for longer.

 

As a limerent, I would like to thank all those non-limerents out there who already follow these rules of thumb. You’re doing a solid job of being a thoughtful human. Cheers.

Therapy for limerence

Much of the discussion about limerence in psychological circles explicitly pathologies it as an experience, and works from the premise that it is a mental disorder arising from an underlying trauma that has caused an inability to love in a healthy way. This school of thought often focuses on early life bonding, and the assumption that disordered attachment of some sort has caused an abnormal or exaggerated need to seek affirmation from a romantic partner to compensate for the “failure” of early bonding. A corollary is that we become limerent for people that mirror our childhood experience of love, and so seek them with terrible emotional urgency, in an attempt to relive the childhood trauma and correct it through successful adult bonding. In the crudest terms – to make mummy or daddy love us properly this time.

Following from this premise, therapy is strongly recommended as a strategy to overcome our past trauma, recognise our pathological thought patterns, and liberate ourselves from the tyranny of limerence.

I am not anti-therapy, but I do have some serious concerns with this perspective. First, Tennov herself outlines in Love and Limerence some cases where inappropriate therapy caused astonishing harm to limerents. In the most chilling example, she relates the case of a mother who was directed to enter psychoanalysis herself because of behavioural problems that her son was having at school – the presumed “reasoning” being everything is always the mother’s fault. What happened during the sessions was that the woman became limerent for her therapist, who celebrated this as constructive transference, and continued in a ongoing (time consuming and expensive) programme of analysis that drove the frantic limerent to attempted suicide. A less than stellar outcome that did little to help with the son’s behavioural issues.

The larger issue illustrated by this case is whether limerence is truly a pathology that needs treatment. If, instead, limerence is a normal physiological process that is rooted in our evolutionary history (rather than personal psychological history), then attempting to frame it in a context of childhood trauma is counterproductive at best. Explanatory frameworks are useful insofar as they can be tested – if they apply to every situation then they explain everything and nothing.

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Got my tool. Time to find some nails.

 

If, as Tennov suggested (and I would argue), limerence is a physiological process akin to sexual arousal or the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, then attempting to understand it from the perspective of psychological wounding could be misguided and harmful. The search for the cause of limerence, and its suggested treatment through talking therapies, is disease mongering; something that the pharmaceutical companies are rightly chastised for. I’m all for self-awareness, but whether a particular charismatic therapist is the best guide to reach that destination is another matter. Especially if they have a fixed view that all romantic distress is a manifestation of disordered bonding. Would you trust a medicines pedlar who claimed to have a panacea to all ills, or would you suspect that it’s a bit more complicated than that?

Limerence can manifestly be a positive and rewarding experience, and is easily understood as giving a survival benefit. Like any physiological process, dysfunction can lead to disease – the issue is whether limerence is the disease. Do we need to be cured of limerence, or do we need to accept it as an aspect of ourselves as natural as any other emotion?

Embark on therapy with caution. A theoretical framework that cannot be falsified is impossible to verify. Insight can undoubtedly come from examining our histories and our emotional landscape, but harm can be done by pathologising a natural process and reaching for a cure-all explanation for adult difficulties based on imperfect childhoods. Accepting uncertainty is necessary for growth – we can understand ourselves without being able to explain all of the causative factors that have made us as we are. The key benefit of therapy is to know ourselves better, to understand our drives and to guide future behaviour in a constructive direction. A bad therapist, or a therapist with an idée fixe every bit as immovable as limerence itself, can be actively harmful.