Therapy for limerence

Much of the discussion about limerence in psychological circles explicitly pathologises 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.

8 thoughts on “Therapy for limerence

  1. I worked with a therapist when I started going down the rabbit hole with the last LO. I saw it coming and, in spite of all the warnings going off in my head, felt compelled to keep going. One interesting tidbit to come out of all this was in terms of risk, my first LO was more of an actual threat but the consequences as a single man were far less. With the latest LO, the relationship being entirely virtual made her less of a threat but as a married man, the potential consequences were far greater. Even knowing that I was doing something that would cause my wife great pain and damage my marriage, all for nothing in return from the LO, there was something in me that found it really hard to let her go. I needed professional help to find out why that was and went back to the therapist about 6 months after going NC with the LO.

    The therapist was pretty solid. She recommended severing all contact and explored my attraction to her and damsels in distress in general. I think she was correct in those areas. Where I think she missed the boat was she didn’t understand limerence. She pegged me as a codependent. I did a lot of research into codependence and it didn’t seem like the right fit. The dynamics of a codependent relationship weren’t there. That’s when I found out about limerence. I discussed limerence with the therapist. She didn’t know much about it but said if it explained my circumstances and supported doing the right thing, she didn’t have a problem with it.

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    • Sounds like a good therapist – in the sense of focusing on the outcomes for you and not getting hung up on fitting you into the “codependent” box and treating that. Really interesting that you became limerent for someone online. At first I found that surprising (as you’d not have had the body language feedback of reciprocation – unless you Skyped?), but on reflection, it fits well with the “object” aspect of LO. Who better to project your emotional needs onto than a literal avatar?

      I think there are some similar stories about online dating – people that half fall in love with the person they have imagined up from the back-and-forth of private messages with a match, only to be hugely let down when they meet the actual person in real life. Apparently the dating pros know this phenomenon and avoid the “getting to know you via PM” phase of the courtship for exactly that reason…

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      • There was plenty of reciprocation but it was entirely virtual. What made this so interesting was that until her situation changed, we had a pretty good thing going. It wasn’t until she became “real” that things became a problem.

        – The woman I was dealing with has a large body of online work. She did a series of YouTube videos. I knew what she looked like and the sound of her voice.

        – She has a strong physical resemblance to LO #1. Toss in that I got the same vibe from her that I got from LO#1 and it was a powerful draw.

        – When I first started interacting with her online, I got an email from her that said, “Your contributions always seem to come in when I’m feeling really low and you always seem to know what to say to make me feel better. What do I telegraph to you?”

        – She liked what I had to say. She ran the website I was on. She published 3 articles on it and quoted me in hers. I became a moderator on her website for several years. It was heady stuff.

        – When the pooh hit the fan for her, she said I was “like a rock for her,” and said I was the person who opened her eyes to what was happening, that she was still “narc bait,” and she would always be grateful to me.

        – One odd kicker was that one of the other site moderators noticed something. One of the other moderators happened to be in my town and we got together. He asked how I met the LO and how long we’d known each other. I told him we’d never met and I’d only known her since I appeared on her site. He said that was hard to believe. He said that from the way we bantered on the site and what we talked about he would have assumed we had known each other a long time and were really close.

        – The therapist said, “Much of what you say about this woman isn’t very flattering.” I told her that I wasn’t trying to disparage the LO. The LO was attractive, intelligent, charming, and had a delightfully snarky sense of humor. The therapist said, “You’re not disparaging her, you’re defending her.” The therapist then ran off the list of less than stellar things I’d said about the LO. She concluded with, “Is is possible that this woman isn’t really who you think she is?” My response to that was that aside from my history, including with LOs and non-LOs of idealizing someone, probably not. She pushed the point and I told her that I get really disappointed when someone doesn’t live up to the expectations I expect but don’t communicate to them.

        – We’d known each other for several years and never broached the idea of actually talking to each other. A week after I told another mod I was detaching from the site, I got a FB friend request from the LO. I told my wife since the appearance of the LO on my FB page (12 friends) would stand out. My wife said go for it but I could tell from the follow-on questions that she was curious as to why I woman I’d known for years had decided to friend me after she broke up with her BF. I had a dream about the LO in which I almost drove my car off a cliff. I told the therapist and her comment was it didn’t take a gypsy to figure that one out.

        When exploring the attraction, the therapist said it appeared I was following a script that I’d developed in childhood. I have a “type” and we figured out what it was. The LOs were the same but the circumstances and the responses were different. We spent a lot of time working through that. She felt that now that I’d gotten rid of that baggage, recurrence was unlikely.

        Based on Attachment Theory, I am/was a dismissive-avoidant. LO #3 described herself as “an avoidant INTJ” and I’d bet lunch LO #1 was a fearful-avoidant. I have two professional “opinions” on LO #1. Since I was never able to get her in front on anybody that could render a diagnosis, I’ll go with that.

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      • Thanks for sharing your story, Sharnhorst. That does explain the online thing – clearly there was a lot more contact and feedback than just PMs.
        Of all the things you explained, this one really hit home for me:

        “Much of what you say about this woman isn’t very flattering.” I told her that I wasn’t trying to disparage the LO. The LO was attractive, intelligent, charming, and had a delightfully snarky sense of humor. The therapist said, “You’re not disparaging her, you’re defending her.”

        Fascinating that your therapist could piece together a picture of LO based on your description of her behaviour that was very different from your limerence-tinted view. A big step forward for me in my last limerence episode was judging LO’s behaviour objectively and not explaining it away while dazzled by idealisation.

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  2. The idealization was never a significant issue for me. I knew she was no Venus rising on a half-shell. I never thought I’d have to deal with the downside.

    While the limerence pot had been simmering for awhile, I don’t think either of us was looking for trouble. It was only after she broke up with her BF that things went south. One contributing factor in my favor was the LO wasn’t the first woman to reach out after her SO cheated on her, she was the third. The first time it happened the couple were close friends of mine and I tried to help. She showed up on my door late one night, told me what a great guy I was and asked if she could spend the night. I didn’t expect LO to show up on my door but she didn’t have to in order to throw a monkey wrench into my marriage. One compromised email would have done that. When I got the email telling me what happened, my reaction was to see a snowball coming down the hill at me. I didn’t want to attach to her and I didn’t want her attaching to me but we, or at least, I was a little late with that.

    What intensified the LE was that when she left her BF, she moved to within 15 miles from where I’d moved from. I could get to her with my eyes closed. I gave her restaurant recommendations and directions to stores. I knew what the sunrise would look like from her place. When I thought about meeting her for a drink, I knew exactly where it would be, the route to get there, the layout of the parking lot, what the setting sun looked like from the deck. She said in one of her emails that she liked the imagery in my emails to her.

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  3. I totally screwed this post up. I was switching between this and “Why is limerence so powerful?” and hit post on the wrong one. “Numinous” was in the other blog.

    The quote should be, “Put all of these factors together, and that there is some significant psychological heft.”

    No posting before the second cup of coffee….

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