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…

 

4 thoughts on “The two tribes

  1. Thank you for everything you’ve written.
    It is being a big help.
    I would love to hear from your wife as to how she lives both her own limerence, and yours.
    We find ourselves in a similar position, and I have a lot of questions.

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    • Hi AV,

      I did talk to my wife about your question. She says that mutual respect and honest communication are the heart of coping with limerence when married, and I would agree!
      I also think there is an analogy to people with high libidos – they have to find strategies for coping with that aspect of themselves without undermining their loving relationship. A glance at any agony aunt column will confirm that coping with mismatched libidos is non-trivial. I think the same is true for limerence.

      Like

    • Hi DJ,

      He may well do – I’ve not seen that specific estimate, but Wakin has proposed redefining limerence to only cover the pathological state of debilitating obsession that lasts beyond the initial stages when “healthy” love would have settled down. So, he’s not using the term in the sense that Tennov did (or I have). I think many more people experience limerence in the early stages of love.

      Like

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