The three phases of limerence

Here’s a good podcast about limerence from Joe Beam, a marriage counsellor in the US.

It’s quite long, but worth it because there are a few real gems. The topic of discussion is focussed on married people, mainly how and why limerence affairs happen, but it has some insights into the phenomenon of limerence generally. In particular, he discusses the path of co-limerence and identifies three stages to the typical mutual limerence dance:

1) Infatuation

This is the “getting to know you” phase, where you start to really notice the LO and start to feel they are special. Joe Beam frames this in terms of an unconscious need of the limerent to feel worthy of being loved. It’s fed by a sense of connection and emotional bonding, and the desire to spend time with the LO who makes the limerent feel safe and motivated to share emotional intimacies.

2) Crystallisation

This is the full blown limerence response – so the full complement of traits. In the case of the limerence affair, this will also include the rewriting of history about the limerent’s marriage. It can also be characterised by a striking fear of loss. While this is a feature of all limerence, the precarious and dishonest basis of an affair likely heightens the fear. Which can reinforce the limerence.

3) Deterioration

As the name suggests, this is the phase where limerence decays. After a period in phase 2, the limerent starts to lose the urge to idealise the LO’s behaviour. The “halo effect” is tarnished, and the limerent begins to properly see the flaws of the LO. Again, in the case of an affair – especially one that causes the breakdown of the marriage – this is likely to be exaggerated. This heightened devaluation is well captured by the portentous phrase “look what you cost me”.

It’s an interesting framework, and no doubt evolved from his work with married couples. I’m not sure it’s universally useful as a way of understanding limerence, but it does give a good roadmap for how an affair is likely to play out if limerence is the trigger.


Downhill, basically

There were a few other observations that struck me as particularly powerful. The first was the potency of the first moment of deceit. As he explains, there will come a point in the infatuation phase where you are spending a lot of time with LO and bonding emotionally. People will notice. Co-workers, friends, spouses – whoever – and someone will ask a question, make a comment, or tease you. And you will minimise it, or laugh it off, or flat-out lie. You may even take steps to be more discreet. Not end the emotional affair of course, not stop seeing LO, but perhaps meet for coffee at a new café, or arrive separately, or change your schedule. You know, to stop people gossiping.

That’s it.

That’s the point that you know for sure you are not “just friends”.

The second observation that struck me was the fact that mutual limerence is often mistimed. One person becomes limerent faster than the other, and then tries to drag the other out of phase 1 and into phase 2 with them. Ironically enough, he also suggests there is a tendency for “first in first out”, as the same (hasty) limerent goes into phase 3 faster too. Of course, the poor slowcoach limerent is then desperate, and tries everything they can to get their LO back into phase 2. Which accelerates the deterioration, usually.

Finally, a big kicker comes from his observation that limerence literally changes you. “You’re not the man I first met,” is not just a barb from an LO in phase 3; it’s the truth. To cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by an affair (I am a good person, but I am betraying my spouse) requires either a reconceptualisation of the limerent’s self-worth and realisation that they are not behaving like a good person (yeah, right), or a change in their value system and moral compass (everyone has affairs; true love is more important than duty; monogamy is unnatural). To maintain self-worth while totally inverting their emotional loyalties requires rewriting pretty major aspects of their identity.

Weighty stuff.


What to do if you are married but limerent for someone else

Following on from musings about midlife, one of the commonest problems that more mature limerents face is falling for a new LO when committed to someone else. This is hard enough to deal with in a simple monogamous relationship, but when commitment has led you to marriage and children and joint assets and lives intertwined like the Gordian knot, it can be especially challenging.

So, what should you do if you are married but limerent for someone else? The answer to this question depends a lot on the nature of your marriage, and also on your personal “limerence profile”, and what you want from life. In the manner beloved of therapists everywhere, I plan to answer this key question by asking questions.

1) Do you become limerent very readily?

If so, you probably have experience by now of multiple rides on the limerent-while-married merry-go-round. Managing this is similar to the challenge faced by high-libido folks in a world full of gorgeous people – find coping strategies to manage your urges in a way that doesn’t wreak destruction on the people around you (and yourself). If your goal is to have a stable, loving relationship with your spouse, then you need to accept that you must have a plan for how to interact with potential LOs that limits the risk of escalating attraction. Common strategies would be avoiding contact, avoiding discussion of emotionally-charged topics, and adopting a guarded, defensive mindset when interacting with that person. This is likely to make your company fairly flat (or even difficult) for LO – which is a good thing for you as they are less likely to dazzle you up. If this is an unbearable prospect, then you may have to reconsider whether you are able to lead a monogamous life. If you are not, please discuss this with your spouse before unilaterally embarking on a post-monogamy lifestyle.

If you are an infrequent limerent, and have had few LOs in your life, then there is a greater risk that the re-emergence of limerence will knock you for six emotionally. The specialness of the experience, and the specialness of LO, can seem much more dramatic by virtue of its rarity. Particular care is needed in these cases to maintain clarity of thought when making big decisions about your future.

2) Were you limerent for your spouse?

One mechanism for orientating yourself during the maelstrom of limerence is to think back to how you felt about your spouse in the Early Days. Were you limerent for them? If so, then you can reassure yourself that you picked a brilliant sparkly true-love match, and that now you have simply moved into a more mature phase of affectional bonding. There are lots of amazing people in the world. Many of them are potential LOs. If your spouse was one, then you know what the progression of love is like: dizzying limerence leading to pair bonding, but fading with time and familiarity. That pattern is likely to repeat if you start a new dizzying limerence affair with LO of the moment. So, you will be sacrificing your current marriage (kids, financial stability) for going back to square one and starting over. While older.

If, in contrast, you weren’t limerent for your spouse, then there’s no two ways about it: in terms of glamour they are going to suffer by comparison to LO. Now, depending on your individual circumstances, this may be a good thing. If you are one of those unfortunate souls that become limerent for narcissists or other personality-disordered types it is a Good Thing to bond with someone less glamorous but emotionally stable and giving. People are complicated, though, and there are a lot of strange chains of events that lead people to marry for reasons other than love or limerence. Then, the glamour of LO can make you feel that this is your chance to really experience blissful union. Perhaps the best way to determine how to proceed is to ask the big question…

3) How was your marriage before the limerence began?

Honest appraisal time. Can you determine cause and effect? Have you become limerent for someone else because you were unhappy in your marriage, or have you become unhappy in your marriage because you have become limerent for someone else? A guiding principle in answering this question is that when you are limerent YOUR JUDGEMENT IS IMPAIRED (sorry for shouting). Seriously, your brain is currently awash with a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that evolved to try and compel you to bond with a mate. The demands and responsibilities of adult human life transcend this (or should). You need to compensate for the strength of your feelings with reason. Emotions have a much greater impact on decision making than most people think. You need to be as objective as you can in assessing the true emotional context of your relationship before the new centre of gravity skewed your orbit.

Were you happy? Did you and your spouse have healthy mutual respect and love? Did you support each other – and was there reciprocation of care and consideration? Now, most relationships fall short of these ideals from time to time, but the foundation of mutual respect and affection is the key. Were you a positive force in your spouse’s life, helping them to thrive and be fulfilled? Were they a positive force in your life? If you answer no to these questions, the next question is why? Was it distraction and neglect and the loss of a previous good connection or… is there a fundamental incompatibility? We all know that the mad bliss of limerence cannot last. And it would be exhausting. Most people buy into the goal of happily ever after, not intoxicatedly ever after. If that’s your goal, a clear sighted review of the past of your marriage will probably help predict the future.


Oh, it’s very sweet, Bob, but… every year?

4) How are you currently relating to your spouse?

Limerence makes you resent the people that stand between you and your LO fix. Combined with the idealisation of LO and devaluation of boring familiar family life, this can lead to a negative feedback loop where your spouse becomes the enemy. Your spouse – and especially your children – are not the enemy. This trap is in your mind, and you need to escape it. If you are being a crap spouse, then obviously the marriage will continue to deteriorate and of course confirm the superiority of LO (who you only see at their best and most sparkly and novel). You need to re-value your spouse. Your response to question 3 can guide this, but the major point is: if you are currently treating them like a barrier to your happiness, your marriage is pretty much doomed. Get away from LO and try treating your spouse like the most important person in your life, whose happiness is a major priority for you. You know. Like they should be.

5) Would you leave your marriage if you knew for sure that LO would reject you?

If not, why not? Because you are fearful of being alone? Or because you’ll settle for spouse until the next LO who might accept you comes along? It should probably be clear that these are not good reasons for marriage. Always assume that LO will reject you. If you still mostly want to leave, that’s a pretty good indicator that things are bad with the union.

6) Are you living with purpose?

My perennial theme, and the sneaky basis for all the foregoing questions. Are you willing to let LO determine how your life and marriage proceed? Are you going to move through life responding to emotional disturbances in a reactive, fatalistic way? Or are you going to take responsibility for your decisions, and acknowledge that making a commitment sometimes means doing the right thing even when it’s not easy? Carrying on in a fog of indecision and anxiety is no way to live. You need to respect yourself and your spouse and make a decision. And probably, honestly, deep down, you know what the right decision is. The one that will lead to a future in which your self esteem and wellbeing are determined by the actions you take and what they say about you as a person. That may mean staying in your marriage, learning from your limerence experience, dissociating from LO, and understanding yourself and your spouse better. Or it may mean leaving an unhappy marriage that you have been trying to keep alive for too long and admitting to yourself that it hasn’t worked out and this isn’t a shameful failure, it’s life.

If you keep drifting along in limbo, too starstruck and addict-selfish to recommit to your spouse, or too hidebound to leave an unhealthy (but probably strangely comfortable) marriage, other people will be making the decisions about how your life unfolds. Dithering about something this fundamental is the opposite of purposeful living, and an invitation for ongoing limerence.

Phew; a long and serious post. To end, here’s my bullet point list of How To Get Through All This:

  • Decide to live your life with purpose.
  • If you can possibly go no contact with LO while you figure this out, do.
  • Honestly evaluate whether your marriage has a future, based on an honest evaluation of its past.
  • If it does, commit to it properly and fully, and prioritise your spouse’s feelings over your limerence.
  • Part of that commitment should be honest communication. If you need to disclose, do it to your spouse but not your LO.
  • Good luck and godspeed to the far side.