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.

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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.

 

2 thoughts on “The three phases of limerence

  1. He nailed it.

    The only thing that doesn’t match my experience is the fear element. In my case, my anxiety didn’t increase when I thought she was distancing, my anxiety went up when she wanted to get closer. I was sad when she distanced but I didn’t lose any sleep like I did when she was approaching.

    I knew I crossed the line a long time ago. I encountered LO #3 when I was trying to understand my relationship decades ago with LO#1. My sensors were kind of dialed into LO#1 and LO #3 reminded me of her. As unflattering as it’s going to sound, It looks like I was using LO #3 as the “guilty pleasure” you describe a few blogs ago. She was in a relationship, I’m married, we’re geographically separated, she made a great “What If?” There were problems in my marriage and one of the kids has some medical issues we’re dealing with. I could retreat into my head with LO#3 at what I thought was no risk.

    I went to see the therapist less than 2 weeks after LO told me her relationship had ended and I went from an email/month to every other day or more. The therapist read the email and asked if my wife knew about this. I told her my wife knew of my acquaintance with the LO but not the extent of it. The therapist said, “So, you’re hiding this relationship from your wife.” I told her that I’d never met the LO, never actually spoken to her, and we were on opposite coasts. I told the therapist that we weren’t in a relationship. She looked at the email and said, “Oh, yes, you are.”

    In her goodbye, LO said if we had to hide our correspondence from my wife, it wasn’t good. That was a year after I had seen the therapist. The “squiggly line” is an apt description of the time in between the two.

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  2. Yeah, the “squiggly line” bit was good too – emphasising the ups and downs and that it’s not a linear process. For me, I started to realise that I was controlling many of the squiggles. If I indulged the desire to ruminate and daydream, it inevitably led to a deepening of limerent feelings, and a positive feedback spiral. If I caught myself and cut it off, the urgency of the limerent need lessened considerably.

    A reminder that limerence flowers in the fertile ground of our own imaginations.

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