Why is limerence so powerful?

When in the grip of limerence, all other concerns fade into the background. LO becomes the centre of your mental world. Ironically, the impact of this phenomenon can be most obvious after limerence has passed, and you are free to look back on the period of madness once normal service has been resumed in your psychological schedule. It can seem bizarre that you were so transported from your ordinary mind; embarrassing to recall how you behaved and how far from your previous moral framework you strayed while following your LO will-o’-the-wisp into the marshlands. Sometimes, it goes beyond embarrassment to deep regret. A case study in Tennov’s book illustrates this better than a thousand carefully chosen words:

“I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.”

So why is limerence so powerful? Why can it derail the otherwise steady progress of our lives so completely? How can it have such a potent hold on us? Is there a list coming after all these questions, by any chance?

yes-238371_640_resized

I think the power comes from a confluence of physiology, psychology, cultural conditioning, and deep-rooted emotional factors. So, quite a formidable bundle of interconnected issues.

1) It’s hard-wired into our brains

I’ve written before about how the pattern of limerence fits nicely into a model of positive reinforcement of pleasure, based on an intermittent reward schedule. The neurophysiology of reward is well understood, and a fundamental aspect of how the brain works. You can’t get around this one. You can certainly overwrite previous positive associations with new “instructions” to break the connection between LO and pleasure, but this takes time, and you cannot remove your capacity to link rewarding stimuli with pleasure-seeking behaviour. In fact, it’s a good job you can’t, as it is the basis of most learned behaviour. You need that reward circuitry, and so the challenge for limerents is to try and either reprogram it once it has become detrimental to wellbeing, or to be wary enough to prevent the cycle establishing in the first place.

2) It’s addictive

Pleasure seeking is well understood, but so is the danger of a transition occurring from pleasure to addiction and dependency. I think framing limerence as person addiction has great explanatory power. Although the mechanistic basis of addiction is still unclear, for substance abuse the transition is associated with a change from positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement (i.e. “the drugs make me feel good” changes to “without the drugs, I feel terrible”). This pattern is also very commonly experienced in limerence: we go from delighting in the LO’s intoxicating company because it makes us feel more vital and energised, to craving their company and suffering anxiety and obsessive thoughts in their absence. Basically, it gets you on the way up and the way down. Again, this is reflective of a bidirectional link between psychology and physiology that is not easily overcome.

3) It’s romantic

The idea of a one true love is so deeply embedded in our cultural heritage in the West that limerence makes us feel validated and connected to generations of strangers at a profound level – one which transcends time and place. We recognise our own desperate romantic longings in the protagonists of great literature, poetry, songs (and Disney cartoons). Developing limerence makes us see in ourselves the same drives, the same untameable hunger, that has shaped the collective cultural consciousness of our societies over centuries. The sudden recognition of the ideal other, who holds the promise of happily ever after, assures us that it is all of it true, this bedrock of stories with which we have founded our social world. That we belong in it. And that we have found the person that can make our own personal story into an epic myth.

4) It fits the “rescue fantasy” ideal

Closely linked in with such romantic notions is the idea of the “rescue fantasy”. This was originally coined as a term by Freud, and related to male patients who “repeatedly fall in love with a woman who is ‘of bad repute sexually’ and ‘to whom another man can claim right of possession’.” [link]

sigmund-freud-400399_640_resized

It’s never just a cigar with you, is it?

Since then, the term has broadened to mean any fantasy in which the limerent is either rescued by a heroic LO (the handsome billionaire, or nurturing girl next door), or rescues a suffering LO themselves (from an unhappy marriage, or low self-esteem). These sorts of fantasies can really cement the connection to LO, and fulfill a deep-rooted emotional need in the limerent. For the sake of this discussion, the origin of this emotional need is immaterial (though, interestingly, it’s often also seen as a driving force for therapists; who can no doubt offer all sorts of explanations as to origins), but becoming limerent for someone who offers the chance of meeting that need amplifies the potency of the limerent connection.

5) It’s numinous

I’m not a religious person, but can understand some of the reasons why religions hold such power. One is the experience of numinousness. Not a commonly used term, so I’ll defer to the OED:

numinous adj. 1 indicating the presence of a divinity. 2 spiritual. 3 awe-inspiring.

For many limerents, the emotional overload of LO’s company can feel like a transcendent, quasi-spiritual experience. Really, this is where notions of true love come from – as though an external force more powerful than yourself has overtaken you, transported you, and upended all your previous certainties. “This was meant to be”. Ideas of Cupid, love spells or potions, and “a power greater than either of us” are all reflections of the fact that limerence can feel as though it originates outside of us and overwhelms our self-control. People talk about feeling a connection to the divine when in love, and for limerents, this usually means the initial period of infatuation. For limerents of a spiritual tendency, the “rightness” of feelings for LO can be reinforced by this sense of spiritual connectedness. Maybe even seen as an indicator that God validates their love. Even for atheist limerents, the sense of the numinous can be a powerfully heady experience, even though they don’t invent a Godly explanation for it.

Put all of these factors together, and that there is some significant psychological heft. It’s really not surprising that the emotional grip of limerence is so strong – so, you know, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling through it. There are tactics that can help with each of these factors, some of which I’ve written about before. But, if you really want to get your limerence under control, and find ways to strategically unleash it appropriately, your only real hope is to do the hard work of self analysis needed to uncouple all of these interconnected factors and understand how each of them is driving your current behaviour. No small matter, but then, nothing worthwhile ever is. And it does have the happy benefit of setting you up for a fulfilling and successful life!

Jealousy

Post stimulated by comment by Sharnhorst. Thanks Sharnhorst!

Is jealousy an inevitable part of limerence? I may be wrong, but to me limerence without the desire for exclusivity seems to be a contradiction in terms. The sense of “special connection” is so powerful and so central a feature of limerence, that the idea of your LO being with another partner brings a particularly exquisite stab of pain. This fits with the notion of limerence as a mechanism for pair bonding: the prospect of losing the bond triggers severe distress.

But as with all things human, it’s complicated. For those of us who’ve been through a few limerence cycles, the experience can be surprisingly different with different LOs. Jealousy is a product of multiple factors: anger, insecurity, control issues, sexual jealousy, fear, low self-esteem, and – sometimes – accurately recognising that your partner is a lying, inconstant son-or-daughter-of-a-bitch. How different factors intersect will likely determine your emotional response, and how severe the jealousy provoked by LO being flirty with others is. For example:

1) Where you are in the limerence cycle.

Early or late in the progression of limerence, it is likely that you could cope with ambivalence from LO with more equanimity. In the early stages, you’re probably busy idealising them, and so even their flirting with other people can be framed as evidence of their special sensitivity or need for love. Towards the end, you are probably emerging from the madness and able to be more high-minded about LO showing interest in others. But in the midst of limerence, once you have become addicted and uncertainty is heightening your craving, you are likely to suffer most. You’re emotionally captured, dependent on their company, but not yet sure that they feel the same way. You’ve had enough reciprocation to be sure there is something going on, and you hope against hope that it’s the real thing, but there’s enough anxiety to keep you on high alert for threats to the cementing of the emotional bond. At that point the thought of losing LO to another partner is awful.

2) Where they are in the limerence cycle.

In the case of mutual limerence, another complicating factor is LO’s relative progression through the cycle. If they are coming out of the euphoria stage faster than you, then they will probably start to set off your limerence radar by cooling off, and being more open to other people in the world. This is likely to set you back, and escalate your limerence jealousy. Time was (when they were limerent for you) they would have loved the fact you were jealous, as it would have been sweet, sweet confirmation of your commitment to them. But now – what a drag.

3) Where you are in life.

All of the preceding arguments are about susceptibility to jealousy. The actual, full on, green-eyed monster expression of jealousy is, like all behaviour, within our control. A major factor in how jealous you feel is going to be how purposefully you live your life. As a young man I was prone to jealousy – anger, humiliation, revenge fantasies, the usual package. I’ve mellowed. A lot of jealousy stems of course from personal insecurity; anxiety about how attractive you are and whether you can “win” the attentions of LO and make them want to stay with you. The jealousy comes from fear of losing them. Maturity makes you realise you can’t “lose” someone any more than you can own someone. It will sting like a bastard, but if they’re not as committed as you, it is very much in your interest to learn that. Rather than try and dance prettily, or contort yourself into accommodating knots, in a desperate attempt to somehow impress someone into being limerent for you, you can make a conscious decision about whether you are OK with it, or whether it’s time to move on. Ultimately, it’s way more humiliating to try and cajole someone into wanting you, than to “lose” in some imagined romantic competition.

4) The intensity of the situation in which you find out.

It’s one thing to hear from a friend of a friend that LO hooked up with someone else. It’s another to see their engagement photos on Facebook. It’s still worse to have them messing around in front of you, after you and they just had a heart-to-heart.

lovers-1468523_640_resized

I’m so glad I helped you overcome your fear of intimacy. What a pretty sunset.

What I’m saying is context matters. When it comes to discovery of LO’s romantic interest in others, ambushed and unprepared is likely to be much harsher to cope with than a rumour, three steps removed.

Pain when seeing LO with other potential partners seems a certainty when limerent. How you respond to that pain is the determinant of whether it leads to jealousy. Self-awareness can allow acceptance of the feelings of jealousy, but suppression of the anger and negative behaviour that could be provoked. Instead, use it as a good intuitive yardstick for assessing LOs suitability as a genuine, life partner. If you are irrationally jealous, you can learn to mentally override the anger and explore your trust issues (perhaps with a therapist). But sometimes, jealousy is telling you that something is up, that LO is not as committed as you, and that you need to moderate your limerence before you suffer further pain. A good use of those sickening feelings of jealousy, is to use them to reprogram your subconscious mind and break the “LO = pleasure” connection. “LO = pain” is a useful new connection to help you overcome the addiction and move on to a more purposeful life.

 

Happily ever after

Many people blame fairytales for their relationship problems. Especially Disney. Damn Cinderellas and Princes Charming and happilys ever after. So unrealistic.

But that word, “happily”, is a slippery word. What does happy mean? Where does happy come from? Can somebody else make you happy?

Fairytales make sense to limerents, at least before we get jaded by age and experience. The whole concept of the super special someone that transforms your world, gives purpose to your life and determines your fate, aligns beautifully with the euphoric infatuation for an LO. Oh, that’s it! They’re “the one”. I finally understand.

So that’s a good start, but as I’ve discussed before, limerence is only a start. The flower that may bear fruit. It’s the happily ever after bit that’s tricky, because (spoiler alert) limerence will end. It has to, just like flowers don’t last all season. I’m convinced that much of the disappointment around fairytales comes from the faulty association of limerence with happily ever after. “Nobody can be happy with one person forever!” Yes they can. But nobody can be limerent for one person forever. This might seem obvious, but as I said at the start “happy” is a really slippery concept.

slippery-637562_640_resized

Watch your step, someone’s spilt some philosophy

At its simplest, happiness could be seen as the absence of pain and suffering; but that’s more just security or comfort. It could be delight, or pleasure, or thrill, or elation, but all those things are really just related to happiness; its showy-offy cousins. Most people take happiness to be a deeper and more fundamental state. A sense of contented satisfaction with life, and a background feeling of peace, fulfillment and optimism. Feeling “right” and thankful for being alive. These feelings are obviously quite far removed from limerence, with its hysterical highs and devastating lows, but many limerents (especially, perhaps first time limerents) mix them up. Limerence feels so good, so right, that it seems a form of happiness that transcends mere workaday personal fulfillment. This is epic stuff.

But we know enough about the neurophysiology of limerence to know that it is more about pleasure than happiness, and that distinction is crucial. Seeking pleasure leads to a life of escalating thrills, risky behaviour and short-term gratification of drives. Seeking happiness, by contrast, leads to long-term thinking, self-discovery, honesty, and consistent work to improve the situation of your life. FOMO is a good barometer for this: fear that you’re missing a great party or being excluded from a social clique is mostly about desire for external validators, and stems from insecurity about your own value. Getting into the party might lead to pleasure (relief?), but it wouldn’t lead to happiness.

live-concert-388160_640_resized

This is great! God, I hope they invite me to the next one…

Limerence is not a reliable starting point for finding happiness. LO may be intoxicatingly wonderful, but that’s not much of a basis for predicting whether life with them will be one of long-term happiness. To return to the question I posed at the start: can someone else make you happy? Other people can obviously bring us pleasure. LOs excel at that… but as we know, limerence is happening in our heads. We generate the sensation, however ecstatic. More profoundly, other people can certainly (by their actions) make you feel valued and safe and loved. But can someone actually make you fundamentally happy, by virtue of their behaviour and personality? Is it possible for some sainted individual to bond with an unhappy person, and through the charisma of their being, transform them into a happy person? No. Fundamentally we know this. We cannot rely on someone else for our own happiness; it has to come from within and it has to be based on your own self-esteem and self-image. Undoubtedly a good partner complements and enhances the happiness of any individual lucky enough to have their commitment, but they can’t be a wellspring of happiness that is passively dipped into.

And… we’re back to purposeful living again! If you make the conscious choice to take charge of your life, determine what you want, and how best you can help others, so many of these anxieties and complexities fall away. Taking purposeful steps every day to know yourself better, and decide on the sort of person you want to be, is the best way to underpin your life with a foundation of happiness. And you may just find that the kind of person you aspire to be is the kind of person that attracts other good people towards them. And two good people enhancing each other’s lives is by most definitions, pretty darn close to happily ever after…