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?

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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]

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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!

3 thoughts on “Why is limerence so powerful?

  1. I had not heard of the term “numinous” but it makes sense. With LOs #1 & #2, I had the feeling that were it not for some cruel cosmic twist of fate, we could have made the relationships work. These were stories worthy of grand opera.

    I never felt any of the LOs were “soulmates.” To me, they were “kindred spirits.” There were things we shared that connected us on an almost subliminal level. To this day, I think LO #2 understood me on a level that no one else ever had or ever will. It was like that woman could look right through me. We didn’t have to talk because we just knew.

    It was the way my wife didn’t make me feel that made her different from the others. She loves me for who I am, baggage and all. Not that the baggage didn’t cause problems in my marriage. You often come out of a LE with more baggage than you went in with but you rarely come out with any less. What every you took into one relationship, unless it was specifically dealt with, will follow you right into the next relationship.

    As http://www.despair.com so eloquently put it, “Dysfunction – The only consistent feature in all your dissatisfying relationships is you.”

    Like

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