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.”
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.