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!

18 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.”

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      • YW!

        I have my favorites. LO #4 really liked the site. She and I would sometimes trade Demotivators in our emails. My wife usually finds them too cynical for her tastes.

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    • I am a criminal defense attorney (male) and after a very threatening criminal trial where I was defending a very attractive female client where we beat back serious charges we became insanely bonded- a fierce love developed. I did not know what happened to me. I loved it (and still do) but I did not know what the “F” happened to me. Now I know. Have you come across many cases similar to ours (we both suffer from this insane bonding)

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      • I have to say, Tom, all the elements are there. This could almost be a case study!

        Physical attraction, uncertainty (as I’m guessing you were focussing on the case rather than your burgeoning feelings), conflict with others (literally), barriers to consummation (I’m guessing attorney-client attractions are an ethical minefield), white knight syndrome (literal rescuing), plus a good dose of bonding through mutual adversity thrown in.

        Yes, I think it’s fair to say this is almost a perfect set up for limerence…

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  2. I don’t think we are ready for a case study yet. I got fired over this relationship and she is still in jail waiting on sentencing on the smaller charge. She was charged with child abuse/ neglect. The stepfather got 35 years. He was the perp. We showed the mom was not home at time of abuse and older kids lied to mom (because step dad threatened to beat mom if they told their mom- something doing frequently) about source of injuries. When mom started to make accusations against stepdad (after a while the lies became unbelievable) he put a gun in her mouth and threatened to kill her if she locked him up. Prep for trial was intense because judge not giving me time to find new witnesses from the child welfare court. Anyway on eve of trial she pled to one count of failing to call police (child neglect) . Any way, She is still in jail and I am unemployed (I got fired cause the jail video caught us hugging and holding hands). But we are still fiercely bonded. My life is upside down but centered with this beautifully insane love for a woman in jail. It’s crazy.

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  3. Here is more about he case/drama. The facts as described above only were revealed after I got in the case (facts about mom not being home, kids being threatened, step dad putting gun in throat etc.) she sat in jail for 1 1/2 years represented by a loser public defender- an alcoholic allied to continue representing clients. I was also a public defender in the same office. Anyway he did not go shit for her over a year and a half. He even mixed up her name when he came to visit. The judge continued to think she was a perp of the child abuse cause her lawyer did not do shit. She was offered 15 years prison for 3 counts of child neglect or go to trial on the 30 year child abuse charges- with a loser public defender. The judge thinks she is an abuser and wants to send her to prison forever. That night she lay in bed praying that God take her life because she cannot be away from her children for so long. Soon after that prayer, the loser public defender gets a stroke in the court room and gets carried out on a stretcher. I get put on the case and immediately immerse myself in all the details of evidence. I realize that they don’t have any evidence of abuse sufficient to convict (only text message saying I just beat the crap out of the kids) and I find exhonerating evidence in the companion child welfare case. But when I go to court the judge refuses a continuance and orders me to trial without my witnesses on 30 year felonies if she won’t take the 15 (our perception-Judge will never admit to that) the judge was hell bent on getting my client. So over a 4 week period judge nearly ignores other cases and is scheduling us for Wednesday/Monday/ Wednesday /Monday ordering me to trial / reprimanding me for not working harder giving me just a few more days to safe this woman’s life. Mean while I am feverishly getting prosecutor medical records that my investigators chase down and we are feverishly taking depositions of my witnesses (that I finally find from the child welfare case). Finally prosecutor “sees the light” and offers to drop 3 counts of child abuse and / counts of child neglect if she pleads to 1 count of neglect. She is going to take that. But because I knew that the e ol judge would max her out to 5 years, I filed ethics charges against the judge with the appellate division because of the way he refused continuance in face of genuine newly discovered evidence. The appellate division ordered the judge to show cause why he should not be removed from the case. Appellate court still has not issued an opinion. If they remove the evil judge she goes home on probation. If not, she will get 5 years from the evil judge. All proceedings in lower court are “stayed” until appellate division rules. Quite a story, eh. Now you know why I am up at 3AM in the morning obsessing about the woman who has so completely consumed my life.

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  4. BTW: I filed the ethics complaint at 3 pm on a Friday and got fired at 5 pm. For all those lawyers out there, listen to this: I filed 3 motions to disqualify the judge for taking a position adverse to my client ( essentially becoming a prosecutor) Judge denied all 3. My client (and by now my girlfriend ) is given the plea offer of plea to one count of child neglect. (max punishment is 5 years) She has no prior record so any other judge would give probation- but not this evil judge. So as we are heading into the final trial date where I know she will take the plea, I pull 2 all nighters drafting an Emergency Writ of Prohibition”. During the day, I was in the middle of a drug trafficking trial. But at night I was reading transcripts and typing the motion. I would not have filed that petition if the ordeal had not made me so insanely in love with her.

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    • Wow, Tom. That’s several degrees more intense a bonding experience that most limerents go through – not hard to understand how this has consumed your life.

      Wishing you all the best for a good resolution with this, and do take care of yourself.

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      • Dr Limerence:are all Limerence attractions unhealthy ? Everything seems to indicate that. What if the Limerence is mutual. Also, have you come across any articles discussing a couple becoming mutually Limerent after a near survival / rescue ordeal ? Can mutually Limerent couples ever have a lasting, loving relationship ?

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      • I’m definitely in the camp that limerence is NOT always unhealthy, but a common early stage of romantic love for many people (see post on False Love). But, therapeutic fashion seems to be pushing “limerence” towards the pathological end of the spectrum more and more, so to many people limerence is by definition an unhealthy attraction. I disagree, and think that limerence for someone inappropriate is emotionally painful and damaging and disruptive of normal life, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon itself is unhealthy.

        As for long-term love, I definitely think it’s possible, as I was limerent for my wife (and she for me) and it evolved into a stable, loving marriage.

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  5. Tom again : I know we are going to have to deal with the “come down” from the whit-knight syndrome on her part and the “rescue of damsel in distress” syndrome on myy part We discuss this often (and from her living situations you know we are purely platonic).

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    • Tom here. Thank you for your blog and your responses. They really helped me understand this powerful attraction that ambushed me. I will be going radio silent until this entire court ordeal is over. Probably 2 months at least.

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    • Tom – You may want to check out The Drama Triangle. Karpman came up with it & has updated/refined it through the years.

      Good luck to you both. That’s a sad and scary situation.

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  6. Some of the recent blogs and posts got me thinking.

    Limerence can explain behavior but it doesn’t excuse it. Being a limerent no more exonerates crappy behavior any more than having a personality disorder does. In that respect, limerence could be considered an adverse pathology.

    In other blogs, DrL covers a lot of subjects and tying them together takes work, especially if you’re not already familiar with many of the concepts. Few limerents appear to be.

    If you’re non-limerent or the SO of an active limerent, it would be hard to understand why something that should be obvious, isn’t, and even if it is, why is it so hard for them to do something about it?

    Why is change so difficult?

    The two videos show the depth of what a limerent MIGHT be dealing with. If the shoe fits, trying to fix things without a lot of work, is like “trying to capture smoke (Marion Solomon)”

    The first video is pretty short but it’s really good. Pay attention at about 1:00 minute. You can see the pain in Bowlby’s eyes.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=bowlby%20video&cad=h

    The second video (from Vimeo) is by Marion Solomon, MD. I’ve read her articles and have one of her books. Some of the more interesting stuff comes at the 15, 19, & 20ish minute marks. The 19 minute mark introduces the term “substitute gratification” which limerence appears to be a vehicle for. At the 20 minute mark, Solomon talks about a cosmic connection, the “numinous” nature of limerence DrL speaks of above. Her works are now considered somewhat “old school” in light of advances over the last few years but she’s really good. Another of her gems is that when individuals or couples enter therapy, the goal isn’t to effect real change, the goal is to become comfortable in their current pathology (e.g., a married limerent might enter therapy to remove the anxiety of the cognitive dissonance associated with betraying their partner).

    As Dr. L says, “Put all of these factors together, and that there is some significant psychological heft.” DrL says that he’s not a professional in this arena but Bowlby and Solomon are. They corroborate what you read here.

    Again, limerence doesn’t excuse the behavior but understanding what someone may be dealing with might help both limerents and suffering LOs make more informed decisions.

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