The allure of bad boys and girls

All limerents are at some point going to be confronted by the need to try and understand why they become limerent for particular LOs. Some will be unfortunate enough to realise that they repeatedly become limerent for bad boys or bad girls – LOs who are fundamentally incompatible with a stable, loving future. The cliché here of course is the Player – the charismatic seducer who is really only interested in games and conquest.

Limerents that notice this pattern often decide to “swear off” LOs as trouble, and seek more stable partners for long term relationships. This is profoundly rational, but does also leave the disquieting feeling that they may have “settled” for a partner they find less exciting or sparkly than hopeless LOs of old. Leaving aside the complications of long-term love and where best to seek it, I think it’s also interesting to ask the question: are players more likely to trigger limerence?

Classically, the allure of bad boys and girls has always been appreciated. The loveable rogue. The seductress. Bluebeard. Guinevere. These are archetypes that we all recognise at a deep level, that we know are trouble, but that are also powerful and desirable. The thrill of playing with fire. But why is that so appealing, and why should we be more likely to become limerent for such people?

Let’s get speculating!

1) Dominance games

The banter of flirtation is very often an elaborate game of dominance display. Both parties are testing, teasing, looking for boundaries, and how much they can get away with while exciting and retaining the interest of the other party. As many others have noted, this is actually a really lousy way of identifying a partner (one of my favourite reflections on this is here). Basically, you establish any nascent relationship on a basis of competition, social guile, and game playing. If you play games, you attract game players. So why do so many people do it? Well, it’s modelled in films and books as “the best at banter gets the best mate”, it’s exhilarating if you’re winning, and most people are extremely guarded about their true selves and so project a persona in order to shield themselves from scrutiny. Bad LOs have attained mastery at these games, and so if you step up to the plate, it’s likely you will get suckered in.

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I’m not American. Why do American clichés always spring into my mind? Oh, yeah. Cultural hegemony.

2) The shock of transgression

Linked into the preceding idea, another contributory factor to the allure of the bad LO is that most people are well behaved. Possibly not when alone or with the cloak of anonymity, or when stressed or desperate, but most of the time, in ordinary social discourse, most people choose politeness and want to be liked. Thank god, because otherwise life would be even more competitive than it already is. However, the bad LOs play by different rules and delight in transgressing the normal social niceties that constrain most of us. This has the shock of novelty and taboo breaking. An LO with a tendency to love bomb, or be bluntly sexual, or “neg”, or find other mechanisms for shocking you into a suddenly more complex and unfamiliar interpersonal dynamic, can leverage the emotional destabilisation towards increased intimacy. Players often capitalise on the shock of transgression, and the associated physiological arousal that makes you more alert to your environment and adds salience to your interactions. People that excite us – negatively or positively – grab our attention.

3) Game playing and reinforcement  

Players don’t only use these little tricks during seduction, or course, they keep it up as time goes on and flirtation moves to dating. The kind of LOs who love the chase and the seduction are not the kind to settle into a blissful union with a limerent. It is likely, therefore, that any limerent who succumbs to their charms is going to be in a state of uncertainty throughout whatever “relationship” develops with their bad LO. The limerent will be craving reciprocation, occasionally getting it, but then also seeing their LO flirt and play the field – possibly clandestinely. The neuroscience of limerence/person addiction is a regular theme of the blog, and this sort of dynamic would be the prototypical example of intermittent reinforcement increasing addiction. If a limerent is seduced by a bad LO, they are likely to get drawn into a relationship dynamic that causes their limerence to explode out of control.

4) Saving the flawed hero

From the way I’ve marshalled my arguments so far, I’m giving the impression that this is an elaborate, manipulative game being played by narcissistic players. In many cases it may well be, but there is always the possibility that some of these bad LOs are, down in their heart of hearts, actually good. Like Darth Vader. Sort of. Anyway, the player can perversely provoke a kind of rescue fantasy in some limerents, who convince themselves that their LO is a flawed hero who has fallen into bad habits because of problems with intimacy, or a craving for true love, or because they haven’t met the right person yet (them, natch). I’ve pondered before about whether there is a philosophical difference between someone who causes emotional harm through selfishness, and someone who causes it because of an underlying emotional wound of their own that makes them too broken to bond (and needs a patient limerent to teach them how to love properly). Either way, the limerent ends up emotionally harmed. Some of us are like moths to the flame of the disordered.

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It’s a trap!

So, I think there is reason to think that bad boys and girls have a special talent for triggering limerence. It’s not the whole story, of course, as there are many other “bad” LOs – ditherers and dreamers and drama-seekers – who will also be Bad News in terms of reinforcing limerence. But the Buccaneers and Femmes Fatale do seem to swell the ranks of the LO army.

Is limerence a mental illness?

One of the things I’m most curious about when it comes to limerence, is whether it is a “normal” process that can occasionally go wrong, or – by definition – a mental illness. This kind of question draws us into the murky waters of psychology and psychiatry. Without wanting to get bogged down in issues about whether psychology is a science, and how it has been used for ill in both advertising and promoting neoliberal political and economic systems, I do think there is something very discomforting in the current tendency to see psychological distress as a failing in the individual. If you are suffering, it’s because there is something wrong with your brain, not that the environment you find yourself in is actually toxic. Using psychology to blame the victim, basically.

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*sucks air through teeth* “Oh yeah, some dodgy wiring in there mate”.

To illustrate this, we can consider anxiety. Anxiety is clearly a natural response to stress, and while it might feel awful, it has obvious value. You sense danger, your anxiety rises, and you raise your defences or attempt to escape the situation and get to safety. Healthy, and clearly beneficial to survival. However, when repeatedly or continuously exposed to stress, people develop anxiety disorders of various types (and also other chronic health conditions that degrade their quality of life).

In our neoliberal culture, the current epidemic of anxiety disorders is the perfect illustration of the difficulty in locating the cause of distress: are people becoming over-sensitive snowflakes who can’t cope with the Real World, or does creating a social structure in which everyone is valued on the basis of their economic competitiveness drive healthy people into a state of free-floating anxiety? Similarly, should we base our response around telling the individual that their emotions are pathological, or do we confront the fact that our hypercompetitive world is intolerable to a significant number of our fellow humans? Do we medicate people to help them cope with a psychologically-damaging world, or do we willingly compromise economic competitiveness in order to form a society in which even “sensitive” people can thrive?

Ultimately, of course, “we” don’t get to choose. All we can do as an individual is figure out how best to navigate the world we are in, based on our own psychological makeup, and decide how best to use our lives with purpose. Some may choose to compete for wealth to gain status or security, others may throw themselves into community building and protest the evils of capitalism.

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Others find a third way

Given that background, I am fascinated by the status of limerence as a concept in popular culture. Kind of by definition, limerence forums and blogs tend to focus on the distress caused by being limerent for a non-reciprocating LO, or where limerence for a third party has threatened a monogamous bond. These are obviously cases of limerence as a negative force in life, and so get framed as problems to be solved. Similarly, talking about limerence as “person addiction” invites obvious comparisons with destructive addictions to gambling or drugs. But just as anxiety isn’t itself an illness, limerence can be a positive drive with obvious benefits when reciprocated by the LO, leading to pair bonding and reproduction.

In the psychology and therapy fields, limerence is increasingly discussed as an inherently negative experience and a disordered mental state. Essentially, “limerence” means “when romantic attraction has become dysregulated and led to obsession, distorted perception of LO, and self-destructive behaviour”. It is also most often explained as evidence of attachment issues due to problematic childhood bonding. That certainly isn’t the sense in which Tennov intended limerence to be understood, but of course language is fluid and meanings change with use and utility. So, this could all be seen as just quibbling over words or definitions, but I think it does matter in understanding how to develop lasting healthy relationships.

If we are telling limerents that their trait is inherently wrong and symptomatic of mental illness, or some other personal failing or psychological wound, when in fact it is a perfectly normal trait common to a significant portion of society, we are potentially causing more harm than good. To use another analogy: if we were to counsel a lesbian in a dysfunctional relationship that her lesbianism is evidence of an attachment disorder, and she will never find happiness until she understands why childhood trauma has caused her to fall into lesbian patterns of thought and behaviour, we would be both causing significant harm and failing to solve her problem.

The basic question is this: are the symptoms of limerence a descriptive list of how a significant number of people experience romantic love, or are the symptoms of limerence evidence of an unhealthy mental state brought about by problems with attachment?

I don’t know the answer. But I think it’s an important question if we are ever to understand how to live happily with limerence. My gut feeling is that limerence is natural, and only problematic for most limerents when they get caught up in self-reinforcing cycle of dependency due to stress, a manipulative LO, or problems with existing relationships. In contrast, people who do have an attachment disorder in addition to being a limerent are likely to have a really hard time of it whenever they encounter an LO. As therapists will mainly interact with limerents at times of distress, it’s plausible that the trait itself is being bundled in with other symptoms and seen as part of the illness (especially if the therapist is a non-limerent). If only a small proportion of limerents are prone to crisis – either because of special circumstances or coincident psychological issues – then blaming limerence for the crisis is a error. The error is even worse if the limerent is advised to try and “solve” their limerence problem as a strategy for coping with the crisis.

Sigh. It’s complicated. How much does any of this matter? Probably not a great deal in the immediate support of an individual in distress, but taking a longer view, recognising limerence as an inherent personality trait that can cause emotional harm under certain circumstances is almost certainly more constructive than reserving the term for only those cases where it has escalated out of the limerent’s control.