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.

6 thoughts on “Is limerence a mental illness?

  1. “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.”

    How limerence is currently viewed isn’t all that surprising considering that Tenov’s work is going on 30+ years and people who are most affected by it are likely the most vocal about their experiences. Therapists are like plumbers. You only call them in distress and go with the first one who returns your call.

    Limerence can provide a framework upon which someone can understand what makes them tick. I was labeled as “codependent” by a therapist who was helping me understand my relationship patterns. When it come to relationships, why were “damsels in distress” my drug of choice? In contrast to that assessment, another credentialed individual, who was also a close personal friend and knew, and had met, LO #2 when I was in a relationship with her, said I wasn’t codependent. They couldn’t both be right.

    Limerenence explained my behavior. It also leads to a lot of other, often metaphysical, questions about things. One of the biggest one being if you’re limerent for “damsels in distress (DiD),” are you capable of responding to someone who isn’t? The answer is huge in terms of someone’s long term happiness in life. That’s where the therapists come in. If you’re preferred LO is a DiD, why is that? It took a competent therapist to figure that out. When I started down a path almost 8 years ago, I was looking to understand events that were over 25 years old. The journey took me back over 50 years. I didn’t bury one ghost, I buried 3.

    If you can only respond to LOs, you’re pretty much screwed unless you’re willing to take on some work. If you’re attracted to LOs but can respond to someone who isn’t, it’s more a matter of luck.

    Do you find a suitable partner before a dysfunctional LO finds you?

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    • Yeah, I guess the heart of the matter is trying to understand why you become limerent for a particular type of LO (damsels in distress for me too) is a different goal from trying to understand why you become limerent at all. The former leads to personal insight, but the latter risks pathologising a normal process.

      Whether you can rewire yourself to become limerent for a healthier class of LO is another really interesting topic…

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      • There are all kinds of interesting questions but a lot of them are pretty esoteric.

        I stay away from casinos because I know enough about statistics and compulsive behavior to know it could get really expensive for me. Would I become addicted to gambling? I don’t think so but not worth it to me to run that experiment.

        If you look at limerence as “person addiction,” would you want to rewire yourself? Maybe, maybe not. Rewiring yourself appears to be a kind of nuanced transference. You’re not replacing a single LO, you’re replacing a whole class of them. Depending on how you deal with limerence, shifting your drug of choice may or may not help. Replacing alcohol with skiing would appear to be a healthier choice unless you’re still sufficiently compulsive to the point skiing overtakes your life at the expense of other people and things. Same behavior, different context. In college, I knew two people who flunked out of school because they got so engrossed in Dungeons and Dragons they quit going to class to play the game. In any control system, you not only need to know the absolute value of the parameter you’re trying to control at any given time, you also need to know the velocity (speed and direction) of the rate of change.

        Something else to consider. In the absence of a threat, a vulnerability carries no risk. For example, you can be deathly allergic to bee stings or penicillin but if you never get stung or get an infection, you could go your whole life not knowing how close to death you were.

        Which brings us to the next interesting question:

        If you never encountered an LO, would limerence ever raise it’s head? No, but that’s because, by definition, limerence is behavior in a very specific context. If you look at limerents, my guess is you’d see some of the same behavior in other areas of their lives.

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  2. I’m going through a period of reflection on a time, nearly thirty years ago, when for about three years I had some serious limerence. Last night, I had a dream about my LO.

    I’ve looked her up on the internet- not to get in touch, but just because I’m curious about these very intense feelings I had. I don’t think she does social media, but she’s eminent in her field so it’s not difficult for me to see what she’s up to, at least professionally; this is interesting in itself because, although we started in the same place, she’s reached the top of her profession whilst I, though happy enough in my job, haven’t.

    My feelings all those years ago were typical of how I viewed women at the time. Having gone through all sorts of ups and downs since, I’m able to view them with a certain amount of detachment. They were so far from being conducive to happiness that I tend towards viewing them as an illness or, at least, an aberration. Revisiting these feelings runs a small risk of re-igniting them.

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    • “My feelings all those years ago were typical of how I viewed women at the time. Having gone through all sorts of ups and downs since, I’m able to view them with a certain amount of detachment. They were so far from being conducive to happiness that I tend towards viewing them as an illness or, at least, an aberration.”

      That sounds potentially very lonely and a self-fulfilling prophecy. I doubt you are completely capable keeping this belief and attitude under wraps and people (women in particular) will pick up on it and avoid you, or treat you with wariness.

      I hope you’ve made a good happy life for yourself in the meantime.

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