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.
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.
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.