Flirting at work

I’ve talked before about flirting and how it’s complicated for limerents. It’s been on my mind again.

There’s a real sense of a sea-change in culture at the moment, with #MeToo and Oxfam and Weinstein and etc. etc. drawing out the pent up anger of years of injustice and abuse and mistreatment and offense and discomfort. One of the consequences of this social movement is a closer look at behaviour in the workplace and a realisation that some pretty unpleasant men have been getting away with some pretty unpleasant behaviour for far too long. But another interesting spinoff is that some other people have been getting pretty uncomfortable about the range of behaviours that are being criticised. Knee touching is lampooned. Witch hunts have been mentioned.

Obviously there is a comfortable gulf between flirting and sexual assault, but the less comfortable bit is the big flabby middle of uncertainty where different people draw different lines. I doubt anyone was really under any illusions about whether it’s OK for the boss to grab the secretary’s arse, but what about the manager from one sales team flirting with the deputy sales manager of another team? Some people would be set off blustering about free speech and fascist dictatorships and how they married their deputy and no harm ever came of it, while others would say that you’re at work to work, so get on with your work and leave your flirting to social time.

The other uncomfortable bit is that it seems to be very, very difficult to talk about this stuff at the moment. I am uncomfortable writing this, and have deleted and rewritten some of the preceding words multiple times with the bogeyman of public judgement sitting on my shoulder and alternating between chastising me for my moral cowardice and clutching his pearls about how could I dare to say something that could be construed as victim blaming. So, hiding behind the (probably not terribly solid) pseudonymity of this blog, I’m going to dive in.

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Cowabunga?

In the previous post I talked about the potential minefield that flirting represents to limerents. So from one perspective, less flirting would make their lives easier. But do we want our workplaces to be completely non-sexualised? Do we ban flirting? I’ve been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s made me very uncomfortable. I’ve also been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s been great, because I’ve fancied them too. But then, that was the road that led me to my last limerent episode, which sent my life into chaos, but taught me new and important things about myself that I didn’t know, and really needed to learn. And other people are different from me, amazingly enough, and will process all these sorts of experiences differently from me. And I can’t predict that from looking at them. And a LO can’t really be held responsible for the reaction of a limerent to some harmless flirting. And how are we going to police the “no flirting” rule? Especially when tons of women have experienced the shock of having baseline friendliness over-interpreted as flirting by inexperienced men, and also had the experience of realising that they can use slightly-above-baseline friendliness to scope out whether a man is interested in them while preserving plausible deniability. Maybe we need some rules about what constitutes flirting, because rules about behaviour always make everyones lives better. Having sex in the stationary cupboard? Wildly unprofessional to most people, but if it’s consensual, should it be banned?

I’m throwing out loads of questions here not because I need to know the answers, but because I genuinely don’t know the answers. I’m at a point in my life where the choices are simple for me: I gain almost no benefit from flirting, and am in as low a risk category as you could imagine for suffering sexual harassment or assault. Not to be complacent – shit can always happen – but it is easy for me to just not flirt with anyone and ignore anyone that flirts with me, and keep my mouth shut and my head down whenever the topic comes up.

But I really don’t think the larger situation is simple. I don’t think We have properly decided how We want the terms of interactions between adults in the workplace to be demarcated when it comes to sex. Power differentials are often cited as a cause for concern, and again, most people will agree on the outliers – teachers and pupils, bosses and vulnerable employees – but how big a differential is too big? A lot of people form long term relationships with people they meet at work, and sometimes those people are above them in the hierarchy. Furthermore, I don’t think We even know how to start dealing with the fallout from the current revolution (and revelations), or even how to communicate meaningfully without it degenerating into invective.

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Problem solving 101

Oh well, what a typical bloody tone troll man, whining about how difficult it is to hit on women at work nowadays. Because that’s the other reason why it’s so bloody difficult to talk about this stuff now – the constant assumption of ill-intent. Any anxieties about life being complicated is seen as evidence of thought crime. Everyone should intuitively know where the lines are and not to cross them (even though we don’t talk about them), and if they don’t know them, then it’s obvious they are an abuser and deserve to be shamed. In a strange way, it reminds me of fashionistas: a coterie of people pleased with how woke they are and disdaining anyone who doesn’t wear this season’s certainties.

Well, harrumph. I’m calling bullshit. It’s bloody complicated, because everyone has their own threshold for discomfort, everyone has different degrees of social skills and emotional intuition, everyone has different libidos, and everyone has to live together trying to navigate life in a world full of confusing other people that are very similar to us in important ways but also very different in unpredictable ways. The only way to live together purposefully is to communicate with the people around you honestly and in good faith, and learn from each other by occasionally bumping up against boundaries and risking discomfort. If we don’t make a sincere attempt to investigate the grey areas of sexuality at work, we cede the territory to the abusers (who will use it as cover) and the puritans (who will claim any discomfort equals assault).

So… *cough* in conclusion… Flirting is complicated, but I don’t like bans. I hope the youngsters manage to figure this out.

/rant

One year on

So, I’ve been posting away in this blog now for a year, and it has been a lot of fun and pretty cathartic.

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Yes, I started on Valentine’s Day. How arch.

Looking back at the list of posts, I appear to have typed quite a lot. Looking to the future, I think it’s time to start growing beyond my own experiences. I want to learn more about other people’s experiences of limerence.

So, this is an outreach post, asking you, dear readers, for your views. What does limerence mean to you? What has been good? What has been bad? Are you a limerent? Or the partner of a limerent who is currently driving you mad? What would you like to know more about?

I’d like to know more about your stories. Please comment below, or get in touch at my gmail account (livingwithlimerence at gmail etc.), or via the contact form. I’d love to hear from you. I promise to read everything, and will do my best to reply as often as possible – subject to the sometimes onerous constraints of my day job.

I’m also planning a redesign of the blog, and maybe an email newsletter and some surveys and stuff.

Communities are good.

 

[NB. First comments are moderated to stop the bots]

Deprogramming the limerent brain

Time usually resolves limerence, but sometimes we limerents impatiently wonder, where’s the damn off switch?

Now some people are resistant to the very idea of reducing love to a biochemical process in our brains that can be analysed, understood and manipulated, but those people are probably not in the middle of a limerence crisis. While I think my credentials as a romantic are solid, I also have a practical nature and so have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what can actually be done to try and counteract the immediate impact of limerence when it’s unwanted.

In the long term, my favoured solution is purposeful living, which may or may not need to follow a period of deep introspection and possibly professional help in understanding just what’s up with your crazy brain and why you are prone to the limerence rollercoaster. But sometimes, more urgent intervention is desirable, so what tactics do we have at our disposal to try and at least moderate the emotional overload? I’ve talked before about some of the best, but today I’m going to focus on the mind games. Can we deprogram ourselves and stop an LO being an LO?

I’d answer with a tentative yes.

Forgetting

What does forgetting mean? That probably sounds like a silly question, but like much in neuroscience, it’s quite subtle. In some cases, forgetting is a total blank – you just can’t recall the event, person, experience or place. You need external evidence to even believe that such a thing occurred. But that’s very rare for powerful stimuli, and I think we can all agree that limerence falls into that category. So it’s foolish to aim for the goal of total forgetting; what we really want is for that person – the LO – to be less powerful as a stimulus. For us to be able to manage our interactions with them without getting overaroused, and for them to not dominate our minds when we are away from them. Here we are on firmer territory when it comes to research. Associating certain stimuli with reward or punishment, and reinforcing or diminishing those stimuli is at the heart of conditioning and there’s loads of literature to draw on.

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Such as… hey, what are you two up to back there?!

Now, as an aside, I want to be clear that the research on limerence itself in this context is basically non-existent, so this is all speculative territory and relies on an analogy between well understood rewards (such as food or pharmacological stimulants) and limerence as a manifestation of finding a specific person a rewarding and potentially addictive stimulus. So, I’m pushing the boat out into speculative waters here…

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When has that ever stopped me before?

With that qualification out of the way, let’s dive in.

Extinction

How do you get rid of a memory you don’t want? Actually, the way we do this is to overwrite the original memory with a new one. Let’s take the example of Pavlov’s dogs. This is a bit hackneyed, but it’s familiar and that’s useful. So, the story goes that Pavlov trained his dogs to associate the sound of a bell ringing with the delivery of food (this isn’t quite what happened, but never mind). After training his dogs in this way for a while, the dogs began to anticipate the food by salivating whenever the bell was rung. This is the classic example of conditioning, which involves “associative memory” (learning a new association between stimuli). So far so good. But what happens if you keep ringing the bell, but stop delivering food? At first, the dogs keep drooling like the messy pups they are. But over time, the bell ceases to trigger anticipation, and the dogs get used to the fact that they are no longer getting their lovely chow and so stop salivating. The previous associative memory has been lost, through a process known as extinction, but it takes a while for this “bell but no food” lesson to be learned.

Since Pavlov’s day, of course, there has been a great deal of research into these processes, and it turns out that the brain is really quite weird and surprising, and fun to mess with. At one level, it seems that extinction should just be a fading away of an old memory that is no longer relevant, but actually it’s more complicated than that. What’s actually happening is that a new associative memory has been learned that overwrites the original one and supercedes it. This is easy to anthropomorphise – “oh, there’s that bell that used to mean that food was coming, but hasn’t done for a while, so no need to get excited.”

At the risk of letting this post get totally out of hand with a discussion of memory and learning, there are three other relevant points before we get back to limerence. 1) Because extinction is a superceding of old associations, rather than forgetting, the old memory can be recalled quickly when the original stimulus is reintroduced. Dogs learn to salivate faster if they have previously been conditioned and then extinguished, compared to dogs learning the association in the first place. 2) Intermittent reinforcement schedules take a lot longer to extinguish than regular ones. 3) Punishment (negative reinforcement) accelerates extinction.

Limerence extinction

What can we learn from all this to help with elimination of limerence? Given what we know about conditioning and extinction, we could devise the follow method for mental mastery of limerence:

1) Recognise that being with LO or ruminating about LO is giving you pleasure and continuing in these behaviours is reinforcing your conditioning.

2) Decide that you want to extinguish that associative memory.

3) Devise a negative reinforcement programme to hasten extinction and overwrite the original positive association.

That’s the plan. What does it look like in practical terms?

No contact if possible, obviously. If not possible, then limited contact is next best. Either way, contact is not always in your control, or predictable. However, another key aspect of limerence reinforcement that most certainly is within your control is rumination. Entering a reverie and fantasising or rehearsing interactions with LO is a way of seeking pleasure in the early stages and relief from withdrawal in the later stages of limerence. You need to break that association. Each time you willingly enter reverie, you reinforce those connections, and reinforce the associative memory “LO = pleasure”. That’s why we do it. Reverie gives relief from discomfort by imagining a positive encounter.

If you are one of those limerents that enjoys a rich imagination, you will almost certainly have invented some pleasant fantasy scenarios with LO. These are the perfect mechanism for generating your own extinction programme. By inventing new outcomes to your reveries, you can turn your sweet, rewarding fantasies into sour punishments.

Let’s say you imagine driving off into the sunset with LO as a daydream. Now you need to vividly imagine LO suddenly shouting “I’m sorry, I’ve made a terrible mistake! Stop the car! I have to leave! I don’t know what I was thinking! I never want to see you again!” (include all the exclamation marks). You can go to town on this – the key thing is to make your reverie punishing. When you fantasise about having a new life with LO, turn it into a nightmare of rows, regrets, misunderstandings and emotional devastation. When I was in the early stages of my last limerence episode, I used to idly fantasise about “what if…” and built up an embarrassingly elaborate scenario in which my life had played out differently and LO and I could have ended up together. Once I realised the limerence was harming me, I managed to re-imagine that scenario into such a train-wreck of disaster and humiliation that I now shudder a bit whenever the thought enters my mind.

This whole mental game can seem a bit contrived, and while it helped me, it may not work for everyone. You may feel uncomfortable – that’s fine (and probably means it’s working). You may even feel it is disrespectful to LO, who you are now actively reworking into a terrible person that you want to avoid, but don’t despair – your internal world is your sole domain. As tyrant you have complete freedom to do as you please, guilt free. No LO will be harmed by this process.

Whether or not this tactic proves fruitful for you, a good understanding of what associative memory is and how extinction works undoubtedly helps in kicking the habit of limerence daydreaming.

You’ve really got to want to, though.