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