Should limerents feel guilty about their limerence?

One of the things that limerents in long-term relationships must confront is how big of a betrayal it is, if they become limerent for someone else.

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Oh goody. Another cheerful post eh, Dr L?

Regular readers will know that I very much focus on actions, not thoughts, when it comes to determining issues of guilt or personal integrity. Thought crime is a miserable idea, and a corrosive psychological notion – that your thoughts themselves could be a mechanism for betrayal and a reason to feel shame. The big danger is that this becomes internalised as shame about who you are; that you are shameful inherently because your thoughts are not pure and free from darkness. We are all of us composed of light and dark, and it is an essential part of wisdom to recognise and accept that. Furthermore, limerence is rooted in physiology, so feeling guilty for being a limerent is similar to feeling guilty for liking chocolate. Gluttony and lack of restraint is the problem, not the desire itself.

However, most limerents will – unless they are totally devoid of empathy – feel guilt over the burgeoning feelings they are having for their LO, and how they detract from their relationship with their partner. So, how can this be reconciled? Should we feel guilt over thoughts and feelings, or does anything go in the crazy internal world of our imaginations? Here’s what I think about it:

I’m not anti-guilt. This seems to be a somewhat unfashionable opinion these days, but I think guilt can be helpful if you have done some work to develop self-awareness. Guilt can help you recognise when you are doing something that contravenes your moral sense. It’s a little like cognitive dissonance – when you imagine events or behaviour that could constitute the betrayal of a loved one, your mind is aware of this, and at some level responds emotionally as though it has actually happened. This is hopefully at odds with your self identity, and so you feel shame. Guilt. But the key thing is that guilt is only useful when it’s recognised as a sort of personal warning system. A wake up call that your mind is wandering into wild places, not evidence that you are an awful person who must be ruined or rotten in some way.

People are often much harder on themselves than they are on others. In any healthy relationship, most people do not expect or want total access to their partner’s thoughts. They don’t feel affronted that their partner is free to think or imagine whatever they please. If you do believe that your partner should be utterly loyal in every thought, then you are trying to control someone else’s thoughts… and there are words for that. Unpleasant words. Brainwashing. Dominance. Tyranny.

So, our thoughts are our own, but we should be attentive to them and wise enough to recognise when guilty feelings are a useful indicator that we need to be vigilant about where we are emotionally and psychologically. Time to be alert. Time also to consider how we are behaving towards our partners, because something is amiss. Not time to start dismissing guilt as repressive, or stifling, or evidence of a moralistic straitjacket that unliberated people use to impose control over the free spirit of love.

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Like, let go of your negative feelings, man. Live in the moment.

What is betrayal?

Given this discourse on the nature of guilt, what exactly would constitute betrayal? There is a lot of disagreement about this, some of it self-serving, but some of it due to honest variation between people in attitude, vulnerability and experience. For some people it’s words; for others, it’s any kind of emotional intimacy; for others it’s sexual intimacy. Time is also going to be important. An inappropriate comment at a party is obviously different in character from a long-term affair. Both could be a betrayal, but of rather different gravity. Whatever. The line is there somewhere, we’re just arguing about the orienteering.

Fundamentally, though, what all of these scenarios have in common is action. Behaviour. That’s the point at which our thoughts manifest in the world. So, focus on your behaviour and what you intend it to communicate. How any given couple work out where their lines are is a process of honest communication. Listen to each other and process the information carefully. Compromise is necessary to make a success of any relationship, but compromise should be about mutual respect for each others needs, not reformation of each others characters (which is coercive and doomed to fail). Again, I think guilt is a useful guide here: when your own actions have caused it, you know you are toying with betrayal. Don’t waste time trying to parse exactly how the phraseology of that thing you said (you flirt) could be interpreted; focus on the pang you felt. Because you really don’t want to betray the person you are committed to. It will come back to haunt you, and in all likelihood any future relationships too.

One of the reasons why monogamy is so popular is that it allows you to relax. The world is a complex and dangerous place, full of unpredictable people, who we need. No one is an island; we are social animals, and we crave love and we want to give love and feel needed and valued and secure. But people are so complicated that trying to understand them fully takes time and effort, and so when we meet someone new we tend to be vigilant about our interactions with them. When you trust someone, you can relax that vigilance. You take their good faith for granted, and life becomes safer and simpler. When you form a loving bond with them, the trust deepens, and the world seems a little saner and more predictable, and you can use that trust as a foundation from which to explore. That is why betrayal is so profound.

If a loved one betrays you, it undermines your past, your present, and your future. At it’s worst, it can cause a kind of total personality collapse: all your memories are suspect, all your security was an illusion, you are not where you thought you were, and your partner is now a stranger that caused you harm. Security is shattered. Hopes for the future are gone in an instant. Even worse: your worldview is blown up. You trusted someone incorrectly, which means your judgement is now suspect. Your foundation has fallen out from under you, and so you have no desire to explore, and no safe haven to return to.

Betrayal of a loved one really is a catastrophically destructive act.

Listen to your guilt, and use it wisely.

 

5 thoughts on “Should limerents feel guilty about their limerence?

  1. Being a long time Limerant I don’t feel any guilt, never have cos I know I would never betray my SO. It is what it is! I’m currently Limerant with an LO and have been on and off for 13 years! Yes, 13 years!! Can anyone beat that? Currently enjoying a renaissance with my partner of 22 years after following advice from this site and other sites. My LO is never far from my thoughts, I just manage it so much better.

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  2. Thinking about someone else occasionally isn’t a reason to feel guilty. That’s part of life. But if you find yourself compromising your integrity in order to spend more time with that person and short-changing or comparing your SO and finding them wanting, it’s time to re-evaluate what’s really going on.

    Are there men with whom I might be better suited and happier? Probably. Ditto for Mr. Lee! But Mr. Lee and I chose one another because we loved one another then and now. If there is a problem, or someone is in a competition about which they know nothing, then it has the potential to become a problem. After all, in a world with over 7 billion human beings, of course there is someone out there who is possibly “perfect” for Mr. Lee. If that perfect person comes along and Mr. Lee decides he wants to pursue her, then I want Mr. Lee to do the honest thing, pull the plug on our marriage and then go in pursuit of this woman. All of us deserve a clean start and honesty.

    Gosh Trooper – do you really feel that 13 years straddling the fence has been good for your relationship with SO? I’m glad you are enjoying a renaissance, but does your SO know how long you’ve been going through the motions?

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  3. Morality in limerence is such an interesting subject. It is about the difference between pursuing short-term gratification versus its opposite. It certainly is not a crime to feel limerent, but feelings often lead to action. Feeling guilt (the acute type, rather than chronic) seems to me a good sign that the conscience is working properly. Speaking from personal experience, I find that it’s not helpful to silence acute guilty feelings with any justifications, as they are only lies that blind me further. Chronic guilt is hugely unhelpful compared to the acute version: it paralyses our thoughts and feelings and, when internalised, makes it harder to make changes to whatever that cause the guilt in the first place. I don’t think feeling acute guilt is about being harsh on oneself, but it does demand our attention and action to deal with the truth. Just trying to rephrase a couple of points that I think has been said in this thoughtful post.

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    • I like that idea about the distinction between acute and chronic guilt. With acute guilt it’s caused by your actions or at least a specific event, whereas if it becomes chronic, then it’s likely to morph into guilt about who you are. That’s a good way of thinking about it.

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  4. “However, most limerents will – unless they are totally devoid of empathy – feel guilt over the burgeoning feelings they are having for their LO, and how they detract from their relationship with their partner. So, how can this be reconciled?”

    Well, they could discuss the possibility of having an open marriage. But really it’s best to do that before you are limerent for someone else, or when you’re over one and haven’t noticed another. Be prepared to have it all and equally prepared to lose it all.

    I wouldn’t recommend it for a lot of reasons, but it could work. It will take a LOT of work though. My friend who is in a polyamorous relationship works a lot harder at it than any married couple I know. Communication is paramount. Trust is key and must be maintained with still more communication and understanding. I think it’s easier to invest that much energy into the established relationship. If speaking openly and frankly with your primary partner is not working or not going to work, that calls for the miracle of divorce, rather than introducing more variables.

    Personally, I choose monogamy. Others don’t. I can respect those who discuss before springing someone on their spouse or SO. You know, the ones who don’t have someone lined up or already in the relationship, unbeknownst to their SO.

    “Chronic guilt is hugely unhelpful compared to the acute version: it paralyses our thoughts and feelings and, when internalised, makes it harder to make changes to whatever that cause the guilt in the first place.”

    I very much agree. Mr. Lee suffers from chronic guilt and it definitely paralyzes him, which has then led to anger which then lead to lashing out at me (in the past) as somehow the root cause of his unhappiness. Newsflash: if you’re miserable and making it your goal to make me miserable and I have some magical way of making you happy – don’t you think I would do it? It’s a backhanded compliment to think I’m that powerful, but it didn’t make it right nor did it make life easier for either of us or our kids.

    I’ve spent a lot of time and effort refusing to take responsibility for his problems. I have my own and I’ll take on my share of OUR problems – but I refused to deal with his too. It’s only taken 20+ years, but he seems to really get it now.

    Happier thoughts: since LO has left, Mr. Lee has mentioned that it’s a lot easier to not dwell and LO is no longer taking up such a large amount of his imagination. He has said it’s a been more of a relief than he expected. So there’s another plug for no contact.

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