Limerence and emotional attachment

A major development in the understanding of human relationships took place in the last few decades of the 20th century. “Attachment theory” originated from the study of child-caregiver interactions and the ways that the behaviour of the caregiver influenced the developing psychology of the child. In the 1980s the field expanded into adult relationships, including romantic attachments. Nowadays, a lot of the “talking therapies” centre around developing an understanding of the attachment types of the patient (and their partners), and working to identify formative childhood experiences that may have steered an individual towards their adult patterns of attachment and bonding. This is a big part of why FOO (family of origin) issues dominate many discussions of people struggling with romantic love.

There is no doubt that attachment theory has been enormously influential in psychological and therapeutic circles, as well as helping many people understand themselves and their drives more deeply. Given the focus of this blog, an obvious question is: can limerence be understood within this explanatory framework? Are certain attachment types more likely to experience limerence? Are other types more likely to be non-limerent? Let’s try and find out!

 

Attachment styles

For those interested in this weighty and detailed topic, the wikipedia article is a good starting point. There are also lots of online tests to find out what your own attachment style is (this is a good one), but most people quickly recognise themselves in the basic descriptions:

1) Secure

These attachments are characterised by stable, lasting relationships. Secure attachment types tend to have good self-esteem and a good opinion of others, and expect that partners will respond in a positive, supportive way to their distress or expression of emotional need. They are able to express their own emotions openly.

2) Anxious-preoccupied

These folks are insecure in their attachments, worry that partners may abandon them or respond negatively to their distress, and are emotionally distraught when relationships end. They can be possessive, and seek a “fantasy bond” rather than a balanced, mutually supportive attachment. Low self-esteem is often the underlying issue that results in this attachment style.

3) Fearful-avoidant

This style is characterised by volatility, and a disruptive approach to attachment. People with this style can seek emotional comfort, but then react badly and feel stifled when it is offered. There tends to be a swing between neediness and coldness. A need for intimacy, but a fear of it. This is thought to reflect disordered bonding in childhood.

4) Dismissive-avoidant

These are the emotionally aloof people. They are adept at shutting down emotionally, and use this as a strategy to protect themselves from pain. As the name suggests, they are dismissive of the importance of intimate relationships, and take pride in self-sufficiency and independence. They neither seek nor give support to their partners.

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5) Glue.

This model is useful, but, of course, an oversimplification. Any one individual can have different attachment styles to different people in their lives, attachment styles can change, and there is obviously a grey area at the boundary of the four broad types. A nice way of understanding this is to think of a foundation type that is the kind of default approach to relationships (how you are likely to act in the early stages of a new relationship), which is built on in specific cases by a mental model that becomes more specific as you get to know a person better. Everyone has a default mental model that is modified by experience.

 

Limerence and attachment

From the basic descriptions above, the obvious, easy hypothesis that jumps out is that anxious-preoccupied attachment maps to limerence. The obsessive thoughts, the central role of uncertainty, the desperate need for reciprocation – they all point to someone with an insecure attachment and excessive need for validation. So, case closed?

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Not so fast, Holmes.

A problem with this simple association is that limerence is not a feature of all of the relationships that a limerent forms. In fact, for most limerents, LOs are a minority of the people that they bond with. Plenty of limerents have secure (or avoidant) bonds to other people in their lives – family, friends, SOs – that are not characterised by the symptoms of limerence. It seems that the “limerent-bond” attachment style is unique to only LOs. Limerents do not generally, necessarily, exhibit anxious attachments – only a subset of people in their lives trigger them.

Another confounding factor is that limerence is transient. Once the initial mania has passed, attachment style is likely to revert to type. Longer-term bonding is likely to follow the foundation style, not the initial limerent style. People can be besotted, but then relax back to a secure or avoidant attachment style.

Another issue is that the different attachment styles of LOs will exacerbate or neutralise limerence symptoms. If anxious-preoccupied are more prone to limerence, then fearful-avoidant types are the perfect LOs – unpredictable, emotionally hot-and-cold, variably available or unattainable. In contrast, becoming limerent for a secure LO would seem the likeliest route to short-lived limerence, as uncertainty would be minimised in a relationship with someone who is comfortable expressing their emotions honestly.

Finally, the attachment style of the limerent will also determine their ability to moderate their behaviour in response to the symptoms of limerence. If self-esteem and secure attachment are solid, then the ability to mentally and emotionally detach from an unstable LO is enhanced.

So, what I think at this early stage of investigation is that limerence makes us all a little anxious-preoccupied for a specific person for a certain period of time, but the default style of attachment is reinstated once limerence expires. If a limerent is inherently anxious-preoccupied they are likely to suffer the worst, but a secure or dismissive-avoidant style helps with managing unwelcome limerence.

There is a huge literature on attachment out there, so this is only scratching the surface. Plenty more to explore.

Should you disclose to your significant other?

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve concentrated on the issue of disclosure. The focus was on disclosure to the LO, but if the limerent is in a relationship, then the question of disclosure to their partner comes up. What are the benefits and risks of disclosing the fact that you have become limerent for someone else? When should you do it? How should you do it?

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Easy questions, all.

I think the guiding principle here should be respect for your partner. That means being honest, not minimising the issue or being evasive, and not forcing them to painstakingly extract the facts from you by withholding key information. However, the opposite challenge is recognising when being honest becomes oversharing – “I’m struggling to cope with strong feelings of attraction for her”, is obviously preferable to “I can’t stop imagining her beautiful, smiling face and how ardently I want to kiss her perfect lips.”

The other big challenge is that everyone has their own line about how much information is too much. Some only want to know the big picture, others want to analyse conversations word by word. Some limerents want to downplay their responsibility and blame LO for everything, others want to admit to every little indiscretion in a self-flagellating (but also self-indulgent) emotional purge. The only safe path through this briar patch is to develop good communication skills. Actively listen to what your partner is saying. Check that you understand them properly and ask for clarification if you don’t. Resist the urge to defend yourself when they say something hurtful. They probably will want to hurt you, because you just hurt them, hard. Don’t escalate that – you will be mutual masters at wounding one another, and both leave the field bloodied and defeated.

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Pictured: not just a flesh wound.

So, managing the disclosure requires honesty, diplomacy, and humility. What is the best strategy for doing it?

 

1) When to disclose

I suppose it’s a bit redundant for anyone reading this, but the first important point is to only disclose once you are aware of what limerence is and how it is affecting you. It is far more constructive to be able to explain that this is an issue you are having with managing your emotions, rather than declaring that you have met Someone Wonderful. You should also be at the point where the euphoria is fading, and you are starting to get a grip on the scale of the problem you have. Once the limerence is impacting your life so much that it is affecting your behaviour and your ability to be a decent partner, you should explain yourself to your SO. It’s highly probable that SO will have noticed your mood swings, distractedness, and apparent change in personality, but they will probably have attributed it to stress or work or – even worse – some shortcoming of theirs that is affecting the relationship. Finally (and now I think about it this should probably have come first), you should have made a purposeful decision to re-commit to the relationship.

2) What to disclose

This is where tact is needed. You need to disclose enough to convey the seriousness of the situation, while making clear that you remain fully committed to SO. You have to take responsibility for allowing the limerence to escalate, but make it clear that you want it to end. The most difficult disclosure is going to be if you have done or said anything that has made the limerent episode “public” in some way. If you have said something fruity at an office party, or confided in a friend, or through your actions made it obvious to bystanders that there is an unusual level of intimacy between you and LO, your partner needs to know that. The principle is that SO should be the most well-informed person in the world about what has happened, aside from you. If you have already crossed one of your SO’s red lines, you are going to have to deal with the consequences of that. You may not get the outcome that you want, but then you are not a child, so should have developed the maturity to deal with that by now. If not – now is the perfect opportunity to learn! Be honest, and take the consequences. Life will be better in the long run.

3) What not to disclose

As I said earlier, everyone has a different idea of how much information is needed for honest disclosure. Withholding information that your SO wants is duplicitous, but whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of obsessively talking about LO with your partner. Disclosure is not a free pass to now spend all your time ruminating out loud about your infatuation, and seeking support through the emotional ups and downs of your limerence from the person it is harming most. Similarly, if your partner is agonising over all the details, becoming distressed, but still wanting you to talk at length and in detail about LO, it’s a good idea to tactfully put the brakes on. A possible way would be to say (respectfully) “is this really going to help in my plan to get away from LO?”

Making LO central to your joint life is a big mistake. Don’t fall prey to the drama triangle. You are a partnership, and someone outside it is a problem for you to jointly solve. Don’t triangulate.

4) What are the benefits of disclosing to SO?

The biggest benefit is to your SO: they now understand the truth of their own life. It may take time, but they will also come to realise that you are trustworthy, and they are still safe with you. The biggest benefit for the limerent is that you no longer have to fight to conceal strong feelings that you are ashamed of. That in itself is a relief, a much healthier way of living, and a more emotionally stable basis for dealing with the limerence. The next major benefit is accountability. No more deniability; you have stated your resolve to the most important person in your life, and they are going to be motivated to hold you to your word. That can help you stick to your plan.

Ironically, taking the risk of revealing your shortcomings as a partner can have the effect of helping you re-bond with SO. I really wouldn’t advise becoming limerent for someone else as a way to strengthen a relationship, but after the initial heartache has lessened, it can rejuvenate the “us against the world” feeling of a close pair bond.

5) What are the risks of disclosing to SO?

Discovering that your partner is limerent for someone else is a major blow for anyone. Even the most stable, emotionally secure, and patient SO is going to wonder whether you are still worth the bother. They may decide not. Frankly, you are just going to have to take that – especially considering you’ve been thinking about the prospect of a relationship with LO. Your SO may also react very badly, or in ways you didn’t expect. They may go a little crazy, getting jealous and angry and expressing their new hatred for you in profane terms. They may go too far, becoming threatening or violent, or responding in kind (in their mind) by going out and have a one night stand to teach you a lesson in humiliation.

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I’m making light of it, but only because it’s so serious.

All of those risks are real, but the toxic ones are actually symptomatic of much more serious problems with the relationship. Anger and jealousy are perfectly natural reactions to learning that your partner is infatuated with someone else, but responding by dragging more people into the mess, becoming abusive, or blowing the whole thing up are not healthy coping strategies. If these disasters happen, then you are probably going to have to accept that the relationship is wrecked, and was anyway built on shaky foundations packed with dynamite. Limerence was just the match that lit the fuse.

Ultimately, if you are serious about your relationship, and serious about being rid of LO, then disclosure to your SO is probably a necessary step. Done thoughtfully it is your best hope of coming out the other side intact, and enjoying a healthy and happy future.

When not to disclose

The previous post covered the benefits of disclosing your feelings to your LO, and when it may be a worthwhile thing to do. Disclosure is never a simple choice, of course, and can lead to more uncertainty if LO responds in an unpredictable way. Ironically, when not to disclose is usually more clear-cut.

By far the simplest indicator of when not to disclose is: when you really want to but know you shouldn’t.

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Argh! Dazzled by the blinding insight!

Now I may be a hopeless optimist about this, but I think most people have a good moral sense and know when they shouldn’t do something because it’s Wrong. I’m not a Pollyanna – I know that most people are also often lazy and selfish and thoughtless, but I don’t think they want to be those things. If you asked them they wouldn’t say “Yeah, I don’t much care about being decent, I like being feckless and weak willed.” It’s just that they can’t always muster the moral fibre to do the right thing. So, people are often not good, but they basically want to be.

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I should compile this stuff into a little book of bedside aphorisms or something

Given that shaky philosophical foundation, let’s look at some scenarios where a struggling limerent may need some help bolstering their resolve to hold their feelings in till they can master them.

1) Either one of you is committed to someone else. 

The obvious case. Yes, your feelings are strong and you are bursting to share them, but think about the impact on other people. While they remain in your head, those thoughts and fantasies are yours alone. Once they are spoken and out in the world, you have taken a positive action that compromises other relationships. There may be circumstances that we can dream up where that might be an ethically defensible act, but most of the time it is a selfish need for validation by LO at the expense of your integrity. Your decision to share intimate emotional secrets with LO is an act that makes them complicit in the deceit of either their SO, your SO, or both. If there are kids involved, then the repercussions really ripple out. Families have generational feuds over this stuff.

All that moralising is predictable enough, but really, deeply thinking about the consequences of intimate betrayal is a good way to help strengthen your nerve. LO now knows something fundamentally important about you that your SO doesn’t. How happy would you be with that asymmetry if you discovered it about yourself? Another important note is that the attempt to forge a closer bond to LO can backfire, and backfire badly. They tell their SO, or your SO. They tell their friends. You have no control over the information once it is out in the world, nor should you expect it. You have imposed yourself into other lives; consequences follow that decision.

2) You have authority over LO

The next obvious case is that in some manner, professional or otherwise, you have authority over LO, or there is a power imbalance that means you are disclosing to someone who is either dependent on you or subordinate to you. I’ve mithered before about workplace limerence, and it’s complicated stuff (power imbalances can vary or flip or have little real bearing on professional life), but it may be a situation where the precautionary principle is well applied. If someone works for you and you disclose to them, you put them in a very difficult position – regardless of how they feel about you. Admittedly, reciprocated limerence is a problem that you can probably manage to solve, but what happens once the limerence fades, as it always does? And you never know whether it will be reciprocated before you take the chance.

If it isn’t reciprocated, how is an employee supposed to navigate the nested difficulties of letting you know they are not interested romantically, but want your good opinion professionally, and need to work closely with you but not give you false hope, and are thinking about the reference they will get if they want to leave, etc. etc.?

Of course, if disclosure goes badly, the backfiring at work is a whole other level of fallout. They accuse you of harassment. They tell HR. They ask to be transferred. You have to explain yourself to your boss. Everyone else who works for you loses respect for you. Repercussions pile high.

Another level of complication is educational scenarios – teacher/student or tutor/tutee. If your LO is younger than 18 (or the agreed threshold for adulthood in your country) then suck it up and shut your mouth. No good will come of it – that should be obvious. For older students, the same principles apply as for the workplace, but more so. You have a position that grants you status as a source of wisdom and support. Abuse that at your peril. It’s hard to see any circumstance under which disclosing to a student is a good idea. Keep your feelings in. They will leave in a matter of a few years, so if you are truly enraptured, wait till then.

3) You think LO doesn’t reciprocate, but need to keep working with them

In another scenario, LO is a coworker, but not an obvious boss or subordinate, what then? Assuming your workplace doesn’t have specific policies about relationships you are free in principle to approach them. Here again, I would caution against disclosure unless you are very confident that LO reciprocates – and the false confidence of limerence doesn’t count. And you certainly shouldn’t disclose your limerence. You will have to work with LO in the future, and it will be a lot easier if you are discreet in determining whether they are interested. A compliment and a request for a date would be fine, disclosure that you spend all day obsessively thinking about them is going to make everyday life very uncomfortable for you both if LO is not interested.

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Not to mention the next office “away day”

4) You have disclosed previously

You disclosed before and LO um-ed and ah-ed and said “can’t we still be friends?” or “I have strong feelings for you too, but it’s complicated for me at the moment,” or other such non-committal flannel. There’s no point disclosing again. In fact, why are you still hanging around them? Run away! Save yourself!

 

Why not disclosing is hard

Given how easy it is to list the reasons why you shouldn’t disclose, it does rather beg the question why is it so hard not to? Surely any limerent with half a brain could see it’s madness under these circumstances? Certainly, any SO will see with crystal clarity how straightforward the decision is. Shut up, get away from LO, and focus on the primary relationship that you’re jeopardising!

I’ve spent paragraphs listing all the reasons why a limerent should restrain themselves, but limerence, though, eh? It’s not associated with clear thinking. It’s tough to think clearly when all your cognitive power is occupied with trying to come up with rationalisations for why you should be getting your next fix. The desire to disclose can be overpowering. You want them to know how wonderful you think they are. You think they might know, and might feel the same about you, but how can you be sure? High on dopamine and overconfidence, you want to share the giddy feelings of connection with them, to get closer by shared intimacy. And what could be more intimate that a confession of deep feelings? The boring real world fades away in the moment of connection. Surely it’s safe to disclose here in this mind-bubble that the two of you are sharing?

Yeah, it’s not. All the responsibilities you have taken on still count, even if you are high. The cold, hard truth about limerence is that it happens in your head, and is largely independent of external reality. A good mantra to repeat to yourself when you are tempted to disclose is “I have no idea how LO will react”. Because you don’t. You’re handing someone a life-grenade because you think that they are amazingly special and will appreciate the gift you are giving them. Some LOs will look at your gift, pull the pin and blow you up.

And you can’t complain because you gave them the bomb.

When to disclose

In a previous post, I described disclosure as the nuclear option for getting rid of limerence. While obviously jokey, it is true that disclosure has the potential to really blow up your life in a big way. If it doesn’t – if you disclose but your relationship with LO drifts back to the same pattern of confusing friendship-but-also-some-intimacy that characterises the typical limerence experience – then I’m sorry to break it to you, but your LO is a git. Seriously, would anyone of integrity let a relationship that they knew meant so much to you drift along in limbo? They are either a narc or a coward, and you should avoid people like that if you want a fulfilling life.

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Empowered limerents of the world unite!

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yes, disclosure.

Many limerents want to disclose. Powerfully want to. They want LO to know how special they think they are. They hope that LO will feel excited and gratified by the knowledge, they want LO to reciprocate, and they want their shared intimacy to advance to a deeper level. They may also want to make a show of the fact that they trust LO with such personal and potentially explosive information. Basically selfish wishes (and probably largely subconscious), but understandable in the madness of consuming desire and actually fine in many circumstances. Sometimes, though, such wishes should be resisted. Disclosure is the best tool for ending the uncertainty, but it isn’t by any means a discreet or elegant tool. So, when is disclosure a good idea, and when is it a bad idea?

There’s a lot to say about this issue, so this will be a post in two parts. It’s a lovely sunny day in the part of the world that I’m currently relaxing, so let’s start with the good:

You are free to act on your feelings if they are reciprocated

If you and LO are single, and you want to start a relationship, then disclosure is a good idea. If LO is equivocal about you, then that is important to know. If they give a non-committal response, it’s a good idea to make a clear statement, like “OK, thanks. If it’s OK with you, let’s not hang out for a while, while you think about how you feel. Get back to me once you’ve thought it through.” Then assume it’s a no, and be pleasantly surprised if they instead come back for more.

The psychology behind this is straightforward: LO is likely to feel a bit weird about your company straight after disclosure. Giving them space to process it is likely to work in your favour. If they are definitely not interested in you, that gives them time to come up with excuses about not seeing you any more, which, while undeniably painful, is actually much better for you than staying limerent for a non-reciprocating friend. If they haven’t really thought about you romantically before, but find you attractive, then disclosure can work in your favour by making them start to think of you romantically. Knowing that someone fancies you is quite an effective aphrodisiac for many people. Finally, if the response was lukewarm, you’ve made yourself the perfect excuse for going no contact. Do not get in touch with them again, unless they get back to you after thinking it through and want to get it on.

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Of course, if LO is limerent for you too, then no such sophistication is needed

You want to know how they feel but are getting mixed messages

Another scenario is that LO is emotionally evasive or seems conflicted, or blows hot and cold. I’ve cautioned before about why this is the most reinforcing behaviour that an LO can exhibit, and that it is rarely a good sign that you’ve started to bond with a good match. Nevertheless, some folks just have trouble clearly expressing themselves, so disclosure is the best way of deciding the issue for them. If you’re slipping into limerent reverie but can’t tell for sure if they are interested in you, then it’s time to stop the guessing games for the sake of your own sanity. Deep breath. Courage. Disclose and find out.

If they continue to give mixed messages or keep you hanging, then you have learned what kind of character they have. They are either chronically indecisive or enjoy the asymmetry of the relationship. Avoid people like that. Now, some people may see this as overly hasty, and point out that many people react badly to being rushed or given an ultimatum when it comes to love. But you’re not asking for a ring, you’re just expressing your own feelings and asking about theirs. If that’s too much for them, then you’re trying to bond to someone who can’t even commit to admitting their own feelings. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect such a person to make their mind up.

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AKA piss or get off the pot

You think they will not reciprocate, but you want the limerence to end

A counsel of despair this one, and rather like pulling a plaster off quickly. If you are trapped in limerent limbo with a non-reciprocating LO and want out, disclosure should mean that you cut off your source of supply. Remove the plaster covering over your festering fake friendship, and expose everything to the light of day. Then you have the perfect reason for no contact, and they will probably be fine with that, now they know how you feel. Again, if they seek to continue or deepen your relationship after you have disclosed and they have rejected you, you should have grave reservations about their motives and protect yourself by maintaining no contact.

Overall, how your LO responds to disclosure will tell you an awful lot about them. If they reciprocate and admit their limerence for you, then you are going to be blissfully happy for a while. Lucky you! If they bluntly rebuff you, they are straightforward but uninterested, and you can at least part on honest terms (don’t underestimate how helpful that is for recovery). If they are interested, but hesitant, and decide to try a relationship out and see how it goes, you have probably just discovered that your LO is a non-limerent. That’s fine. Lots of splendid non-limerents in the world who could be excellent partners, but recognise the implications of that for how the relationship is likely to develop, and have realistic expectations. Finally, if they do not give you a clear answer, and want things to carry on as they were, run away as fast as you can. Do not try to be friends with that person. Do not torture yourself. Run, and free yourself to find someone better for you.