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.


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?


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.

5 thoughts on “Limerence and emotional attachment

  1. After we’d been dating awhile, LO #2 told me that her greatest fear was to grow old and die alone. I told her that there was nobody I couldn’t live without; all the people I really cared about either left or had been taken from me. It wasn’t a question of if they’d leave, it was only a question of when they’d leave. It took my wife to prove me wrong on that one.

    LO #2 was a nurse and kept a copy of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ book, “On Death and Dying” on her nightstand. She said I had the most callous attitude toward death of anyone she’d ever met, and after one conversation, considered removing all the guns from my house. My family has 2 suicides in the family and probably came from a comment I made that if I ever did decide to check myself out, the hardest decision would be what weapon I’d use.

    After we broke up, LO #2 told me, “I can’t control you. You don’t need me. You’re only with me because you wanted to be. There’s nothing to bind you to me. I was afraid that one day you’d wake up and not want to be with me. If I gave myself to you and you left, I’d be devastated.”

    I told that to the therapist. Her reply, “That’s definitely fearful-avoidant.” Later, the therapist said, “You’ve convinced me she’s a borderline. Quit trying to convince yourself she isn’t.”

    That was 30 years ago. To this day, I think LO #2 understood me to a depth that no other person ever has and likely never will.


  2. I’ve always struggled to identify which attachment style I generally have, but as I have been with my husband 10 years I’m leaning towards secure! Until my daughter was born 2 years ago the marriage was good and when this current LE started 6 months ago it was the first symptom of things really going awry. We had been drifting apart and kept putting it down to tiredness etc.

    Before him I had a brief relationship but it is probably generous to call that a relationship – there was more wrong with it than right with it and it only lasted a few months!

    However my “friendship” with LO sometimes it was a classic limerent anxious- preoccupied, but at other times it may have seemed more like fearful-avoidant, more because of the circumstances. Being acutely aware of the inappropriateness of the relationship going anything beyond a friendship meant that whenever we started getting too needy with each other, I would back off (e.g. steer conversations onto neutral topics, have a friend meet me for lunch or request a different break time) so probably came across cold.

    Trouble is the more I read about attachment the more I really question my parenting and worry if I have messed my kids up!!


    • It’s a good point about the limerence dance – the anxious-preoccupied/fearful-avoidant swing. I’m sure that’s common with mutual limerence when both people have SOs; oscillating between seeking bonding and then guiltily pulling away. Classic pattern for strengthening the limerence too!

      As for kids: I know what you mean. You can drive yourself nuts trying to second guess how every decision will screw up their development. I’ve settled on keeping them safe, showing them love, and hoping for the best…


    • “Trouble is the more I read about attachment the more I really question my parenting and worry if I have messed my kids up!!”

      That’s a dance where you let the kids lead you (a bit). Some kids are a bit more clingy so you give them a bit more time while also letting them know when perhaps they are going a bit too far. Also don’t inflate their fears.

      Example: kid falls off the jungle gym. Don’t rush over with fear on your face. Let the kid come to you. Tell her she’s fine (if she’s fine – obviously a broken limb is different), give her a quick kiss and send her back to play. Encourage her to climb it again – but higher this time. Etc.

      Provide kids with opportunities to just go play in the dirt, or the woods, without you hovering. They need to learn how to amuse themselves too. Plus unstructured play is good.

      Teach them that the phrase, “I’m bored!” leads to chores. Nothing like spring or autumn cleaning to cure them of looking at their parents like they are social directors or something.

      It’s really weird to see little kids who don’t know how to play alone with other kids – no adults to lead them. Too many don’t know what to do with themselves or how to interact peer-to-peer.

      If you’re worried and they’re in school, you can always ask their teachers what they’re seeing.

      “Until my daughter was born 2 years ago the marriage was good and when this current LE started 6 months ago it was the first symptom of things really going awry. We had been drifting apart and kept putting it down to tiredness etc. ”

      Don’t discount tiredness! Get a sitter. Go out. Take a class together. Zip-lining. Spelunking. Anything where both of you are relative novices and have a chance to bumble along together. Keep the affect flat and dull with the person who you’re focusing on at the moment.

      Remember: love isn’t a noun. It’s a verb.


  3. Ever hear the expression, “All the good ones are taken?” When viewed from the perspective of Attachment Theory, the older you get, the truer it is.

    The literature says that the breakdown is roughly 50% Secure, 25% Anxious, & 25% Avoidant. As a function of age, it’s not a “dating pool,” it’s more of a mixer-settler tank. When you’re young, there are more suitable candidates. Over time, people with secure attachments are more likely to bond with other secure people and settle out of the market. People with anxious attachments can be thought of having unstable bonds and may settle out and re-enter the stream periodically. What that leaves as a function of age is more avoidants with a few anxious thrown in. People with secure attachments are unlikely to re-enter the stream voluntarily and may find themselves surrounded by avoidants and anxious.

    The literature says that it’s unlikely that two avoidants can maintain a lasting bond. Actually, two avoidants could craft a totally delightful relationship but they’d have to meet some very specific criteria and that would be a matter of luck or fate.


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