Unavailable LOs

Reader Jaideux asks

“…is it possible that a limerent subconsciously chooses the unavailable LO (over and over in my case) because of the guaranteed outcome of failure, there is actually less risk?”

A good question!

I think the idea behind it is that limerence for unavailable LOs is a form of self-protection, in that the risk of emotional pain is reduced because the possibility of failure is almost certain. Is this a form of risk avoidance, so that the limerent can soak in the emotional stew of obsession without having to face the hard work of sustaining a real relationship? Is it a way of avoiding the heartache of a good relationship failing, by setting your heart on one that has no chance of success?

It’s possible; absolutely. Choosing an unavailable LO does guarantee that your romantic life is entirely internalised, rather than exposed to the world where it becomes subject to risks. This sort of evasion may particularly suit introverts, avoidant personalities, and limerents that crave the exquisite agony of rumination and longing that is also reassuringly within their control. Imaginary relationships can achieve a fantasy ideal that is impossible in practice.

Choosing (subconsciously or otherwise) unavailable LOs does mean no public risk for the limerent. Life, however, is never risk free, and by fixating on unavailable LOs the limerent simply transfers it: from the overt risk of rejection or a failed relationship, to the covert risk of jeopardising their own psychological wellbeing. Getting trapped in a limerent obsession with an unavailable LO is like revving a car in neutral – you don’t go anywhere and it’s bad for the engine.

So, the simple answer to the question is Yes, but to go a bit deeper, some reflection on the background assumptions underpinning the query throws up all sorts of secondary questions and possibilities that are also worth exploring.

1) Selection bias

A common error in statistical analysis (and logic) is so-called selection bias. The idea is that restricting your enquiries to a limited sample of people (such as those people that filled in your questionnaire, or visitors to a special-interest blog) means you get a very skewed view of the phenomenon that you are investigating. A trite example would be asking the readership of an infidelity forum whether they had problems trusting their partners, and concluding that the incidence of spousal insecurity was at epidemic proportions.

In the context of this question, the selection bias would be subtler, but potentially meaningful. Unavailable LOs are likely to provoke most uncertainty in the limerent, and so heighten the limerence to the max.

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Shouldn’t these go to 11?

Uncertainty is the key fuel in the progression of limerence, and is often amplified by barriers to honest disclosure. Consequently, unavailable LOs (such as those who are married, of incompatible sexual orientation, or emotionally closed) will provide the bestest barriers out there. So, it may not be the case that a limerent “chooses” the unavailable LO, it may be that the unavailability is what causes the limerence to happen. In other words, limerents aren’t emotionally drawn to unavailable LOs because of subconscious fears, it’s that married people who cause the glimmer and hint at reciprocation are the most potent triggers for limerence out there. So, the sense that you always pick unavailable LOs may actually be that unavailable people are the only stimuli strong enough to drive limerence all the way to mad extremes.

2) Time dependence

Another variant on the selection bias theme is the age of the limerent. As we get older, the pool of available contemporaries declines. People marry, or partner up in a non-formal way, decreasing the number of single acquaintances in daily life that could become significant others. Inevitably, that means an increase in the likelihood of falling into limerence with an unavailable LO, simply because the number of unavailable potential LOs that we are exposed to increases. Similarly, of course, if the limerent themselves gets married then all LOs are unavailable, because the limerent is not free to act.

For the single limerents out there who are no longer in the first flush of youth, I don’t mean this as a counsel of despair. There are plenty of good people who find themselves single in midlife and plenty of opportunities to find a new partner – but by simple statistics, there is again a selection bias for unavailability at play if you become limerent for someone in their 30s or older, rather than someone in their 20s.

3) The illusion of perfection

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I know I shouldn’t be so fixated on [unavailable LO] but he’s perfect for me!

Really? Perfect? The unavailable, unattainable person is your perfect match? As an adolescent, when you dreamed of your romantic future you thought “someone who I can’t bond with openly and honestly is the ideal choice”? Setting aside some sort of religious “transcendent love untainted by the sins of the flesh” perspective on Romance, it’s hard to accept that it’s really anyone’s view of perfection.

I think what this idea really means is that when there are no responsibilities, no compromises, no conflicts, and no consequences, relationships with attractive people we like are easy. Real relationships, of course, are partnerships, tested by disappointments, disagreements, unrealistic expectations, and miscommunication. An excellent friend can make a terrible partner. People are weird.

It may be deeper than this. It may be that actually the limerent has met an LO who does treat them well, make them feel fulfilled and special, and emotionally supported and safe. It may be that these qualities have been missing from the other important relationships in the limerent’s life, but it doesn’t mean that LO is the only person out there that can achieve this level of successful intimacy. People who are good at maintaining relationships are likely to be able to enjoy successful partnerships with many people.

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Not at the same time…

Secure attachment is a virtuous cycle: it means that bonding with others feels normal, and happens naturally. So, it could be that LO is a “perfect” match because they have secure attachments and that is a novelty for the limerent. The good news in that case is that finding another available person who makes stable attachments can give you the same solid basis for a new relationship. The even better news is that if the limerent has a good relationship with LO, odds are good that they themselves have the skill set needed to form good relationships with others.

4) Why purposeful living helps

We end where we often do, with purposeful living. From the perspective of limerence for unavailable LOs, how can taking charge of your life help? Well, there are the obvious benefits of figuring out what you want and how to improve yourself to the point where you can earn it, but there are non-obvious benefits too. Most strikingly, purposeful living changes your approach to risk. If the urge to seek unavailable LOs springs from the risk avoidance, the implication is that fear of rejection, fear of being unable to sustain a lasting bond, or fear of not living up to LO’s expectations, are the driving forces that control your behaviour.

Deciding to change your behaviour, also changes your interpretation of risk. The sting of personal embarrassment is reduced, because your hopes become focussed on larger goals. If you are seeking success in an endeavour you care deeply about (be it romantic, artistic, political, social, or “idiosyncratic other”), fear of rejection – fear of personal shortcomings generally – become less potent. When pursuing a worthwhile life, you lose the habit of worrying about pleasing other people (indiscriminately), worrying about what they think of you in private, and worrying about how it would appear to others if your secret thoughts were revealed.

Bluntly, working towards a larger goal in life makes you less self-centred, and less anxious about comparing yourself to other people and what they are doing with their lives. It also highlights that an infatuation with a person who cannot offer you authentic romantic love is incompatible with maximising your own potential. Unavailable people are not worth the distraction. You do not have time and energy to waste on dead-ends.

If there is a downside to focussing your attention on living your own life to the best of your ability, I haven’t found it yet.

Living with uncertainty

Uncertainty is a central feature of limerence. It acts as a fuel for deepening the obsession (constantly ruminating on what every word, gesture and meaningful look might mean), and seems to be necessary for limerence to move into full blown person-addiction territory.

Beyond its role in initiating limerence, uncertainty is also a major barrier to recovery. In part, this is because the best options available for resolving limerence carry uncertain outcomes.

First, if you decide to disclose to LO (or your SO), you don’t know how it will go. How will they react? Even people we know very well can surprise us when confronted with such emotionally volatile news as “I have very strong feelings for you/someone else”. LO, of course, may also respond in an ambiguous way, thwarting your best attempts to end the uncertainty by disclosing. To heap the uncertainty even higher, LO may not even know what they want. They may be just as confused and conflicted as you. The outcome: dangle, dangle, at the end of the limerence string. Will you ever be pulled up or cut loose?

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I advocate always bringing your own scissors

Similarly, although No Contact is the safest path to resolution, it does have an inescapable feature: you don’t know what’s going on anymore. What is LO doing? Do they miss you? Are they depressed? Even worse, are they happy? Argh. It’s agony. Just a quick Facebook stalk to find out for sure. After all, if they don’t know about it it doesn’t really count as contact, does it? Well, they look quite happy in that picture, but maybe they’re just putting on a brave face. After all, remember that time when they told you… and you’re drawn in again.

A big step in mastering limerence is coming to terms with uncertainty. Embracing it, even. Philosophically-inclined people have recognised the value of this idea for centuries, of course. It could be the Stoic principle of not worrying about what you can’t control, or Stephen Covey’s emphasis on concerning yourself with matters within your “sphere of influence”. Life comes with a very large random element to it, and accepting the capricious nature of fate is a surefire way of reducing anxiety about things you can’t predict. We’ve even established this into everyday language with the concept of “being philosophical”.

As desperate as you are to know how LO really feels about you, if you want to move on and leave them behind you, it’s much better to accept the uncertainty and be fine with it. “I don’t know, and that’s OK” is the mantra here.

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Admittedly, “stoical indifference” is a tricky cause to rally around

Partly, this is about letting go of the desire to be in control, generally. Purposeful living helps here. Focussing on your life, your goals, and how you are going to act to realise them helps in letting go of worries over what other people are up to. “I don’t know if LO reciprocates, and it’s torture,” becomes “I don’t know if LO reciprocates, but I’m married, so it doesn’t matter.” Beyond limerence, the choice to focus on your goals, rather than other people’s opinions, needs, and feelings, is a healthy way to live.

Lack of consideration for others is not purposeful, but putting your priorities ahead of other people’s priorities is. It’s caught up in the same principle as being proactive rather than reactive. Act on something because it will help you achieve what you want to achieve, not because someone else’s behaviour has made you angry or stressed. Once you decide that LO is not the author of your life (because you are the author of your life), then what they feel and what they want become secondary concerns. So, not knowing with certainty is no problem.

Finally, it is a fundamental truth about life that no-one knows what’s coming. Uncertainty is unavoidable. There’s nothing you can do about it, so the best strategy is to build your life up into something you are fulfilled by, and proud to live. Fate toys with us all; react to emergencies when you need to, but during the stretches of time when you have your health and vitality, work towards your own goals, and live with purpose.

Become reconciled to uncertainty as a constant companion, and you’ll be much more resilient to the challenges of limerence.

What can spouses do?

When your spouse or partner becomes limerent for someone else, it stinks.

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It’s Understatement Sunday

Quite reasonably, many people experiencing this relationship-testing stress wonder desperately what they can do to help. Some cope by going into “fix it” mode to focus their energy on a solution rather than on confronting their feelings. While this tactic can be pretty useful in life generally, when the problem actually is “feelings”, it may not be so fruitful.

People respond differently. Some get consumed by righteous anger, some become depressed, some plead, some bargain, some rage. But everyone who goes through this has to confront a fundamental truth: it shreds your self-esteem. Because intact self-esteem is very useful for coping with the fallout of limerence, one of the goals of this site is to help spouses who have been impacted by limerence understand what is going on. The key message is this: limerence is going on in your spouse’s head, and is not an indication of how wonderful LO is, or how undesirable you have suddenly become. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, it’s about their emotional issues, not a judgment on the quality of the marriage.

I’ve posted before on some ideas about this issue, but in this post I want to think out loud about some of the practical steps that could help spouses snap the limerent out of the worst excesses of the limerence episode. I can’t pretend that these are field-tested ideas, but they may be productive.

As a caveat, at the start, I’m assuming here that your spouse has generally good character, has not already embarked on an affair, and that your marriage was working well (from your perspective) before this happened. If not, then unfortunately your problems are a bit deeper than just your spouse’s limerence. It’s probably time to find a therapist, or a lawyer.

With that depressing aside out of the way, what can be done to help manage the situation?

1) Understand how limerence is affecting them now

The first step is to figure out where your spouse’s mind is at. Are they in the thick of limerent euphoria? If so, they will be hard to reach. LO is triggering a big old dopamine rush and their subconscious mind is driving them to try and maintain this for as long as possible. LO is idolised, you are not. None of this is your fault – they’ve got themselves in a brain loop because they were careless and selfish and self-indulgent (and possibly seduced). But even if your spouse is in the “deep zone” they may nevertheless be feeling highly conflicted, because they love you but are infatuated with them, and that is hard to process unless they have a very well developed sense of self-awareness. Unfortunately, that conflict can manifest in getting angry and short-tempered with you, and – even worse – seeking solace from their new wonderful friend. This is the phase of limerence in which your best bet is to focus on yourself, and decide how much patience you have to tolerate besotted foolishness. If your spouse is in this zone, get some distance if you can. You need support, possibly personal counselling, and hopefully an understanding friend.

If, in contrast, your spouse has recognised that they are in trouble, that they have lost control of the situation and are anxious about what to do, then they are probably either coming out of limerence, or not yet fully immersed. It is likely that they will be easier to reach. If they have confided in you about their feelings for LO, and (this is an important bit, so I’m putting it in all caps) SHOWN CONTRITION then you have something to work with. Best of all is if they have said that they want the limerence to stop. They may not act as if they want it to stop – they may even seem evasive or hypocritical or react angrily to constructive suggestions (that just happen to involve them spending less time with LO) – but they have enough lucidity to recognise the harm it is causing them. At this point, guiding them to an understanding of limerence and how to overcome it can be effective.

2) Develop ninja-level communication skills

It is really hard to speak calmly and honestly when your partner is mooning over someone else. Conflict negotiation is a high level skill, and like most skills, practicing it is the only way of establishing a trained habit that happens almost automatically when in a high intensity situation. Communicating with a limerent spouse in a way that does not provoke either of you into a spiral of denial, anger and blame, is a serious challenge. One advantage that I had in my last limerent episode was an established habit of honest communication with my wife. Frankly, she had trained me. She counselled people at one point in her life, and had learned the skills of reflective listening, clear assertiveness (without aggression), and how to spot and sidestep common roadblocks. She encouraged me to read the same books she had used, and taught me some of the methods. We used them in our marriage, successfully (and even got to the point of laughing at each other when we were “doing that assertiveness thing”). That helped a lot. There were still tears, and anger and frustration, but the default habit was honest communication and that was very helpful.

Now, it may not seem to be terribly helpful to say “you needed to have trained yourself in a skill some time ago” as a solution to a problem that exists now. But remember the proverb: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

Taking the time to learn and practice good communication and conflict resolution skills is a massive help in resolving, well, this conflict. A happy bonus is that it’s a really useful skill in almost every other aspect of life too. So you’ll be a more effective and purposeful person for the effort.

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Achievement unlocked!

3) Stealth education

A bit sneaky this, but the idea is to plant idea seeds and hope they germinate. Most people aren’t aware of the concept of limerence. Most limerents just think, “Yep, this is what love is like. Got it.” The idea that actually there is a tipping point beyond which good feels lead to a self-reinforcing obsession that derails your life, is unfamiliar. Similarly, the idea that many people do not feel like that, do not experience romantic love like that, and that it doesn’t represent some sort of cosmic connection, is a revelation. While you can’t browbeat someone into accepting something they don’t want to believe, it could be useful to nudge your limerent spouse along that particular road to Damascus. A bit of consciousness raising about limerence may be useful. Case studies about limerents making fools of themselves and destroying their lives may also be useful.

Unfortunately, most people are only really receptive to uncomfortable new ideas if they think they have discovered them themselves. So, you’ll have to be sneaky.

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Oh, that? It’s just something I found in the library that looked interesting…

4) Think carefully about your boundaries 

The heart of the problem that impacted spouses face is that they can’t actually solve this unilaterally. Really the best that can be done is to communicate clearly and honestly, and hope that your spouse sees sense. You could try an ultimatum, but that may drive them further away or precipitate an escalation of the limerence by adding a barrier. You could try pleading, but your spouse may already have devalued you to the point that this is taken as further evidence of your shortcomings. Plus, it’s another blow to your self-esteem to plead with the person that should be your equal partner. There are not a lot of ways to win in the spouse versus LO competition, so by far the most rational and successful strategy is to not play that game. You should play the “who am I and what do I want?” game instead.

The key to this is to really think about and establish your boundaries. Limerence is going on in your spouse’s head, and that’s the only place it’s going to be resolved. All you can decide is how much space and time you are willing to give them in the hope that they will take that opportunity to address their emotional problems. Is insisting on No Contact a red line for you? Or is a “no contact during family time” rule sufficient as a first step? This is not meant as a compromise or negotiation, or a lesson in how much humiliation you are willing to tolerate. The idea is to genuinely ask yourself what you think are reasonable limits within which your spouse can sort themselves out. Then, you communicate those limits clearly (see step 2), and also the consequences should they cross those lines. A significant danger comes from the understandable anger over their thoughtless behaviour – if you insist on strict rules but your spouse fails to meet them, what then? Backsliding on an impractical ultimatum is far more damaging to your self-esteem and to the mutual respect between you, than not setting it in the first place.

You know, it’s hard. The loss of control is maddening. One way to recover that is to focus on the thing you can control: your response. Ultimately, the only sane way of getting through a spouse’s limerence that I can think of is to focus on your own goals, your own boundaries, and navigate through this in a way that maintains your self-respect and your personal integrity, whatever the final outcome. Being clear on your boundaries, and enforcing them soberly but determinedly, is the probably the best way of achieving that.

Good luck.

When LOs return, part two

In a previous post I wrote about the fact that my LO was re-entering my life and that we were working together on a short project. It’s done.

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and dusted

So, was it worth the effort? What did I learn? Would I ever do it again?

1) Old habits are well ingrained

The most striking part of the experience was how quickly and easily we fell back into the old habits of our previous interactions. I suppose it’s pretty obvious that would happen, but it very nicely reinforced many of the lessons I’ve learned about limerence. At one point, when in the height of limerence, it would have been a disaster, as my habit was to deepen the personal connection and strengthen the giddy thrill of limerence. But by the time LO left last time, I’d reprogrammed my habits into a pattern of guarded friendliness with clear boundaries – which is what I defaulted straight back into during the last month. So, the working dynamic was friendly and familiar, but without emotional depth or personal openness. It’s a highly constrained sort of friendship, but necessary to avoid backsliding.

Establishing the right habits took time, but has turned out to be a lasting protection against limerence.

2) Danger lurks constantly

OK, possibly a little overstated, but the risk of boundary crossing is always there. A good example was during a conversation about politics that meandered around a bit and ended up with us discussing #metoo. Helpfully, my gut gave me a nice strong lurch to let me know that this was a “skating on thin ice” topic.

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Danger, Will Robinson!

I think this illustrates the problem with trying to be friends with LO. Ordinary chat can lead unpredictably to sexually and/or emotionally charged topics that (even if LO is trustworthy) just have too much potential to push the relationship dynamic towards intimacy. The times of highest risk were when I started to relax and think everything was fine, and began to enjoy LO’s company in an unguarded way.

Once vigilance is relaxed, the natural openness that characterises an uncomplicated friendship becomes a door for the limerence pixie to come prancing through.

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OK, not my finest metaphor, but you get the idea

3) It’s never going to be gone

I’ve spoken before about my tendency to become limerent for damsels in distress. It’s part of who I am, and that’s fine, but the awareness of it is a key protection for me making purposeful decisions rather than reactive decisions. The hardest part of the month came at the very end. To my surprise, as we said goodbye for the last time, LO lost her normally steely composure and became teary-eyed. That bypassed all my carefully constructed defences and got me straight in the heart.

Fortunately I was able to draw on my deep reserves of English emotional repression, and harden my resolve. No hugs were exchanged, no “we must keep in touch” promises, just a friendly, slightly sad goodbye and thank you, and we were done.

But, in the spirit of complete honesty: that hurt. Even now, a few days later, the memory of it hurts. Someone I care about needed emotional support from me and I withheld it. I know why I had to, and I know she’ll be fine, but I think it goes to show that I will not be able to achieve a state of indifference towards LO. Maybe many years from now, but for the foreseeable future I’ll be sticking to the limited contact principle, and certainly not be instigating another joint project. There are plenty of worthwhile projects to occupy me, and LO would be a distractor in any of them.

 

So, the main lessons learned are that the right habits and boundaries were proof against re-exposure to LO, but that any interaction is always a risk, never neutral, and so should only be embarked on with caution and full awareness. A caveat is that my limerence was never disclosed to LO, never consummated, and I killed it by a sort of slow suffocation rather than an abrupt coup de grace. That may be part of the reason why there is still enough lingering uncertainty to make our interactions uncomfortably charged, and requiring constant vigilance. Nevertheless, the strategy has worked well enough for me to feel generally positive about the latest experience, and able to move on with satisfaction.

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Hopefully to a peaceful and fruitful future

 

p.s. in case anyone is wondering: the work project went fine. Not as well as hoped, but good enough to be worth the effort.

Limerence and polyamory

Spin out post from a previous comment thread.

Long time reader, first time commenter, Landry asks:

What I’d like to know is how folks feel about polyamory and why is it that sexual/romantic/emotional exclusivity—however one defines monogamous fidelity—is so important. I know some of DrL’s take on this from an earlier blog entry, that limerents and poly types are a terrible fit. But I’m not sure I agree with that anymore. Now granted, my millenial LO is the one who got me re-considering this concept, got me wondering why I’m holding so fast to my (dated?) dogma about relationships. (OK, my LO and Mira Kirshenbaum and Esther Perel and Brene Brown—whoa, wa-a-a-y too many self-help reads on my night stand these days.) And it’s hard not to wonder how much of all the angst our limerence puts us through could be eliminated if we would just give up these notions about monogamy as the be-all-end-all ideal. Obviously, I’m not talking about single folks who get limerent. But the real heartache seems to come from being married and becoming limerent for someone else. Wouldn’t marriage be a happier state if we could just come clean about our feelings, accept that wanting someone else (at least once in awhile) is normal and OK, address the insecurities that non-monogamy can bring up, and…for heaven’s sake, move through it in grace and mutual compassion. Why exclusivity and mandatory monogamy, anyway?

I’ve previously speculated that polyamory is a non-limerent’s game, but am open to being wrong. The key thing for me is that I can’t imagine being limerent for more than one person at once. So poly limerents would seem to be in a situation characterised by being in a stable relationship with one (or more) significant others, but then becoming limerent for a new person, and then bringing that person into the team (with all the usual assumptions about consent and open communication etc.)

So, the question for the tribe: can limerents be poly? Has anyone ever been limerent for more than one person at once?

Also, a quick note on commenting policy: I’m pretty laissez-faire as I like to learn from everyone, but this is a support site for limerents and people impacted by limerents. Sharing your own experience = great. Bluntly critiquing other people’s conduct = not great.

Let’s keep this constructive and supportive!