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.