Limerence as an act of rebellion

There can be lots of reasons why people fall into limerence: anxiety, uncertainty about what they want from life, midlife stress that time is running out, problems with their long-term relationship.

One reason I’ve not covered much before is limerence as an act of rebellion. Here the limerent falls into a burgeoning limerence affair, and instead of slowing down and reflecting on what they want, they rush onwards and justify it as an act of self-actualisation. They are defying convention! They are asserting their need for independence! It’s their turn to take what they want from life!

This thinking can be potent – not least because it is sometimes true; possibly even justified. Here are some of the sorts of thoughts that are expressed by people giving in to limerence:

I’ve always got to behave, but other people do whatever they want

I feel trapped by my marriage/job/family

My spouse doesn’t give me enough affection/sex/respect

Everyone takes me for granted

Everyone assumes I’m boring and never do anything exciting

I am bored and never do anything exciting

I’ve given so much to other people and never take anything for myself

Why do I always have to be the responsible one?

These are all legitimate complaints. Seriously – that list is a litany of some of the most common and psychologically-destructive beliefs that people hold about their lives. Who wouldn’t be tempted to rebel?

The problem is that correctly diagnosing an underlying malaise in life is only the first step; the difficult bit is to find a cure. A limerent affair is likely to not only fail as a cure, but also to make things worse. Rebel limerents make some key errors of judgement. This is not too surprising, given that limerence and judgement are like oil and water.

1) Everyone feels stifled by responsibilities sometimes

You only live once. A cliché so worn out it’s become a meme.

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YOLO!

Here’s the thing about YOLO: life doesn’t usually end after your exuberant act of rebellion. You do only live once, but most people learn in the course of that life that the consequences of reckless self-indulgence are more painful and longer lasting than the pain of resisting temptation. Everyone feels stifled at one time or another. Everyone has to make sacrifices in order to thrive in the long term. Everyone is involved in a long game of trying to find the optimal way of getting through life without falling prey to disaster. Some people are better at this game than others, but those people that think that hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is a good game tactic, rapidly learn that they are wrong.

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Unless they are the sort of people that never learn, of course

Equally, running away from your old dysfunctional life, and hoping that a new, wonderful LO will swoop in and rescue you is also a futile game strategy. Responsibilities can be a burden, no two ways about it, but responsibilities appear when you decide to commit to something worthwhile. You can’t have the benefits without the sacrifice. Anyone who ever achieved something worthwhile did it by willingly taking on responsibility and discharging that responsibility to the best of their ability. The most fulfilled and content people are the ones who recognise and accept that cost and don’t see it as an unfair demand imposed on them by circumstances.

So, the first error of this way of thinking is to assume you are unusual in the burdens you bear.

2) What happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas

The repercussions of acts of rebellion ripple out, and harm the rebel as well as everyone else. There are not many people that can contain a life-altering transgression within themselves without the knowledge of it “leaking” and affecting their behaviour. There are some sociopaths who can compartmentalise their emotions, or even get a kick from the deceit, but most people find that living with the knowledge that they have betrayed their partner (and possibly, family) is too dark a secret to conceal. They behave erratically. They push limits. They get careless. It’s as though they can’t bear the fact that they are getting away with so big a lie, and some part of their conscience wants them to be found out.

Even if the limerent doesn’t succumb to this self-sabotage (a sort of act of counter-rebellion by their better selves), they can also be found out by events. The LO is careless. Evidence is discovered of illicit trysts. They are seen or overheard or gossiped about. Another common one is that one or other of the affair partners wants more from the relationship. Blackmail, threats, coercion; it can get ugly quickly.

All the rebel wanted was a moment of life-affirming connection with another romantic soul (neatly contained in a fantasy time bubble), but –  whoopsie! – other people are involved, and it’s all got much too Real and spiralled out of control.

The second error is to think that the consequences won’t outlast the rebellion.

Destruction is rarely creative

There’s this idea in silicon valley that “disruption” is the cause of the most significant advances in society. “Disruptive technology” is a breakthrough that upends old ways of working and ushers in a new era – think the printing press, or personal computers, or smart phones. This tech gives rise to industry-killing disruption, like Amazon, Uber or Airbnb. The silicon valley types gloss over the damage wrought by disruption, of course (the booksellers, taxi firms and hoteliers put out of business). The Price of Progress.

But there are other ways to be disruptive too. The Taliban disrupted the educational system of Afghanistan very effectively. Isis recently disrupted centuries of history in Palmyra. Often, disruption is just destructive.

There is sometimes an impulse in the rebellious limerent that taps into this urge to destroy: I don’t care anymore. I’ve nothing to lose. Burn it all down.

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Or perhaps most insidious of all: “they’ll notice me now”

People that want to shake their lives up are people that do not feel they are in control of their lives, or who feel unable to escape from the person (or people) they hold responsible for trapping them. Rather than confronting that person, or leaving them, the rebel decides to attack them and smash the life they had together.

The third error is to believe that someone else is to blame for your plight.

What are you rebelling against?

So if embracing limerence as an act of rebellion is not the cure to frustration with life, what is? Well, surprise, surprise, I think the answer is purposeful living. The real problem with feeling stifled, undervalued, taken for granted, or unfulfilled is not “I haven’t embarked on enough destructive affairs,” it’s “I don’t feel in control of my life.”

Rebelling against passivity is good. Finding ways to take control of your life is good. Asserting your needs more clearly is good. Blowing things up with a grand gesture is likely to cause more destruction than rebirth. You may be able to build a new life from the ashes of the old one, but you may also just be left sitting in the dust.

If limerence has woken you up to the fact that you feel victimised by your current lifestyle, take it as an opportunity to understand yourself. You’ve tapped into something important: you are not satisfied with your life, and that is a realisation to be taken seriously. If you can use the awakening wisely, you can start to figure out how you want your life to be. What purpose will you pursue? What responsibilities would you willingly take on? What part of yourself is LO connecting to, that needs to be given more attention?

It’s far better to rebel against your own destructive urges, and to take control of your life, than to satisfy the craving for limerent reward. That’s the way to win the game.

The stories we tell ourselves

In the previous post, I talked about reverie, and how limerents tend to rehearse scenes in their minds as a way of feeling connected to LO and trying to prepare for future meetings.

Another aspect of reverie that I didn’t touch on is the fact that we often rehearse imagined scenes to help ourselves make sense of what is happening to us. Imagining different scenarios is one way of incorporating the presence of LO and their effect on us into our “life narrative”. What does it mean, this life-upending drama? How should we be responding?

Terry Pratchett once described humans as “story-telling apes”. It is a critical way that we process information. Rather than trying to respond to every new experience as a unique event, we use familiar stories as quick shortcuts for slotting the new experience into our existing worldview. As an example: if someone cuts in front of us in busy traffic, we tend to make assumptions based on the narrative structures that we use to organise the world.

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Bloody boy racers / Gosh, they must be late for something / Oh, you think you’re soooo important. 

Limerence is no different (apart from in its intensity, perhaps). When the limerent experience overtakes us, we will attempt to interpret it in terms of familiar stories: Seductive Eve, Don Juan, True Love, Happily Ever After.  Stories are an incredibly potent way of organising our thoughts and feelings into an understandable (and memorable) pattern.

So limerent reverie is, in part, driven by an attempt to impose a narrative onto the limerent experience in order to make sense of it. It is also a golden opportunity, because we can shape the narrative.

Seven stories

Everyone has a unique and special life, but talk to authors and you may encounter the slightly cynical view that there are only seven basic plots, populated by archetypal characters. One can quibble the broadness of some of the categories, but the basic message is incredibly powerful. These archetypal stories have been refined over generations by people trying to make sense of the world, and we’ve all inherited this legacy.

Instead of having to figure out a complex world from first principles, we greedily consume stories about archetypal heroes and heroines facing fictional trials, and subconsciously absorb the refined lessons of all the generations before us. It’s very efficient.

The other important implication of this story-based learning is that it works in a way that bypasses our hypercritical conscious minds and instead moves us at the emotional core – that same “deep down” part of ourselves that hungers for limerent reward. Telling ourselves stories is a very effective way to communicate with our limerent brains.

Our self-concept

So how can we use this knowledge to help regulate limerence? A major part of it is deciding on which story we want to be living. Are we living the “star-crossed lovers cruelly thwarted by fate” story, or are we living the “valiant hero resisting the call of the sirens” story? Who we are in the pantheon of archetypal characters? Are we the Innocent, seduced by a Villain? Are we the Mentor, tested by unwelcome desires for the Innocent? Are we the Hero, facing trials as we explore the world? Are we the Victim, trapped by a Monster and battling to free ourselves?

Where we are in our individual hero or heroine’s journey?

Now, to an extent of course this is play-acting. Casting ourselves into epic narratives can feel a little silly and pretentious, given that we are actually living in the modern world, not the age of myth. Part of the reason this may seem a little odd is that modernity has led to a disdain for classical narrative structures. Contemporary literary fiction is more often concerned with existential ennui than grand narratives.

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Oh woe is me! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so enormously self-centred?

But archetypal stories deal with powerful themes. They offer ways of conceptulising ourselves, and our aspirations, allowing us to reorient ourselves emotionally into a new role that is very satisfying at a deep level. We know how heroines should act. We know what good mentors should do. These are inspiring ideals; noble versions of ourselves worth striving towards. The stories give us a quick and integrated framework for behaviour, once we decide what role we want to play.

Recasting your own play

A good first step in thinking about how these ideas relate to your current experience is to ask yourself: what role am I subconsciously playing? It’s common that limerence can make us unwittingly adopt a bit-part role in LO’s life story, when we should be the lead in our own story. It’s also valuable to think about the larger “plot” of your life. Do you have a meaningful direction? Have you set out on a quest to explore the world and what’s in it, or are you living in stasis, repeating the same routines and waiting for an initiating trigger to start you on your journey? Can you use the limerence experience as the trigger – a call to action?

When reverie beckons in the future, use the power of daydreaming to tell yourself a story of how you would like your life to be. What purpose will you pursue? Who are you?

It may not be easy to answer the question – especially for those who have been putting the needs of others ahead of their own for a long time – but one thing’s for sure: finding an inspiring narrative is a way more powerful motivating force than a sense of obligation. “This is the person I want to be. This is the role I want to play in the drama of my life,” is far more inspiring than “I know I should behave like this, or other people will think badly of me.”


Thanks to Rose for the post idea.

 

The seduction of limerent reverie

It’s fair to say that limerents think about their limerent objects quite often. Say, every moment of every day. OK, maybe every other moment. The point is: they invade your mind.

The nature of this invasion tends to change as the limerent experience progresses. By the time limerence has advanced from euphoria to obsession, the limerent is often plagued by the classic “intrusive thoughts” that define limerence. You don’t want to think about LO. You really want to concentrate on defusing this bomb in the basement of the orphanage, but god damn it that red wire reminds you of the rakish tassle he wore around his wrist at the gig last night, and you suddenly realise the clock has counted down to 3 seconds without you noticing.

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Wakey wakey!

Or even worse, you desperately want a break from thinking about them, but it turns out to be like that “don’t think about a pink elephant” psychological trick, and the harder you concentrate on not thinking about them, the more insistent the thoughts become.

Or, it could be just that any time your mind wanders from the task at hand it always wanders to the same place. In fact, it’s not wandering at all. It’s stuck in an LO-shaped cage.

But there are other times – particularly early in the limerence experience – before the intrusive thoughts have become established, that we bring this on ourselves. Limerent reverie  (or rumination) is the mind loop that many limerents happily indulge in, in an attempt to get some of their bliss-brain-drug feelings when LO is not around. A way of feeling connected to LO when you can’t be with them. A way of getting some of the (watered-down) reward that your brain is urging you to seek.

It’s an understandable impulse, but comes with a few downsides.

1) It establishes the centrality of LO

Our brains aren’t all that good at distinguishing fantasy from reality. This is easily demonstrated by vividly imagining a stressful thing that isn’t actually happening, and noticing that your body responds as though it is happening. Your heart races, you feel queasy and anxious; you have a striking physiological response to something imaginary.

There are very good reasons for this, from an evolutionary perspective. Rehearsing events in your imagination and predicting the outcome is a very powerful way to shape your behaviour to a complex environment. But memory is a weird thing, and imagined and real events can get mixed up.

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Leading to endless fun at family gatherings

All of this means that while greedily seeking the physiological response triggered by thoughts of LO, we end up filling our minds with a curious amalgam of actual interactions with them, imagined interactions with them, and fantasies about alternative lives in which our desire to be with them comes true.

That is a very effective way of programming your subconscious to accept LO as the most important thing in your life, because they are the most conspicuous presence in your mind’s eye. It’s a positive feedback loop that takes the “glimmer” that they provoke, amplifies it in your imagination, and makes them central to your internal as well as external world.

2) It’s a very biased account

Another defining feature of limerence is the idealisation of LO. Despite the evidence of LO’s flaws, the limerent has a remarkable capacity to gloss over them or rationalise them away. I think reverie is partly to blame here too.

The nature of fantasy is wish-fulfilment. We rarely idly daydream about a future where LO continues to behave selfishly, or is boorish, or emotionally cold, or exhibits any of the other red-flags that we willfully ignore in our intoxication.

In keeping with the real/fantasy confusion noted above, the more we imagine LO as we want them to be, the worse we become at seeing them as they actually are. This can be particularly striking after a period of no contact – you “remember” the fantasy version of LO because they are an old familiar friend that you spent so long thinking about, that you start to get hazy about the real actual living version of LO that exists in the world. And the temptation to get back in touch builds, because you remember the good times (polished to a shine by your imagination) and forget the bad times (discreetly shrouded with a tarpaulin by your imagination).

Smothering real memories with perfectly tailored fantasies is a great way to idealise someone.

3) It doesn’t work

If the purpose of imagination is to allow us to rehearse the outcome of future experiences without actually having to have them, then limerent reverie often fails dismally. Especially when dealing with a very common rumination: what will I say or do next time I see them? Is there a way I can find out whether they reciprocate through some super clever tactic? If I can just devise a masterful conversational dance then I can lead them to reveal themselves!

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Ah ha! I am like a wizard!

Although our brains can be poor at recognising it, fantasy and reality are usually very different. In our limerence-fevered imaginations everyone behaves correctly, plays their role according to our script, and our cunning plans come effortlessly to fruition.

In reality, of course, LO doesn’t behave the way you expected them to, and even more unsettling, you don’t feel the way you expected to feel. Suddenly, instead of the nicely rehearsed scene you had in mind, you find yourself wildly improvising. You’re flying blind.

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Ahh! I am like a kamikaze

Under those circumstances, we default back to our habitual behaviours. This usually leaves us vulnerable to the same mistakes and emotional traps that we always fall into when around LO, and then castigate ourselves for once we are alone again (and doomed to sink back into rumination).

4) It’s a downward spiral

Here’s the real trap: reverie establishes the habit of thinking about LO. It’s a learned behaviour for seeking reward. You’ve reinforced it through repetitive indulgence of pleasant fantasies. All of this sets you up for when the limerence tips into addiction, and it becomes hard to stop. It’s speculative, but I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to propose that intrusive thoughts are the children of reverie. Once you program your brain to think about LO for pleasure, it is hard to make it stop.

As I’ve discussed before there are ways to undo the ingrained habit of reverie by overwriting old memories, but it’s a slow and careful process. Much better not to start. So, next time you find yourself at the start of a limerence adventure, be wary of the dangers of reverie, and recognise the role it has in cementing limerence habits.