Berty emailed me with a thought-provoking question about limerence and pair-bonding:
I’m still puzzling at the pair-bonding as the only source. It seems too narrow – especially for those of us well beyond reproductive years. (The thought of pair-bonding with my LO just makes me feel nauseous). Can it also be just needing/hoping for validation (as you mentioned somewhere) from a highly regarded person? Someone regarded as high status, as happens in other primate societies? Surely the need to belong in a society goes back a long way. If being ostracized, cast out from the tribe, is the worst that can happen to us because we can’t survive on our own, then the attentions of the (perceived) highest ranking tribe member ensures our security within the fold of the tribe. Those attentions need not be exclusive (thinking of bonobos). Or the deep-seated need for union? The union with our higher selves or with a higher entity that spiritual pursuits ultimately should provide? (Just co-opted by lower biological drives?)
It’s a great question, and it can be answered from a few angles.
Why do we feel desire for certain people?
I do focus many of my posts on limerence being a very effective force for pair-bonding. Becoming utterly obsessed with a potential mate to the exclusion of all other people and concerns is a brilliant way (mathematically) of increasing the chance of making a baby and seeing them through their most vulnerable years. But it’s perfectly possible to think of other reasons why we might become infatuated to the point of limerence with another type of person.
The high status/highly regarded person is a good example. So is the mentor, or role model. So is the object of lust that you have no intention in a million years of trying to form a stable relationship with. In theory you could pair-bond with these people, but in practical terms it’s not a good prospect.
Why we become limerent for particular people is a very rich topic for speculation. We’ve covered some ideas before but there is loads of scope to riff on these old themes and improvise some new directions.
Attachment theory has a lot to contribute, and what’s happening in your life at the moment. Your romantic history; what is missing from your emotional landscape; the choices you are making about how you behave. Bluntly, it’s likely to be as varied as human experience.
What is it that is rewarding about an LO?
Similarly broad is the notion of what you are getting out of the limerent experience. You may be seeking emotional or sexual validation, or seeking comfort, or seeking excitement, or seeking romance, or seeking a sense of the transcendent. The emotional urge that is making you want to connect, to get intimate, to somehow get subsumed into your LO’s life – that will also vary from limerent to limerent.
A mentor may make you feel valued and emotionally validated. A high status person may make you feel secure, safe, and freed from a desperate competition for resources. These may be the biggest pain points in your life and what your subconscious is craving relief from. Or, of course, you may want that romantic connection, that special intimacy, that sexual union.
Ultimately, whatever your particular LO archetype is, the neuroscientific basis will be much the same. You feel a glimmer as your subconscious spots the LO pattern, you get a surge of dopamine if they give you a hint of reciprocation, and you seek more. High on dopamine-induced euphoria, you reinforce the reward-seeking behaviour, and – if you’re unlucky – uncertainty and barriers send the system into overdrive, and you run heedless into the crushing grip of limerence.
Is limerence always about reproduction?
This is where ideas get a bit slippery. Yes and no, would be my helpful answer. I think a useful way of looking at this is to ask the parallel question: is sex always about reproduction?
The answer, of course, is no. Contraception means recreational sex is possible. There are lots of positions and partner combinations that could not possibly result in conception. We masturbate. We have sex at non-fertile periods of the oestrus cycle, we have sex after the menopause, and with people we would never want to form a lasting bond with. Animals do all this too, so it’s not some unique quirk of us libidinously creative humans.
The basic point is that the motive drive for a behaviour is often decoupled from the outcome of the behaviour. Lust is very effective at causing conception, but it’s sort of an incidental consequence of the actual desire to… bump sexy bits. It’s perfectly possible to trigger lust by stimuli that will not lead to conception. Lust, after all, can even be triggered by a picture, or words on a page.
So, by the same reasoning, limerence can make us want to get emotionally close to someone just because it feels good, even if we don’t want to enter a monogamous relationship with them. It’s sort of a “person-lust” in the sense of making us crave the company, emotional closeness and special connection with an LO.
That would be a very effective strategy for pair-bonding if the limerent and LO were young, fertile and sexually attracted to each other. But the neural circuits that start the limerence wagon rolling don’t know that in advance. They just recognise a certain pattern of feedback (LO’s behaviour, appearance, scent, mannerisms etc.), initiate reward signalling, and couple it to neurotransmitter and hormone storm that blisses you out.
It’s perfectly feasible that this process of infatuation can be caused by an LO that is completely implausible as a potential mate. Just as lust can be caused by someone you would never want to have a baby with. The drives can lead very effectively to the “evolutionarily useful” outcome under the right circumstances, but are actually independent of the outcome.
In summary, then, it’s definitely the case that we can become limerent for people that we don’t want to mate with, that it makes no sense for us to attempt to mate with, but who nevertheless trigger our “desperate desire for closeness” circuitry.
People are, after all, weird and marvellous.