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.

Introvert limerents

When in a thoughtful mood, one of the more absorbing aspects of limerence in my opinion is the potential for intersection with other psychological traits and mental disorders. A notion that has been occupying me recently is that the tendency to become limerent may relate strongly to where someone lies on the introvert-extravert spectrum. Given that limerence can be seen as person addiction, the key personality trait that determines how interactions with other people play out is likely to have a significant impact on limerence experiences.

I’m an introvert, so have limited experience of what life is like for extraverts. Nevertheless, it does seem that certain tendencies of the introvert brain make it especially vulnerable to limerence capture.

1) Most people are a drain, LOs are a supercharger

A defining feature of introversion is that interactions with other people – even if positive – are energy sapping, and can only be managed in regulated doses. Alone time is needed to recharge and recover. In contrast, extraverts thrive in the company of others, and become restless and weary during time alone.

Given that difference in temperament, it’s quite a surprise for an introvert when they encounter an LO. Instead of the usual fatigue, the company of this new person is invigorating, exciting, stimulating – all the things that aren’t normally associated with extended time with other people. It’s a categorical difference, even from very familiar friends whose company is welcome and enjoyable. LOs give introverts a taste of extravert energy; of how electric the company of others can be.

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I’ve always thought this is an impressively unambiguous sign

Eventually, of course, even the company of LO becomes wearisome, but even the short-term energising boost of limerent supercharging can be an exciting and novel experience for an introvert. That, of course, adds to the sense that LO is someone especially special and wonderful, and/or that cosmic powers must be at play. “Nobody’s ever made me feel like this before,” can be literally true after an introvert meets an LO for the first time.

2) Rumination comes naturally

Another defining feature of introversion is the centrality of the internal world in contrast to the real, external world. Introverts live more consistently within their imaginations than in the material world. The external world is a source of stimulation that can be explored, before retreating to the internal world to make sense of the experiences encountered. To extraverts, the external world is more real, and the proper location for experiencing life. Rumination and reflection are helpful, but only inasmuch as they can direct one to better action in the real world.

It’s no real surprise, therefore, that limerent rumination comes so easily and naturally to introverts. Obsessive, intrusive, relentless thoughts about LO. Detailed fantasies about past or future encounters with them. So much of the introvert life is defined by replaying and analysing experiences or ideas, and rehearsing future scenarios, that limerent rumination is simply an extension of this core habit. It’s how we make sense of the world; limerence is a just massive amplification of this general tendency until it becomes uncontrollable.

Another thought (but not one that is easily verified), is that the hole into which limerents sink could be deeper for introverts. More of an introvert’s attention is captured by thoughts and memories. Being trapped in a more vivid and expansive internal world could be worse than being trapped in an internal world that is subordinate to the external world.

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That blue sky seems a long way off

3) Escape is harder

When faced with a threat, the natural impulse of any animal is to retreat to safety. For extraverts, this comfort zone is the company of friends and society – which are actually very useful distractions from the thoughts of LO churning around in their mind.

For introverts, in contrast, LO has taken up residence in the dead centre of their comfort zone. Normally, stressed introverts will retreat to isolation to recuperate. But that is where the threat is located.

In some respects, this is a balancing of threats. For extraverts it will be harder to escape LO’s company if they are out socialising in the world. For introverts, it will be harder to escape rumination about LO if they have retreated to their internal landscape. Frankly, it’s hard to escape LO regardless, as they exist as a centre of gravity in both internal and external worlds, but extraversion does offer the opportunity to seek alternative company to distract from LO, while introversion cannot offer alternative isolation. You’re stuck with your own mind.

4) Transference is harder

One possible method for eliminating limerence for an inappropriate LO is to look for a new one. Limerence does seem to be a serial experience: it is not possible to become limerent for more than one person at a time. This tactic is obviously counterproductive  if you are trying to get rid of limerence while in a relationship, but if the limerent is single, then seeking an alternative, healthier, LO is a feasible option.

Given the tendency of introverts to avoid company, it is likely to be considerably harder to find alternative LOs. Especially as the process of seeking and socialising with new people is going to be debilitating, rather than a useful and energising distraction. Introverts generally have a smaller social network than extraverts, so it is also harder to make new connections, even if you pluck up the courage to reach out.

Nowadays, there are technological fixes, but again, extraverts generally have the advantage when it comes to casual encounters. Introverts tend to overthink them.

 

Boo-hoo gloom? 

I promised cat videos in the last post, but appear to have instead written about deep pits of despair. Whoopsie!

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Here’s a kitten who seems to have bad intentions towards some daisies

To end on a more positive note, whilst there seems to be a good case that introverts would be more vulnerable to limerence than extraverts, the counterpoint is that many introvert traits can also be a positive force for recovery. The key principles for managing limerence are self-awareness, self-discipline, and the desire to live a more purposeful life. Introverts are likely to be more adept at the self-reflection needed to recognise how their own choices and decisions led them into the limerence briar patch. They are also better practiced at marshalling their internal narrative – telling themselves the story of who they are and what they want to achieve. The “reprogramming” needed to break the mental connection between LO and pleasure/reward is also likely to come more easily to introverts, being based around playing out scenarios for what can go wrong if they give in to the limerence drive.

So, while the short-term distraction tactics are more accessible to extraverts, the long-term strategy for mastering limerence and subsuming it into your life should be more accessible to introverts.

So, those are my thoughts. Extraverts with a different view are most welcome in the comments…

Why is it so hard to kick the limerence habit?

Easy answer: because deep down you don’t want to.

I like the idea of defining limerence as “person addiction”, and one of the reasons that definition seems so apt is because addicts are driven by a central dissonance: I know this thing is bad for me, but I crave it so strongly that I want to carry on regardless. Or, perhaps more subtly, I want to quit, but I hope I fail so I can have more. It almost feels like some part of you is smiling at your deluded self in your efforts to Do The Right Thing, when they know deep down that you are doomed to fail.

There were times in my last limerence episode where I could see with certainty that all roads ahead with LO on them led to bad outcomes, but despite that clarity, a deep part of me hoped that LO would throw herself at me. I wasn’t totally sure I could resist a full frontal assault, so part of me wanted her to attack.

Overcoming this “two minds” problem is one of the hardest challenges in limerence mastery. The internal conflict between your rational self and your irrational self is also a big part of the emotional pain and self-disgust that toxic limerence brings. How to resolve this conflict is not always clear, and certainly never easy. It’s slippery stuff, so I’m going to try and think my way through it by the use of an extended (possibly tortured) metaphor.

 

The deep down you is not You

An important first step is to recognise that the strength of the deep-down feelings is not an indication of their importance. Deep-down you is a simple creature, and driven by straightforward urges.

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Want!!!

There is no sophistication about its primal drives. No foresight. No concern for consequences. Deep-down you is basically a toddler with poor impulse control.

When coupled to the power and deviousness of an adult, this can be quite a destructive force. Fortunately, most of us learn to act as a responsible parent to the deep-down child within us, enforce boundaries, and keeping a watchful eye on what it’s getting up to.

But the desire to sometimes give in to those selfish demands can be seductive. Indulging the deep-down child can feel really good. Guilty good. It can feel as if you are satisfying a fundamental part of yourself, because in a way you are, but it’s important to recognise that, while it is fundamental, it is also very primitive. It’s not the part of yourself that should be in control of your life. There’s a reason that we don’t let children drive: it’s mad dangerous.

You are the you that knows best

Like all children, the deep down part of yourself needs care. It doesn’t understand why all its whims shouldn’t be catered to. It doesn’t like to hear “No”. It needs constraints to stay safe, but it also needs love. Despite the potential for destruction, toddlers are adorable and lovable in their guilelessness. You do not want to be in conflict with your deep-down self; you want it to be able to indulge itself within the healthy constraints that will allow it (and you) to thrive. The child should be nurtured and kept emotionally and physically safe, but the responsible parent is the part of you that must be in charge.

From this perspective, the responsible parent is You at your most essential level. It’s also the definition of what makes us human. The ability to override our base urges, the ability to look into the future and make sacrifices now that lead to a better life, the ability to delay gratification for better outcomes. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that this uniquely-human trait was vital for the emergence of civilisation.

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So don’t mess around with it, or you know what will happen

All the best things in life come from the purposeful part of ourselves that knows what’s best and tries to do it. The people we admire the most are those who are guided by integrity, because we know that living like that is better than fighting to get whatever you can in a desperate attempt to sate the deep down urges of our basic selves.

The point at which my metaphor breaks down and things get dark

Here’s the hard part: the You that is in charge must be nurtured just as assiduously as the deep down child, or you can succumb to cynicism and resentment. Sometimes you can feel like peevishly letting the child grab the wheel for a while, to swerve all over the road, mowing down innocent bystanders.

Corralling the fundamental but primitive part of yourself is an ongoing effort, and reaching a healthy balance between restraining and indulging it requires self-awareness and patience. It also requires discipline and conscientiousness. Sometimes we can’t manage it.

Because – and this is where we leave the metaphor behind – sex is a central part of limerence too, and this makes it significantly different from other drives. Without wanting to get too grim, there are evolutionary reasons why a drive to reproduce can be stronger than the drive to self-protect. From a gene-centric perspective, once we’ve made children (and propagated our genes) it doesn’t matter if our lives are rich and healthy and full of self-actualisation. Those things matter a lot to us, but mathematically, they have a trivial impact on the success of our genes in replicating themselves. Limerence pushes with the force of millennia of evolutionary history, not “just” our own short lives.

The urgency of sexual desire coupled to pair-bonding, with a dash of compulsive addiction, may be about the most challenging deep-down behaviour that our wiser selves ever have to discipline. It feels less like a spoilt child wanting cake, and more like a predatory satyr that wants to dominate, or like willing prey that wants to utterly surrender and be possessed. And here’s another difficult bit: as well as embracing the deep-down child, you also have to embrace the dark and animalistic part of yourself too. But without letting it take over.

We are legion

At this point, sceptical readers may be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone off the deep end with this “multiple selves” stuff, so I’ll try to bring it back to something more practical. For your rational mind to stand a chance of overruling the compulsive limerent urge to pair-bond, you really have to understand and accept all the deep drives acting in opposition to your own best interests. They are part of you, part of your personal history, and part of your ancestral history.

But you have a unique advantage: a You that can see further, think harder, and has a firm grip on the steering wheel. You can accept your limerent feelings, experience them, and decide, ultimately, not to act on them. Even when you really want to, deep down. Even when the devil in you whispers “go on!” Even when you are tired and stressed and resentful of the expectation that you always have to be responsible. Even then, your wiser self can prevail. In the face of long odds, the human will to be better can win the day.

Civilisation depends on it.

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And you thought you just had a crush on a co-worker…

 

Phew! Made it to the end.

Next week, cat videos.

Kicking the limerence habit

Reader Vincent suggests “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg as a useful perspective on limerence.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

It’s a great book. I really enjoyed it, and there are some fascinating insights. One of the episodes that really stayed with me was a man who had suffered a stroke that severely damaged the region of his brain that is needed for retention of new memories. He was therefore stuck in a strange world where he couldn’t lay down new memories. Despite this, he was able to learn new things. After moving to a new house with his wife, he could not explain where the kitchen was to an interviewer, but when he was hungry he would get up and walk into it to make himself some food.

That anecdote illustrates the core principle of the book: habits become ingrained at a deep level of the brain – not at the high “executive function” level. A great deal of our day-to-day behaviour is driven by habits, not by thinking. The implications for limerence are clear.

1) Limerence is a deep rooted drive

Not a hard one for a limerent to accept this, but it shows that the impulse to seek LO is not being driven consciously. It’s an urge driven by the subcortical parts of the brain to initiate reward-seeking behaviour. In Duhigg’s model, habits are composed of a three step process:

Cue → Routine → Reward

The cue is the trigger that activates the habit “circuitry” and starts the routine. It’s a little slippery what exactly the cue can be. It could be a fundamental urge like hunger that initiates food-seeking behaviour, leading to reward when you’ve successfully made and eaten a bacon sandwich. Or, it could be more subtle – a time of day or event that recurs and has become associated with a habit. Like always wanting a cigarette after lunch, or making a cup of tea as soon as you get home from work.

For limerence, the concept of an identifiable cue is the part of the model that is least useful for me. First, there is the problem that LO is such a dominant part of your mental landscape that everything is a cue. Life is basically one giant hyper-cue for LO. Thoughts of LO can be triggered by a song, an idea in a book, a similar-looking person, a smell, a room where you once met them, social media, the work environment, etc. etc. Added to this is the even slipperier concept of emotional cues: when you feel sad, or happy, or lonely, or fearful, it can trigger thoughts of LO as a (ultimately counterproductive) self-medicating pleasure. So, the problem in identifying a specific cue that triggers limerence-reinforcement is that almost everything can be a cue.

The next two stages of the model are more straightforward. The “routines” most limerents fall into are rumination and/or LO-seeking. The myriad cues all trigger the urge to contact LO either in person or in your imagination. The “reward” of course, is the big old surge of dopamine (plus other neuromodulators) that make you feel all vibrant and giddy and alive. I’d also suggest that limerence constitutes a hyper-reward. I can’t think of many other life experiences that come close to the euphoria experienced during the early stages of limerence. Chocolate doesn’t quite measure up.

2) Once the habit is ingrained, it is difficult to shift

Once the pattern of neural activity that encodes the habit is reinforced, it becomes effortless to execute. No cognitive strain needs to be exerted to initiate the routine. In fact, the routine often begins before the conscious awareness that you are doing it AGAIN catches up.

I’ve touched on this before in relation to rationalisation, we often act-then-justify, rather than think-then-act. It’s a psychological truism that we are cognitive misers – we won’t expend energy on thinking through a problem if we can instead follow an effortless intuition or ingrained behaviour. That reality is a major part of why it is hard to break a habit. You have to not only exert willpower to intervene when “autopilot mode” has kicked in, but to make the intervention last, you also have to weaken the established patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. And it can take longer for an executive-based behaviour to be learned than something as instinctive as pair bonding (i.e. “I’m not going to do this anymore because it is disrupting my life goals” is less weighty than “must mate with super-attractive person”).

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Hardly a close call

3) Changing the habit may be possible…

Despite recognising the difficulty of kicking a bad habit, Duhigg does offer hope for a strategy for changing. It is based around identifying the details of the cue → routine → reward pattern, and substituting a new routine and/or reward for the old one. He gives the example of breaking his own habit of snacking on cookies. His suggestion is that analysis of the cue is the starting point for fixing the habit. If the routine is to interrupt your work and get up from your desk go to the cafe and grab a snack or drink, he suggests looking beyond the simple explanation. Perhaps the cue is not hunger, but boredom. The urge to go to the cafe is not for food, but for company. In this scenario, the actual reward is spending time socialising with colleagues, not food. Once the true cue is recognised, you can substitute the routine to get the same reward. In his case, you would go to a colleague’s office, or the cafe, just to chat. Same cue, same reward, but zero calories.

Whether or not you find this example persuasive, the central thesis is that switching the dysfunctional routine for a superior one is the best bet for changing a habit. You’ll still want the reward. You’ll still experience the cue that triggers desire. The key is finding a new routine that satisfies it.

That’s the point where I think limerents will struggle. What can you substitute as a routine that will give a limerent reward without either involving LO or ruminating about them? Transference to another LO is possible, but also fraught with problems, of course. It could be a failure of imagination for me, but the reward being sought is so specific and so linked to LO that it is hard to devise a way to redirect it onto a different routine.

4) Can the habit be broken?

So is there no hope?

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Ah c’mon! Don’t be defeatist.

There’s always hope. I think the message of Duhigg’s book is powerful – that more of our lives are governed by habit than we realise – but it is possible to override old habits with training and determination. The executive centres of the brain do have ultimate control. We can regulate our impulses. It’s not easy, but I’ve spoken before about possible strategies.

The key thing for me is that we all have habits that we have fallen out of, so we know it’s possible. I used to have the habit of taking a walk every lunchtime, which was rewarding, restorative and enjoyable. But I took on more responsibilities at work, time pressures crowded in, and I just… stopped. I didn’t exactly make a decision, I just missed a few days, then missed more days than I took, and then I just wasn’t doing it anymore. I’m sure if I went for a walk next week I would find it rewarding. I even think it was a good habit that I should probably have continued. Nevertheless, a change in my schedule (shortening lunch to fit more work in) was enough of a disruption to override the old habit.

Now, obviously, skipping a midday walk is a different order of magnitude to overcoming limerence. But, for me, the route to mastering limerence was not in repurposing the habit loop, it was in over-writing the whole routine with a new mental association: LO = reward, was superseded with LO = risk.

 

A wider perspective on this is that it is very valuable to understand exactly what is rewarding about LO, and why you might be seeking it. With the usual reservations, it may well be worth exploring your emotional drives with a therapist of some sort, to try and identify both the reward that you are getting and why you are seeking it now. Also, I really do like the idea of deeply analysing the cues that trigger the habit cycle. All knowledge is useful in the project of understanding yourself and deciding to take control over your life and fate.

I recommend the book. It’s worth a try, and at the very least, you’ll learn a lot of interesting stuff about how people work.

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.