Limerence, everywhere I look…

So it’s possible that writing this blog has somewhat distorted my view of the world, but I couldn’t help reading this Guardian article and nodding to myself, “Uh, huh. Limerence for sure”.

It involves a man (young, I assume) wrestling with the fact this his girlfriend wants to have a polysexual relationship when he doesn’t. This quote jumped out:

I love her and she loves me, but she also loves another person and he loves her back.

Followed up by this beauty:

She said that the only reason she loves this other person is because he reminds her of me.

Now, obviously the advice that this young man needs to hear is “don’t try to love-force your way through a fundamental incompatibility”, followed by “anyone trying to imply that they are only straying because they want even more of you is messing with your head,” but the whole idea that someone already knows that she “loves” another person (who loves her back) without, presumably, having spent any meaningful time with them as a couple screams limerence to me.

Then again, maybe she just got caught cheating and should be grudgingly admired for the elaborateness of her spur of the moment inventive powers…

Who is to blame for limerence?

A common feature of limerence for many people is a feeling that your ordinary life has been struck by a powerful external force that has changed your perceptions, your priorities, and your ability to regulate your own emotions. There are lots of fairy tale representations of this phenomenon – Cupid’s arrow, potions of enchantment, True Love – that help to cement the idea of a magical or spiritual driving force for infatuation with a particular person.

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Chubby little troublemaker

A key realisation for managing limerence, is recognising that this sense of an “external force” is an illusion. Even once you accept the reality that limerence arises from within you, and that you are providing the fertile soil of imagination in which it grows, it can still be hard to fully shake off this idea. Frankly, in many cases, LO can reinforce your sense of special connection by encouraging emotional intimacy, or radiating an aura of attractiveness that seems uncanny. Despite wanting to resist, limerents find themselves baffled by their own helplessness when LO turns on the charm and makes them dance as though bewitched.

So, how much blame must LO’s bear for the development of limerence? Should flirts bear some responsibility for misleading hapless limerents? Is there some truth to the idea that limerents are powerless to resist a predatory LO’s powers of enchantment? Just how culpable are LOs in feeding the mania?

Let’s work through some case studies to figure this out.

1) The unknowing LO

One of the most powerful counter-arguments to the idea that LO bears some blame for the emergence of limerence, is the existence of oblivious LOs. A good example is discussed (at possibly a little too much length, if I’m honest) in Tennov’s book. It involves a young man, Fred, who was studying abroad in France for a short period, and became limerent for Laura, the receptionist of the hostel in which he was staying. It is clear from Fred’s diary entries that the “relationship” between them was superficial, business-like, and (as he knew himself in lucid moments) nothing more than the friendly acquaintance that would be expected for someone in Laura’s position.

This case is a clear cut example of Laura becoming an LO simply because she was there. Fred “needed” a limerence experience for some reason of his own, and it grew from an entirely one-sided fantasy played out in his head. His only explanation for the triggering of limerence was a moment of chance closeness (when helping her deal with an overfed fire), followed by a glance when paying his bill:

It was the way she looked at me that did it

Really, Laura did nothing to encourage him – and a fair amount to discourage him – and yet he succumbed to limerence regardless. In this sort of scenario, it is hard to think of anything that the LO could be blamed for.

2) The narcissist LO

At the other end of the scale, we have the narcissist LO. They see the limerent as a source of narcissistic supply, and delight in keeping them hanging on, validating their own wonderfulness. In these cases there seems plenty of blame for the LO; they may even have initiated the initial glimmer, fanned it into a flame, and then cultivated an attachment on their own terms. Even worse, because these LOs are not emotionally invested themselves, they can run hot and cold with the limerent, depending on what other entertainment they have in their lives. If they are bored, their pet limerent will be stroked and cajoled and given attention. If they have spied another shiny object they want, then the limerent is an irritation and treated disdainfully or ignored. This feeds the uncertainty engine of limerence.

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Uh huh, Uh huh. Look, I’m late for my date. Just tell me again how gorgeous I am.

This is the scenario in which vulnerable limerents can reasonably feel they have been treated unfairly. Once the pattern of behaviour is recognised, however, it is then up to the limerent as to whether they decide to continue the dance.

3) The mutually-limerent LO

This is a tricky one. If both limerents are single, then Happy Days. But if they are not both available, then a mutually destructive spiral of behaviour can unfold where they oscillate between drawing together and then drawing back. It is also likely that the strength of the limerence will vary – both between the two, and over time – and so one can be pulling when the other is pushing, and that unsettles both, and so the unhealthy tug of war continues. In the thick of an episode like this, the idea of apportioning blame is a bit redundant: both participants are both instigator and sufferer, and whoever is most blameworthy can vary day by day.

4) The ambivalent LO

The preceding extreme cases are easy to understand and mentally organise. However, to judge from my inbox, far commoner is a situation where the LO is ambivalent, or hard to “read”, or non-committal in one way or another. Here we are on more middling ground. Sometimes, the limerent feels encouraged by something LO says or does:

he always kisses me goodbye, and holds on tight

she says that I understand her better than any other man she has ever known

But sometimes they are discouraged:

he says that it’s complicated at the moment, and he’s sorry if he led me on

she gave me a hug, but whispered ‘you should stay away from me’ in my ear

It often seems as though the LO values the company of the limerent, and seeks their emotional support. Perhaps they are flattered by the attention, but not interested romantically. Perhaps they are non-limerent, and so operating from a completely different set of assumptions about what friendship and love are like. Perhaps they are embarrassed by the attention, but also very shy or tender-hearted and can’t bear the thought of hurting the limerent’s feelings by rejecting them bluntly. Perhaps they just want to be friends and are irritated by the limerent’s emotional incontinence.

Whatever the real situation, it becomes very difficult to disentangle who said what or did what or led whom on. But ironically, this incredibly common and complicated and confusing situation, clarifies everything.

Yes, LOs may sometimes be “getting something” from the limerent in a way that is selfish and transactional, but here’s the thing: so is the limerent. Without fail – by definition – the limerent is getting an astonishingly powerful emotional high from the company of the LO. And we limerents very often don’t ask nicely, or behave transparently, or admit that our friendship is not really just a friendship to us. We keep going back day after day to get our happy fix. We share intimacies, because it lights up our reward pathways and makes life seem more vital, more colourful and more exhilarating. We hang around waiting for the “I feel safe with you” comments, because of the thrill that gives us.

So, ultimately it comes down to this: we can hardly blame our self-centred or ambivalent LOs for sometimes using us for their own emotional needs, because that’s exactly what we are doing to them. Much healthier than trying to tally blame and convince ourselves that they are more in the wrong than we are, is to focus on what we are doing, what choices we are making, and what we want to do next.  We have to decide who’s in control of our lives.

From the perspective of an unhappy limerent, it doesn’t matter how much to blame LO is: you have to decide if you are going to let it continue. They could be the biggest flirt, or give you more mixed signals than a mis-wired telephone exchange – all you have to decide is do you want to leave them in charge of your fate? Are you willing to subordinate your life to an asymmetrical relationship? Or do you want to take responsibility for your conduct, and accept that they will behave as they choose?

Nobody ever got over limerence by proving to themselves that it was all LO’s fault. Taking charge of yourself is the path to freedom.

 

 

 

Limerence and emotional attachment

A major development in the understanding of human relationships took place in the last few decades of the 20th century. “Attachment theory” originated from the study of child-caregiver interactions and the ways that the behaviour of the caregiver influenced the developing psychology of the child. In the 1980s the field expanded into adult relationships, including romantic attachments. Nowadays, a lot of the “talking therapies” centre around developing an understanding of the attachment types of the patient (and their partners), and working to identify formative childhood experiences that may have steered an individual towards their adult patterns of attachment and bonding. This is a big part of why FOO (family of origin) issues dominate many discussions of people struggling with romantic love.

There is no doubt that attachment theory has been enormously influential in psychological and therapeutic circles, as well as helping many people understand themselves and their drives more deeply. Given the focus of this blog, an obvious question is: can limerence be understood within this explanatory framework? Are certain attachment types more likely to experience limerence? Are other types more likely to be non-limerent? Let’s try and find out!

 

Attachment styles

For those interested in this weighty and detailed topic, the wikipedia article is a good starting point. There are also lots of online tests to find out what your own attachment style is (this is a good one), but most people quickly recognise themselves in the basic descriptions:

1) Secure

These attachments are characterised by stable, lasting relationships. Secure attachment types tend to have good self-esteem and a good opinion of others, and expect that partners will respond in a positive, supportive way to their distress or expression of emotional need. They are able to express their own emotions openly.

2) Anxious-preoccupied

These folks are insecure in their attachments, worry that partners may abandon them or respond negatively to their distress, and are emotionally distraught when relationships end. They can be possessive, and seek a “fantasy bond” rather than a balanced, mutually supportive attachment. Low self-esteem is often the underlying issue that results in this attachment style.

3) Fearful-avoidant

This style is characterised by volatility, and a disruptive approach to attachment. People with this style can seek emotional comfort, but then react badly and feel stifled when it is offered. There tends to be a swing between neediness and coldness. A need for intimacy, but a fear of it. This is thought to reflect disordered bonding in childhood.

4) Dismissive-avoidant

These are the emotionally aloof people. They are adept at shutting down emotionally, and use this as a strategy to protect themselves from pain. As the name suggests, they are dismissive of the importance of intimate relationships, and take pride in self-sufficiency and independence. They neither seek nor give support to their partners.

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5) Glue.

This model is useful, but, of course, an oversimplification. Any one individual can have different attachment styles to different people in their lives, attachment styles can change, and there is obviously a grey area at the boundary of the four broad types. A nice way of understanding this is to think of a foundation type that is the kind of default approach to relationships (how you are likely to act in the early stages of a new relationship), which is built on in specific cases by a mental model that becomes more specific as you get to know a person better. Everyone has a default mental model that is modified by experience.

 

Limerence and attachment

From the basic descriptions above, the obvious, easy hypothesis that jumps out is that anxious-preoccupied attachment maps to limerence. The obsessive thoughts, the central role of uncertainty, the desperate need for reciprocation – they all point to someone with an insecure attachment and excessive need for validation. So, case closed?

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Not so fast, Holmes.

A problem with this simple association is that limerence is not a feature of all of the relationships that a limerent forms. In fact, for most limerents, LOs are a minority of the people that they bond with. Plenty of limerents have secure (or avoidant) bonds to other people in their lives – family, friends, SOs – that are not characterised by the symptoms of limerence. It seems that the “limerent-bond” attachment style is unique to only LOs. Limerents do not generally, necessarily, exhibit anxious attachments – only a subset of people in their lives trigger them.

Another confounding factor is that limerence is transient. Once the initial mania has passed, attachment style is likely to revert to type. Longer-term bonding is likely to follow the foundation style, not the initial limerent style. People can be besotted, but then relax back to a secure or avoidant attachment style.

Another issue is that the different attachment styles of LOs will exacerbate or neutralise limerence symptoms. If anxious-preoccupied are more prone to limerence, then fearful-avoidant types are the perfect LOs – unpredictable, emotionally hot-and-cold, variably available or unattainable. In contrast, becoming limerent for a secure LO would seem the likeliest route to short-lived limerence, as uncertainty would be minimised in a relationship with someone who is comfortable expressing their emotions honestly.

Finally, the attachment style of the limerent will also determine their ability to moderate their behaviour in response to the symptoms of limerence. If self-esteem and secure attachment are solid, then the ability to mentally and emotionally detach from an unstable LO is enhanced.

So, what I think at this early stage of investigation is that limerence makes us all a little anxious-preoccupied for a specific person for a certain period of time, but the default style of attachment is reinstated once limerence expires. If a limerent is inherently anxious-preoccupied they are likely to suffer the worst, but a secure or dismissive-avoidant style helps with managing unwelcome limerence.

There is a huge literature on attachment out there, so this is only scratching the surface. Plenty more to explore.

Should you disclose to your significant other?

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve concentrated on the issue of disclosure. The focus was on disclosure to the LO, but if the limerent is in a relationship, then the question of disclosure to their partner comes up. What are the benefits and risks of disclosing the fact that you have become limerent for someone else? When should you do it? How should you do it?

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Easy questions, all.

I think the guiding principle here should be respect for your partner. That means being honest, not minimising the issue or being evasive, and not forcing them to painstakingly extract the facts from you by withholding key information. However, the opposite challenge is recognising when being honest becomes oversharing – “I’m struggling to cope with strong feelings of attraction for her”, is obviously preferable to “I can’t stop imagining her beautiful, smiling face and how ardently I want to kiss her perfect lips.”

The other big challenge is that everyone has their own line about how much information is too much. Some only want to know the big picture, others want to analyse conversations word by word. Some limerents want to downplay their responsibility and blame LO for everything, others want to admit to every little indiscretion in a self-flagellating (but also self-indulgent) emotional purge. The only safe path through this briar patch is to develop good communication skills. Actively listen to what your partner is saying. Check that you understand them properly and ask for clarification if you don’t. Resist the urge to defend yourself when they say something hurtful. They probably will want to hurt you, because you just hurt them, hard. Don’t escalate that – you will be mutual masters at wounding one another, and both leave the field bloodied and defeated.

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Pictured: not just a flesh wound.

So, managing the disclosure requires honesty, diplomacy, and humility. What is the best strategy for doing it?

 

1) When to disclose

I suppose it’s a bit redundant for anyone reading this, but the first important point is to only disclose once you are aware of what limerence is and how it is affecting you. It is far more constructive to be able to explain that this is an issue you are having with managing your emotions, rather than declaring that you have met Someone Wonderful. You should also be at the point where the euphoria is fading, and you are starting to get a grip on the scale of the problem you have. Once the limerence is impacting your life so much that it is affecting your behaviour and your ability to be a decent partner, you should explain yourself to your SO. It’s highly probable that SO will have noticed your mood swings, distractedness, and apparent change in personality, but they will probably have attributed it to stress or work or – even worse – some shortcoming of theirs that is affecting the relationship. Finally (and now I think about it this should probably have come first), you should have made a purposeful decision to re-commit to the relationship.

2) What to disclose

This is where tact is needed. You need to disclose enough to convey the seriousness of the situation, while making clear that you remain fully committed to SO. You have to take responsibility for allowing the limerence to escalate, but make it clear that you want it to end. The most difficult disclosure is going to be if you have done or said anything that has made the limerent episode “public” in some way. If you have said something fruity at an office party, or confided in a friend, or through your actions made it obvious to bystanders that there is an unusual level of intimacy between you and LO, your partner needs to know that. The principle is that SO should be the most well-informed person in the world about what has happened, aside from you. If you have already crossed one of your SO’s red lines, you are going to have to deal with the consequences of that. You may not get the outcome that you want, but then you are not a child, so should have developed the maturity to deal with that by now. If not – now is the perfect opportunity to learn! Be honest, and take the consequences. Life will be better in the long run.

3) What not to disclose

As I said earlier, everyone has a different idea of how much information is needed for honest disclosure. Withholding information that your SO wants is duplicitous, but whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of obsessively talking about LO with your partner. Disclosure is not a free pass to now spend all your time ruminating out loud about your infatuation, and seeking support through the emotional ups and downs of your limerence from the person it is harming most. Similarly, if your partner is agonising over all the details, becoming distressed, but still wanting you to talk at length and in detail about LO, it’s a good idea to tactfully put the brakes on. A possible way would be to say (respectfully) “is this really going to help in my plan to get away from LO?”

Making LO central to your joint life is a big mistake. Don’t fall prey to the drama triangle. You are a partnership, and someone outside it is a problem for you to jointly solve. Don’t triangulate.

4) What are the benefits of disclosing to SO?

The biggest benefit is to your SO: they now understand the truth of their own life. It may take time, but they will also come to realise that you are trustworthy, and they are still safe with you. The biggest benefit for the limerent is that you no longer have to fight to conceal strong feelings that you are ashamed of. That in itself is a relief, a much healthier way of living, and a more emotionally stable basis for dealing with the limerence. The next major benefit is accountability. No more deniability; you have stated your resolve to the most important person in your life, and they are going to be motivated to hold you to your word. That can help you stick to your plan.

Ironically, taking the risk of revealing your shortcomings as a partner can have the effect of helping you re-bond with SO. I really wouldn’t advise becoming limerent for someone else as a way to strengthen a relationship, but after the initial heartache has lessened, it can rejuvenate the “us against the world” feeling of a close pair bond.

5) What are the risks of disclosing to SO?

Discovering that your partner is limerent for someone else is a major blow for anyone. Even the most stable, emotionally secure, and patient SO is going to wonder whether you are still worth the bother. They may decide not. Frankly, you are just going to have to take that – especially considering you’ve been thinking about the prospect of a relationship with LO. Your SO may also react very badly, or in ways you didn’t expect. They may go a little crazy, getting jealous and angry and expressing their new hatred for you in profane terms. They may go too far, becoming threatening or violent, or responding in kind (in their mind) by going out and have a one night stand to teach you a lesson in humiliation.

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I’m making light of it, but only because it’s so serious.

All of those risks are real, but the toxic ones are actually symptomatic of much more serious problems with the relationship. Anger and jealousy are perfectly natural reactions to learning that your partner is infatuated with someone else, but responding by dragging more people into the mess, becoming abusive, or blowing the whole thing up are not healthy coping strategies. If these disasters happen, then you are probably going to have to accept that the relationship is wrecked, and was anyway built on shaky foundations packed with dynamite. Limerence was just the match that lit the fuse.

Ultimately, if you are serious about your relationship, and serious about being rid of LO, then disclosure to your SO is probably a necessary step. Done thoughtfully it is your best hope of coming out the other side intact, and enjoying a healthy and happy future.

When not to disclose

The previous post covered the benefits of disclosing your feelings to your LO, and when it may be a worthwhile thing to do. Disclosure is never a simple choice, of course, and can lead to more uncertainty if LO responds in an unpredictable way. Ironically, when not to disclose is usually more clear-cut.

By far the simplest indicator of when not to disclose is: when you really want to but know you shouldn’t.

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Argh! Dazzled by the blinding insight!

Now I may be a hopeless optimist about this, but I think most people have a good moral sense and know when they shouldn’t do something because it’s Wrong. I’m not a Pollyanna – I know that most people are also often lazy and selfish and thoughtless, but I don’t think they want to be those things. If you asked them they wouldn’t say “Yeah, I don’t much care about being decent, I like being feckless and weak willed.” It’s just that they can’t always muster the moral fibre to do the right thing. So, people are often not good, but they basically want to be.

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I should compile this stuff into a little book of bedside aphorisms or something

Given that shaky philosophical foundation, let’s look at some scenarios where a struggling limerent may need some help bolstering their resolve to hold their feelings in till they can master them.

1) Either one of you is committed to someone else. 

The obvious case. Yes, your feelings are strong and you are bursting to share them, but think about the impact on other people. While they remain in your head, those thoughts and fantasies are yours alone. Once they are spoken and out in the world, you have taken a positive action that compromises other relationships. There may be circumstances that we can dream up where that might be an ethically defensible act, but most of the time it is a selfish need for validation by LO at the expense of your integrity. Your decision to share intimate emotional secrets with LO is an act that makes them complicit in the deceit of either their SO, your SO, or both. If there are kids involved, then the repercussions really ripple out. Families have generational feuds over this stuff.

All that moralising is predictable enough, but really, deeply thinking about the consequences of intimate betrayal is a good way to help strengthen your nerve. LO now knows something fundamentally important about you that your SO doesn’t. How happy would you be with that asymmetry if you discovered it about yourself? Another important note is that the attempt to forge a closer bond to LO can backfire, and backfire badly. They tell their SO, or your SO. They tell their friends. You have no control over the information once it is out in the world, nor should you expect it. You have imposed yourself into other lives; consequences follow that decision.

2) You have authority over LO

The next obvious case is that in some manner, professional or otherwise, you have authority over LO, or there is a power imbalance that means you are disclosing to someone who is either dependent on you or subordinate to you. I’ve mithered before about workplace limerence, and it’s complicated stuff (power imbalances can vary or flip or have little real bearing on professional life), but it may be a situation where the precautionary principle is well applied. If someone works for you and you disclose to them, you put them in a very difficult position – regardless of how they feel about you. Admittedly, reciprocated limerence is a problem that you can probably manage to solve, but what happens once the limerence fades, as it always does? And you never know whether it will be reciprocated before you take the chance.

If it isn’t reciprocated, how is an employee supposed to navigate the nested difficulties of letting you know they are not interested romantically, but want your good opinion professionally, and need to work closely with you but not give you false hope, and are thinking about the reference they will get if they want to leave, etc. etc.?

Of course, if disclosure goes badly, the backfiring at work is a whole other level of fallout. They accuse you of harassment. They tell HR. They ask to be transferred. You have to explain yourself to your boss. Everyone else who works for you loses respect for you. Repercussions pile high.

Another level of complication is educational scenarios – teacher/student or tutor/tutee. If your LO is younger than 18 (or the agreed threshold for adulthood in your country) then suck it up and shut your mouth. No good will come of it – that should be obvious. For older students, the same principles apply as for the workplace, but more so. You have a position that grants you status as a source of wisdom and support. Abuse that at your peril. It’s hard to see any circumstance under which disclosing to a student is a good idea. Keep your feelings in. They will leave in a matter of a few years, so if you are truly enraptured, wait till then.

3) You think LO doesn’t reciprocate, but need to keep working with them

In another scenario, LO is a coworker, but not an obvious boss or subordinate, what then? Assuming your workplace doesn’t have specific policies about relationships you are free in principle to approach them. Here again, I would caution against disclosure unless you are very confident that LO reciprocates – and the false confidence of limerence doesn’t count. And you certainly shouldn’t disclose your limerence. You will have to work with LO in the future, and it will be a lot easier if you are discreet in determining whether they are interested. A compliment and a request for a date would be fine, disclosure that you spend all day obsessively thinking about them is going to make everyday life very uncomfortable for you both if LO is not interested.

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Not to mention the next office “away day”

4) You have disclosed previously

You disclosed before and LO um-ed and ah-ed and said “can’t we still be friends?” or “I have strong feelings for you too, but it’s complicated for me at the moment,” or other such non-committal flannel. There’s no point disclosing again. In fact, why are you still hanging around them? Run away! Save yourself!

 

Why not disclosing is hard

Given how easy it is to list the reasons why you shouldn’t disclose, it does rather beg the question why is it so hard not to? Surely any limerent with half a brain could see it’s madness under these circumstances? Certainly, any SO will see with crystal clarity how straightforward the decision is. Shut up, get away from LO, and focus on the primary relationship that you’re jeopardising!

I’ve spent paragraphs listing all the reasons why a limerent should restrain themselves, but limerence, though, eh? It’s not associated with clear thinking. It’s tough to think clearly when all your cognitive power is occupied with trying to come up with rationalisations for why you should be getting your next fix. The desire to disclose can be overpowering. You want them to know how wonderful you think they are. You think they might know, and might feel the same about you, but how can you be sure? High on dopamine and overconfidence, you want to share the giddy feelings of connection with them, to get closer by shared intimacy. And what could be more intimate that a confession of deep feelings? The boring real world fades away in the moment of connection. Surely it’s safe to disclose here in this mind-bubble that the two of you are sharing?

Yeah, it’s not. All the responsibilities you have taken on still count, even if you are high. The cold, hard truth about limerence is that it happens in your head, and is largely independent of external reality. A good mantra to repeat to yourself when you are tempted to disclose is “I have no idea how LO will react”. Because you don’t. You’re handing someone a life-grenade because you think that they are amazingly special and will appreciate the gift you are giving them. Some LOs will look at your gift, pull the pin and blow you up.

And you can’t complain because you gave them the bomb.

When to disclose

In a previous post, I described disclosure as the nuclear option for getting rid of limerence. While obviously jokey, it is true that disclosure has the potential to really blow up your life in a big way. If it doesn’t – if you disclose but your relationship with LO drifts back to the same pattern of confusing friendship-but-also-some-intimacy that characterises the typical limerence experience – then I’m sorry to break it to you, but your LO is a git. Seriously, would anyone of integrity let a relationship that they knew meant so much to you drift along in limbo? They are either a narc or a coward, and you should avoid people like that if you want a fulfilling life.

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Empowered limerents of the world unite!

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yes, disclosure.

Many limerents want to disclose. Powerfully want to. They want LO to know how special they think they are. They hope that LO will feel excited and gratified by the knowledge, they want LO to reciprocate, and they want their shared intimacy to advance to a deeper level. They may also want to make a show of the fact that they trust LO with such personal and potentially explosive information. Basically selfish wishes (and probably largely subconscious), but understandable in the madness of consuming desire and actually fine in many circumstances. Sometimes, though, such wishes should be resisted. Disclosure is the best tool for ending the uncertainty, but it isn’t by any means a discreet or elegant tool. So, when is disclosure a good idea, and when is it a bad idea?

There’s a lot to say about this issue, so this will be a post in two parts. It’s a lovely sunny day in the part of the world that I’m currently relaxing, so let’s start with the good:

You are free to act on your feelings if they are reciprocated

If you and LO are single, and you want to start a relationship, then disclosure is a good idea. If LO is equivocal about you, then that is important to know. If they give a non-committal response, it’s a good idea to make a clear statement, like “OK, thanks. If it’s OK with you, let’s not hang out for a while, while you think about how you feel. Get back to me once you’ve thought it through.” Then assume it’s a no, and be pleasantly surprised if they instead come back for more.

The psychology behind this is straightforward: LO is likely to feel a bit weird about your company straight after disclosure. Giving them space to process it is likely to work in your favour. If they are definitely not interested in you, that gives them time to come up with excuses about not seeing you any more, which, while undeniably painful, is actually much better for you than staying limerent for a non-reciprocating friend. If they haven’t really thought about you romantically before, but find you attractive, then disclosure can work in your favour by making them start to think of you romantically. Knowing that someone fancies you is quite an effective aphrodisiac for many people. Finally, if the response was lukewarm, you’ve made yourself the perfect excuse for going no contact. Do not get in touch with them again, unless they get back to you after thinking it through and want to get it on.

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Of course, if LO is limerent for you too, then no such sophistication is needed

You want to know how they feel but are getting mixed messages

Another scenario is that LO is emotionally evasive or seems conflicted, or blows hot and cold. I’ve cautioned before about why this is the most reinforcing behaviour that an LO can exhibit, and that it is rarely a good sign that you’ve started to bond with a good match. Nevertheless, some folks just have trouble clearly expressing themselves, so disclosure is the best way of deciding the issue for them. If you’re slipping into limerent reverie but can’t tell for sure if they are interested in you, then it’s time to stop the guessing games for the sake of your own sanity. Deep breath. Courage. Disclose and find out.

If they continue to give mixed messages or keep you hanging, then you have learned what kind of character they have. They are either chronically indecisive or enjoy the asymmetry of the relationship. Avoid people like that. Now, some people may see this as overly hasty, and point out that many people react badly to being rushed or given an ultimatum when it comes to love. But you’re not asking for a ring, you’re just expressing your own feelings and asking about theirs. If that’s too much for them, then you’re trying to bond to someone who can’t even commit to admitting their own feelings. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect such a person to make their mind up.

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AKA piss or get off the pot

You think they will not reciprocate, but you want the limerence to end

A counsel of despair this one, and rather like pulling a plaster off quickly. If you are trapped in limerent limbo with a non-reciprocating LO and want out, disclosure should mean that you cut off your source of supply. Remove the plaster covering over your festering fake friendship, and expose everything to the light of day. Then you have the perfect reason for no contact, and they will probably be fine with that, now they know how you feel. Again, if they seek to continue or deepen your relationship after you have disclosed and they have rejected you, you should have grave reservations about their motives and protect yourself by maintaining no contact.

Overall, how your LO responds to disclosure will tell you an awful lot about them. If they reciprocate and admit their limerence for you, then you are going to be blissfully happy for a while. Lucky you! If they bluntly rebuff you, they are straightforward but uninterested, and you can at least part on honest terms (don’t underestimate how helpful that is for recovery). If they are interested, but hesitant, and decide to try a relationship out and see how it goes, you have probably just discovered that your LO is a non-limerent. That’s fine. Lots of splendid non-limerents in the world who could be excellent partners, but recognise the implications of that for how the relationship is likely to develop, and have realistic expectations. Finally, if they do not give you a clear answer, and want things to carry on as they were, run away as fast as you can. Do not try to be friends with that person. Do not torture yourself. Run, and free yourself to find someone better for you.

 

Limerence dreams

A defining feature of limerence is persistent, intrusive thoughts about LO. And it doesn’t even let up when you are asleep. Frequent dreams about LO are very common, and can be quite informative. Now, I’m no Freudian (or Jungian) and don’t want to make too much of this, in terms of trying to interpret the symbolism of the dream or what it means for your deeper psyche, but sometimes the dreams are so hilariously literal that they can be useful. The stimulus for this post was a previous comment by J, who had this dream:

Last night I couldn’t sleep, was in a lucid dream state about LO could not get my mind to stop no matter how hard I tried. It was easier and more pleasurable to let the LO fantasy happen. I then had a dream of injecting heroine into my leg behind my SO back, but the injection site was bleeding!

Closely followed by an important P.S.

Ps I’ve never taken heroin!

I don’t think you need to be a genius rocket surgeon to interpret that one.

So, can our crazy dreams be useful for managing limerence? I think so, particularly in terms of how the experience develops over time, and what it tells you about the subconscious awareness of how LO is affecting your life. To illustrate this, I’ll adopt the strategy of bores everywhere and tell you about a couple of my dreams.

Now, early on in the limerence cycle, these dreams can be mostly positive, and often sexy.

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Don’t worry, I’ll spare you those.

As time goes on, the mood music changes, both in real life and in dreams. For me, one of the best ways to recognise how toxic the limerence was becoming was when the dreams turned into nightmares. This was also actually really helpful in the deprogramming process, as the more affecting nightmares would cause me to spend a good portion of the day still feeling the emotional hangover. On those days, time with LO became negative reinforcement. So, in the hopes that reliving them may help other suffering limerents, here are a couple of mine:

1) The trap

I was working in an office that I sometimes shared with LO, and we were chatting away. After a while, I left the office, and discovered that instead of emerging into the usual corridor, I was in a musty bathroom. In confusion, I wandered into the next room, which was a small lounge, with a blaring TV, and a window view out over a rainy city. It dawned on me that I was now living with LO in a tiny flat. With a creeping sense of claustrophobia, I tried to get out, and followed the only other route: a narrow, dimly lit corridor. It led around the back of the office (where LO was still working) in a short, closed circle, and back to the bathroom. There was no way out. I was trapped.

2) Gone swimming

I was with my wife and kids at the swimming pool, and having fun. Then I noticed that LO was at the far end of the pool. With some trepidation, I pointed her out to my wife, and said “Come on, I think I’d better introduce you all.” Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed, and so I swam over to LO. I greeted her, and explained that I wanted to introduce my family, and turned to find that they hadn’t swum along with me as I’d expected, and in fact I couldn’t see them. Somewhat embarrassed, I explained to LO that they must have gone over to the slides, or the small pool, and said that I would go and find them and bring them over. Dripping and cold, I then hurried around the various other parts of the pool, and into the changing rooms. I searched with awful, escalating, panic. My family had vanished. I woke with my heart hammering.

I’ve learned to listen to my subconscious mind when it screams at me. Dreams can be useful. Try and catch the worst and remember them for later reprogramming purposes.

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Got one! Urgh. Quick, throw it in the fire!

Getting through the aftermath of No Contact

When limerence is a problem in life, and when an individual limerent decides to take charge of themselves and go no contact, they then face a trial of self-discipline.

If this scenario applies to you, in all likelihood, you will experience grief. Quite possibly, just to add to the turmoil, you may also experience guilt over the grief – especially if you have a partner who has had to tolerate your limerence for someone else. In practical terms, if the LO was a significant part of your life, you are going to have to adapt to a change of lifestyle. You may be losing a confidante. You may be losing a companion. Even if the LO or limerence experience was more toxic and damaging, you will still be losing a central orienting force in your life.

Coping with this is likely to be a challenge. The key to dealing with no contact, in my view, is accepting that your life is utterly changed, embracing that truth, and focusing on how to navigate to a new, better, life.

1) Acknowledging your sacrifice

Sacrifice is an essential part of life. Now, going no contact to avoid an LO is not a noble sacrifice – like an altruistic act – but actually, real bread-and-butter sacrifice means giving up things you want because you know you should. For example, I know that I should stop watching youtube videos and do something more useful with my time. If I want to achieve something substantial, I have to make that sacrifice, and it’s going to hurt because I really enjoy the passive entertainment. Almost a defining feature of maturity is realising that achieving anything requires sacrifice. Freeing yourself from negative compulsions is a very good sacrifice to make. Acknowledge it, and recognise that the discomfort is a necessary good.

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No pain, no gain

2) Refocusing your life

You’ve made a purposeful decision, and that’s a hugely valuable first step. Bolster yourself against backward steps. Keep your focus on yourself and how you can be better, and not make the same mistakes and indulge the same self-sabotaging desires next time. Linked in to the previous idea: what worthwhile new things can you do to make yourself more interesting and fulfilled? The best sources of fulfilment in life are free. Concentrate on them for a while. In fact, concentrate on them for the rest of your life, if you really want to thrive. If you have an SO, then focus on them, and be grateful that they have stuck with you through this. Remember it the next time they put you through the wringer.

3) Mentally wishing LO bon voyage

When you catch your thoughts drifting back to LO, remember that you have said goodbye.

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Bye bye. Off into the sunset. Roll credits. No sequels.

LO is living their new life, and you are living yours. They will go off and have adventures and disasters, and so will you, but your time together is done. You decided that. Wish them well, and stick to it.

4) Living honestly

The foregoing suggestion to say goodbye may sound like a bit of a trite platitude, but it’s surprisingly psychologically deep. At the heart of living a purposeful life is the notion that you will be honest with yourself. If you make a deal with another person – promise them that you would do something, or meet an obligation – but then go back on it, they would come to the conclusion that you are an unreliable or dishonest person. If you are generally conscientious, then not keeping your end of a deal will be upsetting to you, as it rightly conflicts with your sense of honour and responsibility. Well, if you promise yourself that you will go no contact with LO, and then break it in a moment of weakness, what you are doing is teaching yourself at a subconscious (but quite fundamental level) that you are dishonest. You cannot trust yourself. That’s not good.

So, a good strategy to avoid that sort of self-sabotage is to try one of two things: 1) commit to keeping a deal with yourself with the same degree of conscientiousness and seriousness as you would keep a deal with a valued friend or partner. 2) Be honest with yourself about what you are able to do. No contact may be too much all at once. Overreaching and missing is sometimes a noble failure, but when it becomes a pattern it trains you to believe you are the failure. Set yourself simpler targets that you can meet – no contact tomorrow. Then, no texts for three days. Then, no contact for a week. Depending on the nature of your LO, this may be easier or harder, but a series of small victories can sometimes be more successful than trying to win the battle in one grand offensive.

Overall, the best hope for managing the emotional fallout of no contact is to concentrate on your new life with laser focus. Relief comes from suffering in the short term to enjoy freedom in the long term.

 

 

 

Case study: Is my current relationship bound to be unfulfilling because it is non-limerent?

A change of pace today, stimulated by a question sent in by SK. I’ll start with the disclaimer that I have no qualifications as a psychologist, psychiatrist or other professional analyst. However, I do have lots of opinions, so I’m answering in the spirit of a well-meaning agony aunt.

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R.I.P. wise woman from my childhood Saturday mornings

SK has a quandary that a lot of limerents face:

Here goes: I discovered the concept of limerence about three years ago after my 4th limerence episode left me with some intense depression. I entered a new relationship a few months later and have been with that SO for about three years, but never felt limerent about them since I was getting over the previous limerence (it takes me around 2-4 years to get over an episode). I care very deeply about my current SO, and I feel that our relationship is one that could potentially offer a lifetime of mutual care and support. However, it unnerves me that I never felt limerent for this person. I have viewed limerence as a pathology to get over, like depression/anxiety, so the past few years of waning limerence and healthy non-limerent relationship building have felt good for me. 

However, after finally getting to a place of apathy about LO #4, I’m afraid I’m in the “crystallization” phase of limerence #5. It is not clear to me from your blog whether or not serious limerents like myself are “doomed” to forever repeat these multi-year cycles of obsession over LOs. I don’t want to go through this every 2-4 years for the rest of my life. It’s depressing and in my current situation it’s causing me a lot of guilt. 

I want to know, if I left my current relationship and tried to create a lasting relationship with a LO who was limerent about me too (not necessarily LO #5), would we settle into a healthy pair-bonded relationship and my limerent episodes would end? Or would I become limerent for someone else eventually even if I was happily married to a former LO? Is my current relationship bound to be unfulfilling because it is non-limerent, or should I stick with it with the recognition that I’m just by nature set to get obsessed with people every once in a while and that my actual SO is the best life partner in actuality? 

Those are big questions. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

The first thing that strikes me is that your 4th episode of limerence was obviously a negative experience. I’m going to assume that  the previous 3 episodes ended up being mostly negative too – especially as you seem to have emerged from this period with the conclusion that limerence is a pathology to get over. One explanation for this may be that you become limerent for people who are unsuitable partners. That is not uncommon. In fact, the appeal of a “lost soul” can be an especially potent trigger for some people. Similarly, some limerents repeatedly fall for unavailable people, narcissists, or other disordered personality types, all of whom are very poor prospects when it comes to life partnerships. So, an important point for self-reflection is: can you spot a pattern for your “limerence triggers”? Is there a common type of person for who you become serially limerent? If limerence has tended to mean agony for you, then you can look at it like an alcoholic looks at booze: it feels good for a bit, but isn’t worth the damage. In contrast, it may be that you don’t see an obvious pattern, and that previous LOs were just the usual mix of good and bad that people tend to be. It’s worth spending the time on this – if only because ruminating on the nature of limerence and your own susceptibility is a good reminder that it emerges within you, and it’s a lot better than ruminating about LO#5.

The next issue is being unnerved that SO didn’t trigger limerence. Limerents often mistake the strength of their infatuation for an indicator of how much “in love” they are with LO. In reality, while long-term love can follow on from mutual limerence, it depends on both personalities being compatible, and capable of mutual respect, support and patience. Early infatuation is often completely unrelated to that. So, does the strength of limerence have any predictive power for the stability of a long-term relationship? My answer is no. Definitely not. Long term happiness – healthy love – will emerge with people that respect you, care for you, and are happy being with you. Within that framework there is a lot of scope for variation: SO can quiet and thoughtful, or live an exciting life, be competitive, outgoing, and thrilling to be around. This principle doesn’t mean settling for someone dull, it means avoiding people who have poor character.

Hovering behind these issues, however, is the fear that you will come to regret missing out on the blissful consummation of mutual limerence. It’s hard to know that without a crystal ball. You may. Or, you may look back and be proud that the mania of limerence for unsuitable people never caused you to derail a good life. All relationships of value require sacrifice, and committing to one person is a conscious decision to forsake all others – LOs included. One of life’s certainties is that you don’t get to try over and see if the other option was better. There’s no escaping sacrifice, but it’s not something to be scared of if you want to live a life of meaning.

Next: are limerents doomed to forever repeat their cycles of obsession? Well… yes and no. Yes because limerence does appear to be an inherent trait for many people, but no because how you respond to the emergence of limerence will determine how serious the cycle of obsession is. As you put it, you are afraid that you are crystallising about a new LO. Build on that self-awareness and take steps to limit the crystallisation. If you are able to go no contact it is a good idea. If not, do what you can to limit the process. Try some of these tactics. When you feel the glimmer in future, recognise that person as a potential threat and act accordingly. Limerence comes from within, and so understanding yourself better, being aware of your vulnerabilities, and taking positive steps to regulate your response is the best way to manage it. There is good reason to be optimistic that future cycles can be cut short or stopped before they start.

Looking to the future: it is very unlikely that marrying an LO will be a protection against future limerence episodes. I was limerent for my wife, but then became limerent for someone else years later. Lots of married people end up in trouble because they do not expect to succumb to limerence again. I’m labouring this point, but it’s important: limerence comes from within you. The LO is basically a vehicle that you use to try and satisfy an internal need. Because of that, whether or not you once became limerent for your SO will not affect your susceptibility to limerence in the future. Ultimately, the decision for limerents to make is: do I choose to commit to one person and manage future limerence, or do I adopt a life of serial monogamy, switching partners as I become newly limerent every few years?

Finally, as I’m sure you would anticipate, I genuinely don’t know whether your SO is the right choice for a life partner! No one does. A healthy non-limerent relationship that feels good to you, and is based on mutual care and support is a lot to build on, but there are no guarantees. You should also be clear on what both you and SO want. Communicate honestly. Do you have romantic feelings for them, or are they more like an affectionate companion? How do they feel about you? Everyone has different expectations and hopes and dreams.

If there is an overarching theme of this blog it is that doing the work to understand yourself, choosing to behave with honesty and integrity, and living with purpose is the best way of solving most of life’s problems. Ignore LO#5 if you can. Their only value at the moment is in stimulating you to do the deep work of understanding yourself and what you need. They will be a distraction while making this important decision.

Good luck.

Should limerents feel guilty about their limerence?

One of the things that limerents in long-term relationships must confront is how big of a betrayal it is, if they become limerent for someone else.

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Oh goody. Another cheerful post eh, Dr L?

Regular readers will know that I very much focus on actions, not thoughts, when it comes to determining issues of guilt or personal integrity. Thought crime is a miserable idea, and a corrosive psychological notion – that your thoughts themselves could be a mechanism for betrayal and a reason to feel shame. The big danger is that this becomes internalised as shame about who you are; that you are shameful inherently because your thoughts are not pure and free from darkness. We are all of us composed of light and dark, and it is an essential part of wisdom to recognise and accept that. Furthermore, limerence is rooted in physiology, so feeling guilty for being a limerent is similar to feeling guilty for liking chocolate. Gluttony and lack of restraint is the problem, not the desire itself.

However, most limerents will – unless they are totally devoid of empathy – feel guilt over the burgeoning feelings they are having for their LO, and how they detract from their relationship with their partner. So, how can this be reconciled? Should we feel guilt over thoughts and feelings, or does anything go in the crazy internal world of our imaginations? Here’s what I think about it:

I’m not anti-guilt. This seems to be a somewhat unfashionable opinion these days, but I think guilt can be helpful if you have done some work to develop self-awareness. Guilt can help you recognise when you are doing something that contravenes your moral sense. It’s a little like cognitive dissonance – when you imagine events or behaviour that could constitute the betrayal of a loved one, your mind is aware of this, and at some level responds emotionally as though it has actually happened. This is hopefully at odds with your self identity, and so you feel shame. Guilt. But the key thing is that guilt is only useful when it’s recognised as a sort of personal warning system. A wake up call that your mind is wandering into wild places, not evidence that you are an awful person who must be ruined or rotten in some way.

People are often much harder on themselves than they are on others. In any healthy relationship, most people do not expect or want total access to their partner’s thoughts. They don’t feel affronted that their partner is free to think or imagine whatever they please. If you do believe that your partner should be utterly loyal in every thought, then you are trying to control someone else’s thoughts… and there are words for that. Unpleasant words. Brainwashing. Dominance. Tyranny.

So, our thoughts are our own, but we should be attentive to them and wise enough to recognise when guilty feelings are a useful indicator that we need to be vigilant about where we are emotionally and psychologically. Time to be alert. Time also to consider how we are behaving towards our partners, because something is amiss. Not time to start dismissing guilt as repressive, or stifling, or evidence of a moralistic straitjacket that unliberated people use to impose control over the free spirit of love.

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Like, let go of your negative feelings, man. Live in the moment.

What is betrayal?

Given this discourse on the nature of guilt, what exactly would constitute betrayal? There is a lot of disagreement about this, some of it self-serving, but some of it due to honest variation between people in attitude, vulnerability and experience. For some people it’s words; for others, it’s any kind of emotional intimacy; for others it’s sexual intimacy. Time is also going to be important. An inappropriate comment at a party is obviously different in character from a long-term affair. Both could be a betrayal, but of rather different gravity. Whatever. The line is there somewhere, we’re just arguing about the orienteering.

Fundamentally, though, what all of these scenarios have in common is action. Behaviour. That’s the point at which our thoughts manifest in the world. So, focus on your behaviour and what you intend it to communicate. How any given couple work out where their lines are is a process of honest communication. Listen to each other and process the information carefully. Compromise is necessary to make a success of any relationship, but compromise should be about mutual respect for each others needs, not reformation of each others characters (which is coercive and doomed to fail). Again, I think guilt is a useful guide here: when your own actions have caused it, you know you are toying with betrayal. Don’t waste time trying to parse exactly how the phraseology of that thing you said (you flirt) could be interpreted; focus on the pang you felt. Because you really don’t want to betray the person you are committed to. It will come back to haunt you, and in all likelihood any future relationships too.

One of the reasons why monogamy is so popular is that it allows you to relax. The world is a complex and dangerous place, full of unpredictable people, who we need. No one is an island; we are social animals, and we crave love and we want to give love and feel needed and valued and secure. But people are so complicated that trying to understand them fully takes time and effort, and so when we meet someone new we tend to be vigilant about our interactions with them. When you trust someone, you can relax that vigilance. You take their good faith for granted, and life becomes safer and simpler. When you form a loving bond with them, the trust deepens, and the world seems a little saner and more predictable, and you can use that trust as a foundation from which to explore. That is why betrayal is so profound.

If a loved one betrays you, it undermines your past, your present, and your future. At it’s worst, it can cause a kind of total personality collapse: all your memories are suspect, all your security was an illusion, you are not where you thought you were, and your partner is now a stranger that caused you harm. Security is shattered. Hopes for the future are gone in an instant. Even worse: your worldview is blown up. You trusted someone incorrectly, which means your judgement is now suspect. Your foundation has fallen out from under you, and so you have no desire to explore, and no safe haven to return to.

Betrayal of a loved one really is a catastrophically destructive act.

Listen to your guilt, and use it wisely.