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.

 

Flirting at work

I’ve talked before about flirting and how it’s complicated for limerents. It’s been on my mind again.

There’s a real sense of a sea-change in culture at the moment, with #MeToo and Oxfam and Weinstein and etc. etc. drawing out the pent up anger of years of injustice and abuse and mistreatment and offense and discomfort. One of the consequences of this social movement is a closer look at behaviour in the workplace and a realisation that some pretty unpleasant men have been getting away with some pretty unpleasant behaviour for far too long. But another interesting spinoff is that some other people have been getting pretty uncomfortable about the range of behaviours that are being criticised. Knee touching is lampooned. Witch hunts have been mentioned.

Obviously there is a comfortable gulf between flirting and sexual assault, but the less comfortable bit is the big flabby middle of uncertainty where different people draw different lines. I doubt anyone was really under any illusions about whether it’s OK for the boss to grab the secretary’s arse, but what about the manager from one sales team flirting with the deputy sales manager of another team? Some people would be set off blustering about free speech and fascist dictatorships and how they married their deputy and no harm ever came of it, while others would say that you’re at work to work, so get on with your work and leave your flirting to social time.

The other uncomfortable bit is that it seems to be very, very difficult to talk about this stuff at the moment. I am uncomfortable writing this, and have deleted and rewritten some of the preceding words multiple times with the bogeyman of public judgement sitting on my shoulder and alternating between chastising me for my moral cowardice and clutching his pearls about how could I dare to say something that could be construed as victim blaming. So, hiding behind the (probably not terribly solid) pseudonymity of this blog, I’m going to dive in.

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Cowabunga?

In the previous post I talked about the potential minefield that flirting represents to limerents. So from one perspective, less flirting would make their lives easier. But do we want our workplaces to be completely non-sexualised? Do we ban flirting? I’ve been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s made me very uncomfortable. I’ve also been flirted with by colleagues, and it’s been great, because I’ve fancied them too. But then, that was the road that led me to my last limerent episode, which sent my life into chaos, but taught me new and important things about myself that I didn’t know, and really needed to learn. And other people are different from me, amazingly enough, and will process all these sorts of experiences differently from me. And I can’t predict that from looking at them. And a LO can’t really be held responsible for the reaction of a limerent to some harmless flirting. And how are we going to police the “no flirting” rule? Especially when tons of women have experienced the shock of having baseline friendliness over-interpreted as flirting by inexperienced men, and also had the experience of realising that they can use slightly-above-baseline friendliness to scope out whether a man is interested in them while preserving plausible deniability. Maybe we need some rules about what constitutes flirting, because rules about behaviour always make everyones lives better. Having sex in the stationary cupboard? Wildly unprofessional to most people, but if it’s consensual, should it be banned?

I’m throwing out loads of questions here not because I need to know the answers, but because I genuinely don’t know the answers. I’m at a point in my life where the choices are simple for me: I gain almost no benefit from flirting, and am in as low a risk category as you could imagine for suffering sexual harassment or assault. Not to be complacent – shit can always happen – but it is easy for me to just not flirt with anyone and ignore anyone that flirts with me, and keep my mouth shut and my head down whenever the topic comes up.

But I really don’t think the larger situation is simple. I don’t think We have properly decided how We want the terms of interactions between adults in the workplace to be demarcated when it comes to sex. Power differentials are often cited as a cause for concern, and again, most people will agree on the outliers – teachers and pupils, bosses and vulnerable employees – but how big a differential is too big? A lot of people form long term relationships with people they meet at work, and sometimes those people are above them in the hierarchy. Furthermore, I don’t think We even know how to start dealing with the fallout from the current revolution (and revelations), or even how to communicate meaningfully without it degenerating into invective.

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Problem solving 101

Oh well, what a typical bloody tone troll man, whining about how difficult it is to hit on women at work nowadays. Because that’s the other reason why it’s so bloody difficult to talk about this stuff now – the constant assumption of ill-intent. Any anxieties about life being complicated is seen as evidence of thought crime. Everyone should intuitively know where the lines are and not to cross them (even though we don’t talk about them), and if they don’t know them, then it’s obvious they are an abuser and deserve to be shamed. In a strange way, it reminds me of fashionistas: a coterie of people pleased with how woke they are and disdaining anyone who doesn’t wear this season’s certainties.

Well, harrumph. I’m calling bullshit. It’s bloody complicated, because everyone has their own threshold for discomfort, everyone has different degrees of social skills and emotional intuition, everyone has different libidos, and everyone has to live together trying to navigate life in a world full of confusing other people that are very similar to us in important ways but also very different in unpredictable ways. The only way to live together purposefully is to communicate with the people around you honestly and in good faith, and learn from each other by occasionally bumping up against boundaries and risking discomfort. If we don’t make a sincere attempt to investigate the grey areas of sexuality at work, we cede the territory to the abusers (who will use it as cover) and the puritans (who will claim any discomfort equals assault).

So… *cough* in conclusion… Flirting is complicated, but I don’t like bans. I hope the youngsters manage to figure this out.

/rant

One year on

So, I’ve been posting away in this blog now for a year, and it has been a lot of fun and pretty cathartic.

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Yes, I started on Valentine’s Day. How arch.

Looking back at the list of posts, I appear to have typed quite a lot. Looking to the future, I think it’s time to start growing beyond my own experiences. I want to learn more about other people’s experiences of limerence.

So, this is an outreach post, asking you, dear readers, for your views. What does limerence mean to you? What has been good? What has been bad? Are you a limerent? Or the partner of a limerent who is currently driving you mad? What would you like to know more about?

I’d like to know more about your stories. Please comment below, or get in touch at my gmail account (livingwithlimerence at gmail etc.), or via the contact form. I’d love to hear from you. I promise to read everything, and will do my best to reply as often as possible – subject to the sometimes onerous constraints of my day job.

I’m also planning a redesign of the blog, and maybe an email newsletter and some surveys and stuff.

Communities are good.

 

[NB. First comments are moderated to stop the bots]

Deprogramming the limerent brain

Time usually resolves limerence, but sometimes we limerents impatiently wonder, where’s the damn off switch?

Now some people are resistant to the very idea of reducing love to a biochemical process in our brains that can be analysed, understood and manipulated, but those people are probably not in the middle of a limerence crisis. While I think my credentials as a romantic are solid, I also have a practical nature and so have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what can actually be done to try and counteract the immediate impact of limerence when it’s unwanted.

In the long term, my favoured solution is purposeful living, which may or may not need to follow a period of deep introspection and possibly professional help in understanding just what’s up with your crazy brain and why you are prone to the limerence rollercoaster. But sometimes, more urgent intervention is desirable, so what tactics do we have at our disposal to try and at least moderate the emotional overload? I’ve talked before about some of the best, but today I’m going to focus on the mind games. Can we deprogram ourselves and stop an LO being an LO?

I’d answer with a tentative yes.

Forgetting

What does forgetting mean? That probably sounds like a silly question, but like much in neuroscience, it’s quite subtle. In some cases, forgetting is a total blank – you just can’t recall the event, person, experience or place. You need external evidence to even believe that such a thing occurred. But that’s very rare for powerful stimuli, and I think we can all agree that limerence falls into that category. So it’s foolish to aim for the goal of total forgetting; what we really want is for that person – the LO – to be less powerful as a stimulus. For us to be able to manage our interactions with them without getting overaroused, and for them to not dominate our minds when we are away from them. Here we are on firmer territory when it comes to research. Associating certain stimuli with reward or punishment, and reinforcing or diminishing those stimuli is at the heart of conditioning and there’s loads of literature to draw on.

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Such as… hey, what are you two up to back there?!

Now, as an aside, I want to be clear that the research on limerence itself in this context is basically non-existent, so this is all speculative territory and relies on an analogy between well understood rewards (such as food or pharmacological stimulants) and limerence as a manifestation of finding a specific person a rewarding and potentially addictive stimulus. So, I’m pushing the boat out into speculative waters here…

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When has that ever stopped me before?

With that qualification out of the way, let’s dive in.

Extinction

How do you get rid of a memory you don’t want? Actually, the way we do this is to overwrite the original memory with a new one. Let’s take the example of Pavlov’s dogs. This is a bit hackneyed, but it’s familiar and that’s useful. So, the story goes that Pavlov trained his dogs to associate the sound of a bell ringing with the delivery of food (this isn’t quite what happened, but never mind). After training his dogs in this way for a while, the dogs began to anticipate the food by salivating whenever the bell was rung. This is the classic example of conditioning, which involves “associative memory” (learning a new association between stimuli). So far so good. But what happens if you keep ringing the bell, but stop delivering food? At first, the dogs keep drooling like the messy pups they are. But over time, the bell ceases to trigger anticipation, and the dogs get used to the fact that they are no longer getting their lovely chow and so stop salivating. The previous associative memory has been lost, through a process known as extinction, but it takes a while for this “bell but no food” lesson to be learned.

Since Pavlov’s day, of course, there has been a great deal of research into these processes, and it turns out that the brain is really quite weird and surprising, and fun to mess with. At one level, it seems that extinction should just be a fading away of an old memory that is no longer relevant, but actually it’s more complicated than that. What’s actually happening is that a new associative memory has been learned that overwrites the original one and supercedes it. This is easy to anthropomorphise – “oh, there’s that bell that used to mean that food was coming, but hasn’t done for a while, so no need to get excited.”

At the risk of letting this post get totally out of hand with a discussion of memory and learning, there are three other relevant points before we get back to limerence. 1) Because extinction is a superceding of old associations, rather than forgetting, the old memory can be recalled quickly when the original stimulus is reintroduced. Dogs learn to salivate faster if they have previously been conditioned and then extinguished, compared to dogs learning the association in the first place. 2) Intermittent reinforcement schedules take a lot longer to extinguish than regular ones. 3) Punishment (negative reinforcement) accelerates extinction.

Limerence extinction

What can we learn from all this to help with elimination of limerence? Given what we know about conditioning and extinction, we could devise the follow method for mental mastery of limerence:

1) Recognise that being with LO or ruminating about LO is giving you pleasure and continuing in these behaviours is reinforcing your conditioning.

2) Decide that you want to extinguish that associative memory.

3) Devise a negative reinforcement programme to hasten extinction and overwrite the original positive association.

That’s the plan. What does it look like in practical terms?

No contact if possible, obviously. If not possible, then limited contact is next best. Either way, contact is not always in your control, or predictable. However, another key aspect of limerence reinforcement that most certainly is within your control is rumination. Entering a reverie and fantasising or rehearsing interactions with LO is a way of seeking pleasure in the early stages and relief from withdrawal in the later stages of limerence. You need to break that association. Each time you willingly enter reverie, you reinforce those connections, and reinforce the associative memory “LO = pleasure”. That’s why we do it. Reverie gives relief from discomfort by imagining a positive encounter.

If you are one of those limerents that enjoys a rich imagination, you will almost certainly have invented some pleasant fantasy scenarios with LO. These are the perfect mechanism for generating your own extinction programme. By inventing new outcomes to your reveries, you can turn your sweet, rewarding fantasies into sour punishments.

Let’s say you imagine driving off into the sunset with LO as a daydream. Now you need to vividly imagine LO suddenly shouting “I’m sorry, I’ve made a terrible mistake! Stop the car! I have to leave! I don’t know what I was thinking! I never want to see you again!” (include all the exclamation marks). You can go to town on this – the key thing is to make your reverie punishing. When you fantasise about having a new life with LO, turn it into a nightmare of rows, regrets, misunderstandings and emotional devastation. When I was in the early stages of my last limerence episode, I used to idly fantasise about “what if…” and built up an embarrassingly elaborate scenario in which my life had played out differently and LO and I could have ended up together. Once I realised the limerence was harming me, I managed to re-imagine that scenario into such a train-wreck of disaster and humiliation that I now shudder a bit whenever the thought enters my mind.

This whole mental game can seem a bit contrived, and while it helped me, it may not work for everyone. You may feel uncomfortable – that’s fine (and probably means it’s working). You may even feel it is disrespectful to LO, who you are now actively reworking into a terrible person that you want to avoid, but don’t despair – your internal world is your sole domain. As tyrant you have complete freedom to do as you please, guilt free. No LO will be harmed by this process.

Whether or not this tactic proves fruitful for you, a good understanding of what associative memory is and how extinction works undoubtedly helps in kicking the habit of limerence daydreaming.

You’ve really got to want to, though.

The allure of bad boys and girls

All limerents are at some point going to be confronted by the need to try and understand why they become limerent for particular LOs. Some will be unfortunate enough to realise that they repeatedly become limerent for bad boys or bad girls – LOs who are fundamentally incompatible with a stable, loving future. The cliché here of course is the Player – the charismatic seducer who is really only interested in games and conquest.

Limerents that notice this pattern often decide to “swear off” LOs as trouble, and seek more stable partners for long term relationships. This is profoundly rational, but does also leave the disquieting feeling that they may have “settled” for a partner they find less exciting or sparkly than hopeless LOs of old. Leaving aside the complications of long-term love and where best to seek it, I think it’s also interesting to ask the question: are players more likely to trigger limerence?

Classically, the allure of bad boys and girls has always been appreciated. The loveable rogue. The seductress. Bluebeard. Guinevere. These are archetypes that we all recognise at a deep level, that we know are trouble, but that are also powerful and desirable. The thrill of playing with fire. But why is that so appealing, and why should we be more likely to become limerent for such people?

Let’s get speculating!

1) Dominance games

The banter of flirtation is very often an elaborate game of dominance display. Both parties are testing, teasing, looking for boundaries, and how much they can get away with while exciting and retaining the interest of the other party. As many others have noted, this is actually a really lousy way of identifying a partner (one of my favourite reflections on this is here). Basically, you establish any nascent relationship on a basis of competition, social guile, and game playing. If you play games, you attract game players. So why do so many people do it? Well, it’s modelled in films and books as “the best at banter gets the best mate”, it’s exhilarating if you’re winning, and most people are extremely guarded about their true selves and so project a persona in order to shield themselves from scrutiny. Bad LOs have attained mastery at these games, and so if you step up to the plate, it’s likely you will get suckered in.

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I’m not American. Why do American clichés always spring into my mind? Oh, yeah. Cultural hegemony.

2) The shock of transgression

Linked into the preceding idea, another contributory factor to the allure of the bad LO is that most people are well behaved. Possibly not when alone or with the cloak of anonymity, or when stressed or desperate, but most of the time, in ordinary social discourse, most people choose politeness and want to be liked. Thank god, because otherwise life would be even more competitive than it already is. However, the bad LOs play by different rules and delight in transgressing the normal social niceties that constrain most of us. This has the shock of novelty and taboo breaking. An LO with a tendency to love bomb, or be bluntly sexual, or “neg”, or find other mechanisms for shocking you into a suddenly more complex and unfamiliar interpersonal dynamic, can leverage the emotional destabilisation towards increased intimacy. Players often capitalise on the shock of transgression, and the associated physiological arousal that makes you more alert to your environment and adds salience to your interactions. People that excite us – negatively or positively – grab our attention.

3) Game playing and reinforcement  

Players don’t only use these little tricks during seduction, or course, they keep it up as time goes on and flirtation moves to dating. The kind of LOs who love the chase and the seduction are not the kind to settle into a blissful union with a limerent. It is likely, therefore, that any limerent who succumbs to their charms is going to be in a state of uncertainty throughout whatever “relationship” develops with their bad LO. The limerent will be craving reciprocation, occasionally getting it, but then also seeing their LO flirt and play the field – possibly clandestinely. The neuroscience of limerence/person addiction is a regular theme of the blog, and this sort of dynamic would be the prototypical example of intermittent reinforcement increasing addiction. If a limerent is seduced by a bad LO, they are likely to get drawn into a relationship dynamic that causes their limerence to explode out of control.

4) Saving the flawed hero

From the way I’ve marshalled my arguments so far, I’m giving the impression that this is an elaborate, manipulative game being played by narcissistic players. In many cases it may well be, but there is always the possibility that some of these bad LOs are, down in their heart of hearts, actually good. Like Darth Vader. Sort of. Anyway, the player can perversely provoke a kind of rescue fantasy in some limerents, who convince themselves that their LO is a flawed hero who has fallen into bad habits because of problems with intimacy, or a craving for true love, or because they haven’t met the right person yet (them, natch). I’ve pondered before about whether there is a philosophical difference between someone who causes emotional harm through selfishness, and someone who causes it because of an underlying emotional wound of their own that makes them too broken to bond (and needs a patient limerent to teach them how to love properly). Either way, the limerent ends up emotionally harmed. Some of us are like moths to the flame of the disordered.

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It’s a trap!

So, I think there is reason to think that bad boys and girls have a special talent for triggering limerence. It’s not the whole story, of course, as there are many other “bad” LOs – ditherers and dreamers and drama-seekers – who will also be Bad News in terms of reinforcing limerence. But the Buccaneers and Femmes Fatale do seem to swell the ranks of the LO army.

Is limerence a mental illness?

One of the things I’m most curious about when it comes to limerence, is whether it is a “normal” process that can occasionally go wrong, or – by definition – a mental illness. This kind of question draws us into the murky waters of psychology and psychiatry. Without wanting to get bogged down in issues about whether psychology is a science, and how it has been used for ill in both advertising and promoting neoliberal political and economic systems, I do think there is something very discomforting in the current tendency to see psychological distress as a failing in the individual. If you are suffering, it’s because there is something wrong with your brain, not that the environment you find yourself in is actually toxic. Using psychology to blame the victim, basically.

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*sucks air through teeth* “Oh yeah, some dodgy wiring in there mate”.

To illustrate this, we can consider anxiety. Anxiety is clearly a natural response to stress, and while it might feel awful, it has obvious value. You sense danger, your anxiety rises, and you raise your defences or attempt to escape the situation and get to safety. Healthy, and clearly beneficial to survival. However, when repeatedly or continuously exposed to stress, people develop anxiety disorders of various types (and also other chronic health conditions that degrade their quality of life).

In our neoliberal culture, the current epidemic of anxiety disorders is the perfect illustration of the difficulty in locating the cause of distress: are people becoming over-sensitive snowflakes who can’t cope with the Real World, or does creating a social structure in which everyone is valued on the basis of their economic competitiveness drive healthy people into a state of free-floating anxiety? Similarly, should we base our response around telling the individual that their emotions are pathological, or do we confront the fact that our hypercompetitive world is intolerable to a significant number of our fellow humans? Do we medicate people to help them cope with a psychologically-damaging world, or do we willingly compromise economic competitiveness in order to form a society in which even “sensitive” people can thrive?

Ultimately, of course, “we” don’t get to choose. All we can do as an individual is figure out how best to navigate the world we are in, based on our own psychological makeup, and decide how best to use our lives with purpose. Some may choose to compete for wealth to gain status or security, others may throw themselves into community building and protest the evils of capitalism.

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Others find a third way

Given that background, I am fascinated by the status of limerence as a concept in popular culture. Kind of by definition, limerence forums and blogs tend to focus on the distress caused by being limerent for a non-reciprocating LO, or where limerence for a third party has threatened a monogamous bond. These are obviously cases of limerence as a negative force in life, and so get framed as problems to be solved. Similarly, talking about limerence as “person addiction” invites obvious comparisons with destructive addictions to gambling or drugs. But just as anxiety isn’t itself an illness, limerence can be a positive drive with obvious benefits when reciprocated by the LO, leading to pair bonding and reproduction.

In the psychology and therapy fields, limerence is increasingly discussed as an inherently negative experience and a disordered mental state. Essentially, “limerence” means “when romantic attraction has become dysregulated and led to obsession, distorted perception of LO, and self-destructive behaviour”. It is also most often explained as evidence of attachment issues due to problematic childhood bonding. That certainly isn’t the sense in which Tennov intended limerence to be understood, but of course language is fluid and meanings change with use and utility. So, this could all be seen as just quibbling over words or definitions, but I think it does matter in understanding how to develop lasting healthy relationships.

If we are telling limerents that their trait is inherently wrong and symptomatic of mental illness, or some other personal failing or psychological wound, when in fact it is a perfectly normal trait common to a significant portion of society, we are potentially causing more harm than good. To use another analogy: if we were to counsel a lesbian in a dysfunctional relationship that her lesbianism is evidence of an attachment disorder, and she will never find happiness until she understands why childhood trauma has caused her to fall into lesbian patterns of thought and behaviour, we would be both causing significant harm and failing to solve her problem.

The basic question is this: are the symptoms of limerence a descriptive list of how a significant number of people experience romantic love, or are the symptoms of limerence evidence of an unhealthy mental state brought about by problems with attachment?

I don’t know the answer. But I think it’s an important question if we are ever to understand how to live happily with limerence. My gut feeling is that limerence is natural, and only problematic for most limerents when they get caught up in self-reinforcing cycle of dependency due to stress, a manipulative LO, or problems with existing relationships. In contrast, people who do have an attachment disorder in addition to being a limerent are likely to have a really hard time of it whenever they encounter an LO. As therapists will mainly interact with limerents at times of distress, it’s plausible that the trait itself is being bundled in with other symptoms and seen as part of the illness (especially if the therapist is a non-limerent). If only a small proportion of limerents are prone to crisis – either because of special circumstances or coincident psychological issues – then blaming limerence for the crisis is a error. The error is even worse if the limerent is advised to try and “solve” their limerence problem as a strategy for coping with the crisis.

Sigh. It’s complicated. How much does any of this matter? Probably not a great deal in the immediate support of an individual in distress, but taking a longer view, recognising limerence as an inherent personality trait that can cause emotional harm under certain circumstances is almost certainly more constructive than reserving the term for only those cases where it has escalated out of the limerent’s control.

Why is limerence so powerful?

When in the grip of limerence, all other concerns fade into the background. LO becomes the centre of your mental world. Ironically, the impact of this phenomenon can be most obvious after limerence has passed, and you are free to look back on the period of madness once normal service has been resumed in your psychological schedule. It can seem bizarre that you were so transported from your ordinary mind; embarrassing to recall how you behaved and how far from your previous moral framework you strayed while following your LO will-o’-the-wisp into the marshlands. Sometimes, it goes beyond embarrassment to deep regret. A case study in Tennov’s book illustrates this better than a thousand carefully chosen words:

“I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.”

So why is limerence so powerful? Why can it derail the otherwise steady progress of our lives so completely? How can it have such a potent hold on us? Is there a list coming after all these questions, by any chance?

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I think the power comes from a confluence of physiology, psychology, cultural conditioning, and deep-rooted emotional factors. So, quite a formidable bundle of interconnected issues.

1) It’s hard-wired into our brains

I’ve written before about how the pattern of limerence fits nicely into a model of positive reinforcement of pleasure, based on an intermittent reward schedule. The neurophysiology of reward is well understood, and a fundamental aspect of how the brain works. You can’t get around this one. You can certainly overwrite previous positive associations with new “instructions” to break the connection between LO and pleasure, but this takes time, and you cannot remove your capacity to link rewarding stimuli with pleasure-seeking behaviour. In fact, it’s a good job you can’t, as it is the basis of most learned behaviour. You need that reward circuitry, and so the challenge for limerents is to try and either reprogram it once it has become detrimental to wellbeing, or to be wary enough to prevent the cycle establishing in the first place.

2) It’s addictive

Pleasure seeking is well understood, but so is the danger of a transition occurring from pleasure to addiction and dependency. I think framing limerence as person addiction has great explanatory power. Although the mechanistic basis of addiction is still unclear, for substance abuse the transition is associated with a change from positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement (i.e. “the drugs make me feel good” changes to “without the drugs, I feel terrible”). This pattern is also very commonly experienced in limerence: we go from delighting in the LO’s intoxicating company because it makes us feel more vital and energised, to craving their company and suffering anxiety and obsessive thoughts in their absence. Basically, it gets you on the way up and the way down. Again, this is reflective of a bidirectional link between psychology and physiology that is not easily overcome.

3) It’s romantic

The idea of a one true love is so deeply embedded in our cultural heritage in the West that limerence makes us feel validated and connected to generations of strangers at a profound level – one which transcends time and place. We recognise our own desperate romantic longings in the protagonists of great literature, poetry, songs (and Disney cartoons). Developing limerence makes us see in ourselves the same drives, the same untameable hunger, that has shaped the collective cultural consciousness of our societies over centuries. The sudden recognition of the ideal other, who holds the promise of happily ever after, assures us that it is all of it true, this bedrock of stories with which we have founded our social world. That we belong in it. And that we have found the person that can make our own personal story into an epic myth.

4) It fits the “rescue fantasy” ideal

Closely linked in with such romantic notions is the idea of the “rescue fantasy”. This was originally coined as a term by Freud, and related to male patients who “repeatedly fall in love with a woman who is ‘of bad repute sexually’ and ‘to whom another man can claim right of possession’.” [link]

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It’s never just a cigar with you, is it?

Since then, the term has broadened to mean any fantasy in which the limerent is either rescued by a heroic LO (the handsome billionaire, or nurturing girl next door), or rescues a suffering LO themselves (from an unhappy marriage, or low self-esteem). These sorts of fantasies can really cement the connection to LO, and fulfill a deep-rooted emotional need in the limerent. For the sake of this discussion, the origin of this emotional need is immaterial (though, interestingly, it’s often also seen as a driving force for therapists; who can no doubt offer all sorts of explanations as to origins), but becoming limerent for someone who offers the chance of meeting that need amplifies the potency of the limerent connection.

5) It’s numinous

I’m not a religious person, but can understand some of the reasons why religions hold such power. One is the experience of numinousness. Not a commonly used term, so I’ll defer to the OED:

numinous adj. 1 indicating the presence of a divinity. 2 spiritual. 3 awe-inspiring.

For many limerents, the emotional overload of LO’s company can feel like a transcendent, quasi-spiritual experience. Really, this is where notions of true love come from – as though an external force more powerful than yourself has overtaken you, transported you, and upended all your previous certainties. “This was meant to be”. Ideas of Cupid, love spells or potions, and “a power greater than either of us” are all reflections of the fact that limerence can feel as though it originates outside of us and overwhelms our self-control. People talk about feeling a connection to the divine when in love, and for limerents, this usually means the initial period of infatuation. For limerents of a spiritual tendency, the “rightness” of feelings for LO can be reinforced by this sense of spiritual connectedness. Maybe even seen as an indicator that God validates their love. Even for atheist limerents, the sense of the numinous can be a powerfully heady experience, even though they don’t invent a Godly explanation for it.

Put all of these factors together, and that there is some significant psychological heft. It’s really not surprising that the emotional grip of limerence is so strong – so, you know, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling through it. There are tactics that can help with each of these factors, some of which I’ve written about before. But, if you really want to get your limerence under control, and find ways to strategically unleash it appropriately, your only real hope is to do the hard work of self analysis needed to uncouple all of these interconnected factors and understand how each of them is driving your current behaviour. No small matter, but then, nothing worthwhile ever is. And it does have the happy benefit of setting you up for a fulfilling and successful life!