What can spouses do?

When your spouse or partner becomes limerent for someone else, it stinks.

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It’s Understatement Sunday

Quite reasonably, many people experiencing this relationship-testing stress wonder desperately what they can do to help. Some cope by going into “fix it” mode to focus their energy on a solution rather than on confronting their feelings. While this tactic can be pretty useful in life generally, when the problem actually is “feelings”, it may not be so fruitful.

People respond differently. Some get consumed by righteous anger, some become depressed, some plead, some bargain, some rage. But everyone who goes through this has to confront a fundamental truth: it shreds your self-esteem. Because intact self-esteem is very useful for coping with the fallout of limerence, one of the goals of this site is to help spouses who have been impacted by limerence understand what is going on. The key message is this: limerence is going on in your spouse’s head, and is not an indication of how wonderful LO is, or how undesirable you have suddenly become. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, it’s about their emotional issues, not a judgment on the quality of the marriage.

I’ve posted before on some ideas about this issue, but in this post I want to think out loud about some of the practical steps that could help spouses snap the limerent out of the worst excesses of the limerence episode. I can’t pretend that these are field-tested ideas, but they may be productive.

As a caveat, at the start, I’m assuming here that your spouse has generally good character, has not already embarked on an affair, and that your marriage was working well (from your perspective) before this happened. If not, then unfortunately your problems are a bit deeper than just your spouse’s limerence. It’s probably time to find a therapist, or a lawyer.

With that depressing aside out of the way, what can be done to help manage the situation?

1) Understand how limerence is affecting them now

The first step is to figure out where your spouse’s mind is at. Are they in the thick of limerent euphoria? If so, they will be hard to reach. LO is triggering a big old dopamine rush and their subconscious mind is driving them to try and maintain this for as long as possible. LO is idolised, you are not. None of this is your fault – they’ve got themselves in a brain loop because they were careless and selfish and self-indulgent (and possibly seduced). But even if your spouse is in the “deep zone” they may nevertheless be feeling highly conflicted, because they love you but are infatuated with them, and that is hard to process unless they have a very well developed sense of self-awareness. Unfortunately, that conflict can manifest in getting angry and short-tempered with you, and – even worse – seeking solace from their new wonderful friend. This is the phase of limerence in which your best bet is to focus on yourself, and decide how much patience you have to tolerate besotted foolishness. If your spouse is in this zone, get some distance if you can. You need support, possibly personal counselling, and hopefully an understanding friend.

If, in contrast, your spouse has recognised that they are in trouble, that they have lost control of the situation and are anxious about what to do, then they are probably either coming out of limerence, or not yet fully immersed. It is likely that they will be easier to reach. If they have confided in you about their feelings for LO, and (this is an important bit, so I’m putting it in all caps) SHOWN CONTRITION then you have something to work with. Best of all is if they have said that they want the limerence to stop. They may not act as if they want it to stop – they may even seem evasive or hypocritical or react angrily to constructive suggestions (that just happen to involve them spending less time with LO) – but they have enough lucidity to recognise the harm it is causing them. At this point, guiding them to an understanding of limerence and how to overcome it can be effective.

2) Develop ninja-level communication skills

It is really hard to speak calmly and honestly when your partner is mooning over someone else. Conflict negotiation is a high level skill, and like most skills, practicing it is the only way of establishing a trained habit that happens almost automatically when in a high intensity situation. Communicating with a limerent spouse in a way that does not provoke either of you into a spiral of denial, anger and blame, is a serious challenge. One advantage that I had in my last limerent episode was an established habit of honest communication with my wife. Frankly, she had trained me. She counselled people at one point in her life, and had learned the skills of reflective listening, clear assertiveness (without aggression), and how to spot and sidestep common roadblocks. She encouraged me to read the same books she had used, and taught me some of the methods. We used them in our marriage, successfully (and even got to the point of laughing at each other when we were “doing that assertiveness thing”). That helped a lot. There were still tears, and anger and frustration, but the default habit was honest communication and that was very helpful.

Now, it may not seem to be terribly helpful to say “you needed to have trained yourself in a skill some time ago” as a solution to a problem that exists now. But remember the proverb: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

Taking the time to learn and practice good communication and conflict resolution skills is a massive help in resolving, well, this conflict. A happy bonus is that it’s a really useful skill in almost every other aspect of life too. So you’ll be a more effective and purposeful person for the effort.

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Achievement unlocked!

3) Stealth education

A bit sneaky this, but the idea is to plant idea seeds and hope they germinate. Most people aren’t aware of the concept of limerence. Most limerents just think, “Yep, this is what love is like. Got it.” The idea that actually there is a tipping point beyond which good feels lead to a self-reinforcing obsession that derails your life, is unfamiliar. Similarly, the idea that many people do not feel like that, do not experience romantic love like that, and that it doesn’t represent some sort of cosmic connection, is a revelation. While you can’t browbeat someone into accepting something they don’t want to believe, it could be useful to nudge your limerent spouse along that particular road to Damascus. A bit of consciousness raising about limerence may be useful. Case studies about limerents making fools of themselves and destroying their lives may also be useful.

Unfortunately, most people are only really receptive to uncomfortable new ideas if they think they have discovered them themselves. So, you’ll have to be sneaky.

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Oh, that? It’s just something I found in the library that looked interesting…

4) Think carefully about your boundaries 

The heart of the problem that impacted spouses face is that they can’t actually solve this unilaterally. Really the best that can be done is to communicate clearly and honestly, and hope that your spouse sees sense. You could try an ultimatum, but that may drive them further away or precipitate an escalation of the limerence by adding a barrier. You could try pleading, but your spouse may already have devalued you to the point that this is taken as further evidence of your shortcomings. Plus, it’s another blow to your self-esteem to plead with the person that should be your equal partner. There are not a lot of ways to win in the spouse versus LO competition, so by far the most rational and successful strategy is to not play that game. You should play the “who am I and what do I want?” game instead.

The key to this is to really think about and establish your boundaries. Limerence is going on in your spouse’s head, and that’s the only place it’s going to be resolved. All you can decide is how much space and time you are willing to give them in the hope that they will take that opportunity to address their emotional problems. Is insisting on No Contact a red line for you? Or is a “no contact during family time” rule sufficient as a first step? This is not meant as a compromise or negotiation, or a lesson in how much humiliation you are willing to tolerate. The idea is to genuinely ask yourself what you think are reasonable limits within which your spouse can sort themselves out. Then, you communicate those limits clearly (see step 2), and also the consequences should they cross those lines. A significant danger comes from the understandable anger over their thoughtless behaviour – if you insist on strict rules but your spouse fails to meet them, what then? Backsliding on an impractical ultimatum is far more damaging to your self-esteem and to the mutual respect between you, than not setting it in the first place.

You know, it’s hard. The loss of control is maddening. One way to recover that is to focus on the thing you can control: your response. Ultimately, the only sane way of getting through a spouse’s limerence that I can think of is to focus on your own goals, your own boundaries, and navigate through this in a way that maintains your self-respect and your personal integrity, whatever the final outcome. Being clear on your boundaries, and enforcing them soberly but determinedly, is the probably the best way of achieving that.

Good luck.

When LOs return, part two

In a previous post I wrote about the fact that my LO was re-entering my life and that we were working together on a short project. It’s done.

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and dusted

So, was it worth the effort? What did I learn? Would I ever do it again?

1) Old habits are well ingrained

The most striking part of the experience was how quickly and easily we fell back into the old habits of our previous interactions. I suppose it’s pretty obvious that would happen, but it very nicely reinforced many of the lessons I’ve learned about limerence. At one point, when in the height of limerence, it would have been a disaster, as my habit was to deepen the personal connection and strengthen the giddy thrill of limerence. But by the time LO left last time, I’d reprogrammed my habits into a pattern of guarded friendliness with clear boundaries – which is what I defaulted straight back into during the last month. So, the working dynamic was friendly and familiar, but without emotional depth or personal openness. It’s a highly constrained sort of friendship, but necessary to avoid backsliding.

Establishing the right habits took time, but has turned out to be a lasting protection against limerence.

2) Danger lurks constantly

OK, possibly a little overstated, but the risk of boundary crossing is always there. A good example was during a conversation about politics that meandered around a bit and ended up with us discussing #metoo. Helpfully, my gut gave me a nice strong lurch to let me know that this was a “skating on thin ice” topic.

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Danger, Will Robinson!

I think this illustrates the problem with trying to be friends with LO. Ordinary chat can lead unpredictably to sexually and/or emotionally charged topics that (even if LO is trustworthy) just have too much potential to push the relationship dynamic towards intimacy. The times of highest risk were when I started to relax and think everything was fine, and began to enjoy LO’s company in an unguarded way.

Once vigilance is relaxed, the natural openness that characterises an uncomplicated friendship becomes a door for the limerence pixie to come prancing through.

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OK, not my finest metaphor, but you get the idea

3) It’s never going to be gone

I’ve spoken before about my tendency to become limerent for damsels in distress. It’s part of who I am, and that’s fine, but the awareness of it is a key protection for me making purposeful decisions rather than reactive decisions. The hardest part of the month came at the very end. To my surprise, as we said goodbye for the last time, LO lost her normally steely composure and became teary-eyed. That bypassed all my carefully constructed defences and got me straight in the heart.

Fortunately I was able to draw on my deep reserves of English emotional repression, and harden my resolve. No hugs were exchanged, no “we must keep in touch” promises, just a friendly, slightly sad goodbye and thank you, and we were done.

But, in the spirit of complete honesty: that hurt. Even now, a few days later, the memory of it hurts. Someone I care about needed emotional support from me and I withheld it. I know why I had to, and I know she’ll be fine, but I think it goes to show that I will not be able to achieve a state of indifference towards LO. Maybe many years from now, but for the foreseeable future I’ll be sticking to the limited contact principle, and certainly not be instigating another joint project. There are plenty of worthwhile projects to occupy me, and LO would be a distractor in any of them.

 

So, the main lessons learned are that the right habits and boundaries were proof against re-exposure to LO, but that any interaction is always a risk, never neutral, and so should only be embarked on with caution and full awareness. A caveat is that my limerence was never disclosed to LO, never consummated, and I killed it by a sort of slow suffocation rather than an abrupt coup de grace. That may be part of the reason why there is still enough lingering uncertainty to make our interactions uncomfortably charged, and requiring constant vigilance. Nevertheless, the strategy has worked well enough for me to feel generally positive about the latest experience, and able to move on with satisfaction.

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Hopefully to a peaceful and fruitful future

 

p.s. in case anyone is wondering: the work project went fine. Not as well as hoped, but good enough to be worth the effort.

Limerence and polyamory

Spin out post from a previous comment thread.

Long time reader, first time commenter, Landry asks:

What I’d like to know is how folks feel about polyamory and why is it that sexual/romantic/emotional exclusivity—however one defines monogamous fidelity—is so important. I know some of DrL’s take on this from an earlier blog entry, that limerents and poly types are a terrible fit. But I’m not sure I agree with that anymore. Now granted, my millenial LO is the one who got me re-considering this concept, got me wondering why I’m holding so fast to my (dated?) dogma about relationships. (OK, my LO and Mira Kirshenbaum and Esther Perel and Brene Brown—whoa, wa-a-a-y too many self-help reads on my night stand these days.) And it’s hard not to wonder how much of all the angst our limerence puts us through could be eliminated if we would just give up these notions about monogamy as the be-all-end-all ideal. Obviously, I’m not talking about single folks who get limerent. But the real heartache seems to come from being married and becoming limerent for someone else. Wouldn’t marriage be a happier state if we could just come clean about our feelings, accept that wanting someone else (at least once in awhile) is normal and OK, address the insecurities that non-monogamy can bring up, and…for heaven’s sake, move through it in grace and mutual compassion. Why exclusivity and mandatory monogamy, anyway?

I’ve previously speculated that polyamory is a non-limerent’s game, but am open to being wrong. The key thing for me is that I can’t imagine being limerent for more than one person at once. So poly limerents would seem to be in a situation characterised by being in a stable relationship with one (or more) significant others, but then becoming limerent for a new person, and then bringing that person into the team (with all the usual assumptions about consent and open communication etc.)

So, the question for the tribe: can limerents be poly? Has anyone ever been limerent for more than one person at once?

Also, a quick note on commenting policy: I’m pretty laissez-faire as I like to learn from everyone, but this is a support site for limerents and people impacted by limerents. Sharing your own experience = great. Bluntly critiquing other people’s conduct = not great.

Let’s keep this constructive and supportive!

Caring about LO

Limerence is about bonding. There plenty of room to discuss whether it’s good or bad bonding, and how it relates to longer-term love, but the central experience of limerence is becoming powerfully emotionally and mentally connected to another person. That has consequences.

As has been argued here before, and in many other places, the best, tried and true tactic for managing limerence is No Contact. This presents a problem, in many cases. First, No Contact may not be practically possible, but to judge from most of the objections raised by struggling limerents, the reasons why it seems emotionally impossible are far more significant.

A common cause (and/or consequence) of limerent bonding is the decision to confide in LO. Many times, LO confides back, and this is what really cements the bonding experience. Sharing intimacies, feeling safe, feeling emotionally “seen” and understood, perhaps for the first time in a long while, leads to strong common feeling. This source of emotional support is not easy to shrug off. If the mutual confidences deepen, the relationship could verge on an emotional affair. Even if that bullet is dodged, the practical reality is often a closer than usual friendship, where you lean on each other for support.

I’ve covered the problem of attempting friendship with LOs before, but in this post, I’d like to look at the consequences of finding yourself in this trap when you come to the realisation that your limerence is out of control and hurting you (and possibly others). When the euphoria fades to addictive dependency, and you want to make it stop, but are entangled in a habit of spending intimate time with LO, what do you do?

One big sticking point is that the bonded limerent doesn’t want to hurt LO. They are your friend. You have bonded with them, however ill-advised you now realise that was. You care about them, and want to continue to provide support for them and (if honest) receive support from them. Severing a bond is painful. Going No Contact seems a drastic, even callous act. How would any friend react to being cut off cold?

A thorny problem. Here are some thoughts.

 

1) Beware the self-serving justification

How dependent on your friendship are they really? I mean, I’m sure you’re great and all, but is it maybe possible that you are resisting withdrawing from the friendship for less noble reasons?

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So cynical!

Many people are bad at saying “No”. The social stigma of being seen to be rude, or upsetting people, or generally having to uncomfortably explain why your behaviour has changed, is surprisingly psychologically powerful for people who are used to keeping others happy. Speaking as an Englishman, I can attest to how spectacular an impact the force of social embarrassment can have on life. Our proud nation has made dozens of sitcoms and weepy romantic films and books from the premise. The Remains of the Day is not intended as a “how to” manual for life. If you’re going to live purposefully (highly recommended), then the marginal discomfort of confounding others’ expectations with uncharacteristically assertive behaviour is well worth overcoming.

Of course, the other possibility is that you might, just maybe, be clinging to the responsibility to stay committed to the friendship, because of some other benefit that you might be deriving. Some sort of emotional reward that you might not want to give up.

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My isn’t it roomy in here?

Don’t make junkie rationalisations. They’ll keep you trapped.

2) Consider the need for self-preservation

In moments of clarity, limerents know that they cannot be sure that they will act as they should when in the presence of LO, because limerence is a bastard. Deciding to continue a friendship for reasons of misguided loyalty, or embarrassment at looking bad, or any other reason, frankly, could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice.

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In the kamikaze sense

Yes, it will probably hurt LO that you are no longer as available to them, but will it hurt them as badly as the limerence is currently hurting you? Will their life be as badly disrupted and derailed by your quiet withdrawal from it, as your life is disrupted by the suffocating uncertainty of limerence?

It’s fine to protect yourself from harm, even if the harm is being caused by an unwitting friend.

3) Staged withdrawal is possible

Cold turkey No Contact is a dramatic step. It may well be necessary – especially if your LO is manipulative or shows signs of wanting to keep you hanging on for their own gratification. If so, I really wouldn’t worry too much about their feelings, given that they are selfishly disregarding yours. But in the case that your LO is not a git, and is in fact a good friend, then a staged withdrawal is a perfectly sound strategy. In fact, psychologically it has a lot to recommend it. A series of incremental small wins (no texts today, no texts or social media for three days, no contact of any kind for a week) helps to reinforce the formation of a new habit of LO avoidance. Even just steering conversations away from personal topics can start a virtuous cycle. Most decent LOs will notice that you are becoming more emotionally distant, and get the hint that the days of oversharing have passed.

There is no evading the fact that deciding to un-bond from LO is going to hurt, and that the loss of a friendship is hard to bear. It’s perfectly fine to mourn it for a bit, but with the purposeful perspective that while it’s unfortunate that limerence came along and broke up a friendship, sometimes shit happens in life and you just have to accept it and move on. It’s part of who we are as limerents to be vulnerable to the friendship-threatening allure of LOs. Make peace with that, and accept that life will be better for everyone if you part company regretfully, but decisively.

Displacement activities

A question from the postbag:

What I wanted to ask is whether you think other activities might be helpful as a replacement or as some sort of therapy? One therapist suggested to me that perhaps I needed other hormone-high activities — ocean swimming, sky diving, etc — to replace the ‘addiction high’ of the limerence/crushing/obsessive phase.

It’s a good one.

The idea is certainly appealing – work yourself into a “high arousal” state through a new hobby or sport, in order to break the link between excitement and LO, and establish a new hyper-stimulus with an LO-free activity.

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Woop!

I can’t speak from experience on this one. I never attempted thrill-seeking as a strategy to break the limerence.

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Unless you count having an extra scone with afternoon tea

One thing that did help, which is along the same lines in some ways, was to make an effort to have more new and stimulating experiences with my family – to make my life richer by linking newness to my “old” life, rather than letting all the novelty come from LO. Success was mixed.

As the limerence was fading, it worked well. I laid down happy new memories and felt more positive about life (and purposeful). But when the limerence was bad almost all activities were invaded by thoughts of “I wonder if LO would enjoy this,” or “I wonder what LO is doing now”, or “I can’t wait to tell LO about this.” That experience was actually one of the key triggers for me realising that I was out of control and needed to take urgent action to try and stop the limerence. I was tainting quality time with my loved ones.

So my gut feeling is that it’s likely to be complicated. If you have made the purposeful decision to leave LO behind and embark on that new, better life you like the idea of, then it’s a definitely worth a try. However, if you are still in the depths of your limerence, then it may just be more experiences that will become linked in your monomanic obsessive mind with “things you are doing while thinking about LO”.

The instincts of my guts are not always to be trusted, though, so what does everyone else think? Has anyone tried this as a strategy? Help, hindrance or meh?

Enquiring minds want to know…

When LOs return

My LO is coming back.

For professional reasons, we are going to be working on a project together for a few weeks. I thought about declining the job. I also thought about the implications of making professionally reckless decisions on the basis of my own personal hangups. I looked at my responsibilities, and decided on balance to take it on and work together again for mutual benefit.

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It’s safe to ride these things, right?

I then scrutinised myself carefully for rationalisations, and then had a good laugh about how much more seriously I’m taking all this since starting the blog. So, I think I’ll be fine, but shields up just in case.

When LOs come back into our lives unexpectedly, it’s bound to be a challenge. Regular readers will know that I’m very sceptical about the possibility of being friends with an LO. Whatever it is about them that resonates so strongly with you is not going to just conveniently go away. Even No Contact, for all its virtues , is not guaranteed protection against limerence; a remembered encounter, an unexpected dream, a Facebook mugging – all can set you back. So how can you protect yourself when LO bursts back into life? How will I protect myself over the coming month?

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Ready for anything

1) No personal stuff

Friendliness is fine. Friendship is unrealistic. The more you share about your life and your feelings with LO, the more you will strengthen the bond. I don’t mean being a humourless robot, but when the conversation drifts towards personal issues, I’m going to try and artfully steer it away again. A good rule of thumb is that sharing information is fine, sharing feelings is risky.

2) I am not a counsellor

I kind of have this drive to want to help people in emotional distress. I’m probably hiding it well behind this clever disguise of a blog that I’ve been writing all about emotional distress, but, shockingly, I do seem to have the empathy gene. For all its virtues, empathy has its downsides – and is partly rooted in a complicated muddle of selfish and altruistic subconscious urges. Given that, a guiding principle is that any impulse to try and intervene to help LO sort out their emotional problems is to be resisted. Helping people is good, but not at the cost of compromising your own emotional stability.

3) I would like this to end well

For all the difficulties caused by my limerence, and for all the blame that can be shared around generously between LO and me, I would like the whole experience to end well. I still care about LO and her wellbeing, and I wish her a long and happy life. I enjoy her company, and don’t want to see her as an enemy just because I enjoy it a bit too much at times. So, adopting a mindful pose before the next interaction should be to the benefit of everyone involved. No alarms and no surprises.

This cautiously optimistic attitude should be modified for anyone with an actively disruptive LO who is not playing nicely (the narcissists, the predators, the flakes), but for generally well-meaning people I think it’s a realistic goal.

 

So, that’s the plan. I’ll report back in a few weeks on how it’s gone…

Edit: Link to follow up here.

The benefits of No Contact

One of the most effective methods for neutralising limerence is also one of the most obvious: stop spending time with LO. No contact FTW! But given the amazing capacity for limerents to daydream, plain dream, and generally relentlessly obsess about LO, actually being in their presence isn’t necessarily a requirement to sustain the addiction. So why does no contact work? Why is it one of the few effective strategies for wresting back control of ourselves?

1) You don’t have to see them anymore

Well, wow. What an insight.

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Blinding!

Obviously it helps to not see LO anymore. Seeing them triggers the ingrained cycle of physiological arousal, anxiety, and potential pleasure, which moves them to the centre of your attention. Also, spending time with them (especially if the meeting is enjoyable) is likely to reinforce the associative memory between LO and reward. This is obviously a barrier to overcoming your LO addiction, so not seeing them anymore removes that barrier.

No contact means no more overarousal, and no more behavioural reinforcement.

 2) It starves the fire

The fuel and oxygen of limerence are reverie and uncertainty. Without the possibility of future meetings, uncertainty is eliminated – there will be no more reciprocation or rejection. Eventually, the fuel of old memories will be used up, and the flames will fade to glowing embers.

A potential downside here is that your memory of LO is likely to relax back to an idealised version of them. LO as the elaborate mental construction that you have sculpted, perfectly shaped to your emotional needs. So if, in reality, LO is a bit of a dick, you are depriving yourself of potential negative experiences which can be useful in extinguishing desire. While this could be problematic, it is probably offset by the gain that you will not have new positive memories of LO to incorporate into fresh fantasies and ruminations.

Even though the mental avatar of LO remains with us, their image in our mind’s eye loses focus over time, without new reinforcement.

3) You become free

Most limerents allocate an inordinate amount of mental bandwidth to thinking about LO. This could be rehearsing imagined future conversations or events. It could be going over previous interactions and forensically scouring them for evidence of reciprocation. It could be planning charming or witty retorts to impress LO, in case a particular topic of conversation comes up.

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Hmm. What if he mentions Sport? I should know about Sport, and then he will be impressed by me.

Imagine being freed of all that. No more meetings means no more wasted energy planning for those meetings. Just think how much mental capacity that frees up for exciting new enterprises!

Even more importantly, freedom from future LO planning means you have the headspace to reorient yourself back to who you were before the Madness came. That’s a really important step if you are going to be able to make good choices about how your actual, real future will pan out.

4) You demonstrate personal decisiveness

The best basis for no contact is making the active decision yourself to end contact. You have taken a positive step. That is huge, psychologically. You are telling yourself that you know better than your junkie brain, and that you are in charge of your behaviour from now on. No more subordinating your needs to getting an LO fix. No more surrendering your moods to someone else’s behaviour. You are in the driving seat and aiming for the open road.

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Leaving them in your dust

The benefits of no contact really start to stack up. Beyond the obvious relief from LO’s company, no contact is a virtuous cycle of short-term relief, middle-term recovery of your old mental clarity, and preparing yourself for a long-term future in which limerence is a tamed beast. It’s worth it, if you can.

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.