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!

Jealousy

Post stimulated by comment by Sharnhorst. Thanks Sharnhorst!

Is jealousy an inevitable part of limerence? I may be wrong, but to me limerence without the desire for exclusivity seems to be a contradiction in terms. The sense of “special connection” is so powerful and so central a feature of limerence, that the idea of your LO being with another partner brings a particularly exquisite stab of pain. This fits with the notion of limerence as a mechanism for pair bonding: the prospect of losing the bond triggers severe distress.

But as with all things human, it’s complicated. For those of us who’ve been through a few limerence cycles, the experience can be surprisingly different with different LOs. Jealousy is a product of multiple factors: anger, insecurity, control issues, sexual jealousy, fear, low self-esteem, and – sometimes – accurately recognising that your partner is a lying, inconstant son-or-daughter-of-a-bitch. How different factors intersect will likely determine your emotional response, and how severe the jealousy provoked by LO being flirty with others is. For example:

1) Where you are in the limerence cycle.

Early or late in the progression of limerence, it is likely that you could cope with ambivalence from LO with more equanimity. In the early stages, you’re probably busy idealising them, and so even their flirting with other people can be framed as evidence of their special sensitivity or need for love. Towards the end, you are probably emerging from the madness and able to be more high-minded about LO showing interest in others. But in the midst of limerence, once you have become addicted and uncertainty is heightening your craving, you are likely to suffer most. You’re emotionally captured, dependent on their company, but not yet sure that they feel the same way. You’ve had enough reciprocation to be sure there is something going on, and you hope against hope that it’s the real thing, but there’s enough anxiety to keep you on high alert for threats to the cementing of the emotional bond. At that point the thought of losing LO to another partner is awful.

2) Where they are in the limerence cycle.

In the case of mutual limerence, another complicating factor is LO’s relative progression through the cycle. If they are coming out of the euphoria stage faster than you, then they will probably start to set off your limerence radar by cooling off, and being more open to other people in the world. This is likely to set you back, and escalate your limerence jealousy. Time was (when they were limerent for you) they would have loved the fact you were jealous, as it would have been sweet, sweet confirmation of your commitment to them. But now – what a drag.

3) Where you are in life.

All of the preceding arguments are about susceptibility to jealousy. The actual, full on, green-eyed monster expression of jealousy is, like all behaviour, within our control. A major factor in how jealous you feel is going to be how purposefully you live your life. As a young man I was prone to jealousy – anger, humiliation, revenge fantasies, the usual package. I’ve mellowed. A lot of jealousy stems of course from personal insecurity; anxiety about how attractive you are and whether you can “win” the attentions of LO and make them want to stay with you. The jealousy comes from fear of losing them. Maturity makes you realise you can’t “lose” someone any more than you can own someone. It will sting like a bastard, but if they’re not as committed as you, it is very much in your interest to learn that. Rather than try and dance prettily, or contort yourself into accommodating knots, in a desperate attempt to somehow impress someone into being limerent for you, you can make a conscious decision about whether you are OK with it, or whether it’s time to move on. Ultimately, it’s way more humiliating to try and cajole someone into wanting you, than to “lose” in some imagined romantic competition.

4) The intensity of the situation in which you find out.

It’s one thing to hear from a friend of a friend that LO hooked up with someone else. It’s another to see their engagement photos on Facebook. It’s still worse to have them messing around in front of you, after you and they just had a heart-to-heart.

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I’m so glad I helped you overcome your fear of intimacy. What a pretty sunset.

What I’m saying is context matters. When it comes to discovery of LO’s romantic interest in others, ambushed and unprepared is likely to be much harsher to cope with than a rumour, three steps removed.

Pain when seeing LO with other potential partners seems a certainty when limerent. How you respond to that pain is the determinant of whether it leads to jealousy. Self-awareness can allow acceptance of the feelings of jealousy, but suppression of the anger and negative behaviour that could be provoked. Instead, use it as a good intuitive yardstick for assessing LOs suitability as a genuine, life partner. If you are irrationally jealous, you can learn to mentally override the anger and explore your trust issues (perhaps with a therapist). But sometimes, jealousy is telling you that something is up, that LO is not as committed as you, and that you need to moderate your limerence before you suffer further pain. A good use of those sickening feelings of jealousy, is to use them to reprogram your subconscious mind and break the “LO = pleasure” connection. “LO = pain” is a useful new connection to help you overcome the addiction and move on to a more purposeful life.

 

Happily ever after

Many people blame fairytales for their relationship problems. Especially Disney. Damn Cinderellas and Princes Charming and happilys ever after. So unrealistic.

But that word, “happily”, is a slippery word. What does happy mean? Where does happy come from? Can somebody else make you happy?

Fairytales make sense to limerents, at least before we get jaded by age and experience. The whole concept of the super special someone that transforms your world, gives purpose to your life and determines your fate, aligns beautifully with the euphoric infatuation for an LO. Oh, that’s it! They’re “the one”. I finally understand.

So that’s a good start, but as I’ve discussed before, limerence is only a start. The flower that may bear fruit. It’s the happily ever after bit that’s tricky, because (spoiler alert) limerence will end. It has to, just like flowers don’t last all season. I’m convinced that much of the disappointment around fairytales comes from the faulty association of limerence with happily ever after. “Nobody can be happy with one person forever!” Yes they can. But nobody can be limerent for one person forever. This might seem obvious, but as I said at the start “happy” is a really slippery concept.

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Watch your step, someone’s spilt some philosophy

At its simplest, happiness could be seen as the absence of pain and suffering; but that’s more just security or comfort. It could be delight, or pleasure, or thrill, or elation, but all those things are really just related to happiness; its showy-offy cousins. Most people take happiness to be a deeper and more fundamental state. A sense of contented satisfaction with life, and a background feeling of peace, fulfillment and optimism. Feeling “right” and thankful for being alive. These feelings are obviously quite far removed from limerence, with its hysterical highs and devastating lows, but many limerents (especially, perhaps first time limerents) mix them up. Limerence feels so good, so right, that it seems a form of happiness that transcends mere workaday personal fulfillment. This is epic stuff.

But we know enough about the neurophysiology of limerence to know that it is more about pleasure than happiness, and that distinction is crucial. Seeking pleasure leads to a life of escalating thrills, risky behaviour and short-term gratification of drives. Seeking happiness, by contrast, leads to long-term thinking, self-discovery, honesty, and consistent work to improve the situation of your life. FOMO is a good barometer for this: fear that you’re missing a great party or being excluded from a social clique is mostly about desire for external validators, and stems from insecurity about your own value. Getting into the party might lead to pleasure (relief?), but it wouldn’t lead to happiness.

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This is great! God, I hope they invite me to the next one…

Limerence is not a reliable starting point for finding happiness. LO may be intoxicatingly wonderful, but that’s not much of a basis for predicting whether life with them will be one of long-term happiness. To return to the question I posed at the start: can someone else make you happy? Other people can obviously bring us pleasure. LOs excel at that… but as we know, limerence is happening in our heads. We generate the sensation, however ecstatic. More profoundly, other people can certainly (by their actions) make you feel valued and safe and loved. But can someone actually make you fundamentally happy, by virtue of their behaviour and personality? Is it possible for some sainted individual to bond with an unhappy person, and through the charisma of their being, transform them into a happy person? No. Fundamentally we know this. We cannot rely on someone else for our own happiness; it has to come from within and it has to be based on your own self-esteem and self-image. Undoubtedly a good partner complements and enhances the happiness of any individual lucky enough to have their commitment, but they can’t be a wellspring of happiness that is passively dipped into.

And… we’re back to purposeful living again! If you make the conscious choice to take charge of your life, determine what you want, and how best you can help others, so many of these anxieties and complexities fall away. Taking purposeful steps every day to know yourself better, and decide on the sort of person you want to be, is the best way to underpin your life with a foundation of happiness. And you may just find that the kind of person you aspire to be is the kind of person that attracts other good people towards them. And two good people enhancing each other’s lives is by most definitions, pretty darn close to happily ever after…

 

The three phases of limerence

Here’s a good podcast about limerence from Joe Beam, a marriage counsellor in the US.

It’s quite long, but worth it because there are a few real gems. The topic of discussion is focussed on married people, mainly how and why limerence affairs happen, but it has some insights into the phenomenon of limerence generally. In particular, he discusses the path of co-limerence and identifies three stages to the typical mutual limerence dance:

1) Infatuation

This is the “getting to know you” phase, where you start to really notice the LO and start to feel they are special. Joe Beam frames this in terms of an unconscious need of the limerent to feel worthy of being loved. It’s fed by a sense of connection and emotional bonding, and the desire to spend time with the LO who makes the limerent feel safe and motivated to share emotional intimacies.

2) Crystallisation

This is the full blown limerence response – so the full complement of traits. In the case of the limerence affair, this will also include the rewriting of history about the limerent’s marriage. It can also be characterised by a striking fear of loss. While this is a feature of all limerence, the precarious and dishonest basis of an affair likely heightens the fear. Which can reinforce the limerence.

3) Deterioration

As the name suggests, this is the phase where limerence decays. After a period in phase 2, the limerent starts to lose the urge to idealise the LO’s behaviour. The “halo effect” is tarnished, and the limerent begins to properly see the flaws of the LO. Again, in the case of an affair – especially one that causes the breakdown of the marriage – this is likely to be exaggerated. This heightened devaluation is well captured by the portentous phrase “look what you cost me”.

It’s an interesting framework, and no doubt evolved from his work with married couples. I’m not sure it’s universally useful as a way of understanding limerence, but it does give a good roadmap for how an affair is likely to play out if limerence is the trigger.

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Downhill, basically

There were a few other observations that struck me as particularly powerful. The first was the potency of the first moment of deceit. As he explains, there will come a point in the infatuation phase where you are spending a lot of time with LO and bonding emotionally. People will notice. Co-workers, friends, spouses – whoever – and someone will ask a question, make a comment, or tease you. And you will minimise it, or laugh it off, or flat-out lie. You may even take steps to be more discreet. Not end the emotional affair of course, not stop seeing LO, but perhaps meet for coffee at a new café, or arrive separately, or change your schedule. You know, to stop people gossiping.

That’s it.

That’s the point that you know for sure you are not “just friends”.

The second observation that struck me was the fact that mutual limerence is often mistimed. One person becomes limerent faster than the other, and then tries to drag the other out of phase 1 and into phase 2 with them. Ironically enough, he also suggests there is a tendency for “first in first out”, as the same (hasty) limerent goes into phase 3 faster too. Of course, the poor slowcoach limerent is then desperate, and tries everything they can to get their LO back into phase 2. Which accelerates the deterioration, usually.

Finally, a big kicker comes from his observation that limerence literally changes you. “You’re not the man I first met,” is not just a barb from an LO in phase 3; it’s the truth. To cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by an affair (I am a good person, but I am betraying my spouse) requires either a reconceptualisation of the limerent’s self-worth and realisation that they are not behaving like a good person (yeah, right), or a change in their value system and moral compass (everyone has affairs; true love is more important than duty; monogamy is unnatural). To maintain self-worth while totally inverting their emotional loyalties requires rewriting pretty major aspects of their identity.

Weighty stuff.

 

What to do if you are married but limerent for someone else

Following on from musings about midlife, one of the commonest problems that more mature limerents face is falling for a new LO when committed to someone else. This is hard enough to deal with in a simple monogamous relationship, but when commitment has led you to marriage and children and joint assets and lives intertwined like the Gordian knot, it can be especially challenging.

So, what should you do if you are married but limerent for someone else? The answer to this question depends a lot on the nature of your marriage, and also on your personal “limerence profile”, and what you want from life. In the manner beloved of therapists everywhere, I plan to answer this key question by asking questions.

1) Do you become limerent very readily?

If so, you probably have experience by now of multiple rides on the limerent-while-married merry-go-round. Managing this is similar to the challenge faced by high-libido folks in a world full of gorgeous people – find coping strategies to manage your urges in a way that doesn’t wreak destruction on the people around you (and yourself). If your goal is to have a stable, loving relationship with your spouse, then you need to accept that you must have a plan for how to interact with potential LOs that limits the risk of escalating attraction. Common strategies would be avoiding contact, avoiding discussion of emotionally-charged topics, and adopting a guarded, defensive mindset when interacting with that person. This is likely to make your company fairly flat (or even difficult) for LO – which is a good thing for you as they are less likely to dazzle you up. If this is an unbearable prospect, then you may have to reconsider whether you are able to lead a monogamous life. If you are not, please discuss this with your spouse before unilaterally embarking on a post-monogamy lifestyle.

If you are an infrequent limerent, and have had few LOs in your life, then there is a greater risk that the re-emergence of limerence will knock you for six emotionally. The specialness of the experience, and the specialness of LO, can seem much more dramatic by virtue of its rarity. Particular care is needed in these cases to maintain clarity of thought when making big decisions about your future.

2) Were you limerent for your spouse?

One mechanism for orientating yourself during the maelstrom of limerence is to think back to how you felt about your spouse in the Early Days. Were you limerent for them? If so, then you can reassure yourself that you picked a brilliant sparkly true-love match, and that now you have simply moved into a more mature phase of affectional bonding. There are lots of amazing people in the world. Many of them are potential LOs. If your spouse was one, then you know what the progression of love is like: dizzying limerence leading to pair bonding, but fading with time and familiarity. That pattern is likely to repeat if you start a new dizzying limerence affair with LO of the moment. So, you will be sacrificing your current marriage (kids, financial stability) for going back to square one and starting over. While older.

If, in contrast, you weren’t limerent for your spouse, then there’s no two ways about it: in terms of glamour they are going to suffer by comparison to LO. Now, depending on your individual circumstances, this may be a good thing. If you are one of those unfortunate souls that become limerent for narcissists or other personality-disordered types it is a Good Thing to bond with someone less glamorous but emotionally stable and giving. People are complicated, though, and there are a lot of strange chains of events that lead people to marry for reasons other than love or limerence. Then, the glamour of LO can make you feel that this is your chance to really experience blissful union. Perhaps the best way to determine how to proceed is to ask the big question…

3) How was your marriage before the limerence began?

Honest appraisal time. Can you determine cause and effect? Have you become limerent for someone else because you were unhappy in your marriage, or have you become unhappy in your marriage because you have become limerent for someone else? A guiding principle in answering this question is that when you are limerent YOUR JUDGEMENT IS IMPAIRED (sorry for shouting). Seriously, your brain is currently awash with a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that evolved to try and compel you to bond with a mate. The demands and responsibilities of adult human life transcend this (or should). You need to compensate for the strength of your feelings with reason. Emotions have a much greater impact on decision making than most people think. You need to be as objective as you can in assessing the true emotional context of your relationship before the new centre of gravity skewed your orbit.

Were you happy? Did you and your spouse have healthy mutual respect and love? Did you support each other – and was there reciprocation of care and consideration? Now, most relationships fall short of these ideals from time to time, but the foundation of mutual respect and affection is the key. Were you a positive force in your spouse’s life, helping them to thrive and be fulfilled? Were they a positive force in your life? If you answer no to these questions, the next question is why? Was it distraction and neglect and the loss of a previous good connection or… is there a fundamental incompatibility? We all know that the mad bliss of limerence cannot last. And it would be exhausting. Most people buy into the goal of happily ever after, not intoxicatedly ever after. If that’s your goal, a clear sighted review of the past of your marriage will probably help predict the future.

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Oh, it’s very sweet, Bob, but… every year?

4) How are you currently relating to your spouse?

Limerence makes you resent the people that stand between you and your LO fix. Combined with the idealisation of LO and devaluation of boring familiar family life, this can lead to a negative feedback loop where your spouse becomes the enemy. Your spouse – and especially your children – are not the enemy. This trap is in your mind, and you need to escape it. If you are being a crap spouse, then obviously the marriage will continue to deteriorate and of course confirm the superiority of LO (who you only see at their best and most sparkly and novel). You need to re-value your spouse. Your response to question 3 can guide this, but the major point is: if you are currently treating them like a barrier to your happiness, your marriage is pretty much doomed. Get away from LO and try treating your spouse like the most important person in your life, whose happiness is a major priority for you. You know. Like they should be.

5) Would you leave your marriage if you knew for sure that LO would reject you?

If not, why not? Because you are fearful of being alone? Or because you’ll settle for spouse until the next LO who might accept you comes along? It should probably be clear that these are not good reasons for marriage. Always assume that LO will reject you. If you still mostly want to leave, that’s a pretty good indicator that things are bad with the union.

6) Are you living with purpose?

My perennial theme, and the sneaky basis for all the foregoing questions. Are you willing to let LO determine how your life and marriage proceed? Are you going to move through life responding to emotional disturbances in a reactive, fatalistic way? Or are you going to take responsibility for your decisions, and acknowledge that making a commitment sometimes means doing the right thing even when it’s not easy? Carrying on in a fog of indecision and anxiety is no way to live. You need to respect yourself and your spouse and make a decision. And probably, honestly, deep down, you know what the right decision is. The one that will lead to a future in which your self esteem and wellbeing are determined by the actions you take and what they say about you as a person. That may mean staying in your marriage, learning from your limerence experience, dissociating from LO, and understanding yourself and your spouse better. Or it may mean leaving an unhappy marriage that you have been trying to keep alive for too long and admitting to yourself that it hasn’t worked out and this isn’t a shameful failure, it’s life.

If you keep drifting along in limbo, too starstruck and addict-selfish to recommit to your spouse, or too hidebound to leave an unhealthy (but probably strangely comfortable) marriage, other people will be making the decisions about how your life unfolds. Dithering about something this fundamental is the opposite of purposeful living, and an invitation for ongoing limerence.

Phew; a long and serious post. To end, here’s my bullet point list of How To Get Through All This:

  • Decide to live your life with purpose.
  • If you can possibly go no contact with LO while you figure this out, do.
  • Honestly evaluate whether your marriage has a future, based on an honest evaluation of its past.
  • If it does, commit to it properly and fully, and prioritise your spouse’s feelings over your limerence.
  • Part of that commitment should be honest communication. If you need to disclose, do it to your spouse but not your LO.
  • Good luck and godspeed to the far side.