This week’s dilemma is from a reader who is not themselves a limerent, but discovered the phenomenon to her cost when her husband became besotted with another woman:
My husband changed personality over night. I don’t recognise him or any of what he is doing it is so out of character. 8 weeks ago he told me he didn’t know if he loved me or wanted to be with me.
Harriet is in crisis. Her husband became limerent for a co-worker who is also married with children, but more than a decade younger than him. Not unreasonably, Harriet reached her limits of patience and gave him an ultimatum.
So, he has left now due to me giving him an ultimatum, her or me, i.e. pack her in and come off social media, texts etc, or we are done. He left saying he can’t he tried but can’t.
It didn’t work out how she hoped, but that is always a risk with an ultimatum. It forces an outcome. Now she is plagued by more uncertainty, and trapped in cycles of intrusive thoughts of her own:
I know I shouldn’t care but I do, I love him, I want him back, I want our life back. But if he is in this state could it even be fixed. I’m not even sure she wants him and I fear it will all end sadly and badly for all of us.
It hurts my head trying to think of why, how to fix it, was it me, why did he do it, etc etc. Is there anyway back for us? Am I wasting my time? Do I leave the door open for when limerence fades, will it fade?
And somewhat ominously:
Will it happen again?
These are all very pertinent and important questions. To the spouse of someone caught up in a limerent affair, the altered mental state of limerence seems so obviously abnormal. It really does look like their partner has lost their mind, lost their judgement, and is suffering a temporary bout of madness.
Harriet can see the asymmetry in the attention her husband is bestowing on this other woman (married with young children), and is confounded by the fact that he has willingly abandoned his own family to take such an irrational chance on someone who is unavailable.
Consequently, the betrayed spouse naturally wonders: what will happen when the madness passes? Will they return to who they were? Is there any hope that, beyond limerence, we could repair the damage?
It’s obviously difficult to answer these questions, given the wide variety of human life and experience. There aren’t going to be a set of simple answers. I mean, there are some simple answers – “He’s a cheater, get rid!” “Marriage is a sacrament, you fight to the end!” – but the real, substantive answers are much harder to find.
The best that can be done is to figure out some of the key factors that influence the odds of reconciliation, and then try and judge as dispassionately as you can how recoverable the situation could be.
The most important factor in determining the prospects for a future life together is respect. If you have lost respect for your spouse, it is very difficult to recover. You may still love them, care for them, wish the old days could somehow be brought back, but once you’ve lost respect for them you will likely never feel the same quality of love as before.
It’s possible that they could regain your respect by a significant, impressive, transformative saga of personal redemption, but it won’t happen by them failing in the relationship with LO and crawling back to you filled with self pity. Moral weakness is unappealing, even if it is forgivable.
Similarly, if the limerent has brazenly or publicly disrespected their spouse, that will always be a definitive blow to the relationship. Again, it’s possible to conceive of a redemption arc, but it would still never completely wipe the memory of being so fundamentally and intimately betrayed.
A reasonable complaint at this point is that any affair, by definition, is monstrously disrespectful. While that is true, most people do see a significant difference between someone having a secretive affair outside of a sexless or dysfunctional marriage, and someone openly pursuing a new partner like a lovesick puppy, while devaluing and degrading their spouse. Neither are admirable, but the first is less destructive to respect.
2. Red lines
Everyone has their own red lines about what constitutes betrayal in a relationship. The only red lines that matter are those of the non-limerent spouse. Seriously, how could you honestly argue “you should be OK with me being limerent for someone else and pursuing them”?
That said, red lines should be applied to behaviour, not thoughts. “No more social media contact” – as Harriet had as part of her ultimatum – is a clear red line. If you spend time glued to your screen engaging with her when you should be with me, you’ve crossed a line. In contrast, “I can tell you’re thinking about her, stop it!” is not a standard you could reasonably hold someone to.
Similarly, opinions differ on the severity of an emotional affair. Some people think a close friendship with another man or woman is automatically suspect, others are laissez-faire if nothing physical is happening.
When it comes to predicting the hope of a future beyond the limerence, the number of red lines crossed will be an important factor. If the past has been characterised by the limerent spouse making no effort to constrain themselves or respect the boundaries articulated by their partner, then the odds are low that trust could be recovered.
On that same theme, the mindset of the limerent does have an important bearing on the post-limerence outlook. If they are struggling with their feelings, trying to resist, expressing remorse for the pain they are causing, and generally in that dissonant state where their rational mind is trying to break through the addictive cravings, then there is cause for hope. Sometimes people do get caught up with manipulative, disordered LOs who cultivate their limerence and exploit their vulnerabilities. That can evolve to a position of “us against the problem” from which recovery is possible, rather than “pick me or her”.
In contrast, if the limerent is completely focused on their LO, makes a clear decision to pursue them at the expense of their spouse and family, and only comes back after the new relationship fails (or the limerent sparkles wear off) then there is little hope for reconciliation. It’s also more likely that the pattern will repeat in the future.
The final factor is what the betrayed spouse wants out of life. Normal human psychology is that fear of loss carries greater emotional weight than potential future gain. We naturally feel more anxious about going backwards than standing still. We want to secure and maintain the current status quo before we go off exploring for potential new prizes.
That means that the urge to recover a lost partner can be more powerful than the hope for finding a hypothetical new partner. In the longer term, though, the calculation is different. A better future may lie in establishing cordiality with the old partner, but seeking renewal through an alternative relationship with someone who hasn’t damaged your trust and respect.
Again, this is all about balancing. An otherwise happy and successful marriage, shaken by limerence but not irrevocably damaged, has a potentially purposeful future. In contrast, a marriage where respect has been lost, red lines have been crossed, and little contrition has been shown is probably not worth salvaging. It’s more purposeful to confront the pain of loss and push through it, than to hope for a miraculous reversal.
Given all those points, I have to admit that it is hard to see grounds for hope in Harriet’s case. Her husband occasionally seems to come to his senses – to have moments of clarity when he regrets his decisions – but the addiction reasserts itself quickly and he is unable or unwilling to keep promises. Now that the ultimatum has passed, trust and respect are badly damaged – maybe beyond repair.
A more purposeful response is to look for alternative futures, with new goals, new connections and new relationships, rather than hoping that a reversion to the old husband she used to esteem could happen. It’s a lot to forgive and forget, and even if that future might be possible, it will probably anyway need to be on the other side of a personal transformation in Harriet’s life. Her best bet is to plan for her own growth, her self-directed renewal to a better future, independently of whatever her inconstant husband eventually decides.
Possibly a gloomy conclusion from me, but I’ve always preferred unsentimental compassion to false hope.