Limerence is sometimes described as false love. This argument is built on the premise that limerence is largely selfish (in the literal sense of being focussed on your own feelings and needs), is frequently jealous, can involve subterfuge or misrepresentation in attempts to impress LO, and involves involuntary and exaggerated disruption of emotional stability. This is contrasted unfavourably with “true love”, which is selfless, free of jealousy, honest and nurturing and stable.
True love in this context is what I’ll call “affectional bonding”, and my argument is that this is no more “true” than limerence – it’s just a later stage of the progression of romantic love. In fact, I would go further, and say that feelings of affectional bonding cannot sincerely develop until a long period of deep intimacy between two individuals has been experienced. In this context, “true love” would be just as delusional and false as limerence in the early stages of a relationship. It may seem like sophistry, or contrariness, but I honestly mean it: if in the time scale of a typical period of limerence (a few months to maybe a few years), you are developing deep feelings of selfless unconditional love for your partner, your bonding is as distorted as any limerent’s. The criticism of limerence as false love on the basis that it isn’t as good and healthy as a form of bonding that should only develop from years of authentic intimacy and trust, is misguided at best. It’s like arguing that a flower is a false fruit, because it has different features, is not as juicy and nourishing, and cannot yield seeds to grow new plants. It’s a category error. Flowers aren’t fruit, but they can become them – or they can wither, unfertilized.
Limerence, it seems to me, is the first flowering of romantic love. It’s the drive to form a bond. It’s the compulsion to gain intimacy with someone at the exclusion of others, and try and find out whether the flower will be fruitful. Certainly, to an outsider, it seems false, in the sense that it is an overreaction (just as we can look at some over-abundant flowers and think, “Hmm. Bit vulgar!”). The LO simply isn’t as impressive in objective terms as the limerent projects. The basis of limerence is not a considered and balanced appraisal of strengths and weakness. It doesn’t assess fitness and compatibility on the same basis as affectional bonding: there hasn’t been time, and there is a lot of urgency to secure consummation. What it does do is powerfully initiate a genuine desire for pair bonding. Priority one: get mated. Whether or not the bond lasts, grows stronger, and matures into a lasting union that is fruitful in every sense of the word, is a secondary concern. So, an exuberant flowering of limerence as a prelude to affectional bonding is just as “true” as a quietly developing bond between friends that settles into domestic bliss.
Where things get complicated is in cases where the flower is obviously infertile. No hope of fruit, no chance of maturing into something lasting – just a brief burst of colour that fades and dies. This, I think, is where limerence gets its “false love” reputation. An exaggerated and irresistible desire for an unsuitable partner. Limerence directed at someone incapable of affectional bonding. Limerence as a consequence of the uncertain bond to an unreliable LO. That is when things go toxic, and the limerent feels desperate, unable to stabilise their emotions or stop the persistent urge to be with someone that is bad for them. Unfruitful limerence is certainly the nearest I have ever come to understanding addiction: that awful sense of realising that continuing to seek the LO’s company is not sensible or useful or productive or wise, but you know you are going to keep doing it anyway. That weird contradiction where you realise that you can’t stop, but you’re happy you can’t stop because that means you’ll get more of it. I don’t pretend to be an expert on addiction, but the only way to break the habit seems to be reaching the point where the high has faded to almost nothing, and the suffering has intensified to unbearable levels, and you finally find the will to stop. Unless you don’t start in the first place.
Ulitmately, limerence is a blessing/curse that many of us have as an inherent trait. So, for the limerent, to denigrate the initial phase of bonding as false love seems counterproductive. It might end up false, in the sense that it might not lead to true affectional bonding, but it might also be true in that it is a glorious prelude to a lasting healthy bond, the foundation of which is a memory of unrivaled bliss. The difficulty is in predicting which is the likelier. In the case of limerents that had deeply disordered attachments in childhood, and become limerent for similarly disordered adults, the prospects are grim. If you find yourself serially limerent for dysfunctional partners, then a period of self-examination and avoidance of LOs is highly advisable.
Is it possible to rewire our own limerence circuits to respond to new sensory-cues – to feel the glimmer for someone more suitable? Don’t know. It won’t be easy, though, given how deeply ingrained these patterns are. But what can be done is to try and overlay the glimmer in the early stages after it is sensed, with a rational map of the LO. Do they behave like a bastard? Then they are probably a bastard. Do they love-bomb early on, in an indiscriminate way? Then they are probably not sincere. Do they have opinions or habits or attitudes that are at odds with my beliefs? Then they are not suitable, even if I really want to save them from their errors through the mighty will of my undying love. These sorts of mental checks and balances can guide you away from the LOs to avoid, and towards matches that might prove more fruitful in time.
Surprising that no-one has commented on this post yet, but I’m with you on this one Dr. L! Thanks again for a great resource.
I think Limerence is based largely on fantasy, and since fantasies aren’t real, neither is the ‘love’ or the ‘LO’ as we are attributing things that may not be there, and overlooking things that are. However, I think this is what pretty much everyone does when they fall in love, they are projecting all over the place and hopefully that leads to a fruitful bond. I loved your take in Unfruitful Limerence: “Unfruitful limerence is certainly the nearest I have ever come to understanding addiction: that awful sense of realizing that continuing to seek the LO’s company is not sensible or useful or productive or wise, but you know you are going to keep doing it anyway.” Kind of a litmus test for viewing unfruitful limerence. Thanks for the wisdom!
I’m surprised too about the relative dearth on comments on this article, because certain lines really spoke to me:
“Limerence is sometimes described as false love. This argument is built on the premise that limerence is largely selfish … is frequently jealous, can involve subterfuge or misrepresentation in attempts to impress LO, and involves involuntary and exaggerated disruption of emotional stability.”
I think the idea that limerence is counterfeit love is a religious (Christian) point of view, and it comes from comparing limerence-based relationships to some cultural ideal of what relationships (usually marriage) should be. I’m not Catholic, but I once read a Catholic writer who said relationships that produce feelings of euphoria aren’t normal. (He was discussing homosexuality).
And, statistically speaking, maybe euphoria-producing bonds aren’t the norm. Plenty of folk don’t ever experience euphoria from a mate or a potential mate. However, I hope theology will one day be tweaked to acknowledge the reality of limerence as a biological phenomenon. Limerence is very hard to moralise about, though, because it’s so paradoxical and mostly unconscious. And all the ethical dilemmas involved might be a headache for the Church/upholders of tradition.
I definitely agree limerence disrupts emotional stability, however. Not sure about the deceit and jealousy part (unless I’m in some kind of deep denial?) I think some people really try hard to be better people to be worthy of their LOs. (The old “love ennobles the heart” trope). On the other hand, limerence is funny in that the heightened levels of shyness/anxiety involved may inhibit intimacy!
“What it does do is powerfully initiate a genuine desire for pair bonding. Priority one: get mated. Whether or not the bond lasts, grows stronger, and matures into a lasting union that is fruitful in every sense of the word, is a secondary concern.”
Yeah, I can see how this aspect of limerence can lead to people having regrets down the road. Limerence can inspire one to jump in without looking. If one has wasted the better part of one’s youth, for example, on “unfruitful limerence”, then one can’t get that time back. The fact that bond doesn’t mature may lead to bitterness, a pungent feeling that one has been cheated, either by LO and/or by the universe. (I wonder – is this how some folk can end up with a victim mentality?)
“This, I think, is where limerence gets its “false love” reputation. An exaggerated and irresistible desire for an unsuitable partner.”
Another potential source of regret. And not knowing why this person (LO) seems to exercise a weird power over one. (Are they a magician? A monster? What is going on? Why can’t I break the spell of enchantment at will?)
Also, people might think stormy, drama-filled relationships are the only kind of relationships possible (verses affectionate bonding) if that’s all they’ve seen in their family tree. People might assume that “intense emotion” and “love” are one and the same. They might become quite dismissive of quieter unions.
“The only way to break the habit seems to be reaching the point where the high has faded to almost nothing, and the suffering has intensified to unbearable levels, and you finally find the will to stop. Unless you don’t start in the first place.”
Yes and yes again. It was only when the high faded to almost nothing that I could start thinking about limerence as a biological thing that happens inside people’s brains. Limerent reverie cuts us off from the outside world. We become islands. My suffering reached “unbearable levels”, but still I wanted to think about LO. Not starting in the first place – beginning to think this is a good approach!
S.J. Kim says
Hi, I’m just some 30 something year old guy who has been struggling with an intense crush on a colleague in ways that I never felt towards anyone. Having spent most of my teenage and 20s bookishly buried in my studies and researches (I’m a currently a humanities PhD candidate), I’ve been struggling greatly with my emotions which admittedly have gotten obsessive, and probably unhealthy for me.
However, I still did not do anything from social media-stalking to bothering the person or stirring the pot of shared friendships and workplace relations that has solicited negative reaction from any of our shared friends or social groups. Not to compliment myself, but if anything, I have been striving to be a more socially pleasant person to be around within her presence despite struggling with depression and anxiety issues typical for someone in my stage of professional training.
Then I recently found out about this concept of “limerence.” It had made me awful because the kind of explanations and short, probably click-baity articles I found online made it sound as whatever I’m going through are just my own mental sickness, product of me being an unhealthy person. All other explanations I have found until your blog and articles seemed to suggest that emotional reactions to “true love” is supposed to be just happy, feel good, makes me feel awesome about myself-I was given the impression that merely because my primary emotional response to having crush on her was more suffering-based, somehow my feelings weren’t even real; it’s probably just a product of me eating too much ramen.
Then by pure chance and luck, I ran across your articles and blog telling me that “The criticism of limerence as false love on the basis that it isn’t as good and healthy as a form of bonding that should only develop from years of authentic intimacy and trust, is misguided at best.” Thank you, although I have no idea who you are, and have zero knowledge of psychology nor human emotions as a subject of therapeutic studies, this made me feel much better about things.
While it’s been a struggle to manage and control my feelings towards my LO healthy ways already, hearing these random venues tell me that my feelings aren’t even real since I don’t even know how to handle my emotions gracefully based on the past decade of having been too busy to work for my degrees felt awful. To the extent I felt that I was getting mocked and ridiculed by people who had written those articles that, “ha, some penniless increasingly less youthful nerd like you suddenly trying to have feelings for someone is mental sickness indeed.” And these writings almost seemed to suggest that “limerence” is not “real love” almost as if because “real love” is only supposed to cause positive emotional responses. Although I’m getting my PhD in medieval history, not human psychology, that felt too stupid, and frankly, catering to a certain kind of narrative fashionable in a neoliberal culture of pathologization to be true.
Writings on this blog has given me much better on the state of my mental health and feelings. I’ll admit that given my inexperience with romantic feelings and relations, what I have been feeling towards my LO is probably far closer to this concept called “limerence” than any genuine “true love”, insofar as one can even make strict distinctions. However, I am putting up the best of my struggle to protect my own integrity, be realistic, respectful, and giving to the person of my desire, and not let these emotions consume me or anyone in negative consequences. Within that, I’m grateful to your writing for allowing me to better understand my feelings rather than making me feel worse for being stressed out about this situation in the first place. All other writings at least available on seemingly less-than-rigorous venues really seemed to suggest as if after 20 years of living as a degree-pursuing robot having spent all my 20s in college library, I should rightfully be self-disgusted at even having feelings for someone else, then getting stressed out about it.
Hi S.J. Kim,
The feelings you have are normal and healthy. If the girl is available, it’s okay for you to explore your feelings. Be nice to her. Pay attention to her. Respect her. See if she reciprocates. Stop overthinking it and enjoy life. Romance is awesome! Go get it.
Lost in Space says
Welcome S.J Kim! This site has been an amazing discovery for me as well, and I’m glad you found it and I hope that it helps you as much as it’s helping me
My first question would be whether there are any true barriers to you actually pursuing a relationship with LO? It sounds like you are single. Are they single as well? Are there any ironclad workplace rules against dating colleagues? Or are you holding back primarily out of a fear of rejection and/or rocking the boat amongst your social circle?