One of the unanswered questions that keeps me occupied in my ongoing investigation of limerence also comes up surprisingly often in my mailbox:
Is limerence a specific condition, or is there a spectrum of limerence?
In one case, limerence would be the altered mental state defined by Tennov, and you are either in limerence or not in limerence at any given time in life. As she put it “either the algorithm is operational, or it is not”. This would be limerence as a binary state that is either on or off.
The alternative case is that limerence is just an intense form of a more universal emotional phenomenon. This obviously has some merit because most people have some experience of feeling romantic infatuation, even those who do not relate to the concept of limerence and are sceptical of its existence. The reaction of most “non-limerents” to Tennov’s criteria is to recognise and relate to some of the symptoms, but have difficulty believing they could become an overwhelmingly disruptive force in life.
So, is limerence a real “thing” or is it just a term applied to people who struggle to manage more intense than average romantic feelings?
This sort of issue plagues the field of social psychology. Humans have a tendency to take a phenomenon that exists on a spectrum, draw an arbitrary threshold, and split people into categories based on whether they are above or below the threshold. When does stress become mental illness? When does cleverness become genius? When does sensitivity to arousal make one Highly Sensitive? When does enjoying gambling become a behavioural addiction?
Now, to an extent, this is all academic. There is value in identifying the top few percent of the population on any given personality or emotional trait and classifying them as a special case. Being at the tail end of a bell-shaped curve does make you unusual, after all. For those familiar with Elaine Aron’s concept of the Highly Sensitive Person she is completely upfront about this being her approach. Everyone finds the world arousing, but the top 15-20% most sensitive people will have a different experience to other people and so need to understand their vulnerability (and/or gift) to be able to thrive.
In other cases, though, it does matter if there is a distinct category difference.
Many people enjoy a drink, and the feeling of intoxication that alcohol causes. Desire for alcohol exists on a spectrum, with some who hate the stuff and others who drink daily, but there is good evidence that alcoholics aren’t simply the top 5% of a bell-shaped curve. There is a physiological basis to their addiction (gene mutations for some neurotransmitter receptors and metabolic enzymes cause alcoholics to have a heightened reward response to alcohol). Physiology is not the whole story – environment is just as important in promoting addiction – but the point is that for alcoholism there are additional factors in play beyond ordinary variation in taste or willpower. Alcoholics can rightly be considered a separate class from non-alcoholics.
So where does limerence fit into this binary versus spectrum debate? Well, social psychologists have developed a range of tools over the years for quantifying love, and trying to put a number on how “in love” people are. This field is of course bedevilled by the problem of what love is but, in terms of limerence, the most relevant test is probably the Passionate Love scale developed by Elaine Hatfield and colleagues. This questionnaire asks people to rate their agreement with various indicators for passionate love feelings (as distinct from companionate love), and serves as a pretty decent list of the symptoms for what we call limerence.
The passionate love scale has been tested across many cultures and many demographic groups and the results suggest that passionate love is a human universal. I’ve struggled to track down the original data, but the average (mean) score on a scale of 0 to 9 is around a 7 (note that a confounding factor is that the test is often applied to people who have self-reported being “in love”). As with my own analysis of the LwL-refined limerence survey there is likely to be a wide range in the scores reported by individuals, but a key question is whether the distribution of these scores is a simple “normal” bell-shaped curve or if there is more complexity to the distribution. I can’t answer this for the passionate love scale, but for my own data it does look like a normal distribution, albeit with a decided skew towards higher scores:
There’s more than one way to interpret these data. The first is that it shows there is variation in the intensity of limerent feelings among self-selecting people who have taken this survey.
Another way to interpret it is that as a blend of results from a majority limerent people (who score higher) and a minority of non-limerent people (who score lower). For the latter case, you’d probably predict a binomial distribution (the sum of two bell-shaped curves), but a significant problem for interpretation of the data is that the survey is anonymous so we have no idea what the individual circumstances of the participants are (I set it up as a tool to help people understand their own situation, not a formal research project).
So what does all this add up to? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the contribution from non-limerents to the data is minimal, and dwarfed by the large preponderance of limerents seeking help. For these people there is clearly a spectrum of intensity in their symptoms, varying around an average score of 70-75%.
However, the self-selecting nature of this survey still has the same issue that comes up for the passionate love scale: people from all cultural backgrounds distinguish being “in love” from loving someone. We love friends and family, but are usually “in love” with a romantic, sexual partner for a definable period of time at the beginning of a relationship. It’s recognisable as a distinct mental state that isn’t like ordinary life.
Limerents then, are people who score very highly on these psychometric scales of infatuation when they fall “in love”. They skew so powerfully towards the maximum intensity of feeling that their mental state when in love is usefully distinguished as “limerence”.
In other words, the state of being in limerence is binary, but the intensity of limerent feelings is a spectrum.