One of the challenges of taking an academic approach to studying limerence is that so much of the evidence about it comes from personal testimony. When Dorothy Tennov first proposed the concept of limerence, she defined it by analysing the unifying experiences of people who were suffering intense infatuation, and then formalising a list of symptoms that were indicative of the state. It was an exercise in pattern recognition.
The problem with this approach is that it is open to all the usual cognitive biases that make anecdotal reports the weakest form of evidence – self reports may be misleading, memories may be unreliable, confirmation bias may make people align their experiences with others, and different individuals can and do experience the same events in different ways.
This is not a criticism of Tennov. She consciously chose the approach she used as a social psychologist, because of the benefits that come from interacting with real people, behaving naturally, in the real world. She wanted to approach limerence like a ethologist studying human behaviour, not like an experimental psychologist designing interventional experiments in animals. It’s kind of a grim joke in the neuroscience field that we can basically cure Alzheimer’s disease in mice, just not in people. Experimental research is obviously powerful, but it doesn’t easily translate into meaningful outcomes for humans.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to try and understand limerence at all levels – from the neurotransmitter to an excruciatingly complex social interaction with a limerent object. But, for any individual limerent, it’s going to be very difficult to disentangle the experience of limerence as a general psychological phenomenon, from their own personal history.
Tennov argued that limerence is a distinct mental state, experienced similarly by many different people, across all cultures. Other commentators see limerence as a manifestation of personal childhood attachment experiences. While at first sight it might seem that those perspectives are incompatible, they can be reconciled. These positions highlight the same problem of taking different academic approaches to limerence. Some of the features of the phenomenon are universal, in the sense that all limerents experience them, but others will be more idiosyncratic and personal.
Most importantly, the drives that give rise to limerence are fundamental, but how we respond to the experience is personal.
Not everyone experiences limerence, but those that do report some highly consistent symptoms. The universal aspects of limerence are therefore likely to arise from the deep drives of human nature that we all share, regardless of culture, creed, or family of origin. Brain stuff, basically.
The neurochemistry of limerence lies in the deeply embedded neural systems for reward, arousal and bonding. Given life’s rich tapestry, there are of course people who have interesting quirks in the detailed operation of these systems, but they are an integral part of human physiology. We all have them, and they are evolutionarily ancient.
Limerence is a peculiarly unbalanced activation state for these systems. You could make a case that limerents are people who have a brain quirk that means they register a limerent object as a supernormal stimulus, that drives these systems into a state of hyperactivity – a sort of instability in the normal regulation of reward. The outcome, in terms of reward seeking and habitual behaviour, is completely predictable from the way that these neural systems operate. Limerence shares many of the key characteristics of other behavioural addictions. We behave like LO junkies.
Similarly, the experience of “the glimmer” – that uncanny excitement at identifying a person who can trigger limerent excitement within us – comes from the neuroscience of arousal. The spark of recognition, the frisson of intoxicating attraction, is stirred by common subcortical systems that we all share.
The universal aspects of limerence will arise from these fundamental neural systems being nudged – or barged – into a state of hyperactivity that results in the commonly described physical and emotional symptoms of limerence.
In that sense, we are all the same.
The core neurological symptoms of limerence will be universal – the intoxicating excitement, the craving for reciprocation, the extraordinary potency of the desire to bond, the anxiety when uncertainty is strong – but how we react and respond to those drives and impulses that bubble up from our subconscious will be more variable. That’s when our individual personalities begin to assert themselves.
Despite the inevitable divergence in the nature of the limerent experience, there will still be some common responses to the sensations generated by our neurochemistry. When we read or listen to other people’s limerence stories, we often get a reassuring (or mortifying) moment of personal recognition. Perhaps we’ve also embarrassed ourselves in front of a co-worker, had the same awful experience with a narcissist LO leading us on, or similarly lain awake in a marital bed consumed by conflicting desire and shame.
It’s funny to realise that – despite our uniqueness – many of us make the same mistakes, tell ourselves the same stories, fall for the same types of LO, and wrestle with the same moral quandaries. One of the biggest blessings of a community like LwL is finding this common ground, relating to other people going through the same trials, and understanding ourselves a bit better by empathising with others.
This sort of “mid range” limerent experience is a grey zone, where many people will react to the onset of limerence in a similar way, and take fairly predictable action based on the eruption of those limerent urges. The details will differ, but the broad experiences are common to many limerents.
Finally, the highest level of analysis for limerence is the most variable and most personal. These are the aspects of the limerence experience that differ widely depending on our own personal history.
The most obvious example here is the kind of people that we feel the glimmer for – the idiosyncratic combination of factors that determine who become our “limerence avatars” . The glimmer may feel the same for everyone, but the kind of person that kindles it will not.
This is also the domain in which childhood attachment issues will most obviously manifest. I’ve previously expressed scepticism about attachment issues causing limerence, principally because people with all attachment styles can experience it. Again, this makes sense in terms of the universality of the neural systems that can be driven into a state of person addiction. However, limerents who do have unstable attachments – either anxious or avoidant – will react to limerence in different ways to people with stable attachments.
If you look at the list of symptoms of limerence, many of them have overlap with anxious or avoidant behaviours. It’s therefore likely that people with anxious attachments will feel these symptoms more often or more powerfully, than non-anxious limerents:
- An acute need for reciprocation of equally strong feeling.
- Intensification of feelings by adversity.
- Exaggerated dependency of mood on LO’s actions: elation when sensing reciprocation, devastation when sensing disinterest.
- An aching sensation in “the heart” when uncertainty is strong.
Similarly, for avoidant limerents, those “classical” symptoms of limerence are likely to be less common or less intense.
All limerents will feel anxiety if a previously flirty limerent object is losing romantic interest in them. For limerents with stable attachments this kind of scenario will cause intense discomfort, and attempts to reignite a more intimate connection. For anxious limerents, such an experience would trigger a much more severe emotional reaction. The loss of limerent reward will be coupled to abandonment anxieties, amplifying the impact.
These are the areas of human behaviour which are most variable and unpredictable. Our personal histories shape our expectations of what love should feel like, the kinds of people that excite and unsettle us, the crazy ways we come up with to suppress or overreact to limerent urges – the way that limerence energy transmutes into choices and behaviour will be more personal and individual.
Limerence is universal in its foundations, but highly personal in its details.
Our brains may have an engine for limerence built in, but where we decide to drive is up to us.