A major development in the understanding of human relationships took place in the last few decades of the 20th century. “Attachment theory” originated from the study of child-caregiver interactions and the ways that the behaviour of the caregiver influenced the developing psychology of the child. In the 1980s the field expanded into adult relationships, including romantic attachments. Nowadays, a lot of the “talking therapies” centre around developing an understanding of the attachment types of the patient (and their partners), and working to identify formative childhood experiences that may have steered an individual towards their adult patterns of attachment and bonding. This is a big part of why FOO (family of origin) issues dominate many discussions of people struggling with romantic love.
There is no doubt that attachment theory has been enormously influential in psychological and therapeutic circles, as well as helping many people understand themselves and their drives more deeply. Given the focus of this blog, an obvious question is: can limerence be understood within this explanatory framework? Are certain attachment types more likely to experience limerence? Are other types more likely to be non-limerent? Let’s try and find out!
For those interested in this weighty and detailed topic, the wikipedia article is a good starting point. There are also lots of online tests to find out what your own attachment style is (this is a good one), but most people quickly recognise themselves in the basic descriptions:
These attachments are characterised by stable, lasting relationships. Secure attachment types tend to have good self-esteem and a good opinion of others, and expect that partners will respond in a positive, supportive way to their distress or expression of emotional need. They are able to express their own emotions openly.
These folks are insecure in their attachments, worry that partners may abandon them or respond negatively to their distress, and are emotionally distraught when relationships end. They can be possessive, and seek a “fantasy bond” rather than a balanced, mutually supportive attachment. Low self-esteem is often the underlying issue that results in this attachment style.
This style is characterised by volatility, and a disruptive approach to attachment. People with this style can seek emotional comfort, but then react badly and feel stifled when it is offered. There tends to be a swing between neediness and coldness. A need for intimacy, but a fear of it. This is thought to reflect disordered bonding in childhood.
These are the emotionally aloof people. They are adept at shutting down emotionally, and use this as a strategy to protect themselves from pain. As the name suggests, they are dismissive of the importance of intimate relationships, and take pride in self-sufficiency and independence. They neither seek nor give support to their partners.
This model is useful, but, of course, an oversimplification. Any one individual can have different attachment styles to different people in their lives, attachment styles can change, and there is obviously a grey area at the boundary of the four broad types. A nice way of understanding this is to think of a foundation type that is the kind of default approach to relationships (how you are likely to act in the early stages of a new relationship), which is built on in specific cases by a mental model that becomes more specific as you get to know a person better. Everyone has a default mental model that is modified by experience.
Limerence and attachment
From the basic descriptions above, the obvious, easy hypothesis that jumps out is that anxious-preoccupied attachment maps to limerence. The obsessive thoughts, the central role of uncertainty, the desperate need for reciprocation – they all point to someone with an insecure attachment and excessive need for validation. So, case closed?
A problem with this simple association is that limerence is not a feature of all of the relationships that a limerent forms. In fact, for most limerents, LOs are a minority of the people that they bond with. Plenty of limerents have secure (or avoidant) bonds to other people in their lives – family, friends, SOs – that are not characterised by the symptoms of limerence. It seems that the “limerent-bond” attachment style is unique to only LOs. Limerents do not generally, necessarily, exhibit anxious attachments – only a subset of people in their lives trigger them.
Another confounding factor is that limerence is transient. Once the initial mania has passed, attachment style is likely to revert to type. Longer-term bonding is likely to follow the foundation style, not the initial limerent style. People can be besotted, but then relax back to a secure or avoidant attachment style.
Another issue is that the different attachment styles of LOs will exacerbate or neutralise limerence symptoms. If anxious-preoccupied are more prone to limerence, then fearful-avoidant types are the perfect LOs – unpredictable, emotionally hot-and-cold, variably available or unattainable. In contrast, becoming limerent for a secure LO would seem the likeliest route to short-lived limerence, as uncertainty would be minimised in a relationship with someone who is comfortable expressing their emotions honestly.
Finally, the attachment style of the limerent will also determine their ability to moderate their behaviour in response to the symptoms of limerence. If self-esteem and secure attachment are solid, then the ability to mentally and emotionally detach from an unstable LO is enhanced.
So, what I think at this early stage of investigation is that limerence makes us all a little anxious-preoccupied for a specific person for a certain period of time, but the default style of attachment is reinstated once limerence expires. If a limerent is inherently anxious-preoccupied they are likely to suffer the worst, but a secure or dismissive-avoidant style helps with managing unwelcome limerence.
There is a huge literature on attachment out there, so this is only scratching the surface. Plenty more to explore.