From time to time, I hear from people who repeatedly become limerent for individuals who are unavailable, unreliable, or just generally have bad character. Their limerent objects are unhealthy to bond to.
The question why such troublesome people glimmer for the suffering limerent is likely to have a complex answer – a psychological stew cooked up from formative childhood bonding experiences, adolescent sexual awakenings, and adult relationships. There isn’t really a single “reason” for something so multilayered, instinctive and emotional, so it’s not something that can be understood rationally.
While I am generally positive about therapy to understand past traumas and the forces that have shaped us, I’m also cautious about how much practical benefit that knowledge has for helping us improve life in the present. We can’t change our personal history. We can’t fix the past. The best hope is that we can reconcile ourselves to the truth of our lives, and then find a positive new direction to follow.
Finding that new direction is no small matter. Almost all people seek love – romantic love – as a pillar of their life. It’s a fundamental drive that can’t be switched off, and shouldn’t be switched off, as it adds meaning to life, and roots from which a family might grow.
But for single limerents who fall for unhealthy LOs, how can they proceed? Therapy might help them understand what they are responding to in, say, an emotionally unavailable man, but what do they actually do they next time they meet one? They somehow need to resolve the conflict between limerent desire, and the bitter experience that such people ultimately cause more harm than good.
So, what can be done? How can the desire for romantic thrills be balanced against the danger of bonding to someone destructive?
Well, it all comes down to moderating animal instincts with hard-won wisdom.
1. The instinctive approach
Most people approach love in an intuitive way. They strike out into the world looking for adventure (or, at least, seeking social connection), and hope to meet someone who excites them. For limerents, this romantic excitement tends to manifest as the glimmer – that delightful frisson of unsettling energy that gives some people romantic potency.
If the excitement is mutual, then the dance begins, and might lead to consummation of desire, or it might lead to disappointment, rejection or limerence limbo.
If everything goes well, and a proper relationship starts, then… well… most people just sort of wing it. They keep following their instinctive scripts about how love should be, and try and fit that into their partner’s idea of how love should be, often without ever actually saying anything about their separate expectations.
This “love will conquer all if you just try hard enough” approach to relationships is quite a gamble. Maybe you will be compatible, maybe you’ll be able to figure out the rough edges, maybe you’ll learn how to communicate effectively before you begin to lose respect for one another, but it’s basically the luck of the draw.
Running this instinctive cycle a few times with bad outcomes is what usually leads people to realise that they become limerent for incompatible people.
2. The intellectual approach
When stung by experience a few times, it can be tempting to try the opposite approach to love. This can also be a mistake.
Some limerents swear off the exciting, glimmery people that press their buttons, figuring that the lows of limerent exhaustion aren’t worth the highs of intoxication. Instead, they use their executive brains to make sensible choices, and try dating someone who is stable, healthy and supportive.
Such people are good to bond to. The attachment will be stable (from their end, at least) and life can end up happier, healthier, and more fulfilling. Their love is warm and reliable; nourishing and encouraging.
…taking such a calculated approach to love can sometimes backfire. If it is taken as a impulsive response to a bad episode of limerence, you can find yourself sincerely and stably bonded to someone who doesn’t excite you enough, romantically or sexually, to sustain a mutually gratifying relationship.
Humans are restless. Companionable love is wonderful, but most limerents want it as an follow-on to the fireworks of infatuation. It’s one thing to lament that the thrill of limerence is now just a memory of the early days of your long-term relationship, it’s another to know – with a mix of regret and shame – that you never felt that for your partner at all.
If you end up in this situation because of a hasty reaction rather than deep reflection, that restlessness can nag at you and make you doubt your choice.
Stable love is always a good thing, but the route into it matters when it comes to the odds of it lasting.
3. A balanced approach
So, having helpfully ruled out following your limerent instincts and following your sensible thoughts, what’s left?
A bit of both.
The idea is that you use your rational brain – your executive centre that learns from past mistakes and spots patterns and dangers – to set guardrails along the edges of your romantic adventures.
Excitement is a core part of romantic love. Exhilaration, arousal, titillation, flirtation, risk-taking, surprise, intoxication – these are elemental experiences that enliven us. Monastic denial of such pleasures is rarely wise, unless the only people who provoke them for you are really bad news (the violent, abusive, disordered, or dysfunctional). But wild abandon is equally unwise – the emotional equivalent of throwing yourself into white water rapids for a thrill.
The sweet spot is setting boundaries that allow for excitement but protect against danger. Be open to the hunger for limerent excitement, but be cautious in indulging it.
The idea is to tweak your mindset:
Old thinking: feel the glimmer → this person is special and attractive → I want them
New thinking: feel the glimmer → this person is triggering my limerence → Should I indulge?
The choice to indulge is set by some key red flags that cause you to pull back and slow down. These will be personal, but some obvious choices are: if LO is married, if they are evasive or secretive, if they casually insult you, if they lie repeatedly, if they make you feel unsafe. There are lots of warning signs for dodgy LOs. Figure out your own and use them to fix some behavioural crash barriers.
These intellectual guardrails are an effective way to stop you idealising away serious problems. If someone hits the guardrails, take heed and cool off. If someone excites you, but stays within your guardrails, then go for it and get nice and hot.
4. Long-term love
All these arguments assume that the limerent is single and looking for a long-term, secure pair bond. There are of course other types of love, and other lifestyles that are fulfilling.
Assuming, though, that lasting love is the goal, there is one last step that is important. Even if you find someone who excites you, without exceeding your safety limits, it is likely that they will be following the instinctive model of love. The final part of the puzzle, therefore, is to do the work of developing good communication skills.
By working together to understand your real drives, desires, hopes, dreams, you can come to properly understand both yourself and each other. You may find out that idealisation was covering up incompatibilities, or, if you are really lucky, you may discover that you can help each other grow into the kind of people you each want to be.
Once you’ve navigated your way through the choppy waters of just enough excitement to the calmer waters of long-term bonding, it’s still important to keep that balance between instinct and wisdom poised in a state of creative tension.
It’s a one in a million shot to find someone that you can live with effortlessly – instead you can enjoy the satisfaction that comes from working together to build a good partnership.
Limerence will pass. Love will remain. By taking care on the way into limerence, you stand a better chance of passing through into a love that endures.