A couple of years ago, I read the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. For those unfamiliar, it introduces the concept of Moral Foundations Theory, which emerged from Haidt’s research into the origins of morality. It argues that there are five (maybe six) key pillars to what might be termed evolved morality, and that this is a “first draft” of ethics that is built into human beings at a fundamental level. That first draft is then revised as we develop in a complex social environment.
I’ve been thinking about it again lately, as I recently came across a counter theory based on the importance to moral philosophy of Mind Perception, which argues for a simpler model where any transgression is a conflict between intentional agent (an oppressor) and suffering patient (a victim). This “dyadic” framework rejects the pluralist view of morality.
Given how central morality is to the emotional impact and practical management of limerence (I may have mentioned it a few times already), it struck me how useful it is to analyse these ideas to better understand yourself and the people that you share the world with. It’s valuable for making sense of the experience of limerence, but also for planning a purposeful future.
Bluntly, if you aren’t aware of your own moral blind spots it will be hard to understand your own drives, find fulfilling work, and live harmoniously with others.
Let’s do some delving.
The Foundations of Morality
The developers of moral foundation theory argue that there are six pillars to intuitive ethics:
If you are curious about your own moral framework, you can take a test online.
Haidt’s work has had most impact by highlighting that the relative weighting of the six foundations varies dramatically with political alignment. Political liberals prioritise the Care and Fairness foundations and view the other foundations as trivial, or even morally suspect. Political conservatives consider all six foundations to be important.
The counterargument of the “mind perception” theory is that only the first pillar (care/harm) has validity. The remaining pillars are either derivatives of the first, or not components of intrinsic morality at all. From this perspective, causing intentional harm is the basis of all immoral acts – everything else is socially constructed. I’m guessing that Haidt would consider this an attempt to formalise “liberal morality” as universal morality.
How people make moral judgements
This academic argument about the basis of morality mirrors the political polarisation of US society, and I think it has extraordinary explanatory power.
For someone with a highly liberal disposition, only the first two foundations matter. Ideas about in-group loyalty, duty to country, sinning against God’s law, chastity, and deference to authority are not only irrelevant to morality, they are hazardous. (Purity is a bit less clear, as liberals do have moral concerns about contamination of food and the environment, but far less so about carnal acts).
For someone with a highly conservative disposition, all the foundations matter. While they do value care/harm as a guiding principle, they also value loyalty, duty, faith, and self-control (especially sexual). When it comes to fairness, they tend to see it more as a question of proportionality than simple equality.
Haidt illustrates this difference in moral foundations with the thought experiment of committing an act that is “impure” but in which no one is harmed. He gives the emotionally shocking example of someone using the body of a dead family pet to sexually gratify themselves. They didn’t kill the animal, they dispose of the body responsibly afterwards, and no one witnesses or even knows about the act.
People generally have a strong emotional response to the scenario (which obviously triggers feelings of disgust and contamination), but it takes some cognitive effort to explain their objections on the basis of formal ethics, rather than moral intuition.
In general, very liberal people find the act nauseating but not explicitly immoral, as it leads to no suffering or unfairness. In contrast, conservatives strongly condemn the act, on the basis that it reveals appalling spiritual corruption. That someone cannot restrain themselves from indulging such a gross perversion of the sexual impulse shows they lack decency, temperance, and respect for sanctity.
Once you understand the roots of these moral differences, it becomes a lot easier to understand how good people can disagree so vociferously – not least because they are operating on different definitions of “good”. I’m not interested in debating whose moral foundations are correct – the internet proves how unproductive that is – so let’s just agree that both sides have merit.
As if these differences in worldview were not challenging enough, they are often worsened by the very human tendency to take moral shortcuts.
Conservatives frequently take the shortcut of deferring to faith or tradition as a moral rulebook, rather than wrestling with the complexities themselves. From a liberal perspective, this outsourcing of moral authority is dangerous, because it can be exploited by bad actors. A clear example of this attitude is a popular quote in atheist communities, from Steven Weinberg:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Setting aside the fact that it shows a surprising lack of imagination (as if good people haven’t done evil through ignorance, delusion, coercion, desperation, or plain stupidity), it does capture the idea that blindly following authority can lead to great harm.
Equally, from a conservative perspective, the liberal failure to consider all six moral foundations is just as reckless. An example would be judicial leniency towards violent criminals (on the basis of compassion and concerns about inequality), releasing them to create public disorder, threaten community safety, and prey on more innocent victims.
Each side sees the other as morally negligent, and they’ve both got a point. Their moral shortcuts, while convenient, overlook the complexities of social life.
Limerence and moral judgements
OK, so all this rumination about how people see the world is interesting and all, but is it useful? Can this knowledge help us make better decisions about love, limerence and purposeful living?
The first benefit of moral reflection is understanding yourself better. What moral framework are you operating from, and how does that influence your sense-making when it comes to limerence? Inevitably, your attitudes when falling into limerence will be shaped by your ethical beliefs – most obviously when it is limerence for an unavailable LO, or if you are already committed to someone else.
If you strongly favour the care/harm model, then you will see limerence largely from the perspective of the dynamics between the people involved. When it comes to fantasising about intimacy with LO, testing the boundaries of propriety, or entertaining an emotional or physical affair, your moral intuition will focus on who is suffering most. Your thoughts are likely to be occupied by questions about whose feelings should be prioritised, whose desires are justified, who has power over whom, and what loyalty means when a relationship is in difficulty.
In contrast, if you have more a pluralist moral foundation, you will also look at limerence in terms of duty, responsibility, fidelity, and sin. That would mean shame and obligation become important factors in how you think and feel about yourself and the situation. While that might seem like a positive influence in keeping you “honest” it can also be a negative if it keeps you bound to a toxic relationship.
The second major consideration is how a significant other (SO) would interpret the morality of limerence. If you are in a committed relationship, your SO may be operating from a different moral framework than you. This could be a cause of friction in the relationship anyway, but if you are limerent for someone else, it will become very obvious.
If they see loyalty as essential (regardless of the quality of the relationship) and you do not, then conflict is inevitable. They may consider even covetous thoughts as being a personal betrayal, and sinful. If you do not, then it will be hard to make progress in negotiating the future.
Understanding your own moral framework, understanding your SO’s moral framework, and then respecting each other’s beliefs as valid (and motivated by a desire to be good), will diffuse a huge amount of the tension. You will be able to predict differences of opinion, emotional flashpoints, and moral provocations.
You may discover irreconcilable differences, but at least you will not be arguing from a position of ignorance about each others motives.
The final benefit of understanding the moral frameworks of yourself and the people around you, is that it helps in planning for a purposeful life. Most obviously, understanding yourself will allow you to better predict the jobs or activities that you will find most fulfilling. Less obviously, understanding how your morals compare to others can help you find your blind spots.
It’s an interesting exercise to reflect on how your moral foundations were formed. To give a personal example, before I had learned about Moral Foundations Theory, I struggled to understand conservative thinking. How could anyone be so laid back about inequality? Surely, they must be motivated by selfishness (as my liberal tribe claimed)? It wasn’t until I started to understand the moral foundations that I lacked that I realised the subtleties of “fairness”.
Equality and proportionality are both expressions of fairness. One comes from a perspective of compassion (rich people should share their wealth with poor people), the other from a perspective of responsibility (people who work hard should not be forced to support people who don’t). If I’m honest, my previous beliefs about equality emerged from the moral shortcut of sorting rich and poor into the intentional agent and suffering patient categories of “mind perception” theory. I now understand conservative people better.
All this adds up to a more expansive perspective on the social world. When you realise the breadth of moral thinking, it makes it easier to find compromises, seek common cause, and engage constructively with people who are different from you. That’s important, because most purposeful work requires cooperation.
Communities are essential to success, and are composed of complicated people with different temperaments. Effective cooperation with different people means that even if you can’t agree, you can at least disagree in a good faith, without giving in to resentment or hate.
And that can help you get a lot more good done.
To give a perspective before I get into it, the pet was dead no harm no foul (don’t really want to know that person though), if I earned it I should keep it, I gave $20 of food to a gal that was “living” in front of the 7-11 I go to in the morning before work one day. She was gone the next day.
Doc it is like this post is for me. I have an enormous amount of guilt and shame over my limerence and LO. Due to circumstances I have posted about it I disclosed to my wife about my limerence. She has been less than understanding. In her eyes, as Jesus said, “I tell you that a man that looks at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery in his heart” (or something to that affect) is what I have done.
Morality has divided us on this aspect of our marriage. I have wronged her deeply, to the core of our marriage. I am struggling to understand, deal and forgive myself of my limerence. Let alone even begin to try and make amends to my wife for my transgressions against her. Every intrusive thought of LO is followed by an immediate thought of guilt. I am trying to take your route of purposeful living to counter these.
I thank you so much for this site and this community. In the month since I discovered this site and these people it has helped me understand something I have been feeling for over a year and not understanding as well as give me the courage to try and explain what my wife thinks is a EA or PA as to what it really is in hopes to repair the damage that I have done. I can not thank you and the posters here enough. The help that you have provided is immeasurable and may very well be what saves my marriage.
Allie 1 says
On the survey I was pretty much 100% on “caring” and 0% on “purity”. No surprises there then.
One of the key messages for me is that having a similar moral foundation to your partner is pretty important, especially if you are wedded to your viewpoint.
I’m afraid I am not quite following the argument about conservatism though… “Equality and proportionality are both expressions of fairness. One comes from a perspective of compassion (rich people should share their wealth with poor people), the other from a perspective of responsibility (people who work hard should not be forced to support people who don’t).”
Because of course rich people work so much harder than poor people… (???)
Allie! I actually found an old comment thread from you, Marcia and Eros (see here:https://livingwithlimerence.com/on-not-knowing-what-you-want/#comment-17623) that deeply resonated and would love an update on your situation, given its parallels with mine. We need a depository somewhere of everyone’s stories so we can keep track of progress!
(Sorry to thread-hijack, DrL – feel free to respond in my comment in the linked post above, Allie).
Allie 1 says
Thanks TP… just re-read the thread… it was a good discussion wasn’t it, much honesty from all three.
I can’t believe that was over 2 years ago. My situation is unchanged really. I am living a purposeful life but I still love LO and am still limerent (4+ years now). Nothing has happened, no disclosure, we still work together successfully and happily. There is a very gradual LE fade-out as the realisation that nothing will ever happen becomes more frequent yet at the same time less painful. It amazes me how such an obvious reality fails to penetrate my psyche so much of the time, how I manage to cling on to the faintest whisper of hope of *something*. I guess I just don’t want to let go of the idea of an “us”. I guess this will end when he eventually retires (sob!). I am a idiot.
Wow. 4+ years in limerent limbo. And no disclosure either way. Kudos to you both for your self-discipline and purpose, and for being able to work together successfully. I hope the intensity of the LE can fade for me in a similar way i.e., acceptance rather than resentment (of how I was treated) and frustration at the situation. I think non-disclosure is potentially key to that and again I take my hat off to you. I just couldn’t bear the sexual tension and the uncertainty any longer. If only I’d found this blog sooner…
Many thanks for the update.
“On the survey I was pretty much 100% on “caring” and 0% on “purity”. No surprises there then.”
That’s an interesting result, Allie. I must say, though, that your empathy or caring nature does shine through in some of your posts. For example, I have found it easier to accept certain feelings I was feeling after reading something empathic you composed! 😆
I think men are stereotypically more rules-focused i.e. aligned with conservative values and women are stereotypically more caring i.e. aligned with liberal values. I don’t know if this is a gender divide or a sexual divide i.e. I don’t know whether such differences are learnt or innate. 🤔
Men can become so preoccupied with the rules that they forget about compassion or differing abilities e.g. a student with learning disabilities won’t find achievement as easy as a student without learning disabilities. Although people talk about the “tyranny of low expectations” for society’s disenfranchised…
Women, on the other hand, can become so preoccupied with caring that they don’t understand why the menfolk are so hung up on rules! (I think rules were ideally invented to keep things fair in small communities, but inequalities inevitably creep into even the fairest of social systems over time).
I don’t think one has to have identical views to one’s partner in order to be happy. As you probably know, I’m partial to a lively debate. A lively debate is simply how I clarify ideas in my own head. I am literally “thinking out loud”. I have to externalise knowledge in order to process it – it’s an INTJ thing. 😉
Let’s put it another way: when I engage in lively debate with my fellow humans, I’m not trying to “win anyone over to my side”. Nor am I trying to make anyone feel bad. I am simply processing knowledge in an idiosyncratic way. I am secure enough to admit that at least some of my ideas are misguided and/or unintentionally comedic! 😉
“I don’t think one has to have identical views to one’s partner in order to be happy. ”
I agree, but if I ever get into another relationship, I’d like to make sure someone feels the same way I do about limerence! 🙂 Seriously. I’m not sure how you filter for that without sounding like a crazy person. “Are you a limerent? Do you know what limerence is? Do you obsess over people you can’t have? Is there someone from your past (or even currently) hanging in your subconscious, even though this person has moved on or doesn’t have interest? Or maybe they do have interest but won’t act on it? So their barrier is what’s stopping it? Has this been a pattern in your life?”
If so, thank you, drive thru. 🙂
I know that sounds hypocritical, given that I’m a limerent. A limerent in recovery. 🙂
Allie 1 says
Hey Sammy, thank you for your kindness. Glad things are going well for you (aka barista guy).
“I don’t think one has to have identical views to one’s partner in order to be happy. ”
I did not say identical thus agree, some difference is good for self-development. But only to a point. The relationship all starts out as charming differences in viewpoint and fun, lively debate. But over a decade or more, when in-your-face day-to-day domesticity erodes away those rose-tinted love spectacles, this can so easily turn into irritation and bickering, or worse… mutual criticism, shaming and bitter resentment… I mean, “how dare my partner so unapologetically fail to live up to my heartfelt values!! If they were a good person / truly loved me / valued the marriage / etc they would do xyz wouldn’t they?”. The few divorces I have seen hinge on this.
I consider myself lucky that SO and I are fairly aligned moral-values-wise. A recipe for less stress and better marital resilience.
I must respectfully disagree with your gender stereotyping. Many women also get hung up on “rules” too… I am picturing the average school mum in my very middle class town as I say this. Equally, many men do not so much – Dr L and my SO for example!
But of course, you and I hail from different communities, countries and cultures which sways our perspective.
Jonathan Haidt is amazing. But you forgot about us libertarians, DrL, who are all over the map. I’m a libertarian by political bent, but usually test as a moderate conservative on Jon’s test. Depends on my mood to some extent. But I think the application of his ideas to limerence is definitely worth exploring more. Thanks for the thoughtful post, DrL!
Miss Lovisa momma went with me to the store when we had things to get and held me hand when we were shopping!!! 🙂
Woohoo! That is good news, Adam! Thank you for sharing.
Miss Lovisa I looked up LO on facebook. Im sorry.
Lol, that’s okay, Adam. We’ve all done that at least once.
Morality is a fascinating topic. Also a topic bound to stir up endless controversy – but, of course! Close friends and even family members have referred to me in the past as “righteous” and “upright”. (Ironic, I know, given my unconventional sexual orientation). However, I have never perceived myself as being “upright”. Obsessed with “purity”? Yeah, maybe just a little bit. But that’s not my morality. That’s just my OCD… 😉
Morally, I don’t align myself with either liberal values or conservative values, although I understand the intellectual basis underpinning each. I tend to judge issues on a case-by-case basis. I’m an individual, a maverick, an idealist, a pragmatist, a freethinker, a court jester, a walking contradiction if you will. I like to look at things from a variety of perspectives. Paradoxically, I think conservative friends are often happy to claim me for their own and I think liberal friends are often just as happy to claim me for their own! Can’t win! Hahaha!
I’ve spent my life finetuning my own private moral code, which no one else should feel obliged to follow, since it is precisely that – a private moral code, a private moral code created and enforced for the benefit of one person. I’m trying to come up with a set of rules and beliefs that I personally feel comfortable living within. 😉
I probably have some core virtues. For example, freedom is something I prize highly. I think manipulation in interpersonal relationships is almost always a bad thing. I don’t want to manipulate people and I don’t wish to be manipulated either. However, I also recognise that nothing gets achieved without self-discipline and a certain amount of limit-setting. In other words, in order to be a productive citizen, I have to put voluntary restrictions on my own freedom. 🤔
Limerence is interesting because I think it highlights the clash that has always existed in human beings between nature and civilisation, culture and biology. I.e. one’s moral compass, probably derived at least in part from cultural influences, is advocating a certain course of action and one’s hormones are advocating another course of action, often in conflict with the course of action advocated by culture. Sadly, I think many human beings just follow their “hormonal changes of tide” and dream up fancy moral justifications afterwards! 😆
Limerence for me has always been associated with intense feelings of both guilt and shame. I’m sure these negative feelings at least in part arise from the fact that I didn’t fully understand what was going on inside my own mind and body, and thought something must be wrong with me. The guilt, though, is inappropriate, since guilt should correctly only be applied to wrongful behaviour and not thoughts/feelings/fantasies/desires.
The shame I feel in relation to limerence is probably quite a healthy reaction and something that I should embrace as a normal part of the human condition. I think shame is an intrinsic part of human sexuality, and is not something that needs to be unlearnt. I think shame can greatly enhance and heighten intimacy i.e. a healthy amount of shame could help partners bond, as they share their feelings of shame with each other, and work through those complex feelings together. 😉
I am still in frequent contact with my gorgeous barista friend. (More of a crush than limerence proper, but who knows? Maybe I spoke too soon?) The last two interactions with him have been increasingly unpleasant from a physiological point of view. That is to say, for the first time ever, I’ve experienced extreme anxiety around him (spasms of pain throughout my entire chest cavity) and a sensation of “dry mouth”. This sudden onset of blatantly nervous symptoms – which i have never experienced before in relation to this given individual – made me realise something about limerence, which I think is very telling…
When people are in limerence, they think their LOs are the monsters. I.e. “this man/this woman is a wicked, wicked creature who cast a spell on me”. Or, alternatively, some self-flagellating types like myself assume that they, the limerents, are monsters. I.e. “I’m a horrible, insecure creep who’s always getting attached to unsuitable people”. Some people may even be tempted to pathologize the dynamic between LO and limerent. I.e. “Oh, it’s just the nature of the dance that’s going on between these two people that’s toxic…”
In my acquaintance with barista, however, I can say with absolute confidence that he has been nothing but a delight. I can also say, if I’m allowed to toot my own horn, that I have been nothing but a delight. There has never been anything inappropriate in our exchanges. No touching, no dirty jokes, no bad boundaries. The most shocking thing that has ever happened between us is that sometimes we grin at each other knowingly, and these grins appear to be eerily in sync. 🙄
My interaction with barista makes me realise that the monster in limerence is actually … limerence itself. Limerence is poisonous. Limerence is insidious. Limerence takes something that’s sweet, innocent, delightful, beautiful, inoffensive, and turns it into some grotesque mess of nightmarish insecurity and devastating self-doubt and nauseating self-loathing, etc, etc.
So the “destroyer of peace and human happiness”, in my opinion, is not the inscrutable behaviours of LOs, or even the unmet needs of limerents. I think the blame needs to be placed squarely at the feet of limerence itself. Limerence is a biological process that takes something lovely (a friendship between two caring individuals, for example) and turns it into something ghastly and unsettling.
The “smoking gun” belongs to Mother Nature herself, and not to human agents, who are sucked unwittingly into the game. I dunno. I think human beings just have to separate themselves somehow from the biological processes taking place inside them, because it’s the biological process that’s the actual problem, and not anyone’s morality, or anyone’s different morality, or anyone’s lack of morality. 🤔 (However, I DO get how fun it is, on a bad day, to diss LO’s real and/or perceived lack of morals!) 😁
Really, really insightful comments, Sammy. Thank you. Jonathan talks a lot about the “rider vs elephant” in his work — i.e., the rational brain vs the emotional brain. Goes to your point about where to lay the “blame” and the fact that humans have to balance the biology from the morality a lot. Also brings up questions of free will (see genius neuroscientist Sam Harris on that topic), which may also be worth a blog post, DrL…
Innocent until Guilty says
Understanding the biological basis of attraction has helped me NOT feel guilty about my limerence. I find it very liberating. I can just focus on doing the right thing (that I have control over) rather than waste time on things I cannot control, like biology.
Free Fall says
During my LA, I felt so amoral…anyone else? And to anyone else, did it feel so… good?
Care/harm: no disclosure or discovery = no hurt for either SO=no guilt.
Loyalty/betrayal: I had no desire to end up permanently with the LO. Just wanted the physical. Logically I knew he would be a terrible partner, and thus felt ongoing loyalty to my relationship SO.
Authority/subversion = thrilling to feel subversive to the mantle of mother, wife.
Sanctity/degradation = degraded the sanctity of multiple places, some public. …and I still feel pride, not shame
Liberty/oppression = I felt freer, less-stuck than I had in a long time. Like I’d been the good girl making the careful choices my whole life and now I was enjoying breaking the rules. Reverberated to my career, my life choices, even my social media.
In short, prefrontal cortex did an amazing job of putting a framework around my amygdala. Never knew they’d be such co-conspirators.
My mind is now trying to make sense of the schism as I recover from this LO. (I think) I’m over the man, but now how does Dr. Jekyll put Ms. Hyde back in her box?
I had a bad day trying to not think about LO. But I didnt contact her or look online. So I guessI did alright. But I miss her.
Adam. I think your concise comment describes a typical day for many of us. I found it helpful. Yes, you certainly did alright. I hope that the limerence will gradually fade with no contact.
My latest round of NC is now seven weeks in because LO is ghosting me. The WhatsApp ticks are still grey. It hurts but it is for the best. I have written him a message explaining the hurt of being ghosted after a close friendship but I do not plan to send it to him.
Meanwhile I am personally finding the concept of “purposeful living” easier said than done.
It’s been 9 months since she left and since she has only contacted me once. And that was about 3 months after she left. In my case I am leaving any contact to her. I don’t think she is intentionally ghosting me, I just think she has a lot of good things going on in her life that are occupying her. And I don’t want to disrupt the good she has going on right now.
The last thing I wrote to her (and her gentleman friend) were a Christmas card to them both last year. That being the last contact I made myself. But I do find it helpful to write her things too even though, like you, I never intend to send them to her.
I feel the same. It is hard to work up that motivation to be purposeful in life when you feel you have no purpose other than to suffer under limerence. But I have made some steps to purposefully bridge the gap in my marriage with my wife. They seem like some big steps that I will eventually see more results from in the future I think. So that makes me feel a little bit better.
Limerent Emeritus says
The title of this site is “Living with Limerence.” A lot of the recent comments are talking about how to actively maintain an LE, EA, and possibly a PA. DrL has some guidance on the site for different topics, but there isn’t one on this topic. So, as DrL’s self-appointed protégé, I’ll make one. It’s a long read.
Can You Pull Off Your LE/EA/PA?
I’m sure I missed a few but here’s a link to the Archives. https://livingwithlimerence.com/blog-archive/
Cognitive dissonance leads to leakage and leakage usually leads to bad outcomes. If you’re going to go consciously go the LE/EA/PA route [not an endorsement], you need to commit to it and behave accordingly. It helps if you tilt a little toward sociopathy. Not too much, just a little.
Prior to my marriage, I was an affair partner in college. To be honest, it worked for me. However, I wasn’t the one cheating on or being cheated on and my scruples were not as developed as they are now, not that I’m sure that would have stopped me.
Limerent Emeritus says
For those of you who haven’t noticed, DrL has a page “Key Articles” that groups LwL into some useful bins. https://livingwithlimerence.com/key-articles/
Last month, I grouped some articles aimed at actually trying to “Live with Limerence.” It got held up in moderation and disappeared.