There is something strangely seductive about surrendering your will to a craving. Even when you know it’s bad for you, you yield to the compulsion. When the opportunity to indulge presents itself, you know you’ll give in.
There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible end as automatons move. Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charmOscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde was writing about opium addiction, but that same impulse is there in all sorts of compulsive behaviours, including limerence.
Now, for a single limerent with a reciprocating and worthy LO, giving in is a brilliant idea. Full throttle to ecstatic union! But for those with barriers, it’s not so great. Even if a limerent comes to realise that they don’t want to commit to LO, or that LO only wants to be a friend, or that the limerence has started to seriously disrupt the rest of their life, the compulsion to seek LO is still there and seemingly irresistible.
This urge to give in can also manifest as willingly doing something you know has the potential to be a big mistake. You are aware that you are behaving recklessly, but the sensation of giving in is nonetheless gratifying. This is why limerents give expensive gifts to LO, or sacrifice precious time and energy that should be devoted to other causes, or go out of their way to vouch for LO, putting their own reputations at risk.
To an outside observer this is completely irrational, but the limerent seems to positively delight in the risk. So, what’s going on? Why do limerents wilfully jeopardise their own interests – indeed, why do we happily and enthusiastically do so?
The pleasure of pleasing
Well, perhaps the most obvious explanation is that we think LO will like it. So, we get some nice reward from pleasing them, and we demonstrate our special connection to them. The gratification gained from making LO happy is glorious. So at the simplest level, making them happy makes you happy.
A second reason is that we think that LO will take notice. Doing something demonstrative – like spending your weekend helping them move home, giving a super thoughtful gift, or dropping everything to make yourself available – is a clear indication that you really care about them. Many limerents relish the opportunity of making a grand gesture, because it’s a way of indirectly disclosing the strength of their feeling for LO. The idea is that LO will know this is beyond the scope of ordinary friendship, and will recognise that something unspoken is being communicated. The hidden hope is that LO will respond in kind – indirectly disclosing that they too see this as much more than a simple friendship.
Being upstanding can be hard work. Doing the right thing takes character, and fortitude, and sometimes that’s just a bit wearying and difficult. But beyond just the inherent work of being disciplined, it takes real effort to resist a compulsion, and it can be very uncomfortable and distressing to deny the urge (ask anyone with OCD). By giving in, you don’t have to try any more. It’s a sort of psychological release valve, if you can just persuade yourself that this is bigger than your ability to resist. The rationalisation is straightforward: by giving in to the craving, I relinquish my responsibility, my autonomy, my agency. I am powerless to resist, and it’s pointless to try and deny it.
Sexual desire is usually a big part of limerence, and both the transgression of norms and surrendering to desire can be sexy. It’s not that you don’t know your grand gesture is inappropriate, it’s that you do know and that adds a frisson of excitement to the game. Or, you know you shouldn’t indulge, but when LO pushes at your boundaries you secretly delight in being ‘overpowered’. A lot of erotic fiction revolves around surrendering to desire – the superman or seductress who is tempting the main character absolves them of moral responsibility by overwhelming their defences, leaving them at once deliciously ravished but blameless.
Resisting compulsive behaviour
So, there are lots of motives for giving in, but most of us resist completely succumbing. We might fantasise about complete surrender, but usually, our executive brain is strong enough to stop us entirely throwing caution to the winds. That, though, traps us in the exquisite agony of ambiguity. We make hints and push at boundaries, but exert enough restraint to leave a credible escape route.
That reality reveals the battle at the heart of addictions: craving versus cognition. Your impulse for reckless abandon versus the discipline of your executive brain. The key issue, therefore, is what wins out between your compulsive urge and your rational assessment of the risks. Who’s in charge of you?
A hostile judge would take the view that you bear full responsibility for your decisions, and all objections are just self-serving justifications. A compassionate judge would take the view that you have a mental illness that means you should not be held to the same standards as others, without first treating the neurochemical imbalance that has made you limerent. For those who have been reading the blog for a while, my centrist view will come as no surprise. It’s a bit of both, obviously.
Resisting a compulsion is very hard going. It isn’t just a matter of weak willpower, or laziness or even just a bad habit (like watching too much YouTube) – there is a school of thought that compulsions are the defining feature of behavioural addictions. But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. We know it is, because most of us manage it to a certain degree.
It really does comes down to the weighting that you give to compulsion versus executive control before acting. We all start at a different point between the two, and we all differ in how easily we can smash the emergency overrule button. The best bet, in my view, is to tip the scales in favour of your executive.
This is the idea behind cognitive behavioural therapy – by focusing attention on the negative consequences of indulging a craving, you can weaken its power. By practising restraint, you strengthen your ability to resist. By adopting an external perspective you critique your behaviour objectively, rather than rationalising it because you want the relief of giving in to the compulsion. It’s kind of a work-out regime for your higher brain centres. Training your cognitive muscles.
And just like any other work out, you need to keep it up until you start getting results. Then, the results become a new form of reward (a leaner, healthier body, or a freer, more peaceful mind).
In the end, that was the approach that moved me from feeling powerless to feeling purposeful. That was the mental shift I needed to resist the urge to indulge, and exercise the discipline needed to reprogram the neural circuits that had got me stuck in a destructive loop. It is possible to come to peace, and emerge from unwelcome limerence without causing too much mayhem.
But… I’m not sure the strange seductive urge to give in ever leaves entirely.
There’s still a part of me that wishes I’d been weaker.