Limerence can be neatly described as an altered mental state of intense infatuation. An obvious question raised by this definition is: why does it happen? What causes it?
While it’s a natural question to ask, it isn’t a simple one to answer. There are many layers.
First, there are the basic mechanics of what happens in the brain to lead to that altered mental state. Second, there is the more personal question of why do certain people turn those neural circuits on for us? Third, there is the issue of how their behaviour can amplify the limerent response. Finally, there is the equally important issue of how our current situation in life makes us more or less personally vulnerable to succumbing to limerence in the first place.
You have built in neurochemical systems that are triggered by particular people, and it is more likely to happen at vulnerable times in your life. All important issues. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
The basis of limerence is neurochemistry. The experience of limerence is happening in your head.
The euphoria of positive interactions with a limerent object is hugely rewarding. The excitement of being near them, the way your body becomes amped up on nervous exhilaration, the hyperawareness of their closeness, their smell, their… aura. The heart-pounding sensory overload when they touch you. The warm bliss of spending intimate time with them; bonding. All of this is generated within the brain.
Equally, the obsessive thoughts, the desperate need to find out how they feel about you, the spike of anxiety when they are cold or when you fear you might have overplayed your hand. All neurochemistry.
A reasonable criticism of this perspective is that it just describes the experience of limerence it doesn’t explain it. Of course the emotions and sensations we experience begin the the brain – the interesting question is why do they sometimes escalate to the point where we become infatuated? What is it that pushes the brain from the everyday state (where we are just as capable of feeling excited or anxious or dreamy) into a prolonged state of romantic monomania?
The key to understanding that transition is in the way the different neural systems interact. The key processes involved in limerence are reward (powered by dopamine), arousal (powered by noradrenaline) and bonding (powered by oxytocin). Lots of other systems get involved too, but that is the core triad.
Under the right conditions, the reward system can get driven so hard that it shifts into a state of compulsive reward-seeking. This phenomenon is the basis of behavioural addictions – you find something so pleasurable, so arousing, so desirable that you focus all your attention on it. Seeking more of that “natural high” becomes a goal, and then a habit, and then a compulsion.
You train yourself into a state of obsession, where the limerent object becomes the primary source of reward in your life. Over time, you reinforce the habits of thinking about them, seeking them out, centring them in your life, until, eventually, bit by bit, you crave them to the point of dependency.
Unfortunately, as for other behavioural addictions, reversing that process once it has become established is… non-trivial.
If neuroscience explains the “how” of limerence, our personal history determines the “who”. We all have the in-built neural systems that can be driven, with escalating romantic momentum, into a state of limerence, but there must be something special about certain people that starts the whole process going.
Some of this sensitivity is embodied, in the literal sense. The cocktail of hormones ebbing and flowing through our bodies at key developmental stages (from the womb to adulthood) affects our libidos, our sexualities and our romantic drives. But, psychology is every bit as important as physiology.
Our personal romantic preferences are built up over a long period of time, by the formative experiences that happen through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. An idiosyncratic psychological brew of the stories we remember, the habits of our family of origin, the role models we grew up around, the first few crushes we had (and how they felt about us) – all these factors shape the beliefs and proclivities we subconsciously accumulate as we develop into sexual maturity.
This is where attachment theory and limerence intersect. Our styles of bonding, what feels “right” to us, what people attract us, and how we instinctively respond to them, are all determined by our personal history.
When it comes to limerence, meeting someone who matches our “romantic template” tends to cause intense excitement and arousal. They seem to broadcast a sense of emotional potency. This limerent glimmer is a sign that our brains have made a connection between the cues being given off by the other person and our personal imprint of what a desirable person is like.
The specific cues that we respond to come in many forms. Figuring out what our own personal triggers are is an important part of understanding our vulnerability to limerence specifically, and our broader self-development generally.
What they do
So far we have focused inwards to find the causes of limerence. That’s essential for understanding our own traits, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the behaviour of the other person is a big factor too.
One of the most significant ways that the conduct of your limerent object (or “LO”) can worsen limerence is through uncertainty. If your LO leaves little doubt about their feelings for you, then the limerence tends to die away naturally. This could either be rejection, or (bliss!) reciprocation. If you can find out for sure how they feel, one way or another, your romantic ruminations should quieten.
In contrast, if your LO acts in a confusing, unpredictable, or inconsistent way – sometimes they seem really into you, but other times they seem distant or cold – then you can get trapped in a limbo of hope and uncertainty. There are well established psychological reasons for why inconsistent or intermittent rewards are more addictive than predictable rewards.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning the predators. Sometimes, LOs set out to seduce. They manipulate people into infatuation for their own gratification, or narcissistic supply or to settle their own insecurities. Be wary that there are some LOs to avoid out there.
Your present lifestyle
The last piece of the puzzle, when it comes to what causes limerence, is the state of your life at the time you meet a potential limerent object. There are particular times in life when we are more open to limerence – when we are going through the emotional transformations of adolescence, when we are single and looking for love, when we are stuck in a midlife rut. Equally, there are some circumstances in life that make us more psychologically vulnerable – unhappiness, stress, grief, loneliness, anxiety, or even just the flat ennui of the daily grind.
Many limerents learn to use the rewards of rumination and fantasy for mood repair. When life is unfulfilling, and moments of joy are hard to be found, the giddy jolt of limerent excitement is a welcome distraction.
These everyday factors can determine how receptive we are to the onset of limerent stirrings. Sure, our brains have a system that can be driven into person addiction, and chance may decide whether we meet a limerent object that causes the glimmer, but how enthusiastically we chase the allure of limerent ecstasy depends on how life is going for us.
This last factor is also the reason why the best cure for limerence is purposeful living. There’s value in understanding how to deprogram yourself out of a state of limerence after it’s happened. There’s value in understanding how your life experiences have shaped who you are attracted to and why. Ultimately, though, the way to reach a happier, more fulfilling future is to use that knowledge of yourself to plan how to live better.
Purposeful living is the best protection against unwanted limerence, because it reduces the appeal of romantic escapism. There’s no need to seek the fleeting pleasure of a limerent high if you’re enjoying the lasting happiness of a life well lived.