Limerence is a mental state of profound romantic infatuation, first defined in the 1970s by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov. It is characterised by an initial period of elation and intense emotional arousal that can progress to an involuntary, obsessive craving for another person.
Limerence is not a widely known concept. In a not-entirely-scientific poll (I asked some people I know), 0.0% of my peer group had heard of the term. So, it’s good to give a clear definition.
Limerence was coined as a term and concept by Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book “Love and Limerence”, and emerged from her study of romantic love.
This mostly took the form of interviews and questionnaires, in which Tennov noted a number of consistent traits among many individuals who described their experiences of being in love. She created the term limerence to classify this common experience.
The defining features are (paraphrasing and simplifying slightly):
- Frequent intrusive thoughts about the limerent object (LO), who is a potential sexual partner.
- An acute need for reciprocation of equally strong feeling.
- Exaggerated dependency of mood on LO’s actions: elation when sensing reciprocation, devastation when sensing disinterest.
- Inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time.
- Fleeting relief from unrequited feeling through vivid fantasy about reciprocation by the LO.
- Insecurity or shyness when in the presence of the LO, often manifesting in overt physical discomfort (sweating, stammering, racing heart).
- Intensification of feelings by adversity.
- An aching sensation in “the heart” when uncertainty is strong.
- A general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background.
- A remarkable ability to emphasise the positive features of the LO, and minimise, or empathise with, the negative.
- I would also add to Tennov’s list: a desire for exclusivity.
Interestingly, when describing these traits to the same people that I queried about “limerence” as a term, the responses seemed to split into two general camps:
“That’s just love. You don’t need a special word for that.”
“Don’t be silly. Nobody really feels like that; it’s childish.”
This of course fits with Tennov’s core thesis: that people can be understood as fundamentally different in their experience of love. As limerents and non-limerents.
Surely that’s just a crush?
Many adolescents go through a period of over-romanticising other people as they develop their sexual identity. Bouts of puppy love come and go, and usually give way to a more realistic attitude towards actual romantic partners, superseding daydream fantasies about unattainable celebrities. Could limerence just be an adult crush?
While there are certainly elements in common, crushes tend to come and go with little lasting psychological impact. In contrast, limerence is distinguished by the involuntary and debilitating nature of the experience once it has taken hold.
I think this is most readily understood in the case of intrusive thoughts. “Oh I daydream all the time about him” doesn’t really get close to the invasive, relentless and compulsive nature of limerent rumination. You can’t turn it off. You can’t read a book, because every other sentence triggers a thought-bridge back to Them, and that’s it: concentration is impossible. You can’t listen to music, because all songs are about Them. You can’t seem to have a conversation with someone else without finding yourself mentioning Them in relation to… well, anything. They become the central force of gravity in your life. A black hole of attraction.
Urgh, sounds awful; but that’s the other weird feature: it isn’t. Certainly not at first. Mutual limerence experienced by two individuals free to express their feelings is surpassingly blissful – the “ecstatic union” described by Simone de Beauvoir and inspiration for uncountable numbers of poems and songs.
Even in times of uncertainty or adversity, the sensation of limerence can be highly pleasurable in itself. The rush of excitement at the perception of mutual attraction. The thrill of power and hope when you make LO laugh. The intoxicating sense of buoyancy when in the presence of a happy LO. It’s incredibly rewarding.
Intoxication really is the best word I can think of to capture the sensation overload that comes with limerence. Love intoxication. It’s as though you’ve become addicted to this other person.
And, like a junkie, limerents indulge themselves whenever they get a chance.
Oh good, a moment alone. I can have a nice fantasy about LO!
I normally take that route home, but if I take this small diversion in completely the opposite direction I may just happen to bump into LO…
I better just text LO about this important bit of trivia… Yes! They’ve responded!
But like any other addiction, after a while the exquisite spike of pleasure can devolve into a habit, and then a craving, and then an impediment to the proper, healthy sources of happiness and fulfillment in life.
So, on the principle that the blissed-out mutual limerents are too distracted to bother with reading a site like this, I’m going to focus most of my posts on trying to understand limerence as a phenomenon, with the goal of devising means for enjoying it as an addictive stimulant to be indulged in at the appropriate times to the appropriate degree. I do believe that limerence can add vivid colour to life, without compromising the pursuit of meaningful happiness.