One of the curious consequences of learning that non-limerents exist, is that for the first time we limerents can start to wonder both “who has it better”, and “what is limerence for, anyway”?
The first question should keep the philosophers busy indefinitely, but the second question does seem more open to analysis.
Limerence seems, it is fair to say, an exaggerated response to the stimulus of meeting a potential mate. It’s hard to reflect on this issue without thinking from the perspective of reproduction, because the drive for limerence is almost always associated with romantic and sexual desire. Non-limerents clearly live fulfilled and happy lives, having children and long-term relationships and deep bonds of love and affection. Obviously the massive initial emotional maelstrom of limerence isn’t essential for reproductive success or personal security and survival. So, what benefit might it serve? Especially in an environment in which potential mates could be fellow limerents who will reciprocate in kind, or non-limerents who may be driven away by the asymmetry of romantic obsession.
Amazingly enough, my thoughts on this fit into a convenient list form!
1) Pair bonding
This seems the most obvious benefit. Humans frequently adopt pair-bonding as a stable evolutionary strategy for increasing the survival prospects of offspring. Having two parents who share and are committed to the task of raising children through the vulnerable (and, for us as a species, relatively long) early years, increases the odds that those offspring will survive to adulthood and reproduce themselves, thus propagating the parent’s genes into future generations, flooding the gene pool. It is an obviously beneficial and stably inheritable trait.
It is blatantly obvious that limerence would really help with this process. The surge of positive feeling for LO, the powerful need to be in their company, the urgent desire for reciprocation and consummation – all of this stabilises the pair bond. It’s also been noted (by Tennov and others) that the typical duration of limerence (around 2 years) corresponds with the period needed to conceive and deliver a child and nurse them through their most vulnerable period.
Oftentimes, happily, the limerence will give way to stable affectional bonding, and the pair bond is cemented for extended periods beyond the limerent ecstasy. But other times, the limerence turns out to have been masking an incompatibility that makes longer-term bonding (once the mania has passed) intolerable. So, for all the benefits for pair-bonding, limerence also seems to increase the risk of misfires: bonding that barely lasts beyond conception. So, could there be other forces at work?
2) Handicap signalling
One curious evolutionary strategy that is best exemplified by the peacock’s tail, is the so-called handicap principle. The reasoning is that if an individual can so conspicuously display a handicap and yet still thrive, they must have extraordinary fitness. “Think how powerful I must be to be able to carry this millstone”. For the example of the peacock, the idea would be that the male is so strong that they can afford to squander their strength in carting around a cumbersome tail – and indeed, only a healthy and strong male could achieve it.
As humans we can of course question the wisdom of signalling our value by squandering it – gorging on cake to demonstrate how much cake we used to have – but it is an interesting thought that limerence could fit into this model.
The idea here is that limerence is such an disproportionate response to attraction that the limerent is signalling their willingness to completely commit to LO, even to their own potential detriment. The benefit, from the LO’s perspective, is that their emotional capture of the limerent is so complete, they have no anxiety that they could lose out to another mate. The limerent reaction is like the peacock’s tail – a handicapping obsession that demonstrates the limerent’s capacity to pair bond par excellence. In human terms “I am so absurdly besotted with you that even a rich, beautiful, healthy, powerful competitor could not turn my head.” In less human terms, the LO can be confident that they will not invest in reproducing with a mate who will flit away when an alternative individual of higher mate-value appears.
As a final thought as to why we seem to live in a population of limerents and non-limerents – this sometimes awful farce of mutual misunderstanding – we need to consider the power of dynamic equilibria. Limerence is, from an evolutionary perspective, a bit like altruism. It seems as though selfishness in both survival and reproduction would be a good strategy, and yet altruism exists. Similar concerns arise with limerence. Why should a limerent sacrifice their openness to other potential mates? Surely non-limerents have an advantage by not being handicapped by obsession.
Indeed, why do non-limerents and limerents both exist? Surely the “better” evolutionary strategy would win out.
Well, it turns out that at a population level, the optimal strategy for propagating genes doesn’t have a lot of meaning, because populations are dynamic. For altruism, a convincing mathematical argument can be made that neither selfishness nor selflessness are optimal strategies all the time. It depends on the behaviour of other individuals within the population. This makes intuitive sense – if everyone is an altruist, then the first mutant selfish person (I suppose, strictly, combination of genes that result in selfish behaviour) to appear would have a selection advantage by exploiting the rest of the population. “Selfishness” genes would start to spread through the population. Eventually, if this led to a preponderance of selfish people, competition becomes detrimental, no one can be trusted, and suddenly, altruistic behaviour (especially within kin groups) becomes an advantage. The goodies gang up and out-compete the selfish gits.
Ultimately, formulating these sorts of arguments mathematically shows that the most “stable” situations are actually dynamic equilibria, where the abundance of traits in a population shifts around an optimal ratio (of, say, selfish to altruistic individuals). It seems likely that the same argument applies to limerence. In some circumstances, non-limerence is an advantage because your relative emotional independence can allow for freer mate selection, without the anxiety that your (limerent) partner of the moment may leave you. Conversely, with too many non-limerents, the presence of a limerent mate is an advantage, if they form a better pair-bond when the main concern is finding a mate who won’t leave you. So, the most stable situation is a mix of limerents and non-limerents – a bet hedging strategy that results in a dynamic equilibrium within the population.
And evolution cares not a wit about the emotional turmoil that any of us poor replication engines suffer.
“I am so absurdly besotted with you that even a rich, beautiful, healthy, powerful competitor could not turn my head.”
Sure thing. I got to a party some years ago, and as an introvert I was very anxious thinking about where I would sit and to who I would talk and play my best social version possible. Then, out of a sudden, I realized there was a girl there looking at me as if I was the most perfect guy in the world, or at least in her world. It was a positive signal, so I went there and took a sit, and this girl blushed and became very anxious with my presence. Her family knew she was limerent for me, and some of them (her mother and her sister) got up and walked away from the table, since they don’t like me. Her father and other family members stayed there and were kind of looking for what would happen next.
Although this girl was showing such high degree of acceptance towards me, and I was flattered to know I was in receiving end of the limerence feelings, I still couldn’t take it for granted. It was like they say here in my country: “When the offering is too high, the saint will think twice.”. I didn’t think I had done anything really to win her affection, and thus it felt almost as free love, grace. As if she was saying: “I will accept you whether you deserve it or not, because you are YOU, and that’s it. Just take my love; you don’t need to win it; it’s already yours.”
And that, of course, turned me off, because I could not even think of myself dating with someone I didn’t feel attracted to. It would probably be wrong to take advantage of the situation and it would surely hurt her heart in the process.
It’s funny how we can feel so different when we take the role of LO compared to how we feel when limerent for somebody. Probably that’s how my LO feel about me also. Just hopeless thing. Better to just wait for the limerence to fade out and then try to bond with someone who reciprocates the feelings.
Ibrahim Gueda says
I think it’s nothing short of absurd to assume that the two years of average limerence duration are enough to conceive offspring AND provide for them during their most vulnerable stage in life. I didn’t buy it either when I read Tennov’s book which is otherwise exceptionally informative. My friend, there is a reason parents are legally responsible for their kids up to 18 years old. Even in the most primitive eras, humans could not survive on their own at 15 months of age (assuming the first 9 of the two years the mother was still pregnant). I think the first reason Limerence exists is to conceive children, nothing more. Tennov also mentions in her book that the most consistent result of mutual limerence was marriage. Two years after getting married what happens? Limerence is over and one spouse may become limerent toward a third party. Which may lead to divorce and marrying someone else.. or even worse, cheating. Limerence eventually achieved one thing for sure: sexual intercourse between multiple people, hence continuous supply of genetically diverse offspring.
(and STDs, lol)
“Who has it better?”
Well, I think two non-limerents who come together on the basis of common goals would be better at building a stable long-term relationship. However, this couple might see flashy depictions of romance on TV, etc, and wonder if there’re missing out on something because their own relationship has never been full of fireworks.
Limerence-based bonds, or so the theory goes, are good in the sense they may lead to people with very different genes mating. In other words, limerence mixes things up. The human race will supposedly end up with a richer gene pool and offspring more resilient to disease. A woman having children with different fathers may not be great for social stability, but there may be some biological advantages e.g. kids who inherit different traits and immune systems, etc.
I think limerence is good if it is well-timed. Two years is too short and five years is too long IMHO. Four years sounds about right to me. Limerence can make people very selfish toward society and very generous toward partners (LOs). This temporary selfishness is okay as long as it remains temporary. At some point, people need to re-engage with friends and society, especially if they have children. People need more than just a romantic partner to be happy. I do think limerence “creates families”, but then other forms of love need to kick in.
I do like the “handicap signalling theory” because if true, I must be a very fit specimen of maleness indeed! Hahaha! Too bad such “fitness” hasn’t brought me happiness. A peacock with a largely useless tail. What a sad sight!
I think my father was non-limerent and my mother was limerent and my mother really captured my dad because she was “so nice” to him early in their courtship. No lady had really been that nice to my dad before. So an attractive limerent of the right sex may become an ideal mate choice for an insecure non-limerent. In fact, a limerent might be the only choice of partner to a very shy non-limerent. (I’m sure my dad was thrilled to meet a woman who appeared to need him).
But honestly, from my own life experience, limerence is an advantage simply because while in the limerent state one is ABSOLUTELY obsessed with finding a partner in the first place, mating, romance, dating, sex, you name it. Limerence sorts of bumps up “relationship-fostering activities” to the top of the priority list. Does that make sense? One DOES sacrifice oneself for the good of the species to some extent and, yes, that can rightly be called “altruism”. Mating is altruistic.
There could be other outcomes too. Do limerents have relationships and children younger because we’re so eager to commit to our LOs? Do limerents have relationships and children later because we’re unsuccessful at finding a partner who glimmers sufficiently? Could limerence lead to “staggered reproduction” within a particular population demographic? Just some of my thoughts…
“Well, I think two non-limerents who come together on the basis of common goals would be better at building a stable long-term relationship. ”
I agree, but even for the limerent, the LE eventually wears off. Actually, the best way to get over an LO is to be with that person. One day, you wake up and the LE is over, and it’s like being slammed on to the cold pavement. Suddenly, you see the LO much more clearly. The limerent will be lucky if he/she winds up with someone with whom he is compatible and shares common goals. Ironically, he/she winds up with the same thing the practical, non-limerent has (or maybe even less).
“One day, you wake up and the LE is over, and it’s like being slammed on to the cold pavement. Suddenly, you see the LO much more clearly. The limerent will be lucky if he/she winds up with someone with whom he is compatible and shares common goals. Ironically, he/she winds up with the same thing the practical, non-limerent has (or maybe even less).”
So well put Marcia, and so true! For me the trick is to recognise the glimmer early and only allow it to develop if the person is worthy which requires you get to know them a bit first as friends. Of course, not easy to do when you are a limerent. This way (at least for me) there is not the sudden LE end, it is more a gradual crossing over from limerent love into long term contented bonded love.
Also I must again argue against this idea that the 95% non-limerent population are all “practical” in relationships – in my experience, most non-limerents experience strong romantic passion too.
“….It is more a gradual crossing over from limerent love into long term contented bonded love.”
Has that happened? Once I get over the LE, it’s like I suddenly put my glasses on and see the LO more clearly. And my first thought is: What was I thinking? I’m not even sure I like this person.
“Also I must again argue against this idea that the 95% non-limerent population are all “practical” in relationships – in my experience, most non-limerents experience strong romantic passion too.”
I didn’t meant that non-limerents don’t experience passion. I meant that all relationships fueled by initial passion end up in the same place as those that didn’t …. into long-term, companionate love. And that’s if you are lucky, because the passion can obscure gaping holes in compatibility.
@Marcia. “One day, you wake up and the LE is over, and it’s like being slammed on to the cold pavement. Suddenly, you see the LO much more clearly.”
Oh, I agree totally. And you don’t have to be with LO to see LO more clearly. I think back to the guy I liked in high school and realise he wasn’t the person I imagined him to be. In my imagination, he was “the perfect gentleman”. In real life, he was a step or two above a bogan. (“Bogan” is Australian slang for someone who is uncouth i.e. the opposite of the perfect gentleman).
Some of LO’s flaws:
(1) He didn’t cover his mouth when he yawned. (Even his mother complained about this!)
(2) He almost stole a library book once from pure absent-mindedness – he was just going to walk out of the building without borrowing it.
(3) He preferred to do assignments in the holidays instead of socialising with friends who had made a big effort to come over and see him. (Rude much? No, I wasn’t among said friends).
(4) He didn’t say hello to my younger sister when he visited my house. My sister is overweight. However, she was at a sensitive moment in adolescence when she would have liked a friendly greeting from an attractive, slightly older boy who was friends with her brother – it would have been a boost for her self-esteem.
Clearly, my LO was never the person I adored. He was a human being with a lot of incredibly obvious human flaws. I’m beginning to wonder why I put him on a pedestal in the first place and where did I get the “perfect gentleman” image from anyway? Was I completely mad and/or suffering from delusions of grandeur?
He did eventually get a girlfriend/wife. She spoke to him rather sharply at times and he never seemed to notice or care. I don’t know if the marriage was/is a happy one. However, I take comfort in the thought that at least his SO is relating to a real person and not a fantasy figure. She doesn’t see him as a demigod!!
We put them on a pedestal because it fulfils our needs and wants to do so. And then it feeds our LE by giving us a better fantasy and therefore bigger limerent high.
Ahh….the “perfect gentleman”….I am very susceptible to that one myself although I am no longer able to shoehorn the non-genuine into that shape with my fantasies – only a genuinely good man can be my LO these days.
I think I have just read Bronte and Austin too many times! My LO reminds me of an older Mr Darcy.
“And you don’t have to be with LO to see LO more clearly. ”
I can see the LO more clearly over time, but in order to get completely over the LE, I either have to date and spend time with the person or … find another LO! That’s bad. If I don’t don’t have a real shot at being with the LO in a relationship, they hang in my mind like a fantasy, albeit a diminished one. (For example, it can’t be friends with benefits situation. That would fuel the LE because the LO would be at a distance.)
” In my imagination, he was “the perfect gentleman”. In real life, he was a step or two above a bogan. ”
That’s funny. I’m the opposite. Give me Clark Gable over Cary Grant any day. They need a little dirty birdy in ’em. 🙂
Willem Hekman says
This approach, trying to understand limerence from an evolutionary angle, I find interesting. Having recently read “Sex at Dawn” which describes (sexual) relations in paleolithic societies quite in depth, I’d hypothesize that limerence in paleo societies is much less prevalent to non-existent unlike in our “modern” society.
I’d argue that limerence is a form of unchecked infatuation as you’d get in post-paleo societies which allow for hierarchy, non-closeness, (now even through smartphones) and all sorts of ‘unnatural’ structures.
Before people typically had 2 or more (sexual) relations at a given time, would know all their partners basically their whole life and limerence would be something I’d imagine be taught not to (!) early on – albeit even in seemingly cruel ways such as (forced) ritual group sex.
For example, some South American tribal peoples hold that you are supposed to willingly respond to sexual advances after a certain age. Thus for example, a Western researcher found a young boy hiding with him in his hut as the boy was chased by a slightly older horny girl. Well if that doesn’t cure the boy of fantasies about girls as some pedestal worthy objects then what does? I’d imagine this society would surely ground you in the rather cold(?) / everyday(?) (but also rich in actual real experiences) reality of our physical needs.
I’m incredibly skeptical of any theory that claims that a drive as deep rooted and culturally universal in our psyches as limerence is somehow environmentally dependent. I have not read that book but it appears academic reviews of it were overwhelmingly negative, and I’m not at all surprised. Ever since Rousseau the west has produced an enormous quantity of fantastical re-imaginations of the past that try to portray it as something other than what it was: nasty, brutish, and short.
The idea that men did not care about paternity or that women were not selective in their mating choices makes absolutely no sense evolutionarily.