I recently received an email from a reader with a familiar problem. During therapy, she had discussed how limerence was disrupting her life, and received the following advice from her therapist:
You have created a fantasy out of him. You need to see him for who he really is.
The therapist suggested that the best way to achieve this was to spend more time with her limerent object, to “shatter the illusion”. Understandably, my correspondent had misgivings, as this advice runs counter to the common recommendation for no contact.
Now, I’m not raising this to dunk on the therapist. The argument makes sense if you are unfamiliar with the experience of limerence, and it is undeniably true that idealisation of the LO is a real issue. There are also some psychological conditions that can be effectively managed by “desensitization” – deliberately exposing yourself to a stimulus in order to dispel irrational beliefs about it (OCD and other anxiety disorders, for example). But there is a big problem with the approach when applied to limerence.
Limerent idealisation doesn’t typically arise from a naive belief that LO is without flaws, or a lack of awareness about their true nature. More often, it is a consequence of that fact that being with LO triggers a euphoric high. Idealisation follows limerent capture, and is usually more of a rationalisation – LO makes us feel amazing so they must be special.
Eventually, once the altered mental state of limerence has finally passed, an LO’s flaws will start to emotionally register and could undermine the attraction, but as long as you are still surfing the limerence high, more exposure to LO will just reinforce the behavioural addiction.
This idea – that limerence is a craving that doesn’t desensitize – raises a question that I am struggling to answer: why are some rewards so much more addictive than others?
In the absence of a good answer, let’s try some half-baked speculation!
Some desires are satiable. You indulge them, get gratification and then feel content. They don’t haunt you or create a craving for more.
Other desires are insatiable. Indulging them only gives fleeting relief, and when that passes you just crave more with greater urgency. You get stuck in a positive feedback loop where satisfaction seems unattainable.
To give a personal example: I have sometimes experienced a “runner’s high”. Running or cycling in nature leads to a genuine surge of exhilaration. For a few hours afterwards I feel full of energy and vitality and buzzing with motivation and mental clarity. Yet, even after an episode like that, I never feel a restless urge to go running again. No intrusive thoughts push me to stop what I’m doing and get out on the trail.
In contrast, during limerence, I could spend hours with LO in a state of escalating nervous excitement that became exhausting, but even after I finally left, my mind was still utterly preoccupied with wanting more. Like a rat wired up to an electrode that triggers dopamine release, I sometimes think I would have pushed the stimulation lever to the point of physical collapse.
So what might explain this difference? Why are some rewards so powerful, but others just pleasing?
1. The importance of the reward
The neural circuitry of reward is built into a few key brain regions, and forms the basis of all reward recognition and reward seeking. It’s the same circuits that fire up when you fancy some chocolate, fancy a movie, or fancy a person. This part of the brain is evolutionarily ancient, and pretty much works the same way in even very simple animals.
The sophistication of human desire comes from the communication between the reward circuits and higher cognitive centres that give a context for a reward and allow us to learn from experience. The question, then, is why are some rewards so much more effective than others? Why do some strengthen with exposure rather than weaken?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the strength of the high must be related to the importance – in evolutionary terms – of the stimulus. There’s no sense in firing off a euphoric high for a trivial reward. We don’t flip out for the joy of a nice warm bath, but we do for status, social acceptance, fatty and sugary foods, sex, and love.
Limerence obviously lies within the purview of reproduction. It’s an imperative drive that has been hardwired in by generations of reproductive selection. It makes sense that it should rate highly on the scale of “things that cause euphoria”.
2. The sustainability of the reward
Another factor is how long the same stimulus can continue to provide a reward. Thinking again of sugary, fatty foods, it makes a lot of sense that these energy rich treats should be desirable and rewarding, and that they should be sought with urgency when hungry. Once sated, though, the desire for more is eliminated. Extra food gives no additional reward, and can even be aversive.
Other rewards do not have the same limits. Social media is a good example of this, and has emerged as a persistent and disruptive behavioural addiction in the modern age. In their book “Make Time”, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky describe social media platforms as “infinity pools”. Any time you want the dopamine hit of social communion, you can open an inexhaustible supply. There is near endless novelty at your fingertips.
Limerence, in the early stages at least, is similar. It takes a long time to exhaust your curiosity about an LO. There are a lifetime of opinions to discover, stories to uncover, secrets to share. The high of their company is similarly persistent, and even when an introverted limerent finally needs a break to recharge, the hunger is quick to return.
3. The unpredictability of the reward
Intermittent rewards that are difficult to predict are more potent than predictable rewards. Uncertainty heightens craving.
The reason for this is a bit hard to explain, but it seems to result from the fact that dopamine release can be thought of as a “reward prediction error” signal. If you get a reward unexpectedly, dopamine spikes. If you expect a reward but don’t get it, dopamine spikes. If you expect a reward and get it reliably, then the dopamine circuits eventually quieten down. That’s why inconsistent behaviour from an LO is so agitating.
There is another factor here too, which is the accessibility of the reward. It’s possible to gorge yourself on food or social media – or gambling or shopping – but it is very hard to gorge yourself on LO access. For the vast majority of people, your can’t control your supply.
That makes the “more contact to shatter your illusions” strategy risky, because even if it were theoretically possible to gorge on LO contact to the point of nausea, you can’t practically do it.
4. Personal variation
Finally, it is worth reflecting on the fact that maybe limerence isn’t actually a special case, and is just like other behavioural (and substance) addictions, for which people vary in their susceptibility.
Some people get addicted to alcohol, others don’t. Some struggle to resist delicious foods and have larger appetites. Some get obsessed with shopping, or gambling, or celebrities, or even music. We all of us have unique tastes and unique vulnerabilities. That reward system is overlaid by an executive brain that is programmed by an idiosyncratic personal history, all over which develops in a complex social environment.
It does seem a cop out, though, to just throw up our hands and declare “it’s complicated”. Of course it is, but there must be common threads, common experiences, common elements that mean some desires are just more potent and hard to resist.
When it comes down to it, limerence is kind of the worst case scenario for addiction: an uncertain reward you can’t control access to, which doesn’t get boring, and is linked to one of the most powerful biological imperatives we have.
Maybe it isn’t such as mystery why it’s so addictive, after all.
“The therapist suggested that the best way to achieve this was to spend more time with her limerent object, to “shatter the illusion”.
This is why I think therapy is limited in how much it can help with limerence. Most therapists don’t know what limerence is. Let alone know how to treat it. This therapist gave bad advice that could make the limerence worse. And going into a session for 50 minutes to talk about the wondrousness of LO is bad and should be discouraged. It encourages rumination. Now, a therapist may be able to help figure out why the limerence is happening (particularly if it’s recurring pattern) and identify glimmers to recognize and avoid in the future, but the best help for a current LE is to read this site, to join the forum for supportive help, to read other sources of information about limerence and to go to NC.
Great and timely blog post Dr L. I have been working with an addiction therapist/counselor for the last six months to overcome LO craving. She has been great about supporting me with NC [she would Never suggest I contact LO, and holds me accountable to maintaining NC]. But still, it is taking impossibly long to really feel better, even with ongoing NC. I often talk with her about how it’s maddening to me that I have been able to control so many other urges and limit other addictive behaviours in my life and yet controlling the craving for LO feels one thousand times harder. This blog post helps me understand a little better why. “The only way through addiction is suffering”, and the stronger the addiction, the greater the suffering…
I wonder if the therapist would tell an alcoholic: “Just drink as much as possible so you can really feel the detrimental effects of the booze and you won’t want it anymore!” The exposure approach seems to rely on the rational brain realizing and deciding that LO is bad for me. I already know that. I’ve known it since the very beginning. It doesn’t matter to my subconscious brain, which rarely listens to my rational mind.
Allie 1 says
I was thinking exactly the same for gambling addiction Beth.
i.e. “go gamble as much and as often as possible, until you realise that you will never end up a winner”. A great recipe for destitution!
All gambling addicts know this deep down but none will choose to believe it. Partly due to the sunk cost fallacy, and partly due to their delusional addiction-brain.
So similar to limerence.
Flashbulb Eyes says
The most effective remedy to any addiction is complete avoidance.
But for many, it’s not that straightforward.
Yes, telling an alcoholic to go and drink as much as possible is, pointless and destructive. However, telling them to simply ‘avoid alcohol’ is simplistic, unrealistic and doomed to fail also.
If a limerant is unable to avoid the LO completely, then developing a balanced, neutral relationship is the most sustainable approach.
How you arrive to that point is the key question, but the answer may not be the same for everyone.
A very interesting article!! So, basically, what we’re asking is whether increased exposure to LO will weaken or reinforce cravings?
I have a theory. I think we should distinguish between pre-crystallisation limerence and post-crystallisation limerence. Basically, in the glimmer stage, increased exposure to LO and all their flaws may well squash limerence. After crystallisation, however, all bets are off – LO’s flaws will seem sickeningly endearing!! More exposure will only magnify the infatuation.
I don’t think the therapist is completely off, however. I think the therapist is identifying an important truth. I’ve read the best way to prevent limerence from occurring is to overfeed it i.e. to get to know the person too well. However, I reckon this “getting to know the person too well” needs to happen before crystallisation occurs. In other words, one must get to know LO when they’re only a glimmer and then shut down the glimmer through over-exposure. The corrective dose of reality has to come at the glimmer stage – before it’s too late, and mad fantasising takes over. Might extreme familiarity inhibit fantasy?
I agree that limerence rewards are so potent because pair-bonding is strongly linked to reproduction and human evolution places a very high value on biological behaviours that are going to facilitate successful reproduction…
On a lighter note, I’m happy to learn most people won’t become dangerously addicted to running, no matter how much they enjoy the pastime! (Apparently?) 😛
“On a lighter note, I’m happy to learn most people won’t become dangerously addicted to running, no matter how much they enjoy the pastime! (Apparently?)”
Lol, I can’t get enough of running. I love it so much. It is my happy place. I think about it even more than I think about my current LO, who is, of course, an ultra runner.
You might be asking yourself, “Does she love running or does her passion for running stem from her passion for a running LO?” I’ve asked myself that very question. I’m pretty sure I just love running and LO happens to be the person who reintroduced me to it. I can see a future without LO, but I can’t see a future without running. Time will tell. Also, my last LO loves hiking. I loved hiking when he was my LO and I still love it after the LE faded, though now I prefer trail running. Wait a minute… maybe I am blinded by limerence. I used transference from previous LO to current LO. Hiking to trail running… hmmm.
Firstly, I am so happy I found this blog. I was starting to feel like an absolute mad woman for my irrational feelings and I’m glad I’m not alone. I’ve been married to my SO for 12 years, there have been happy moments but mostly not a great marriage. In April of this year we decided we’d give counseling one more chance and if it didn’t work we’d call it quits and separate. Fast forward to July, when I get a message from an ex from about 18 years ago on social media. We reconnect via online, all very friendly just catching up on each other’s lives. Him married now with more children (he was a single dad when we were together). After a couple of days of chatting, I apologize for being not so nice when we dated long ago and he tells me that he never got over me and never stopped loving me. This is about the time the LE begins. We’re both unhappy in our marriages and I tell him several times that we should both figure out our situations with our SO, and then later see if something between us would be a possibility. I was still trying to think rationally. I attempt to go NC several times over a month and a half period, but keep coming back for all the beautiful things I’m hearing that I haven’t heard in a decade from
my SO. Finally, someone thinks I’m beautiful and important and appears to want to do everything in their power to make sure I’m happy. He tells me he was ready to marry me so many years ago and always wanted to have kids with me, just so so much was said. I eventually cave and fall hard for LO. I start believing this future that he’s painting for us. He was a wonderful BF many years ago, and always treated me like a queen and I had thought about how I felt when I was with him many times over the years. We were in different states when the LE began but a month and a half later we’re in the same state, as the move with my family was planned prior to contact with LO. For a week, LO constantly brings up seeing each other and each time I say it’s a bad idea. Finally, I agree. We meet up, share some hugs, he holds my hand and a flood of emotions come crashing in, as if I wasn’t already picturing a future with him. The next day he tells me it was great to see me and he had a tough time not crossing a line during our meet up. A day later he’s distant and I notice that distant pattern continue day after day for a week. I’m the one initiating more conversations and talks of the future from him have stopped. It’s too late though, I am in the LE black hole. I bring it up and he says that his wife has been there with him this whole time over the years when I wasnt. That she had picked up the pieces when I broke his heart years ago. That I’ve done the marriage counseling already and have reached my decision, but he hasn’t. I forgot to add, I convinced him to go to marriage counseling early on, so he’d know for sure that he wanted out of his marriage. This was when I was still thinking semi-rationally. He said his wife deserved his full attention now, and apologized for hurting me this time around. I’m heartbroken and go NC for two weeks, and for those two weeks I go through awful withdrawal and eventually convince myself that I’m strong enough to still be friends with him and that’s better than nothing. I contact him again and we make small talk for a month, mostly me just trying to go days not messaging and him rarely initiating conversation, but always replying as if he feels sorry for me perhaps. I have a tough time understanding how he was able to just shut off the feelings he supposedly had, because it has been a month and a half since he said he said he needed to dedicate his time to his wife and I have been a mess since. I have had panic attacks, and my anxiety and depression are through the roof and my obsession was this has made me physically sick. I sent a message this week after just waiting to see if he’d initiate conversation for a week and a half and he didn’t. I told him I couldn’t be friends with him and had to close the door on this situation for my own mental health. He simply replied that he understood. Deep down I know eventually I’ll be ok, but the hurt I feel right now is unbearable and it makes me so angry that I let this happen and I let myself get to this point. Thank you for letting me vent and tell my story.
“it makes me so angry that I let this happen and I let myself get to this point.”
I completely understand your frustration. I was so mad that I allowed myself to get to the point of crying almost daily, and feeling ashamed for being a terrible, limerence-ridden wife to my loving SO. It all happened so gradually, but when I realized what it was, I felt like I made a bad turn in Loveville and accidentally ended up in the wrong side of town. To make it worse, it is such a lonely feeling because society just doesn’t understand that falling in limerence with a married person, when we are also married is not something we look for, anymore than a heroine addict looks to ruin their life with drugs. Most people would call us adulterers and homewreckers, which makes it really hard to find the right kind of support. I have only discussed this with my therapist even though I told my SO. I am ashamed to tell anyone else. My SO has been super understanding, but I don’t want to share my daily challenges of being limerent for another man. That is not fair to him.
As I was reading your story, I felt your pain. I am in my second month of NC, I had to go back to work and see my LO for a month in between which set me back to the daily crying. Now I am off until the new year. It’s interesting because I have had a few sad days and a cry here or there since this most recent NC month, but in reading your story I realize that these two months have lessened the pain a lot. It has gone from daily agony in my heart (and constant rumination) to what I would say is more of a heart soreness (and passing thoughts.) I still think of my LO daily, but I can usually redirect my brain. I don’t crave him constantly (at least for now.) Thank goodness, I probably won’t have to see him until after the New Year. I am hoping if this second 5 weeks has lessened the agony this much, that by New Years maybe my resolution can be that I am limerent-free. I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can hope. I definitely feel like it is getting better.
For you (and me too, I guess) just know that in the coming weeks you will feel better. The more NC and focus we put on family, friends, exercise, reading, hobbies, and all the other things we are grateful for, the better it gets. It will pass with time. We will eventually have days when we don’t think of our LOs at all. I KNOW that they are coming. Keep at it… we can do this.
I can’t with these types of therapists! Is it really so hard to learn about limerence? Is it not teached in psychology school?!
Limerence is an addiction! We are addicted to the dopamine rushes we get when we interact with our object. According to this therapist then drug addicts, gaming addicts etc should do exposure therapy to stop using drugs?! Its INSANE!
I get so railed up but therapists should understand, Limerence is an ADDICTION!
I’m of course very torn on this, because my only other adult LO was indeed crushed through exposure. Maybe coworker scenario is best for this: it’s a measured, consistent serving. Every single day, you see this person. While unbearable at first, especially when in the same room, trying to prevent staring, it grew easier. You see the zit one day. You hear an obnoxious comment or terrible idea, or even better, something annoying or insulting and before long – “Oh yeah. She’s a human.” My limerent brain is begging me to try this approach with my current LO, going on 3 years. But I know it’s not possible. There’s no way I can just happen to see her every day for months as a vaccine against her! No possible scenario at all. The only way I can see her again is when I am confident the limerence is gone.
Allie 1 says
I think that would be a risky strategy, even if it was possible. Not all LOs or LEs are equal.
I had an LE for a charismatic and funny co-worker in my early twenties. I saw him all day every day. I even had (bad, passionless) sex with him eventually. Yet I remained full-on limerent for 1.5 years. Leaving the job was my cure and my LE mostly faded out after 2-3 months of NC. Within 6 months, I really struggled to understand what I ever saw in him. My taste in men altered forever as a result of that experience… obvious charm and charisma combined without obvious kindness and humility are a real turn-off to me now.
I found this site right before Halloween last year and am super grateful for Dr. L and the commenters here. My LE started more than two years ago, and I only understood the terrible turbulence I was going through after reading Dr. L’s blogs. Today is the one year anniversary of my first try of NC, and I tried several times over the past year. It worked well each time before an unexpected contact happened, along with the dopamine that sent me into a relapse. My case is mutual LE with multiple barriers, and I think my deliberate NC behavior might have made it worse for my LO. The undeniable elation he presented at each contact gave me not only euphoria but also guilt. Telling myself that he’s bad news for me worked, but then all it takes for my defense to shatter is a glance at his eyes smiling at me. Getting rid of limerence is so, so hard.
Camilla Mallonee says
I have a different perspective. My husband had an EA with a woman during a period of stress and depression. I found out, the LO broke it off, we fought for months, then started counseling. I could understand how it started. I could not understand his inability to let go. She was 21 years younger than he and we had been married 25 years. Time passed. We stayed married but things had changed. Fast forward he died unexpectedly this year. In clearing out papers I found a journal. He obsessed over this relationship for 13 years! The first three were excruciating for me to read. What I had seen as a passing phase was something different. I could see that he was not even addicted to her but to how he felt when he was with her. All things were possible. The sun always shone. He was a new man. I have cried for a week and found this website. Please people. If you have an SO you care anything about, don’t keep journals.
Oh Camilla, I am so sorry you are going through such a painful experience. That is tragic. As a fellow limerent, I wonder if your husband kept a journal because it gave him an outlet or maybe because he was trying to make sense of it. I have used journaling as a way to process my limerent feelings. When I journal about limerence, I shred the pages immediately.
Thank you for your warning. Best of luck to you and your family.
Limerent Emeritus says
I’m sorry to hear that. I can imagine how painful that is for you. It can’t help but rock your world. It calls into question your whole life together since then.
I don’t want my wife to ever question the love and trust she gave me or regret taking a chance on me. I worked with a therapist on the EA/LO with LO #4 but when we were done, I destroyed every piece of evidence precisely to spare my wife what happened to you.
I hope you find some comfort at LwL. You may find explanations for what happened, but you won’t find any excuses for it.
For what it’s worth, Camilla, I love my husband very much. I recognize that my limerence doesn’t honor him and I feel a lot of guilt for it. He deserves the best and I am barely getting by, but luckily he seems happy with me anyway.
Your husband’s limerence and his behavior probably have nothing to do with you. He really could have felt limerence for this other woman and loved you at the same time. When he wrote that journal, it’s possible that he was swept up with emotions and the content may not be his best work so to speak.
I’ve been pondering what I would say to my husband if my limerence journals were discovered. I’d say…
I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I didn’t understand why I had these intense feelings for someone else. I felt ashamed and confused. I was also afraid of not having these feelings because I noticed that I wasn’t depressed anymore. Depression was so awful and I feared going back to that dark place. I wanted to protect you from it, I wanted to protect our marriage, but I didn’t know how. I journaled about my limerence because I couldn’t think of any other way to process it. I mean, I couldn’t trust anyone with this information because it is so shameful. I was carrying it alone. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want you to see my journal. You don’t deserve this. I understand if you never forgive me. But I really hope you find peace. And I want you to know that it had nothing to do with you or our relationship.
“I journaled about my limerence because I couldn’t think of any other way to process it.”
True this. Even disclosure to SO requires tact, what to do with the excess of emotions so intense you wonder if you’ll get through the maelstrom? If any of us could hit the off switch, we would in a heartbeat. But there isn’t one, and we somehow have to get through it. I’ve told my child to destroy my journals if I get hit by a bus. If she couldn’t resist a peek, I would much prefer that than my SO finding out the extent of this obsession.
He journaled about this LO for 13 years? Yeah, he wasted your time & focused on his public appearance as a spouse. I’m sorry. Burn it. Don’t look back. He duped and used you and that is on HIM.
“…When it comes down to it, limerence is kind of the worst case scenario for addiction: an uncertain reward you can’t control access to, which doesn’t get boring, and is linked to one of the most powerful biological imperatives we have…”
WOW, understanding is liberating. The above sentence gives me so much to plan and strategize to overcome. If, I can stop the LE from overriding my Executive brain.
In short, my situation is that I’m married with a single LO who agreed to my “mistress” with the added incentive of receiving a monetary gift via our Sugar Daddy/Sugar Baby initial meeting platform. Then Limerence jumped me and now instead of a NSA situation where I’m mentally stable to leave whenever I see he need to. I can’t. At the moment!
My LO executes the Avoidant attributes on me. Hence, my addiction in the face of inconsistency, inconsiderate treatment and avoidance had me going nuts until I found LwL.
I read some LwL post and read people talking about LO #2, 3, and 4. I pray this is my first and LAST LE experience!!! No way could I survive going through this 3 and 4 times.
I’ve violated every moral code I have and the shame of falling into such a state can be debilitating! I’m no Denzel Washington but I’ve never had an issue with attracting women so this is really kicking square in the pants why I’m going through this over ONE women.
I fell into limerence via the classic being overwhelmed with work stress, a sexless marriage, several key mentors in my life passing away which created some depression and a lack of purpose. Yes, the purposeful living solution is big and I’m working to reconnect with my purpose before Limerence set in. I had a strong foundation in living a purposeful life then I fell off and now have learned that I was reaching out to my LO for rescue.
Understanding the addictiveness of LO helps. I can’t control access to the great sex we have as that’s based on schedules and my ability to pay my LO her mistress “gift”. It appears my LO has taken a master class in being the Avoidant and executes to perfection.
Now the hard part of kicking the habit. Sometimes I think LE is my reward for my violation of the many moral codes governing my life. When I feel the overall shytiness of this, the cycle starts again, seeking relief from the pain, regret, self loathing with the very thing/person that assists in producing these negative feelings.
I was in a toxic relationship for 25 yrs and despite periods of NC, I never blocked him so when he would invariably come calling, after months (or even years at one point) I ended up going back EVEN THOUGH I DISLIKED HIM in so many ways and felt trapped and unable to leave. When I discovered in a way I could not ignore (I had turned a blind eye for a long time) that he had been lying to me for the entire 25 years, I was done. Completely. Blocked in every way I can. NC. I don’t know if this was the aversion therapy or something else. But it seems like I tend to stay in emotionally harmful relationships for so very long that I always leave hating the person and maybe that’s what the therapist was describing? Granted, no one should waste the time I have wasted, but 4 years, 5 years, 25 years, if I stay long enough, I leave with disgust after years and years of heartbreak.
Harried and not-so-hopeless says
Exposure only works when we are trying to better access something that is anxiety inducing but is actually healthy for us. No contact for reducing the urges and alleviating the withdrawals of things that are unhealthy for us. That’s the difference.
Hello everyone. Really good to find this site. I have been in an LE for the past one year. Keep having intrusive thoughts in my head that I cannot seem to control. Would like to get better, and know what to do, but it seems very hard. Married with kids, had a loss in the family sometime back. Would really appreciate thoughts and suggestions. Thanks for listening.