Limerence: The agony and the ecstasy
of our earliest addiction
Most of us fall in and out of love throughout our lifetimes; others of us manage to do both in one day.
If the latter sounds like something you did in middle school, or last week, I encourage you to read on. The topic of discussion is high intensity crushing, also known as obsessive love, also known as limerence.
Dorothy Tennov, the psychologist who coined the term, defines limerence as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.” If you’ve never heard of limerence, you’re in the majority.
The few who have some awareness about limerence are typically those who experienced the heartache of unrequited infatuation with a person and googled it. There’s even a subreddit dedicated to those who suffer from or have trouble tolerating their limerent episodes. Many posts are from people desperately looking for a way out of their obsessive rabbit hole as well as those in limerent limbo offering up their version of the antidote. However, if you spend enough time on this subreddit, you begin to get the idea there’s no cure, and everyone who has the disease just lives with it.
What’s going on here? What is this beast? Why are some people addicted to feelings of love or attraction toward another person and others, well, not?
When limerents are in the presence of their objects of desire, they might feel butterflies, weak in the knees, awkward. If it looks like romantic love; is it? The following psychoanalytic theories might have you considering other possibilities.
Limerents have persistent and intrusive fantasies about a potential relationship with their object. The fantasies are typically comprised of fear, rejection, and hope—just like most movie plots where the protagonist obsesses over love that’s unrequited. In Melanie Klein’s object relations theory, the infant’s caregiver is their object of desire. But of course, no caregiver is perfect at their job, so the relationship gets complicated. The infant is left to fantasize about getting their needs met and may feel simultaneously exhilarated and frustrated by these fantasies. The same can be said about those who are limerent. In both infancy and limerence, one’s mood can be heavily dependent on the object’s ability to provide love. Perhaps the reason we crave that in-love feeling we get at the dawn of any relationship is because it’s reminiscent of the beginning of life when, for a short time, our mother or father found us to be the most important person on the planet.
On the subject of the emotional bond between infant and caregiver, let’s discuss attachment theory. The abridged history of attachment theory is: There are two types of attachment categories, secure and insecure, and various styles have been named, renamed, and fleshed out on the insecure attachment spectrum. The term for one particular insecure attachment style has been inching closer to what it feels like: anxious-preoccupied attachment. This, for obvious reasons, is the style that is often associated with limerence. The limerent person is anxiously preoccupied with persistent longing for emotional reciprocity, much like a toddler, when left alone, is longing for the reassuring love that comes with their mother’s presence. In each case, the goal is to secure love and attachment for as long as possible. When the attachment is insecure, the relationship feels unrequited.
Unrequited love craves reciprocation. This craving is really at the heart of limerence. It’s a repetitive aching that is at one time thrilling, and at another, torture. Yet, limerents are repeatedly compelled to ignite and then touch the flame. One might call it a repetition compulsion. In fact, Freud might call it that, since repetition compulsion—the unconscious compulsion to repeat the circumstances of a past trauma with the hope that, this time, things will turn out just the way we want them to—is his term. Our unconscious mind has flawed logic, however; we are lured by what seems like a favorable outcome, when in reality, we’re walking down the same street, falling down the same hole...over and over. In limerence, if the trauma is abandonment, the hope is kept alive by fantasy, but abandonment quashes hope time after time just like paper does to rock in a game of rock/paper/scissors. But next time, you’ll throw scissors and your beloved will throw paper, and the repetition compulsion will be over, right? I think you know the answer.
Demystifying this kind of love isn’t very romantic. But neither is limerence in its most distressing phase. It’s ugly, painful, and humiliating. Although some theorists attempt to distinguish between limerence and love addiction, they sound pretty similar to me. Does limerence describe the act of being addicted to being in love? I think it does. Further, there may be something in our early infancy and/or childhood that triggers the addiction.
The American Psychiatric Association describes addiction this way: [A] complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction have an intense focus on using a certain substance to the point that it takes over their life. They keep using even when they know it will cause problems. This sounds very familiar. It sounds like limerence.
There is hope. When you’re in an underwhelming phase of limerence—as opposed to in the throes of it—you’re more equipped to have clarity and deal with your addiction. Though, just like with any addiction, you have to want to deal with your addiction. A good therapist who’s familiar with limerence and love addiction will help you learn how to avoid indulging in your enticing fantasies as well as avoiding contact with the object of your fantasies. Only then, when you’re no longer under the influence, might you be ready and able to dig deeper, past the addiction to the underbelly of your psyche, where you can better understand how the early relationships of your past are revealed in your present.
You might also like: Limerence as a Resistance to Intimacy or Limerence and Splitting or Exploring the Origins of Limerence as Self-Soothing or Limerence: A Psychic Retreat