Understand Limerence: The Psychology of Obsessive Love
We're All Wired Differently
As a neuroscientist, I have come to understand that romance only strikes a small percentage of the population in a wildly euphoric and anguishing way. Limerence can be considered pathological and 'love gone wrong', since it greatly perturbs the life of the limerent individual. Typically, they will involuntarily alternate between an extremely elevated, hypomanic mood and heavy depression (Fisher et al., 2016), depending on the perceived level of attention received from their love interest (limerent object/LO).
As with all biological phenomenon, there is a clear biological basis underpinning the tendency to experience such insurmountable feelings in response to love. Limerence involves a certain disposition, or collection of traits; after all, not everyone is affected by romance in this way. All sufferers are prone to obsession; the low serotonin levels observed in states of romantic longing are also seen in OCD, and allow for rumination and thought-loops (Marazziti et al., 1999). The tendency to enter manic states is also a prerequisite to limerence, so bipolar disorder is naturally also often a comorbidity (García, 2017).
There Is No Biological 'Free Lunch'
Limerence is a behavioral addiction, and all addictions epitomize the concept of duality in that the initial high does not come for free or last long. The reinforcing buzz that you receive from your LO's attention eventually lessens in intensity, until withdrawal symptoms prevail and you require a 'fix' to simply function and feel normal (Chassin et al., 2007). Ironically, this need not even be a real-life conversation with your LO, as reminiscing, viewing their photos or mentioning them to friends can give you a similar hit. It is important to rise above the delusion that you have met your 'twin flame' by reminding yourself of this.
My first 'limerent episode' crushed me into tiny pieces, forced me to adopt an entirely new attitude regarding pair-bonding and taught me that a good life is lived only when you discipline the beast that is your mind. Through this article, I hope to show you that despite limerence shaking you to the core, you are not alone in the ineffable intensity of your feelings. If you are open to adopting an analytical perspective and to resisting destructive highs, you can and will avoid future episodes.
The order of this article is as follows:
1. The three stages of limerence (glimmer, initial euphoria, addiction).
2. An overview of the types of people who commonly trigger limerence.
3. An in-depth analysis of the two prerequisites to limerence:
- A LO who glimmers to you and makes you feel secure/'high', by meeting unmet needs or reviving hidden traits of yours (a.k.a. your trigger 'archetype').
- Confusing behavior from your LO that sustains addiction.
4. Introduction to Carl Gustav Jung, and his role in showing us that we can handle this pain (by considering it a mere psychic dilemma).
5. The one trick that makes you resistant to limerence!
1. The Glimmer (She's Different)
A common phenomenon amongst limerents is to experience an initial 'glimmer' when meeting a new LO. It seems that early environmental influences and unhealed wounds result in us subconsciously curating a 'dream archetype', with regards to the individuals that trigger limerence in us.
Physical attraction is heavily implicated in infatuation, but true limerence only brews when you feel that you have an uncanny emotional connection with your LO. You feel that they offer you freedom and excitement that you cannot obtain elsewhere, to the extent that you need them like a stimulant addict needs a substance.
Looking back, I can see that I, like most limerents, was hooked from that first spark of recognition. Establishing and continuing with the addiction, however, is always a choice.
2. Limerence Starts On A High
The ecstasy experienced in the early stages of limerence is a state of mania that surpasses anything else on the spectrum of human emotions. I remember thinking that my LO was the most magical being that I had ever encountered, and I wanted to cling onto her, tightly. Unaware of the neurochemical factors that were making her seem so mentally and physically beautiful, I fell into the insidious illusion that she was my one true love.
She was able to crawl into my mental space unlike anyone else I had ever met, and I was sure that if I lost her, I would never love again. I had to cling on. Life became segmented into 'time with her' vs 'all other duties/friends/family', the former of which my brain deemed of the utmost salience. I was unable to resist her pull and started to grow bored of my close friends, living for her reciprocation and succumbing to a nasty degree of addiction.
(The Falsehood Behind Limerence)
To my young, lovesick mind, no one's energy compared to hers; she could render the sparkiest performer a dull, uninteresting back-up dancer. I adored her, and believed that the desperation that I felt for my next 'hit' was a sign that I was experiencing the only form of real, genuine love.
It is crucial that you start to realize that this is an illusory concept. Unless you can tolerate permanently swinging from limerence to limerence, you should not expect your partner to make you feel this way nor should you seek out people who leave you euphoric and jittery. Moderate infatuation is healthy, but people that make you feel like you are riding a methamphetamine high must be avoided. The lows will always follow, and they will always derail you.
As I will elaborate on soon, there is a reason why sustained highs and lows in romance are associated with trauma bonding and toxicity. Our neurobiological machinery only allows us to feel those 'ups' for people who are unavailable and confusing (Dutton and Painter, 1993). And, there is always a cost, as I'm sure the pain of limerence has revealed to you.
3. The Limerence Crash Is A Drug Withdrawal
No one understands the concept of duality better than the limerent; what goes up must always come down. Just as a cocaine user crashes from the high, we experience days of abject misery when we start to perceive that our LO is, in some way, 'slipping away'. Whether it is a missed day of communication or an unexpected contemptuous look from your LO, you will find yourself plunging into a state of major depression when this occurs.
If you are lucky enough to a). receive closure, b). commit to dismissing day-dreams of marriage with your LO as intrusive thoughts and c). immerse yourself in the real world, you will withdraw from them and move on in a matter of weeks/months. Unfortunately, with the internet at our fingertips, it is very easy to stay limerent over someone for years; your brain receives a hit of dopamine every time that you 'engage' with your LO (Burkett and Young, 2012), whether it is an online, imagined or real interaction.
What Type of People Trigger Limerence, Then?
Despite the responsibility being ours to recognize our illogical dependence, it takes two to tango. Often LOs are unconventional, passionate and unstable people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or manipulative narcissistics. Why? These common trigger archetypes a). bond with you intensely at the beginning due to absent boundaries, b). exhibit confusing, self-contradicting behavior that creates addiction and c). oddly enjoy attention from you when you are obviously limerent, despite not considering you a potential partner (Wilson et al., 2017).
You see, a secure, relatively neurotypical individual is unlikely to continue throwing compliments at you or sparking text conversations if they suspect that you are in love with them and they are not interested in a relationship. Most normal people are repelled by people who appear 'lovey-dovey' around them if they do not reciprocate feelings. If you truly believe that your LO is giving you mixed signals and keeping you 'trapped' in a sentimental quasi-friendship, there is a good chance that they lack the normal bonding behaviors and boundaries of a healthy adult.
The dilemma of the BPD limerent object
My LO craved a scary degree of emotional enmeshment, yet wasn't looking to commit. For someone with as little emotional maturity as her, such attention could come from anyone (and it did - every week she would reach out to another ex-partner, each of them just as addicted to her chaos as I was). I came to learn that you need to find your own closure when it comes to these people, as their antics will never make sense when you are more moral and grounded.
She'd spill her heart out to me before seeming bored of me the next week, and I eventually realized that emotional dysfunction allows severely-BPD people to pick and choose when they want to tune into the deep bond that you have with them. They love your unwavering attention and are genuine when they are with you, but this doesn't translate into them wanting to date you. Why would they, when you are an ever-present source of fuel for their ego? Grabbing you to temporarily shield their abandonment wounds before dropping you again (and seeking support elsewhere) is more their style. Committed, drama-free relationships aren't.
Unstable Limerent Objects = Variable Reward Schedule
Limerence cannot be sustained without uncertainty, and intermittently showering a limerent with love and interest but then disappearing or assuming a colder stance will intractably push them towards addiction. If a mouse is given access to food constantly and then it is suddenly taken away, they will appear desolate and do anything that they can to regain access to it rather than giving up. Skinner described such behavior as 'hard to extinguish'... does that remind you of yourself and your obsessive thinking patterns when your LO detaches from you?
When my LO's mood was bright, she'd reach out and initiate a long online conversation, acting as if she needed me. She'd tell me that I was the most fascinating character that she knew, and my heart would swell with pride. That resurgence of emotional intimacy convinced my brain that she was reciprocating; after such conversations, I'd bask in a euphoric, energizing concoction of hope (that she would, surely, realize we were soulmates), self-assurance (she believed me to be magical!) and complete and utter emotional security.
Conversely, when she was feeling depressed or 'bored of people', she'd delete all of her social media pages and disappear off the face of the planet for several weeks. During the times that I received radio silence from her, I would be horrified to find myself thinking about her constantly, terrified that I had lost her.
The brain hates unfinished business (Zeignarnik effect), and if you're in love with someone who displays bizarre behavioral switches, you will find yourself compulsively wondering what has happened. Why have they dropped away from a connection that is clearly real? How can I act to make them chase me again? As I have alluded to in my point about BPD LOs, there is nothing you can do to make an adult with intrinsically-disordered emotions commit to you romantically.
"I'm Quitting Coffee, But I Still Drink It Occasionally!"
Against my better judgment, I decided to stay 'friends' with my LO after realizing that dating was not working. I was imbalanced and giving my brain no way to fully withdraw from her, but even the emotional entanglement of our 'friendship' (albeit a tender one) offered me too potent a high to resist. Just like someone battling a drug addiction, I was under the illusion that if I let her go, nothing and no one else would ever pique my interest again or add color to my life. So, we stayed emotionally connected.
Are you avoiding cutting the cord?
The issue with sustaining a friendship with your LO is that you will continue to receive these erratic 'hits' of love from them, and will never see the withdrawal through. People do not change unless they desperately want to transform their own lives, so I can assure you that your LO is not going to start treating you with respect or miraculously overcome their own emotional deficits. Analogous to trying to quit caffeine but caving and buying a coffee every second day, the Friendship Strategy is disrespectful to yourself and a mere illusion of recovery.
Why Do We Become Addicted to Certain People?
If you become strongly limerent over another individual, it is because, on a subconscious level, you crave what they provide you with emotionally. Make no mistake, intermittent reward plays a huge part in all addictions, but you are not going to become infatuated with every hot-and-cold person you encounter. Therefore, in addition to your LO submitting you to a cycle of unpredictable reward (alternating long text conversations with radio silence, or smiles with blank looks of disinterest), they are fulfilling an unmet need of yours.
This links in with the concept of the 'LO archetype'; us limerents are addiction-prone, mildly unstable people, yet we only fall into episodes that derail our lives once we a). experience 'the glimmer' (i.e. we notice someone with the potent combination of traits that triggers dopamine release in us) and b). connect with them enough to feel the potential for deep reciprocation and bonding.
Hindsight has revealed to me that, as well as displaying erratic behavior that allowed me to question our dynamic and hope for permanent partnership, my LO brought out a version of me that I adored. My brain deemed her an incredibly scarce and valuable resource, as I could not reach that height of mental connection with anyone else, nor did anyone else affirm my identity as she did. With her fiery wit, domineering personality and a rogue streak of non-compliance, she let me re-connect with my true, childlike self.
When she was by my side, I felt oddly safe. Life transformed itself into an expansive playground in which I could be a superior version of myself and explore my truth. Since she was empowered, articulate and carefree, I felt myself assimilating and taking on these traits myself. Had I been more confident and authentic myself at that time, I may have fallen into gentle, sustainable, slow-burning love for her rather than limerence.
"Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness."— Carl Jung
I believe that coping while limerent is impossible if you don't learn to tune into your spiritual side. As with any other addiction, resisting the pull of your LO can render life temporarily empty, depressing and feel as if you're suppressing your true self. Carl Jung (psychoanalyst) is incredibly adept at interpreting human emotions, overcoming self-destructive patterns and accepting life as a switch between pain and joy that is worth living.
It would also be wrong to discuss archetypes (e.g. narcissist, empath, dependent BPD sufferer) without mentioning him, as he pioneered the concept that we are all wired very differently in a way that results in different personalities (MBTI personality types are derived from Jungian psychology).
I thoroughly recommend that anyone introspective and limerence-prone reads his work, as it is undeniably aimed at people like us. I personally find "Modern Man In Search of a Soul" the most uplifting and insightful - it is a compilation of accessible essays confronting the issues that we deal with across different life stages. "The Undiscovered Self" is also a classic. Please feel free to share any other literature that has resonated with you in the comments.
Ask Yourself This: What Does Your Limerent Object Represent?
Living with your brain chemistry while avoiding severe limerence relies on your adherence to a key cornerstone concept: someone that you are romantically involved with should not represent more than they, themselves, are.
If you are dating someone, you should, of course, enjoy the bond that you two share and will naturally come to associate them with particular activities, books, music and emotions. However, it is crucial that you do not start to consider your LO a dreamy 'concept' or a magical source of positive feelings. In doing so, you will lapse into intense limerent addiction and expect your LO to fulfill on a role that no mortal human can.
Allowing people to take on otherworldly, god-like qualities in your head is pure magical ideation. The same thinking patterns that are harmless when writing a diary entry about a special, childhood friend are disastrous in romance. We are not all cut the same, and most people do not experience limerence or idolize others to the extent that we do. Such a mismatch in feelings between you and your future partner/s will push them away and render you unhappy.
Never Let Your LO Represent Freedom
My limerence spiraled out of control because I let my LO represent much more than a human should ever represent. What should have been a bond with a like-minded, interesting person became something that I needed and waited for like a stray dog for scraps of meat. In my head, I was an empowered, intelligent queer woman with her, yet none of these things without her.
At my own peril, I associated living an authentic life and being honest about my sexuality with having her in my life; never before had I felt comfortable speaking about it, but with her as my partner, it suddenly didn't matter. Rather than shying away from discussing the topic, I was brazen, proud to show her off and fearless. Subconsciously, I believed that I could not be openly queer without her because I had never pushed myself to be so before meeting her.
Your story will be very different to mine, but through introspection, you will come to see that deficits in your own self-perception and life stance have led to your limerent experiences. Problematic thinking patterns, hiding parts of ourselves and low self-esteem all set us up for becoming emotionally dependent on and addicted to another person's security and attention.
Can Limerence Be Avoided, Then?
I do not believe that you can naturally make yourself entirely non-limerence-prone. To do so would be to reduce your overdrive in dopamine and the very primitive functionality of your reward system, which this would not be without severe side effects and a generalized lack of motivation (NB: many other neurotransmitter systems are also involved in love addiction!). Many people do, interestingly, do find great relief with the supplement , and I suggest that you read up on its ability to rewire the brain away from intrusive thinking N-Acetyl Cysteinehere. In addition to being a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, it selectively modulates glutamate and dopamine activity.
However, this article pertains to the psychology behind avoiding 'major limerent episodes', which are the those that leave you horrendously mentally ill for months to years. The become more limerence immune, you must make it less likely that limerence will make you euphoric in the first place, because the crushing lows, agony, suicidal ideation and lethargy are all just consequences of that initial 'buzz'. They are two sides of the same coin. As with recreational drugs, our reward circuitry habituates to the dopamine release that our LO's emotional reciprocation provides us with, and we experience withdrawal when we go a few days or weeks without it (Cooper et al., 2017).
This can be conceptualized as the initial few days/weeks when your new connection is budding and you are mesmerized, contrasted with the period when the LO starts to pull away a little and introduce the 'uncertainty game'. The latter phase makes you severely depressed and anxious only because you have experienced the buzz, just as drug comedowns are a mere consequence of the high. Learn to recognize red flags and consider thrilling sparks as warning signs rather than proof of true love.
A Limerence Cure: Express the Traits of Your Trigger Archetype
Let's say that your weakness is narcissistic, headstrong and commanding LO's, who initially 'love-bomb' you but later phase you out and leave you yearning for them. If you strive to always be the strongest, most collected, bravest version of yourself, you are unlikely to fall as hard for a LO of this profile if you engage in conversation with one at work or meet one through a friend. Why? Your brain will no longer perceive as big a disparity between your traits and theirs and you will not experience euphoria as intense and become 'hooked'.
Subconsciously, when you interact with a 'danger person' who is the specific archetype that you subconsciously imprint on, your brain will alter your behaviors so that you meet them in the middle and acquire some of their traits. We all do this, as we have evolved to gain approval from others and balance out our unhealed wounds.
This becomes problematic in the context of romance when we idolize the attitudes of our LOs. Doing so means that you are likely to change significantly in the company of this person, and there is a good chance that you will like this new version of yourself and start to feel that you cannot acquire these traits without them (= surefire limerence).
Drawn to confident people, but tired of limerence? Try to exude confidence yourself
We are setting ourselves up for limerence if we feel that our behavior, or richness of life, is markedly different with our LO compared to on our own. So, should you try and fall in love with people who don't stir up anything in us? Not necessarily. It can be difficult to change our psychological preferences when it comes to partners, so it is more feasible to allow ourselves to pursue these 'addictive' people, but only after we have closed the gap between ourselves and them.
If you enjoy living an unconventional lifestyle and crave the company of sparky, daring people, ensure that you work on unmasking those traits within yourself, or risk becoming manically addicted to the next person you meet who rocks those attributes.
Are you prone to intense limerence?
If you are, does caffeine have a strong effect on you and give you a mild 'high'?
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Wilson, S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. (2017). Interpersonal dysfunction in personality disorders: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 143(7), pp.677-734.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Lucy