In my therapy office, psycho-education was a big part of my job. Clients came in to discuss their feelings, and I taught what I knew about feelings. One of my clients (I’ll call her “Leslie”) felt miserable, reporting that she was in love with her supervisor at work. She saw him every day, dressed in the morning with the goal of impressing him, and imagined that he might be her soulmate. Leslie suffered through fantasies that kept her awake at night—focusing on unrealistic and improbable scenarios in which she would discover that he loved her, too. She had trouble concentrating.
We discussed the fact that a simple crush on her boss had turned into something damaging and unhealthy. She said that she had been in love before, but the prior love had felt healthier somehow—a more positive, mutual experience. The more recent experience had a whole different set of features.
In her book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, psychologist Dorothy Tennov describes the typical features of limerence:
*Intense romantic desire
*A compulsive, obsessive, addictive quality to the experience
*The attachment increases in the presence of barriers
*Intrusive thoughts and fantasies about the love object
*Emotional swings from bliss to despondency, depending on the most recent interaction with the Love Object
*An uptick of chemical activity in the brain, powerful rushes of dopamine
*Feels intensely pleasurable but can also make the limerent person feel physically ill
*More emphasis on winning the attention of the love object, less on sexual consummation
*Heroic fantasies of saving the love object and creating a feeling of gratitude in that person
*Extreme attachment to the point of dependence
*Can become self-destructive and might lead to stalking or suicide
Limerence starts in a way that is similar to the first wave of a new romance, a time of discovery, hope, fear and desire. Soon it crosses a line and goes too far, becoming pathological, especially if the person loses the ability to function on a daily basis. That’s what happened to Leslie. It wasn’t just a crush—that pleasant, fleeting feeling of liking someone a lot—nor was it secure love, which is a deep and abiding attachment to someone, a feeling that develops and is sustained over time. It was limerence, which turned her feelings of attachment into something desperate and obsessive.
How can someone stop these destructive limerent feelings? One of three ways:
This endpoint occurs when the feelings are not reciprocated and the limerent person loses hope. Researcher Helen Fisher says, “When you’re heartbroken, hormones change again. You get another dopamine boost. That makes you have no interest in food at the beginning and end of a passionate relationship.” But she goes on to explain that the good news is that when the love remains hopeless and unreturned, the experience of limerence will end.
This endpoint is counterintuitive, but it works. If the love object returns your feelings and you reach that peak moment of acceptance, reciprocity, and passion, then the end is near. There is nothing more to strive for, the goal has been achieved, and at that point the relationship either begins to wind down or settles into secure attachment.
This endpoint occurs when a new love object enters the picture. If the limerent person is distracted by a new love object, attention can be diverted away from the former love object and toward the new one.
I’ve seen what limerence does to people. It can take a person from a moment of pure ecstasy down into the pit of despair. It creates concentration problems, weight issues, work difficulties, and disrupts healthy connections between couples. Limerence feels good at first, and then it becomes a sinister, near-constant companion.
Therapist and addiction specialist Rob Weiss tells us that many limerent individuals who are stuck in the cycle of love addiction never make it to the securely attached phase of love. Instead, they follow one ill-advised crush after another in much the same way an untreated alcoholic takes one drink after another.
Limerence doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen to a significant portion of the population. If you suspect that you might be limerent, read Dorothy Tennov’s book and seek the support of a counseling professional. You might not be able to prevent it from happening, but you can shorten the duration and mitigate the negative effects. By educating yourself, you can rewire the way you look at and experience love.