Sometimes we are so convinced that we have fallen in love and met the one that it can be a painful shock when the relationship falls apart. Where did things go wrong? Was I just completely deluded about the situation? Well, as it turns out, many of us often mistake strong feelings for another person as love. We believe we’re in a loving relationship, when, in fact, we’re in a relationship that is based on limerence. This is an important concept in psychology that can help us make sense of past and present relationships, as well as ensure that we can form and maintain healthy romantic partnerships in the future.
The Addictive, Drug-Like Side to Attraction
Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love (1979) details what limerence is and why it shouldn’t be confused with love. Tennov states that limerence involves:
- Obsessive thinking about a person. You can’t eat, sleep, or concentrate at work
- An irrational positive evaluation of a person’s attributes (i.e. putting him or her on a pedestal or making him or her out to be absolutely perfect)
- Emotional dependency. You feel you need to be around your partner all the time. It hurts when he or she isn’t by your side.
- Longing for reciprocation. Euphoria or despair occurs depending on whether or not your intense feelings are reciprocated.
Limerence is not the same as lust, as it is not exclusively sexual in nature. Moreover, while limerence is sometimes conflated with infatuation (or a ‘crush’), it is quite different. When we use the term infatuation or crush, it is usually based on a sense of immaturity, a lack of sufficient information about the partner, and is short-lived in nature. Tennov points out that limerence “may dissolve soon after its initiation, as in an early teenage buzz-centered crush”; however, she adds that limerent bonds can last much longer.
The French writer Stendhal, in his 1832 treatise On Love, noted that a new love infatuation could change, resulting in the exaggeration of a partner’s attractive traits with little attention paid to their unattractive traits. When this happens, Tennov argued, the partner becomes a limerent object. The partner becomes someone who is intensely adored, obsessed about, and craved. Limerence is an addictive form of romantic attraction. When experiencing limerence, you become desperate for the ‘high’ of reciprocation. You fantasise endlessly about being with the person. Thoughts of the limerent object are intrusive and involuntary. Limerence also tends to include an intense fear of rejection.
Limerence is normal and not always harmful. However, Tennov does highlight that limerence can become pathological if it disrupts your normal day-to-day functioning and activities. This can happen when your feelings aren’t reciprocated, which can amp up the intrusive, obsessive thinking. This can make it difficult to get on with work, fulfil your responsibilities, or maintain a healthy social and family life. This is when talking to a psychotherapist may be necessary. It’s important to understand why you’ve become so easily and strongly attached to someone in this unhealthy way. This might be a pattern you’ve noticed in your romantic relationships.
The Difference Between Limerence and Love
There are crucial differences between limerence and love. For example, when you genuinely love someone, you love him or her regardless of whether there is any reciprocation. Love is characterised by unconditional care for someone. In contrast, when a limerent bond is formed, you can only be happy when your feelings are reciprocated.
In addition, when you really love someone, you love him or her despite his or her flaws, which you have an honest perception of. You don’t delude yourself about your partner’s traits. Another difference, which holds true for the distinction between limerence and infatuation, is one of duration. Limerence lasts longer than infatuation but tends to be more short-lived than love. In her book Anatomy of Love, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher states that limerence can last for up to two years. You can experience limerence yet still not deeply understand another person. Love, on the other hand, seems to be characterised by commitment and a deep level of intimacy.
Limerence often feels like real love at the beginning of a relationship, only to gradually fizzle out or suddenly disappear. Limerence is an intense, ‘falling in love’ feeling (which many people get addicted to) followed by a bewildering, disheartening ‘falling out of love’ experience. You were certain this person was the one. It can be very painful when your hopes and fantasies are crushed in this way.
While being in love is, no doubt, an extremely powerful state of mind and attraction, it doesn’t have the same intrusive, obsessive quality as limerence. You love your partner; yet you do not drive yourself crazy when they are away at work, out with friends, or on holiday. Love is calmer and less dramatic than limerence.
You shouldn’t necessarily avoid relationships based on limerence at all costs. Nor should you jump ship if you think you’re in such a relationship. After all, Tennov argues that most relationships are defined by a limerent-nonlimerent bonding, which involves unequal reciprocation. Many relationships are also mutually reciprocal – these are called limerent-limerent bondings.
Limerence is an unstable state, so anything relationship that includes it isn’t as likely to sustain itself over time compared to a partnership based on love. Nonetheless, Tennov says that limerent bonds can evolve into loving relationships, with mixed limerent relationships usually lasting longer than mutual ones (these fizzle out as quickly as they begin). Over time, limerence can subside and lead to stable, gratifying, and healthy relationships. It seems that common indicators of a loving relationship are shared values, mutual support, and growth. Love may not be as exciting as limerence, but it leads to happier relationships in the long-term.