During the course of a human life, chances are high of being struck by a bout of passionate love so strong, so powerful, that it completely takes control over your thoughts and imaginations.
You wake up, and immediately start to wonder what the person you desire is up to today. You go do your groceries, and hope to meet them somewhere among the aisles. You see some person’s someone’s reflection in a window pane, and imagine it to be your one true love.
When you are actually near the person you desire, the stomach butterflies are so strong they take your breath away.
For some, just these handful of words might describe eerily similar past infatuations. But many people have never really experienced anything like this. For them, such stories are strange and difficult to understand.
But there is a name for this raw and powerful form of love: limerence.
What is limerence or passionate love?
Limerence is an intense emotional state in which the Limerent has romantic obsessions and fantasies towards a certain person (called the Limerent Object or LO) with which it desires a relationship.
Limerence is not true love
At first glance, it’s tempting to say that limerence and true love are the same thing. But a deeper look reveals meaningful differences between the two.
At its core, limerence is motivated by selfish desires. The Limerent wants something from the LO: namely emotional reciprocation and commitment to a relationship.
Ironically however, the Limerent will often be so caught up in this upheaval that they fail to fully empathize with the LO like they would with any other person. In the eyes of the Limerent, the LO becomes an object to be acquired rather a person to interact with.
By comparison, true love is a selfless emotion, centered on caring for the other person and often putting their needs before one’s own. Limerence wants to take from the LO, love wants to give.
While love and limerence are distinct emotions, the two are closely tied together in more ways than one. The prototypical relationship starts with a passionate love or limerent phase, in which one or both partners go through this initial state of irrational affection. After the relationship consolidates, it slowly transitions into a more sustainable form of love.
Limerence and crushes
Crushes have obvious similarities to limerent experiences, but aren’t quite the same. A crush doesn’t take over someone’s mind, but instead it creates a soft spot for a special someone.
Someone with a crush rarely obsesses over a person when they’re not around. But once they are physically near, you can’t help but oh so gently gravitate towards them.
Limerence by comparison is a life consuming affair. Limerents constantly day dream about the LO, imagine how a relationship might unfold and come up with strategies to win them over.
When around the LO, the Limerent hangs on every word of theirs, always looking for a sign that maybe, just maybe, the LO feels the same way.
And unlike a crush, the most extreme cases of limerence are so potent they can alter a person’s behavior and make them completely unrecognizable, both to themselves and others.
Inside the heart of the Limerent
Unfortunately, it’s rare for two people to be passionately in love for each other at exactly the same time.
More often than not, a Limerent finds himself in a situation where he has to woo an LO that is either indifferent or friendly at most.
This period is at once painful, pleasurable and contradictory, and the Limerent can go through most or all of the following limerence symptoms:
- Involuntary fantasies about the LO. No matter how much the Limerent can try to prevent them, they still come up time and again without fail.
- Acute mood swings, depending on whether the LO has shown interest or disinterest. To make it worse, these can change from minute to minute.
- Paralyzing shyness around the LO.
- Physical sensations of pain, located near the chest area.
- Obsessively analyzing the behavior of the LO, looking for any sign of interest.
- A distorted perception of reality, where the Limerent imagines that ordinary gestures from the LO have deeper meanings that show interest.
- An acute fear of rejection, to the point where it paralyses any action.
- Magnifying the LO’s qualities, while ignoring their defects or minimizing them.
- Partial or complete inability to enjoy anything else.
What triggers limerence
Before entering a state of limerence, some will experience a period of “readiness”. At this point in time, they are emotionally open to meet someone, and desire a relationship. However, they haven’t yet found that special person to ignite their emotions.
Telltale signs of being ready for limerence include:
- Felling lonely around other couples.
- Wanting to share an activity with someone.
- Feeling hopeful that the perfect someone is out there.
As a general rule, we experience limerence mostly for a small category of people that fit our romantic preferences. To a degree, these romantic criteria can be conscious and self-directed (eg: “I will only date skinny hipsters” ), but more often we have subconscious preferences that point us towards certain kind of people.
Usually, we become limerent for people who match our cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, who we can relate to and are familiar to us.
Once you come across such a person, they can trigger a limerent reaction with just a few insignificant random gestures, such as their smile, the sound of their laugh or how they play with their hair.
The rollercoaster of hope and uncertainty
From start to finish, an episode of limerence lasts roughly two years on average. But that’s just the average, on the short end of the scale it can extinguish itself in a few days, while the longest episodes can go on for decades or even a lifetime.
When the end finally does arrive, it usually does so in one of two ways:
- The LO provides the emotional investment the Limerent desires.
- The Limerent makes peace with the fact that LO will never provide the desired commitent, and there’s nothing one can do to fix it.
But until then, limerence feeds itself and grows in intensity through hope and uncertainty. Hope makes the Limerent think that maybe, just maybe, the LO wants to commit if only one tried just a bit more.
Uncertainty on the other hand, tricks Limerents into seeing signs of interest when they may or may not be there. As a real world example, the LO might call the Limerent to ask about a recent work assignment. The Limerent then assumes the LO engineered that question just so they could have a chance to talk.
Of course, the LO called strictly to know if the Limerent can kindly do the task instead, but the Limerent can’t see that because his perceptions are all twisted.
This pattern of hope and uncertainty also manifests itself in couples that appear to be passionately in love.
These couples are highly emotional and volatile, so they often break up and then make up. This has a strange affect on them, because these frequent interruptions in the relationship increase both uncertainty (because they don’t know if one breakup is the final one) and hope ( they really want it to not be the final one ).
So in an existing relationship that is unstable, limerence becomes self reinforcing through all of it’s ups and downs.
While it might be exciting, it’s also exhausting.
As long as there is hope or uncertainty, limerence will thrive.
Limerence continues after a relationship begins
The limerence phase usually starts before a relationship, but it doesn’t stop when the Limerent and the LO become a couple.
Young relationships are in a constant state of flux, where the two persons involved are trying to measure each other up, see if the other person is worth the emotional investment and what are their qualities and flaws.
This fosters an uncertainty and hope pattern, that makes fresh relationships lively and deeply passionate.
Passionate love fears rejection
For Limerents, winning over the LO becomes something vitally important to their wellbeing. Even if it’s a person they’ve barely spoken to, a rejection can be as painful as losing a friend, or even a family member.
Because of this, they constantly live in fear of being turned down, so they tip toe around the LO, trying to make their intentions known, but not enough to be fully obvious and risk a bad reaction.
At the same time however, they also want to make the best possible impression. To do this, Limerents will often try to become actors in a way, trying to make every gesture of theirs perfect. Of course, most people aren’t Oscar worthy so this “act” of theirs falls flat, or even feels downright artificial and robotic, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator.
As an example of this intense fear of rejection, one woman who carried out her affair through mail would sometimes make more than a dozen drafts of her letter before sending it, all in an effort to find that perfect combination of words capable of making a good impression.
On a sadder note, if both partners are limerent, and both suffer from this intense syness, then it is very possible that they will just avoid breaking the ice altogether. A relationship of intense passionate love that won’t start because both persons are too afraid to make a move.
Passionate love has a reality distortion effect
Hope is to limerence what oxygen is to a fire. In order to keep it alive, the Limerent ends up twisting reality so he can find something to hope for.
Thus, a Limerent person always tries to perceive every action of the LO as a positive sign of interest, even when it’s dead obvious to anybody else that it really isn’t.
For example, if the Limerent and the LO are in the same room but at opposite corners, the Limerent will somehow perceive this as a sign of interest.
“He went to the other side of the room because his feelings are just as strong as mine, and couldn’t cope with the intensity of being near me.”
But if the LO had come right next to the Limerent, they might have a completely different interpretation.
“He came next to me so we could have a chance to talk. They’re probably in love too!”
But in the more extreme cases, Limerents can hang on to an LO even if it’s obvious to everyone that they just aren’t interested. They overanalyze the actions of the LO, and will create an interpretation that fits their narrative of an LO that is willing to commit, but cannot at this time.
But of course, the LO isn’t willing. They just don’t want to break the Limerent’s feelings so they deflect their advances with “maybe”, “some other day”, etc.
The Limerence Mind Games
Hope and uncertainty are the main ingredients that fuel limerence, and they also set the stage for the complex series of mind game that are part of courtship.
One of the paradoxes of limerence is that the Limerent aches for emotional reciprocation, but once they get it, their interest levels begin to fade.
Likewise, the same paradoxical situation would happen if the Limerent knew for sure the LO was highly interested. If the LO is obviously eager, then the Limerent will stop asking oneself “Does the LO want me?” and instead switch to questions such as “Do I want the LO anymore?”. Certainty pulls the Limerent out of the chase, feeling they’ve already won.
Limerents are aware of these dynamics, so they end up playing mind games in an effort to seem the disinterested party in the courtship. They aim to use mystery and uncertainty to draw in the LO, and not seem too overeager and thus risk repelling them.
Sex isn’t necesarilly the end-goal
For the Limerent, the end-game is to obtain emotional investment and reciprocation from the LO.
In other words, sex with the LO isn’t the primary motivator. That’s not to say the Limerent doesn’t desire such a thing. But the fantasies that keep the Limerent awake at night are those in which the would-be couple share an intimate moment, such as cooking, walks on the beach, or cuddling away somewhere.
In fact, some Limerents might actually be repulsed by sexual fantasies because these violate their image of a pure and “unspoilt” LO.
An exception to this are cases when sex itself is viewed as an emotional reciprocation. Just as a kiss can mean “I like you”, a Limerent can perceive sex with the LO as another way of saying “I love you”.
There’s also a distinct difference between sexual and limerent fantasies. The first ones are voluntary in nature. It’s possible to control and influence a sexual fantasy, to imagine the motions and how the act unfolds.
Limerent daydreams on the other hand, are entirely involuntary. They simply wriggle their way into the head of the sufferer, and stay there for as long as they like.
The bad side of limerence and passionate love
The Limerent often finds himself on an emotional rollercoaster, where every sign of interest from the LO is a big high, while every rejection is a crashing low.
When on a high, they’re the most carefree person in the world. High energy, willing to help, good humored. But while on a low they turn sulky, irascible and generally not pleasant people.
Because they are dependent on an outside source, these mood swings can come and go from minute to minute, according to the whims of the LO, who may not even be aware of the turmoil they generate.
Besides these wild mood swings, friends and family will notice how the Limerent will often dissapear and disconnect themselves from their social circles. When this happens, the Limerent is either busy day dreaming about the LO, or trying to engineer situations where the two can interact.
But the most troubling limerent side effects are the harmful behaviors. Emotionally unstable people can resort to stalking, or severe bouts of jealousy and possessiveness if they think the LO is slipping away from them. In the most extreme cases, these can end up as crimes of passion.
Hopefully, simply being aware of the negative effects, a sufferer might be able to see that losing the affections of the LO is not the end of the world, and that life has more to offer. Maybe even a different LO, that is more open and willing to give back.
The end phases of limerence, break-up or transition to love
From a biological perspective, limerence exists to bring two people together and create a family. Once this purpose has been achieved, then the limerent bond normally transitions to affectional bonding.
The exact time frame for this to occur varies from couple to couple (or even person to person), but it averages out at around 2-3 years.
After that time frame, the relationship should be secure, with both partners committed to making it work. This removes the uncertainty and doubt, which makes the bond predictable and stable. Limerence slowly fades as its nourishing emotions are no longer there.
Some people who enjoy the high of limerence will dearly miss this period and are unable to properly transition into affectional bonding. They get restless and want to chase the same high again, even if that means breaking up a promising relationship.
Couples who successfully pass the loss of limerence and stick together will find themselves in a new stage of their relationship. Affectional bonding can be a profoundly enriching experience, where the two people fully learn each other and create common passions, hobbies and experiences that unite both of them for the future.
In the long run, the generosity of affectional bonding is healthier and sustainable for both sides.
However, it is very possible that one member of the couple never fully exits the limerent state. It’s still there, in the background, prickling and nagging them ever so gently. If the Limerent hides it well, the LO might never really know it’s there.
The transition to affectional bonding is the happy ending version of it. However, there’s also the case of an unrequited limerence, in which “the guy doesn’t get the girl”.
In these cases, the Limerent doesn’t have his moment of consummation, so instead has to bottle it up and ride out the emotional storm until it ends. In most cases this happens in one of the following ways:
- The LO firmly and definitively rejects the Limerent. In one fell swoop, this removes any sort of uncertainty and hope the Limerent might have had that a relationship was possible. The moment of rejection is an intensely painful one for the Limerent, but it releases the pain all at once instead of dragging it on for weeks, months or years.
- The LO doesn’t outright reject the Limerent. Instead, the Limerent gradually loses hope that a relationship might be possible. At some point, the intensity of limerence evaporates where it becomes controllable.
- A transfer of limerence from one LO to another. Normally, limerence is highly specific and tied to a certain person, however at low intensities it can be transferred from person to person.
Why we experience limerence and what causes it
From an evolutionary perspective, limerence offers a reproductive edge because it gives one better mate selection abilities. And unlike a non-Limerent, the Limerent is much more determined to pursue the LO for a relationship.
Limerents also tend to seek out mates outside their inner circle of family or distant relatives. In other words, they gravitate towards people that are different than they are genetically. Because of this genetic diversity, their offspring are often stronger and healthier.
The fact that limerence has an average duration of 2-3 years isn’t random. Two years is enough to initiate a relationship, give birth to a child, and take care of it during its most vulnerable phase of life.
Thus, the lengthy duration of limerence keeps two people together long enough for them to create and maintain a family. This is especially important in humans because we have one of nature’s longest periods of infancy and development into adulthood, which lasts well over a decade.
At a chemical level, the differences between limerence and love are striking. It’s widely known that oxytocin and vasopressin are the main substances responsible for creating social bonds, be they romantic relationships or friendships in general.
In their day to day effects, these two chemicals are calming, reduce stress, promote healing and encourage generous behaviors.
Limerence on the other hand has an entirely different chemical composition:
- Norepinephrine. Similar to adrenaline, it increases alertness, arousal and makes one ready to act.
- Dopamine. Provides pleasure and encourages us to seek positive stimuli.
- Testosterone. Increases sexual drive and risk taking behaviors.
From a chemical perspective, love is a gentle romantic comedy, while limerence is a full blown spy thriller that puts you in the middle of a 1 vs 100 hand to hand combat scene.
Fortunately, over time, as the relationship strengthens, the brain secretes less and less of these chemicals and instead switches over to producing oxytocin and vasopressin, a much more calming and peaceful combination.
Limerence is a tumultuous emotion, that can turn a life upside down even for the most emotionally stable people.
But knowing why it exists and how it works allows can ease the pain of the Limerent, and offer him a road map to finding a resolution, with or without the LO.
An LO also gains understanding of what the Limerent is experiencing, and how to approach the situation in an elegant and kind way, for both persons.
In the end, for many people Limerence is part of what it means to be human, and to experience life. It is neither a curse nor a blessing, but a way of living. Whether it leads to a good or bad outcome becomes controllable, at some point.