Have you ever caught yourself falling in love with someone you rationally know you really, really, really shouldn’t fall for, but can’t do anything to stop it?
If yes, you’ve experienced the painfully magical emotional state of limerence.
Limerence definition and meaning
Limerence is an intense emotional state in which the Limerent sufferer has uncontrollable romantic obsessions and fantasies towards a desired person (called the Limerent Object or LO) with which it wants a romantic relationship.
Limerence is usually experienced before a relationship. However, in some cases it can happen during a relationship, or even after a breakup. Some people don’t even experience limerence in any way.
Understanding how it works can be useful both for the person who experiences it, the Limerent, as well as for the person who is desired, the Limerent Object.
Before continuing with the article, consider taking this short test to help you figure out if you were ever limerent towards someone.
First, think of one person you were (or still are) romantically interested in. Then, go through the questions and direct all of the answers towards that particular person.
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.
Below are the most common symptoms of limerence:
- Uncontrollable fantasies about the desired person.
- Brutal mood swings.
- Imagining that anything the LO does has deeper meaning.
- Paralyzing shyness near their crush.
- Seeing the Limerent Object as perfect without flaws.
- Partial or complete inability to enjoy anything else.
- Physical sensations of pain near the chest area.
- An acute fear of rejection.
Limerents want the LO to love them back
The main desire of a Limerent is to have the Limerent Object fall in love with them and start a committed relationship. Until a committed relationship happens, or unless the Limerent receives an absolute rejection, the Limerent will always feel frustrated for not being in a relationship with the LO.
This need for emotional reciprocation is also what sets limerence apart from love or simple attraction, because Limerents are willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain it.
By comparison, someone who loves is more concerned about giving love rather than receiving it.
Being physically attracted by someone else does not necessarily involve love. It is entirely possible to dislike someone, but still be physically attracted to them.
“I loved Nelson for almost 10 years. It had all the earmarks of what you call ‘limerence.’ I would have given up my job or traveled to the four comers of the earth if he had wanted me to. Fortunately for me today, he insisted on remaining married and I eventually had sense enough to take advantage of an employment opportunity a few thousand miles away.”Nancy, Love and Limerence, Dorothy tENNOV pg. 145
“I wanted to get married. What I mean is that I was in love and am still in love with Arthur, and that means I want a commitment. The stronger the better. But Arthur didn’t want to get married. He was all too clear on that. Living together was all I could get, so I grabbed it. I’m still hoping.”Marilyn, Love and Limerence, DOROTHY TENNOV, page 132
Limerents suffer from fantasies they cannot control
Limerents daydream constantly how they can seduce their Limerent Object. These fantasies often involve the moment of reciprocation, when the LO begins to fall in love with the Limerent and the two enter the early stages of being a couple.
Other fantasies can be more mundane, in which the Limerent imagines what an ordinary day while in a relationship with the LO would like. These daydreams involve the Limerent and the LO cooking together, shopping together etc.
The defining feature of these fantasies is that the Limerent cannot block them. The fantasies simply break through any mental resistance and haunt the Limerent almost constantly, even during the night when trying to sleep.
Really, it got worse. Stu and I would usually spend the weekend together at his place, and he’d call on Wednesday or Thursday to finalize the plans. My week was spent thinking about what had happened during the previous weekend and trying to plan what would happen during the next one. I don’t mean that all I did
was lie around thinking about it, but it was a constant part of my thinking no matter what else was going on.
A lot of it was planning conversations. If I saw a movie or read a book, I’d think about telling Stu about it, actually work out impressive sentences which I’d try to memorize. As I drove to work, I’d imagine that he was in the seat next to me and I’d comment on the scenery, on how I felt about various things.
Sometimes I’d sing-I really have a good voice, I think, but I’ve never sung when anyone else could hear me-and I’d pretend that Stu was listening and admiring and falling more in love with me every minute.”Hilda, L&L, Dorothy Tennov, pg. 38
This obsession has infected my brain. I cannot shake those constantly intruding thoughts of you. Every thought winds back to you no matter how hard I try to direct its course in other directions.Subject Diary, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 34
Limerents misinterpret the LO’s behavior as interest
During an episode, Limerents will suffer from a distinct inability to perceive the behavior of the LO clearly. They want a romantic relationship with them so much, that they manipulate themselves into seeing signs of interest where there are none.
Because of this, Limerents cannot properly separate a true sign of romantic interest vs. friendly, polite and nice human behavior.
Indeed, in extreme situations the Limerent can even twist a vague rejection into seeming like a test of sorts: “they only said no so I can try harder, but they didn’t really mean no”. As if the LO wanted the Limerent to prove themselves before committing to them.
“Long after he no longer bothered to hide from me certain signs of his loss of interest and his vulnerability to the enticements of other women, I could still see love in his eyes, even in his ill-treatment of me.”Ruth, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 105
Limerents see the LO as perfect, or near perfect
Limerence completely blinds the sufferer so they cannot see the flaws of the LO. What’s more, this blindness can set in after little contact, such as a 30 minute conversation. Sometimes, this image of a perfect LO sets in even if the Limerent and the LO have barely talked!
The most unfortunate side effect to this is the poor compatibility when a relationship does happen. By the time the Limerent realizes the LO isn’t as perfect as they thought, they’re already neck deep in a relationship.
Yes I knew he gambled, I knew he sometimes drank too much, and I knew he didn’t read a book from one year to the next. I knew and I didn’t know. I knew it but I didn’t incorporate it into the overall image.
I dwelt on his wavy hair, the way he looked at me, the thought of his driving to work in the morning, his charm (that I believed must surely affect everyone he met), the flowers he sent, the considerations he had shown to my sister’s children at the picnic last summer, the feeling I had when we were in close physical contact, the way he mixed a martini, his laugh, the hair on the back of his hand.
Okay! I know it’s crazy, that my list of ‘positives’ sounds silly, but those are the things I think of, remember, and, yes, want back again!Lenore, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 32
Limerents suffer brutal mood swings
Limerence is a rollercoaster of emotions, depending on how interested the LO is.
Signs of interest, such as phone calls, date plans, compliments from the LO, kisses, etc. can make the Limerent feel true euphoria. The effect can be so intense, it feels like a drug high.
On the flipside, signs of disinterest such as cancelling date plans or not answering phone calls can be soul crushing. Even a small sign of disinterest can ruin a Limerent’s day.
Unfortunately for the Limerent, they will remain on this emotional rollercoaster of mood swings until it becomes clear if the LO wants them or not.
At the office, I could hardly keep from shouting out how
deliriously happy I felt. The work was easy; things that had annoyed me on previous occasions were taken in stride. And I had strong impulses to help others; I wanted to share my joy.
When Mary’s typewriter broke down, I virtually sprang to my feet to assist. Mary! My former ‘enemy’! No one was an enemy anymore! My affection included the universe. I loved every single creature. A fly landed on my desk, I hadn’t the heart to brush it away.Anonymous, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 32
If Joe forgets to call, it means I am not in his thoughts the way he is in mine. That’s why it hurts so. It’s not ‘logical.’ It’s the way it is, however, and I can’t help it. Into perfectly ordinary actions on his part, I read an indication that he’s losing interest-and I panic.Heather, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 50
Limerents are terrified of being rejected
All Limerents have an intense fear of being firmly turned down by the LO, and thus closing all opportunities for a relationship.
As a result, most Limerents experience a paralyzing a shyness when around the LO. They would like to impress the LO, but don’t know how, so instead of behaving normally the Limerent becomes very reserved and silent. They’ll even experience fight-or-flight symptoms such as rapid heart palpitations, trembling, stuttering, anxiety etc.
At the same time however, they want to both hide these anxieties and show off their qualities. 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, sort of like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator.
I’d be jumpy out of my head. It was like what you might call stage fright, like going up in front of an audience.
My hand would be shaking when I rang the doorbell. When I called her on the phone I felt like I could hear the pulse in my temple louder than the ringing of the phone, and I’d get into such a panic listening to the ring and expecting Nelly’s voice at the other end that I’d have a moment of relief if no one answered.
And when she did answer, I wouldn’t know what to say even if I’d gone over the whole thing in my head beforehand. And then whatever I did say never seemed to come out right.Philip, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 49
Before the date I had a huge amount of knots in my stomach. He was late, which made my nerves get even worse as time dragged on. So bad that I became incredibly nauseous and was on the verge of throwing up. The nauseousness died down after awhile while I was with him, but then I remembered that we probably going to kiss at the end, which got me feeling bad again.LIMERENT Reader’s story
Limerents play mind games with the LO
Limerents are not usually direct in their actions with the LO, since that would risk rejection. Instead, they prefer to play mind games in order to make the Limerent Object intrigued, and raise their interest level. The Limerent also doesn’t want to reveal just how invested they are in the LO.
Here are just a few examples of these mind games:
- Not answering calls from the LO immediately, instead they call back a while later.
- In social gatherings, they might avoid talking to the LO at first, and engage with other people.
- Pretending to be busy, and prioritizing something else.
- Pretend not to be attracted.
I knew, I don’t know how, but I knew I had to be careful, that this was not the time to let her know how I was feeling.
I deliberately canceled a date even though I wanted to be with her more than anything else in the world, and I spent the evening worrying-and even weeping-because I was afraid that she would be angry, that maybe this play would fail, that she’d go out and meet someone else. If I had been a nail biter, I’d have bitten off all my nails that night. I was going crazy inside but playing it cool outside, and I guess we have to say it worked.
Maybe she would have fallen in love with me anyway, I’ll never know, but my instincts told me to watch out and I obeyed them for a change. With other women, I had been more open, and they always lost interest and left me.Peter, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 68
Limerents cannot concentrate or enjoy other activities
Limerence has a tendency to occupy a persons entire mental space. They cannot think about anything else except the LO and how to win them over.
Because of this, Limerents often have real issues concentrating on other aspects of their lives. Their productivity suffers, and activities that gave them great pleasure before now seem empty.
“I began to neglect other aspects of my life. I felt that I was not giving the children the proper attention. I did what had to be done, but my attention was elsewhere. I hadn’t read a book for months. When I tried to read, I’d see his face on the page and give myself up to reverie instead. I had fallen in love.”Jennifer, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 191
I recently reread my diary of 10 years ago, when I was in love with Brad, someone for whom I have no feelings at all anymore.
It was very painful to read, not because of Brad, but because he was occupying so much of me at a time when there were other things in my life that I no longer have, but didn’t appreciate at the time because of my total focus on Brad. My father was still living then, and my children were adorable babies who needed their mother’s attention.Anonymos, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 191
Limerents aren’t primarily interested in physical intimacy
For the Limerent, the end-game is to obtain emotional investment and reciprocation from the LO.
In other words, physical intimacy 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 Limerent and the LO share an intimate moment, such as cooking, walks on the beach, or cuddling away somewhere.
In fact, a few Limerents might actually be repulsed by fantasies of them and the LO while being intimate because these violate their image of a pure and “unspoilt” LO.
An exception to this are cases when physical intimacy itself is viewed as an emotional reciprocation. Just as a kiss can mean “I like you”, a Limerent can perceive intercourse with the LO as another way of saying “I love you”.
When I had a sex fantasy she was not the person I thought about. It would have been, well, almost disrespectful to imagine things about her that I didn’t know.Frankie, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 191
Love vs Limerence.
For many people, love and limerence are one and the same. While they are related, limerence is a distinct emotion from love, even on a brain chemical basis. Ultimately, as scientists define it, it’s very difficult for someone to experience both love and limerence at the same time.
In most cases, the limerence phase comes first. If the Limerent and LO form a couple, the feelings of limerence gradually fade as the relationship solidifies, until it becomes love (or affectional bonding, as scientists call it).
Below are the primary differences between love and limerence:
- Limerence: obtaining affection from someone.
- Love: giving affection to someone.
- Limerence: generated by testosterone, dopamine and adrenaline-like chemicals.
- Love: generated by vasopressin, oxytocin and similar calming chemicals.
- Limerence: sees the LO as perfect and without flaws.
- Love: sees their Lover’s flaws, but accepts them.
- Limerence: experience stress and frustration due to lack of commitment.
- Love: a state of calm and relaxation in a solid relationship.
- Limerence: playing mind games instead of clear communication.
- Love: clearly communicating wants and desires.
- Limerence: cannot stop thinking about their crush.
- Love: can think or stop thinking about their lover whenever they want to.
- Limerence: cannot concentrate on, or enjoy other activites.
- Love: can easily enjoy other hobbies and activities that don’t involve the lover.
I’ve noticed that my anxiety gets noticeably worse when I’m in an ill-fitting relationship.
For example, in my last relationship if my guy and I didn’t text or hang out for a while, I’d begin to question everything, like whether he was still into me or if I had done something wrong, or if I was making all of it up in my head. I’d spend time beating myself up in my mind for things out of my control and stressing and obsessing way too much about the relationship.
Now I’m with a guy who makes me feel completely safe and secure, and I know that even if there’s a period of time where we don’t text or see each other, that our feelings haven’t changed and that everything’s okay. I feel mentally secure and can focus on other things when he’s not around.LIMERENT READER’S STORY
With my husband, I wondered if I really loved him because I wasn’t in a constant upheaval of emotions and it really freaked me out because I really care for him and I didn’t want to lose him.
Then it just hit me one day that I didn’t need the rollercoaster and I am just always happy with him. I could then recognize it as a deeper love than I’d felt before. I felt secure in our relationship and him. We rarely fight because I feel I can talk to him about literally anything.LIMERENT READER’S STORY
Confusing love with limerence
Limerence is an addictive emotion, and some people will always be looking for the next high.
Normally, most people transition from the limerence phase to the love phase. This is why you so often hear phrases such as “We don’t love each other like we did at the beginning, but we love each other just as much. It’s hard to explain, it’s just different.”
For others however, the limerence phase is their only real understanding of love. As a result, when they stop feeling limerent, they’ll think they’ve fallen out of love so the relationship must end as well, even if they were at the transition point between limerence and affectional love.
I thought I was in love a lot, growing up. I’d feel in love with people after talking to them for a day. I fell in love with everybody; I loved every girl I met.
But as I got older, and got hurt, and hurt people, I realized that love isn’t that tingly feeling, or acting like an idiot, or wanting to be around someone all the time.
Love is a quiet trust, it is affection built out of familiarity. Love is really, really, really knowing someone — and wanting a life that has them in it, not because of what they can do, but because of what they are.”lIMERENT’S STORY
In most cases, limerence fades once a relationship begins and solidifies. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.
On occasion, a Limerent can still experience a low burn, low intensity limerence towards their spouse or lover. This usually happens when there is an imbalance in interest levels between the two people involved in a relationship.
Thus, the Limerent can feel that the LO isn’t quite as interested as they would like, so they still engage in limerence behaviors, such as mind games, misinterpreting gestures and words, mood swings, etc.
Throughout our entire relationship, it was always apparent to me, and I believe equally apparent to Emma, that one or the other of us was more in love. Sometimes she was the one; sometimes it was me. We always seemed to know who it was.
It was a very unstable situation, because as soon as she seemed interested in me, my anxiety lessened, and that nervousness that I lost turned out to be a part of the love. Or so it seemed. It was dumb. I know it was dumb, but that’s the way it went, just the same, for the whole two years before we finally broke up.BRUCE, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 133
Relationships that skip the limerence phase
It is entirely possible for a relationship to begin without any of the two people involved to actually suffer from limerence.
This can happen for multiple reasons. One is that the people involved aren’t usually prone to limerence, or if they do experience limerence, it is at a very low intensity level.
The other reason is that the relationship had a very smooth start. For instance, the two people met on day 1, really liked each other a lot, went on a date on day 4, then another on day 7, then day 10 and so on. At the one month mark, they figured they both very much liked each other, became exclusive and had a committed relationship.
These smooth start relationships offer very little space for limerence to grow, because both people are visibly interested and actively making efforts to acquire the other. Limerence grows in intensity because of ambiguous behavior and non-commitment from the LO.
If both people are direct with one another, and working towards a relationship, then there is little need for limerence.
“We were serious enough about our relationship to decide that we’d both be better off together rather than apart, but it wasn’t a matter of life and death for either of us as it sometimes seemed to be with other people. Living together as roommates and a little more was perfect. If our families had put pressure on us, webunny, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 132
would probably have gotten married, but they didn’t. If I ever get pregnant, I guess we will, but it’s not a big issue with us.”
Breakups too can generate limerence, which can be amplified by feelings of regret and questions of “was it the right thing to do?”.
Breakup limerence will often rewrite the past, where it dissolves the bad parts of a relationship and amplifies the good ones. Similarly, the faults of the ex are downplayed, while their qualities are exaggerated.
Finally, an episode of breakup limerence can even convince a person that they were the ones at fault for the failure of the relationship (even if in reality it was a shared guilt, or primarily the fault of the ex).
Some people don’t experience limerence at all
For reasons that are not entirely clear, there are many people who do not experience limerence. They experience other emotions just fine, such as love, boredom, amusement, compassion, friendship but not limerence.
For these people, a Limerent is simply someone who likes somebody else, but then just dramatically overexaggerates the intensity of the emotion. Because they’ve never experienced limerence themselves, they have a very hard time understanding those who do.
How long does limerence last?
Limerence has an average duration of around 2-3 years. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this is enough time for two people to engage in courtship, form a couple, and then give birth to a child.
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.
This duration of limerence also explains the so-called “honeymoon period” of relationships and marriages.
However, this 2-3 year period is only the average.
Some limerence episodes exist only for a few days, such as a short affair when meeting someone on a trip / holiday in a foreign country.
Other episodes can last for years, such as experiencing limerence for a coworker you see everyday.
A limerent episode only truly ends when a) the Limerent finally realizes a relationship is impossible or b) the Limerent and the LO actually enter a solid relationship.
We were completely in love when we married and, the honeymoon was something out of a storybook. The intensity faded of course. After a year or so, we could tolerate brief separations, but Frank still phones me every day from the office just to see how I am, and I would still rather be with him than anyone else in the world. If I don’t love him exactly the way I did those first few months and years, I don’t love him any less. The love is different and still intense. I can’t imagine it ever being less. We are different people now, but we have grown together in ways that have actually brought us closer than when we started.Mary, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 145
What causes limerence?
There is no clear cause that triggers limerence. However, a few conditions must be met in order for it to trigger:
- a person must be emotionally “ready”.
- they meet someone who fulfills all their conscious and subconscious criteria for a partner.
- there must not be any impossible obstacles that prevent reciprocation from the Limerent Object.
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 risk taking behaviors and desires to be physically intimate with the LO.
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.
As the relationship strengthens, the brain secretes less and less of these stress chemicals and instead switches over to producing calming ones oxytocin and vasopressin.
What is the cure for limerence?
There are multiple ways to end limerence, depending on the person’s circumstances:
- Be firmly rejected by the Limerent Object
The quickest way to end an episode of limerence is to be 100% sure that a romantic relationship with the desired person is impossible. Asking the LO out on date or confessing feelings is a surefire way to figure out whether the LO is interested or not.
It is a very straightforward approach. It may not be the most elegant, and confessing feelings will surely put the LO on the spot and under pressure, but it will also force the LO to show their hand: are they interested, or are they not?
Getting a firm rejection from the LO can be a very bitter medicine, but after the initial pain, the limerence intensity will normally drop like a rock.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to be this straightforward. Sometimes the LO can be a coworker or the spouse of a dear friend. Confessing feelings in this case can be extremely damaging to one’s social life.
- Starve the limerence
The longer and more painful option of ending limerence is to starve it. This involves controlling the fantasies as much as possible, and limiting contact with the LO to the bare minimum.
Another technique is to create impossible obstacles that prevent a potential relationship: “I can’t be limerent for this person because they are together with my best friend / brother / sister, and that would mean permanently damaging my relationship” or “office relationships are very messy and destructive, I do not want one”.
It is a slow and painful process, especially if the Limerent has to see the LO frequently.
- Transfer the limerence to someone else
The most pleasant method, but not the easiest, is to find another suitable person to experience limerence for.
While limerence is a powerful emotion, it does have its limitations. The biggest is that one can only experience limerence only for one person at a time.
As an example, if you begin to feel Limerent for Person B, then the limerence you feel for Person A will very quickly fade away, until you see them as just another regular person.
If you feel this is you and would like to try transferring the limerence, consider going out more to meet new people.
If the logistics in your life don’t allow this at this time, another option is online dating.
How do you prevent limerence?
If you’re in the early stages of limerence, the best thing to do is to simply shut yourself down to any contact with the Limerent Object. Don’t go where they might be (if possible), don’t talk to them if you can. If you must speak with them, keep it short and to the point and “professional”. This doesn’t guarantee that it will work, especially if you have to interact with them on work or social occasions, but it’s the best you can do to stop an episode before it gains in intensity.
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.