Limerence: symptoms of a toxic love (test yourself)

Limerence definition, meaning and comparison to love

Limerence is the emotional state of uncontrollable obsession and infatuation for a particular person, called the Limerent Object, coupled with a desire to obtain their emotional commitment and begin a relationship with them.

It was coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, after a research period that involved interviews with over 500 different people who displayed the symptoms.

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.

Limerence is a separate emotion from love, even though they share some similarities: Both emotions are directed towards another person and both are intensely affectionate.

There are however, distinct differences between the two.

Someone who suffers from limerence is only concerned to seduce the Limerent Object, and acquire their heart and emotional commitment.

Love on the other hand is selfless: the person in love will often put the loved one’s needs above their own, and try to meet them regardless of the cost.

In a nutshell, a Limerent wants to obtain love, a Lover wants to give it away.

Often times, Limerents get so caught up in their internal emotional chaos, that they aren’t able to empathize with the Limerent Object. They will often forget that the LO is human too, with feelings, concerns, worries and a life of their own.

In the eyes of the Limerent, the LO becomes an object to be acquired rather a person to interact with.

Another major difference between the two is in the intensity of the emotion. Limerence is generated by adrenaline and pleasure chemicals, which makes it addictive, but also stressful and draining. It invades the Limerent’s mental space and severely limits their mental clarity and ability to concentrate.

On the other hand, Love is produced by gentle calming chemicals. It doesn’t agitate the lover, but instead relaxes and brings them comfort. A person in love is fully capable of concentrating on their day-to-day life without thinking obsessively about their partner.

love and limerence comparison

While love and limerence are distinct emotions, the two are closely tied together in more ways than one. The prototypical relationship starts with a 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 symptoms

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.

Uncontrollable fantasies about the desired person. This is the defining feature of limerence. Limerents often fantasize about the moment the LO falls in love (hopefully with them) what a relationship with the LO would look like and also thinking over and over again about past experiences with the LO.

Limerents suffer from brutal mood swings. Signs of interest (phone calls, date plans) send the Limerent in a drug-like euphoria. On the flipside, canceling date plans and not answering phone calls can generate symptoms similar to depression.

Believing that anything the LO does has deeper meaning. Limerents want a romantic relationship with the LO 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.

Paralyzing shyness around their crush. Even the most charismatic person can have trouble expressing themselves during a limerent episode. Because Limerents want to appear attractive (and hide their nervousness), their behavior will often come across as scripted, almost as if they are acting a role.

Seeing the Limerent Object as perfect, without flaws. Limerents have an idealized image of the LO. They either cannot see the red flags in the LO, or if they do, they will simply ignore them. The unfortunate side effect to this is that many Limerents enter relationships with incompatible LO’s.

Partial or complete inability to enjoy other activities. Limerence will often consume a person’s entire mental focus. Limerents have real trouble focusing on work, friends, play or other similars because images and fantasies of the LO will pop-up in their heads against their will and distract them.

Physical sensations of pain near the chest area. At higher levels of intensity, limerence can generate actual physical sensations, and is probably the reason we have the expression “broken heart”.

An acute fear of rejection. For Limerents, getting firmly rejected by the LO is almost as devastating as losing a loved one. As a result, Limerents will often appear to “play mind games” to first obtain interest from the LO.

The real story of a Limerent sufferer

The story below is taken from Dorothy Tennov’s book Love and Limerence.

As part of his doctorate studies, Fred moves to a small French town for a 2 year period. During that time, he lives at a local men’s residence.

On the day of his arrival he meets Laura, the rather attractive receptionist of the establishment.

For 6 months, the two barely interact. One day however, Fred is the only person present in the main lobby and helps Laura with setting up the fireplace. Laura’s perfume, the shared effort of setting up a fire and the coziness of the moment kindled in Fred a deep liking for Laura.

Days later, Fred starts to be consumed with obsessive fantasies. He imagines the moment where Laura falls in love with him, followed by the two being physically intimate. Other times, he fantasizes Laura being hurt, with him rescuing or comforting her. He even imagined what it would be like if they were husband and wife, with little children running around.

Unable to work because of the constant obsessions, Fred goes through all the reasons why a relationship between them is impossible: she doesn’t speak English, cultural differences, Laura doesn’t care about his work, he’ll only be in France for less than two years etc.

This doesn’t work and soon enough Fred alters his schedule so he has more opportunities to meet Laura “by chance”.

However, even though Fred and Laura meet more often, the two barely talk. And when they do talk, it’s just a quick exchange of a few words and that’s it.

Throughout their interactions, Laura is always aloof and neutral, but polite. Fred is aware of this, and he himself notes that Laura has never given him any hint of romantic interest.

And yet, Fred can’t stop himself from thinking that underneath her coolness, Laura is just as filled with desire as he is. Whenever she laughs or smiles, he thinks it’s because of him in some way. On an emotional level, Fred truly believes Laura is attracted to him, even though he has no evidence for it.

In all this time though, Fred himself hadn’t done anything obvious to show interest. Because he is so afraid of rejection, Fred hasn’t made any sort of advance towards Laura. Painfully aware of this, Fred constantly sets himself deadlines to do certain actions to win over Laura. He always fails because of his shyness, and then berates himself for wasting precious time.

His only progress is to set up a couple of arrangements to see Laura more often. In one of these, Fred can use the typewriter in the reception lobby for two hours every day, meaning both he and Laura are in the same room. The second one is even more daring, and involves hiring Laura to give him private French lessons.

Despite all this added contact, nothing happens between the two. Their “relationship” remains the same: polite, sometimes friendly, but always distant and professional. Even at this point, Fred hasn’t made any overt sign of interest towards Laura simply because she’s never given him an opening or indication of interest.

Close to exasperation, obsessed with visions of romantic visions of Laura, and unable to properly concentrate on his work, Fred brings forward his departure date to the United States in order to get away from Laura and clear his mind.

Fortunately for him, the impossibility of having a relationship with someone a continent away (in the pre-Internet age) works, and his obsession with Laura rapidly evaporates in the space of a few weeks.

Breaking down Fred’s episode of limerence

While Fred’s ordeal may seem extreme, he is in truth the average Limerent sufferer. Limerence often strikes a person when they least expect it, and reaches near-peak intensity in an extremely short period of time.

What makes Fred’s case stand out is his great sense of self-awareness, yet even he fell victim to the reality distortion effect of limerence. He wanted Laura to love him so badly, that he tricked himself into seeing signs of interest from her. If Laura was in a friendly mood, he thought it was because of him. If Laura was more aloof than usual, he believed she was trying to hide her true feelings of love towards him.

Fred’s limerent episode lasted for a year and a half. One reason for this is that he saw Laura on a near daily basis. Not only that, but even Laura’s general mood could cause wild emotional swings in Fred.

Laura was usually aloof and distant to Fred, which often brought him to the point of despair. Occasionally however, she’d be more friendly and communicative, which spiked Fred’s hopes and made him believe again that a relationship might just be possible.

Unfortunately for Fred, he never made any obvious advances towards Laura. He most likely would have been firmly and kindly rejected, but this would have eliminated any hope that a relationship might be possible. Because limerence cannot sustain itself without hope, the rejection would have quickly evaporated his limerence.

How long does limerence last?

Limerence has an average duration of 18 months to 3 years.  The most extreme cases of limerence can be as short as a few days, while the longest limerent episodes can last for decades or even a lifetime. Limerence begins to fade once the Limerent person realizes a relationship is impossible, or if their romantic interest has clearly reciprocated emotional investment.

The lengthy duration of limerence can be explained through the lens of evolutionary psychology. 18 months to 3 years is enough time for two people to engage in courtship, form a couple, and then give birth to a child.

How long limerence lasts

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. In committed relationships, limerence gradually fades and is replaced by love (or affectional bonding as scientists call it)

Limerence causes & evolutionary mechanism

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the ability to reproduce and pass on your genes is the only measure of success.

Thus, limerence exists to guide individuals towards a biologically and socially fit partner, pair bond with them, and bring about a new generation.

This is useful in many ways. Compared to an individual who does not experience limerence, the Limerent has a higher likelihood of acquiring a mate, and thus a higher chance of reproducing simply because of how tenacious one is to seduce their mate.

For limerence to trigger in a person, a few conditions must first be met:

  1. The person must be emotionally “ready” to fall in love and want a relationship.
  2. The Limerent Object meets all of the Limerent’s conscious and subconscious criteria for a partner.
  3. There must not be any impossible obstacles (long distance, no possibility of contact) that prevent emotional reciprocation & investment 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 love inducing chemicals. They are also responsible for strengthening social bonds in general, friendships and romantic relationships alike.

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.
  • Estrogen.
  • Phenylethylamine.

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 the calming chemicals such as oxytocin and vasopressin.

One thing that needs to be mentioned is that limerence can also strike after a breakup, even if it’s the fault of the ex.

What is the cure for limerence?

There are multiple ways to end limerence, depending on the person’s circumstances:  

  1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. If you prefer something more serious than Tinder, consider dating services that match you with people based on a personality test, such as eHarmony.

4. Enter a relationship with the Limerent Object

Probably the most desirable way to end an episode of limerence is to form a couple with the LO.

Commitment from the LO will gradually relax the Limerent, and will make them feel secure in the relationship. As the emotional security increases, Limerents will slowly reenter into normal relationship behavior patterns.

They will start to see both the good and bad parts in the LO objectively. They won’t feel a compulsive need to check up on them 24/7. They won’t feel anxious if they haven’t contacted the LO in the past 15 minutes. Finally, they can stop thinking about the LO, and instead focus on other things such as work.

This is the course of limerence in most relationships. However, in some cases it is possible for the Limerent to not feel completely secure with the commitment from the LO. They will perceive the LO as being committed, but not fully so. In this situation, the limerence never fully goes away and instead lingers in the background.

5. How to 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.


More Hasty Reader articles on Love & Relationships


Other relevant limerence stories

Limerents just want the LO to love them back:

“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:

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:

“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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

“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

The difference between love and limerence:

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

Transitioning from limerence to love:

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

Skipping the limerent phase altogether:

“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, we
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.”

bunny, L&L, DOROTHY TENNOV, PG. 132