“It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.”
“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his landmark 1822 “crystallization” model of how we fall in and out of love. What he was actually describing, however — in those Cartesian epochs before it was acceptable or even conceivable that matters of feeling could be functions of mental activity and subjects of the reasoned study we call science — was limerence. A century and a half later, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam on limerence in his lament that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” Except limerence is the profound unmooring masquerading as the mooring post.
Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. People who have never felt it feel confused that someone with no psychopathology can be able to possess a state of such absurdity. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.
A philosopher and psychologist of science. Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerenceIn the 1970s, she used data from over a decade’s worth of research, including thousands of questionnaires that she had administered and hundreds of personal journals and autobiographies. She also collected data about several hundred people who she interviewed, from all walks of life and from different backgrounds. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her contributions were fundamental to attachment theory, they are now a mere footnote in the history of this field.
Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)
People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.
Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:
- intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
- A deep longing to be reciprocated
- dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
- inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
- Some temporary relief from the unrequited passion of limerent through vivid imagination and action by LO. This is called reciprocation
- fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
- Intensification by adversity (at most, to some extent)
- acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
- an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
- If reciprocation appears evident, buoyancy is a sensation of floating on the air.
- You feel a strong sense of emotion, which can be distracting from other issues.
- A remarkable ability to highlight what is really admirable about LO, to not dwell on the negatives, and even to respond to the negative with compassion and make it into another positive attribute, if possible
This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:
Liminerence is a feeling that comes with age. It promises joy and we go willingly to it. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. The rational bases of hopefulness are exhausted. Control may not always be possible due to the intrusions of unfulfilled desires and wasted precious moments. It is even possible to wonder what the past looked like when control was possible. You feel more uncertain. Then you wonder if your control was as good as it used to be and how you will feel again.
Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. Limirence is a constant in which LO becomes exclusive. This makes physical attractiveness less important.
Tennov, however, is clear in stating that limerence, while it may be at odds with reason, can cause pain to the point where it causes anguish for the limerent, as well as discomfort to the point it makes it difficult for the LO to focus their attention. It isn’t a psychopathology and does not have a consistent association or co-occurrence of any mental illness. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)
Tennov makes a distinction between projection and limerence.
Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. The laboratory found that the prolonged exposure of the person or object imprinting the image was inadvisable. The attachment can be diminished by excessive familiarity.
When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:
Limerence does not result from human decisions. It happens. Limerence’s disruptive cognitive components and obsessional quality, which may seem voluntary but are difficult to control at times, appear to be its most distinguishing feature from all other states.
The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov shapes the paradoxical requirement:
Uncertainty, doubt or threat of reciprocation are necessary for the process to progress fully. Evidence is strong that it may be possible to serve an externally-imposed barrier, like Romeo and Juliet’s resistance by family or society.
Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. To end a completely positive interaction, something must occur. There are many redeeming aspects to positive reactions. It is not that these negative reactions don’t have any.
She also adds:
It doesn’t matter how unappealing this may seem in an orderly universe, it is not impossible. Fear of rejection can cause pain but also increase desire.
Limerence may live for a very long time if it is fed crumbs. It is possible to stop it by overfeeding.
A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. In fact, it is sustained by the thin thread of possibility that hangs from the looms of the impossible. Tennov writes:
Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Although your limerent daydreams might seem unlikely or even impossible, they still hold fidelity to reality.
Her research focuses on the basic particles and fundamental forces that underlie limerence.
Limerence, which is primarily mental activity, refers to it. This is more about the interpretation of events than they are. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.
Since limerent fantasy is dependent on your perception of reality, the content that leads to and makes possible the final ecstatic moment varies from person-to-person as well.
Tennov observed that all of the limerents he studied followed a common life-cycle, which results in a limited number of outcomes.
Although Limerence can begin with a faint feeling of an increased interest in someone, it can develop into a very intense experience if given the right conditions. It usually decreases to zero or a very low level. Limirence at this level can be transformed by reciprocation, or transferred to another individual, who becomes the subject of a new limerent love. In the most ideal of circumstances, the loss of limerence by mutuality can be accompanied with the development of an emotional response that could more accurately be called love.
The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. The most disturbing aspect is the inability to find reciprocity between lovers, regardless of their nature and magnitude. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.
The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. Both the limerent as well as the LO may suffer tremendously in trying to separate the two contexts in an effort to salvage or reframe what is fundamentally a valuable and deep connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.
Tennov emphasizes the distinction between limerent or non-limerent attach, which may have some common surface manifestations but are based on profoundly differing emotional needs.
A person who does not feel limerent towards you might have great feelings of affection, concern, tenderness and even sexual desire. When all is said and done, a relationship with no limerence might be more important than any one that has experienced limerent passion. Although limerence may not be the most important type of interaction or human attraction, it will eclipse all other relationships when in its full power.
This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:
The limerent state shows that nonlimerent LOs have certain ethical responsibilities. Understanding the situation of the limerent individual and the impact your actions have on it will allow you to reduce the suffering.
The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.
With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. After several months of limerence Fred writes in the dark pit of winter. He records with remarkable clarity the temporary interruption of the vital hope/uncertainty balance that maintains limerence.
It is difficult for me to see the absurdity in this large gap that exists between us. This is why I feel a new level of indifference toward Laura. It’s not because of a shift in my perception of her, or her attractiveness. This temporary relief will not last and I will be even more stricken again. However, it does show the dampening effects that rejection can have on me. It is at least giving me a break from my daily grind so I can do some work.
Six months and six tortuous limerents later, during the height of summer, he wrote another diary entry, which captured the most frightening aspect of limerence, as well as all love at some fundamental level.
My perception of Laura is that she has romantic attracted me. These things can create an undesirable picture that I do not see. She is attractive and competent when she looks objectively good. When she’s not looking her best or when her eyes are caught at an incongruous angle, I look away. She might do the same if she was in love with me. We could both feel the effect in each other if we were there. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the most flattering angles can be shown or seen. Anything else increases the chance of rejection. It is disservice for a person to not see them as they are.
I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. This is called Limerence.
Tennov has identified only three factors that can end limerence with certainty:
- consummation:Reciprocation gradually transforms into lasting love. Or, it can be replaced by more positive feelings
- starvation:Even limerent sensitivity towards signs of hope can be useless in the face of the avalanche evidence that LO is not returning the limerence
- transformation:Limerence will be transferred to a brand new LO
But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov presents the story of a woman who regretted her midlife.
Today, my children have left me. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. It’s ironic, but also really sad that my children were very young when I became too involved in my personal affairs and was unable to provide the care and attention they required.
Amelia’s third birthday was the first summer I will ever remember. Her adorable little girl was so sweet. Everyone was impressed. The porch was my place. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. Amelia tried to jump on my lap, which I think is why it happened. I was to read her stories. Unfortunately, the painful thing about that memory is that it was when I tried to turn her away that I chose to think of him as a horrible man rather than care for my girl. I long for those memories to return.
This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.
Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:
It is not my belief that limerence can be destroyed by understanding the science of ionization.
Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.
With a remarkable foresight that prefigures scientific discoveries and yet-to-be-folding mindset changes of the past half century, she says:
The psychology field has been subject to inexorable pressures to adhere to what is becoming an old and restrictive philosophy. It’s an excessive and eventually stultifying tendency to think of ourselves only as biological creatures. This philosophy is unacceptable. I think it’s time for a new humility. It will allow us to listen to our true nature and shape it in line with human values.
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