The addictive energy of love is something we’re all prone to experiencing. We may think and talk about our new love interest feverishly, unable to control our excitement, adoration, and yearning – especially in the early stages. Everything just seems to fade into insignificance, apart from trying to be in the company of this person.
But what if love or infatuation becomes an all-consuming longing? In such cases, a simple crush may have morphed into limerence – a mental state of profound romantic infatuation, obsession, and fantastical desire for one person.
Limerence means having an intense longing for another person even when they don’t fully reciprocate. The limerent person struggles to think about anything else but their “crush” and neglects their social life, work, and other responsibilities as a result.
The term was first coined by psychologist Dorothy Tenov in the 1970s when she conducted a series of interviews and noticed some people’s experiences of love were particularly intense. She found that this intense feeling can affect anybody regardless of gender, age, culture, background, or any other trait.
Because it can cause such significant problems in someone’s life, the interest in finding a way to treat limerence is growing among researchers and psychologists. But to find ways to overcome it, we first have to understand what it is and how it develops. Therefore, this article will discuss:
Limerence describes the experience of having an uncontrollable desire for someone – an obsession that consumes the limerent person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It usually involves two people: the person who desires the other (the limerent) and the desired person (the limerence object or LO).
Essentially, limerance is a state of being stuck between uncertainty and hope: will they or won’t they return the sentiment? For instance, perhaps this person hasn’t rejected them entirely, but they haven’t confessed their love either.
This state of irresolution causes the limerent to become preoccupied with the LO, closely analyzing their behavior and body language to look for signs of reciprocation. They may also ruminate about past encounters with the LO and fantasize about what might happen between them in the future. The key feature of limerence is that these thoughts and yearnings are uncontrollable and all-consuming.
Another focal aspect of limerance is that these symptoms or feelings are experienced for one person. Furthermore, this obsession significantly imapcts other areas of life, such as work, social life, and hobbies.
Although limerence can be problematic, there are some positive aspects. The intense emotional high associated with limerance, like experiencing joy, elation, and excitement, can be good initially. Moreover, to impress their LO, the limerent may invest a lot of time in self-improvement, such as their physical appearance and social skills. They may also explore new hobbies and interests if these could bring them closer to their LO.
Yet the emotional high comes with an inevitable low, so, if the LO does not reciprocate, the limerent experiences extreme uncertainty, anxiety, and depression. This despair can also lead to being unable to eat or sleep, feelings of hopelessness, and potentially even suicidal thoughts or intentions.
Limerance can also be problematic because it stops the limerent person from living their life to its fullest as they may withdraw socially. Furthermore, antisocial behavior like stalking and violence have also been associated with limerence (but please note that not every limerent person is a stalker or violent).
Fundamental to understanding limerence is recognizing that limerence and love are different. Love is a feeling of attachment and wanting to commit to another person. It’s a chemical reaction in the brain and body that makes us want to unite with someone – emotionally and physically. Love is selfless and involves true concern for the well-being and feelings of others; wanting the other to be happy regardless of whether they are with us or not and respecting their wants, feelings, and wishes.
In contrast, limerence is an unhealthy, obsessional mixture of emotions. On the surface, it may look like love, and we may have come to liken it to love because limerent behavior is often featured in movies and love songs. But limerant behaviours typically only serve the limerent’s own needs and come from a place of anxiety, rather than wanting the best for the other person.
What’s more, limerance puts an expectation on the other through the belief that these feelings should be reciprocated. As a result of this expectation, the limerent often becomes jealous of any other relationships the LO might have. If they are rejected, they might become angry and vengeful, disrespecting the wishes and needs of the other person. Therefore, limerance can be harmful to both people involved and is filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and discomfort. Although the limerent experiences emotional highs, this is dependent on the LO’s reciprocation and therefore isn’t sustainable.
Limerence moves through different phases or stages. It’s characterized by the limerent person hoping to find someone to love, becoming infatuated with them, and fluctuating between hope for reciprocation and fear of being rejected. According to Dorothy Tenov, there are five stages of limerence, which are described in more detail below:
During this phase, the limerent individual doesn’t have a particular love interest but longs to fall in love and be loved in return. If, during their search, another person seems to be showing signs of reciprocation, they become their object of limerence (LO). Typically, a limerent person doesn’t choose their partners carefully but instead seeks anyone who will love them completely and passionately.
Pre-Reciprocity is the phase wherein the limerent develops a strong desire for another person, the LO. Although the attraction might be physical initially, limerence isn’t actually about sex alone; it’s the desire for more than sex. For limerence to happen, the limerent must perceive the other (LO) to have some kind of interest in them but without clear reciprocation.
Without a clear return of interest, the limerent looks for any signs that the other person likes them. If they perceive a sign, they experience joy and excitement, which increases their longing for that person. But continued uncertainty creates an intense fear of rejection and self-doubt creeps in – “do they like me or not?”
If the other person entirely rejects the limerent, this is usually the end of that limerent episode – although the rejection can be emotionally devastating to the limerent. If the LO reciprocates the limerent’s feelings, a passionate and obsessive love tends to unfold between both. As the relationship progresses, limerence either becomes less intense because the uncertainty has naturally decreased (as a result of commitment). Or limerence persists throughout the relationship if the uncertainty about commitment and love continues.
In most cases, limerence naturally reduces and eventually ceases to exist. This can be difficult for both people involved as they may question why the intensity of their love has vanished. They might yearn for things to go back to the way they were, or fear that the other person no longer loves them. Dissolution can lead to arguments, blame, and even the breaking up of the relationship. On the other hand, if both individuals realize that limerence was a natural phase in their relationship, there is space for the couple to transition to a healthier type of love.
After limerence, some relationships can become strong and healthy with open communication and collaboration. However, as mentioned, the loss of limerence can be devastating for many and can lead to the couple breaking up. In many cases, the limerent person then returns to the pre-limerence stage and yearns to fall in love and be loved by another person.
Limerence is still a relatively unexplored concept, but research suggests that it stems from a mixture of personality traits, biological predispositions, and attachment styles.
Some psychologists believe that we’re all born with an innate drive towards limerence. Possible evidence for this comes from teenagers. For instance, young adults often experience relationships that are characteristic of limerence – obsessional infatuation with extreme mood swings depending on the behavior of the other person. They may also often experience rejection or the end of a relationship as heart-shattering and as though their entire world has come to an end.
However, while many people will remember this kind of love from their teens and/or adult years, others have never experienced limerence. This may be because a particular gene becomes active only under certain environmental conditions, which then gives rise to a tendency for limerence. One such environmental condition can be the person’s upbringing and the relationship they have with their caregivers – their attachment style.
Insecure attachment, specifically anxious attachment, shares many similarities with limerence. Anxious attachment results from inconsistent caregiving during childhood, which gives the child (and later the adult) an unbalanced sense of security in relationships.
In relationships, someone with an anxious attachment style experiences preoccupation with the relationship and their partner, is emotionally dependent, and has low self-esteem. They base their self-esteem on the approval and acceptance of others, which creates a strong fear of rejection and failure to please their partner. This is very similar to the profile of limerence and, thus, in many cases, it’s likely that limerence stems from an anxious attachment style.
In this view, limerence is not caused by the LO (because they’re particularly desirable or their “soulmate”) but rather it’s the result of certain needs not being met during childhood.
Limerence is a distinctive state of mind, but it has been compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and substance use disorder (SUD or addiction). For the most part, due to how all of these conditions share the characteristics of compulsion, obsession, and lack of control. Although their causes are not entirely clear, these conditions are often a result of trauma, stress, and difficulties in childhood, combined with certain predispositions and environments.
As with OCD, limerence is experienced with an undercurrent of anxiety (in this case, anxiety about rejection). It also features obsessive and intrusive thoughts, which the limerent might try to reduce through certain behaviors, for example, repeating words in their head, counting, or arranging things. Lastly, as with OCD, the obsession takes over their life and becomes all-consuming.
Limerence and addiction are similar in that, although the person might know their behavior is harmful, they continue to do it. That’s because they both trigger a strong physiological response: a rush of feel-good chemicals. Like a substance user, a limerent builds up a tolerance and needs more and more emotional reciprocation from the LO to feel happy. They spend their time thinking and obsessing about the other person and experience their desire as uncontrollable. As with addiction, limerence causes the person distress and impacts their ability to function normally.
However, limerence isn’t addiction or OCD – it’s a unique condition that shares similarities with certain disorders. Although some psychologists and researchers believe severe cases of limerence could be considered a mental disorder, it’s currently not considered to be one. Nevertheless, similar to OCD and addiction, limerence may develop as a result of trauma, insecure attachment, and stressful life events.
Limerence can range from severe to mild. So, the extent to which it’s affecting your ability to live your life will determine how best to intervene. If you’re struggling at work, with other relationships, have lost friends, been estranged from family, or become socially isolated, it might be helpful to seek the support of a therapist or psychologist.
Remember that limerence isn’t about the other person (the LO); it’s a symptom of a deeper psychological yearning or wound within you. This might be your first time being in a state of limerence, or perhaps it happens to you frequently, but regardless, it’s important to be introspective to find out what’s going on. The first important step is to get into the right frame of mind and commit to the process of healing. Approach it from a place of compassion and understanding with the aim of finding solutions, rather than dwelling on the problem. Here is some advice for overcoming limerence.
Noticing our patterns of thoughts and behaviors is the first step toward positive change. When we’re aware of what’s happening within us, we can learn what our triggers are and intervene more effectively.
If you notice intrusive and obsessive thoughts about a person, observe them with interest – as though they’re someone else’s thoughts. Be curious about the content of your thoughts; try not to judge yourself but rather find understanding and acceptance. When you’re self-aware in this way, it’s easier to eventually let go of these thoughts and behaviors and replace them with more helpful ones.
As mentioned above, limerence and attachment anxiety seem to be closely related – in fact, limerence may be a result of an anxious attachment style. So it might be helpful to find out what your attachment style is, how it affects you and your relationships, and how to develop a more secure attachment style.
Cognitive restructuring refers to transforming your unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, and traits into constructive, healthy ones. Limerence comes from having certain unhelpful beliefs, like believing you need another person to feel happy and complete. Sometimes these beliefs can be subconscious so it takes a bit of work to uncover them. Once you’ve identified them, it’ll be easier to replace them with more helpful beliefs about yourself. This is best done with a trained professional, such as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, but you can also try a few things yourself, for example:
write about thoughts and experiences as a way to self-reflect and identify patterns of thought and behavior.
identify unhelpful thoughts, turn them around, and create an affirmation. For example: if you believe, “no one will love me,” turn that into “I am a loveable person” and repeat it daily.
try doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable or afraid. This will help you to work through any fears you might have and build your resilience and confidence. For example, if spending time alone makes you feel anxious, do exactly that. Be by yourself, without your phone, and do an enjoyable activity like drawing or listening to music instead.
breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation calm down the nervous system and will help you to think more clearly
Limerence is partly caused by low self-esteem; a limerent person bases their self-esteem on the approval and acceptance (and love) of others. We may feel incomplete or empty if another person isn’t there to love us and this causes despair, loneliness, and sadness. Naturally, this would lead us to think that if we found someone who loves us completely and passionately, our loneliness and sadness would disappear.
But basing your worth on external factors makes it fragile and unstable. Letting go of the need for others’ approval means realizing that your worth doesn’t depend on external love and attention. Your value as a human being is unchanging, it doesn’t fluctuate. Try doing something new, use positive affirmations, make a list of all of your strengths and the things you like about yourself, and treat yourself as though you were a beloved friend.
Focusing all of your attention on another person can be a strategy to avoid facing your problems and fears. Perhaps you pour all of your time and energy into someone else so you don’t have to think about yourself. Instead of this, why not treat yourself as though you’re the LO? Put yourself first and build a healthy and sustainable self-care routine; pour your love, time, and energy into your own well-being and happiness.
Limerence is an obsessive and anxiety-provoking kind of desire. Although it can feel amazing, it comes with extreme lows, despair, and self-doubt. But if you experience limerence, it shows you have the ability to love intensely. Turn that love towards yourself as a way to heal your past wounds and insecurity and overcome limerence. Learn how to be there for yourself, how to spend time with yourself, and how to be kind to yourself – in other words, be your own best friend.
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Tennov, D. (1979). Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day.
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Wyant, B. (2021). Treatment of Limerence Using a Cognitive Behavioral Approach: A Case Study. Journal of Patient Experiences, 8, 1-7.