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Understanding Limerence: The Fine Line Between Deep Longing and Obsession in Relationships

Understanding Limerence: The Fine Line Between Deep Longing and Obsession

Limerence is a bit like having a crush on steroids. It's this intense feeling where you find yourself obsessing over someone, often someone you don't know very well. This could be a coworker you only chat with during coffee breaks, someone you've met online who lives miles away, or even someone who's already in a relationship. The less we know about them, the more our imagination takes over, painting a picture of the perfect partner and the ideal relationship. It's easy to get caught up in this fantasy, especially for those who tend to keep their distance emotionally. For them, limerence offers a way to feel connected without the risk of real vulnerability. 

Psychologist and author, Dorothy Tennov, first illuminated limerence, helping us understand it as more than just a strong crush. It is characterized by an overwhelming desire for the other person's feelings to match ours, filled with daydreams and what-ifs. Limerence can make every song, place, or moment feel like it's tied to the person we're fixated on.

What does “a crush on steroids” mean? 

Isn’t limerence simply a crush? Why would it be a problem?

Limerence and a crush differ significantly in their intensity, duration, and impact on an individual's life. A crush is typically a light, ephemeral feeling of attraction towards someone, often based on initial impressions or superficial qualities. It is characterized by a sense of admiration and infatuation that can feel exciting, but it doesn't usually disrupt one's daily life or emotional well-being. In contrast, limerence is a much deeper, more intense emotional experience. It involves an obsessive preoccupation with the object of one's affection, coupled with a strong desire for reciprocation and an emotional dependency on their feelings towards the limerent individual. Limerence can last for a much longer period and often leads to significant distress, affecting one's ability to concentrate, maintain relationships, or even function effectively in daily tasks. The key difference lies in the depth of feeling and the level of obsession. While a crush might cause you to daydream or feel a flutter of excitement, limerence can consume your thoughts and dictate your emotions in a much more profound and often troubling way.

But I really like this person. How do you know it’s not love? 

Limerence and love are distinct emotional states that differ fundamentally in their nature and impact on relationships. Limerence is characterized by an intense, often overwhelming infatuation with someone, marked by obsessive thoughts, an acute longing for reciprocation, and an idealization of the object of affection. It's driven by a need for the other person's approval and a desire for an emotional connection that is often more about the limerent individual's needs than a mutual bond. Love, on the other hand, is a deeper, more mature emotion that encompasses a genuine care for the other person's well-being, mutual respect, and a balanced partnership. Love involves both giving and receiving, with an understanding and acceptance of each other's flaws. It is built on a foundation of trust, commitment, and a shared life, growing stronger over time through shared experiences and challenges. While limerence can be tumultuous and based on fantasy, love is stable, enduring, and rooted in reality, focusing on building a life together rather than an obsessive desire for the other's attention. 

Surely, this is something you grow out of… 

While it is commonly associated with the fervent emotional explorations of adolescence and young adulthood, driven by hormonal changes and the quest for identity and connection, limerence does not solely belong to the young. Middle-aged and older adults are equally susceptible to its grip, especially during periods of significant life transitions, such as the "mid-life crisis", or when existing relationships no longer provide the emotional satisfaction they seek. This vulnerability arises from a deep-seated desire for emotional intensity, validation, and an escape from the mundane aspects of daily life or long-term partnerships that may have lost their spark. The longing for a profound connection can reignite the potential for limerence, demonstrating that the quest for romantic idealization and obsession knows no age limit. In essence, limerence can emerge at any point in life, particularly when individuals find themselves searching for meaning, connection, or a sense of renewal in their emotional lives. 

Why Do We Fall into Limerence? 

Several factors can make us prone to limerence. Attachment styles, deeply ingrained from our earliest relationships with caregivers, play a significant role in shaping our susceptibility to limerence. Securely attached individuals, who grew up with consistent and responsive care, tend to have healthier, more stable relationships and may experience limerence with less intensity or frequency. In contrast, those with anxious attachment styles, marked by a craving for closeness and fear of abandonment, are more prone to the intense, obsessive longing characteristic of limerence, as they seek the emotional reciprocation and validation they felt deprived of in childhood. Avoidant attachment styles, resulting from neglectful or dismissive caregiving, can lead to a paradoxical form of limerence where individuals yearn for intimacy yet keep it at arm's length, fearing vulnerability. Those with avoidant attachment styles can be pulled into the fantastical, unrealistic visions of limerence – feeling obsessed with people they do not know very well. 

Additionally, brain chemistry and hormonal shifts play a pivotal role in making individuals more prone to limerence, creating a potent mix that fuels this intense emotional state. The release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, is central to the experience of limerence, driving the obsessive thoughts and euphoria that characterize this condition. Additionally, fluctuations in serotonin levels, often linked to feelings of happiness and well-being, can mirror patterns seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder, intensifying the fixation on the object of affection. The interplay of these chemicals, along with the stress hormone cortisol and the bonding hormone oxytocin, can heighten the emotional rollercoaster of limerence, making individuals more susceptible to its highs and lows. This biochemical dance underscores the powerful influence of our internal chemistry on emotional experiences, particularly the susceptibility to the all-consuming state of limerence. 

Finally, mental health also significantly influences one's susceptibility to limerence, intertwining deeply with the intensity and impact of this emotional state. Its frequent co-occurrence with mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety highlights the complex relationship between limerence and psychological health. The obsessive and compulsive aspects of limerence, akin to those seen in OCD, can lead to behaviors like incessant social media checking or seeking constant reassurance, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression. 

Moving Beyond Limerence: Practical Steps 

Getting over limerence isn't easy, but it's doable with some practical steps: 

Cut-Off Contact: This means no texting, no social media stalking, and maybe even avoiding places where you'll run into the object of your obsession. It's tough, but necessary to break the cycle. 

Stay Present: Mindfulness and meditation can help keep you grounded and reduce obsessive thoughts.

Find New Passions: Getting into new hobbies or revisiting old ones can distract you and help you find new joy.

Exercise and Stay Active: Physical activity is excellent for mental health and can help take your mind off things. 

Set Personal Goals: Working toward something, whether it's career-related or personal development, can boost your self-esteem and give you something else to focus on. 

Talk to Someone: Whether through therapy or just opening up to friends, talking helps. It's important to understand why you're feeling this way and how to move forward. 

The ultimate goal is to build a life that is fulfilling on its own without needing someone else to complete it. It's about finding happiness in your hobbies, your friendships, and your achievements. 

Limerence can be a tough ride, full of intense emotions and daydreams that feel all too real. But with understanding and effort, it's possible to navigate through it and come out stronger, with a clearer sense of what you're really looking for in relationships and in life.

Facing these strong, irrational emotions can be difficult at times. Sometimes, working with the right therapist can really help you find clarity and allow you room to move forward and grow.  Many of the therapists at Gooding Wellness Group specialize in helping you cope with these difficult emotions.  Please never hesitate to reach out if we can be of assistance.

Margaret Lorenz, LCSW

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