Falling in Limerence
Have you ever felt lovesick? A desire so strong for someone that thoughts of them take up every waking moment of your day? Welcome to the world of limerence. We explore the complexities of love and limerence, life as a “limerent” and how to form healthy relationships.

From a young age, we are taught a lot of misconceptions about love. We learn that love changes the way we act, that it drives us to acts of desperation and leaves us dazed and consumed by thoughts of our beloved. To be shot by Cupid’s arrow is something we all long for. Romeo and Juliet were so in love they couldn’t live without one another. Carrie loved Big so much she was willing to accept the bare minimum and revolve her life around him. Don’t get me wrong — I adore Sex and the City, and Carrie Bradshaw is one of the reasons I became a writer. But I never really understood why she chose Big.

To me, it didn’t look like love. It looked like Carrie had fallen in love with the idea of Big, put him on a pedestal, and was blind to the reality that Big only gave her crumbs, never the whole cake. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it wasn’t love, but limerence.

Coined by Dr Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, limerence is the “interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see… the hint of the possibility of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.”

Throughout her research, Dr Tennov interviewed 500 people who were experiencing love obsession and came to the conclusion that limerence is the very first stage of the love cycle — love sickness, if you will. It’s more than just sexual desire, although this certainly plays a part. It’s an intense infatuation, a kind of spell cast over you and the need for this desire to be returned. Since Dr Tennov’s book was published, many psychologists have likened limerence to mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction. And while there are many unhealthy aspects of limerence that can impact all parts of your life, I like to think of it as Dr Tennov does: innocent, unconditional, ephemeral.

The classic example of limerence is unrequited, where one party — the limerent — is borderline obsessive about their limerence object (LO). Think Mark’s fixation on Julie despite her being married to his best friend in Love Actually; Tom’s obsession with Summer in 500 Days of Summer; and the entire tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet. Limerence can be felt before, during and even after a relationship. It may actually lead to a relationship and once the ecstasy fades, you and your loved one are left to decide whether you are truly compatible.

Love or limerence?

So how do you know whether you’re in love or limerence? Well, you can check your “symptoms” against Dr Tennov’s 12 basic signs of limerence:

  • Intrusive thoughts about your LO.
  • Intense longing for your feelings to be reciprocated.
  • Mood is dependent on your LO’s actions (or inactions) and your interpretation of these actions.
  • Inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time.
  • A sense of relief from fantasising about your passions being reciprocated by your LO.
  • Crippling fear of rejection and feelings of insecurity around your LO.
  • Feelings intensified by adversity.
  • Interpreting any act that could point to reciprocation of feelings as a sign of hidden passion from your LO.
  • An aching sensation in your chest (or heart) when feelings of uncertainty arise.
  • A feeling of elation when reciprocation is evident.
  • Feelings towards your LO are so intense that all other concerns, issues and priorities fade away.
  • Emphasising your LO’s positive attributes while minimising their flaws or negative aspects, i.e., the sense that they can do no wrong.

Reading these may spark some internal recognition of how it felt to pursue crushes and lovers of times past (it did for me). I can vividly recall staring at my phone for hours, feelings of despair creeping in and making up excuses like “he’s probably busy” despite seeing the green dot next to his name alerting me that he was, in fact, online and had been on and off multiple times since I’d sent the message. The picture-perfect fairy tale of our future that I had been creating in my head began to fracture and my heart sank — until my phone screen lit up and that sense of elation and giddiness washed over me. Just like that, I was back to thinking up the perfect response while romanticising this man who was most likely not giving a second thought to whether I would reply or not. Ah, the irony.

Maybe you’ve sat by your phone for hours, too, or gone to their favourite cafe with the hope of bumping into them. Perhaps you’ve even followed them to another city or country to prove your affection. Even if they treat you like an option and give you the bare minimum, you know you’d do absolutely anything for them.

Limerence can be defined by three phases: infatuation, addiction and recovery. The infatuation phase is the period of euphoria where you are first getting to know your LO and the anticipation begins to build. The second phase, addiction, is the crux of limerence, where the limerent is overcome by their LO and where Tennov’s 12 signs are most apparent. Recovery, the final and often most excruciating stage of limerence, is the comedown. The feelings start to subside and you may feel regret, remorse or just general ick about your behaviour. Best case scenario? The limerence spell lifts and you and your LO share mutual feelings and are ready to ride off into the sunset, as per rom-com guidelines. The flip side of this is the sting of realisation that your LO doesn’t share your feelings and you are left with a general sense of anxiety and embarrassment about the whole scenario.

Dr Tennov describes the experience of limerence as a “tragic daydream” and there really is no better way to sum it up — the euphoria is second to none. Limerence takes you on a roller-coaster, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and back again on repeat.

If you’re reading this and thinking that perhaps you’re in limerence, don’t fret. You are not crazy; you are human. Couples counsellor Natalie Claire King points out the importance of self-compassion when coming to terms with feelings of limerence. “First of all, we need to be compassionate towards ourselves. Maybe you were single for two years and were sick of being alone, which is such a reasonable and understandable thing to feel. So then someone comes along and shows us attention, and we might be feeling like, ‘oh wow, this feels so good, this is so lovely.’” But it’s important to question whether you really like this person or the idea of this person — which is the tricky part, because the whole concept of limerence makes this kind of subjectivity almost impossible.

While Dr Tennov describes limerence as a normal part of falling in love, neuroscientist “Dr L”, author of Living with Limerence: A Guide for the Smitten and founder of the Living with Limerence community (livingwithlimerence.com), goes a step further to recognise the psychological impact that limerence may have on the limerent. “Many people talk about feeling ‘addicted’ to their limerent object,” he writes. “We go from delighting in the LO’s intoxicating company because it makes us feel more vital and energised, to desperately craving their company and suffering anxiety and obsessive thoughts in their absence.”

The symptoms of limerence highlighted by Dr Tennov’s list have been likened to addiction. But rather than addiction to love, Dr L proposes that limerence is an addiction to the LO themselves. So how can one break out of this addiction?

I reached out to Dr L to get his perspective, and it turns out the most powerful antidote to limerence is cultivating your own sense of purpose and self-worth beyond your LO.

“At Living with Limerence, we talk a lot about this ‘purposeful living’ as the best protection against unwanted infatuation … if being with someone else defines your purpose, you will always be at the mercy of their whims,” Dr L explains. “The essence of purposeful living is being honest with yourself about what kind of life you want to have, and what kind of person you want to be, and then working towards achieving that ideal one step at a time. That mindset gives you direction and a higher ambition than just getting through each day or hoping for someone else to come and rescue you.”

The LO is an enigma to the limerent, blinding them to flaws and negative behaviours or traits. Curating your own sense of self-worth and boundaries can help you decide whether this person is really worth your time and affection — especially if these feelings are unrequited. Maybe your LO is offering suggestions here and there or giving you just enough to keep your attention on them because they enjoy being adored (ahem, Mr Big). But as Florence Given writes in her book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, “Stop settling for crumbs. You deserve the whole cake.”

Healthy relationships 101

One of the most detrimental effects limerence has upon us is that it hinders our ability to think logically and rationally about the person and love in general. The result? Unhealthy relationships and attachments. You may have heard of attachment theory, a psychological theory that essentially divides how we bond with our family, romantic partners and even friends into four main categories: secure, avoidant, anxious and fearful-avoidant. Dr L explains that although it seems limerence appears to tick all the anxious attachment boxes, “those feelings are not necessarily typical of the limerent’s attachment style in other relationships. I hear from lots of people who have stable or avoidant attachments generally, and only experience those kinds of disordered emotions when in the thick of limerence.”

When we take a closer look at anxious attachment, it definitely mirrors the major signs of limerence: sensitivity to your partner’s emotions and needs, feelings of being unworthy of love when rejected, a strong fear of abandonment, and an air of desperation at times. So perhaps we should apply a similar approach to overcoming limerence as we do anxious attachment.

Natalie emphasises the importance of figuring out exactly what you need and communicating this to your LO. Ask yourself if you are truly happy in this state and recognise that it is okay to have needs and expectations from someone you want to pursue a relationship with — but first you need to come to terms with it yourself.

Limerence can have us so blinded by what we perceive as love that we completely forgo our own wants, needs, values and beliefs. But without these, our compass towards healthy relationships is completely dysfunctional. We miss the warning signs, subtle red flags, and even the obvious signs of disinterest or rejection from our LO.

“It’s always possible that — through the might of your undying love — you could save a troubled soul from themselves,” says Dr L. “But your odds are a lot better if you bond with someone sincere from the start.”

Dr L’s top tips for healthy relationships

  • Practise self-awareness. Understanding your attachment style and your psychological triggers will really help you read your own emotional responses. You’ll be able to see why you react the way you do to your partner’s behaviour and when you need to try to turn down the emotional volume or disengage from conflict.
  • Forget the idea that “true love” is always easy and intuitive. Most relationship problems start when two people with different expectations are acting intuitively, but their instincts are mismatched. A healthy, successful relationship requires a balance of patience, skill, communication and determination as well as romantic attraction.
  • Be honest with yourself and your potential partner. Many of us use banter, snark and use other forms of verbal playfulness to disguise our real feelings and protect our insecure self from exposure. A simple, honest statement of your true feelings can cut through a lot of game playing and confusion and save you a world of heartache.
  • Consider whether or not the person you are pursuing is dependable. Do they reciprocate acts of generosity and affection? Do they show concern about your wellbeing? Do they want closeness, but also respect your boundaries? Do you do all those things for them?

Life after limerence

One thing that “love” stories and rom-coms have ingrained in us is the sense that love will prevail; it knows no bounds and we should stop at nothing to get it. But in reality, romantic love doesn’t always prevail. No matter how hard we pine for someone or dedicate ourselves to memorising their quirks, their favourite places, what they like, what they hate, we cannot force love to bloom. Sometimes we are left broken-hearted and learning that your LO doesn’t have any romantic feelings about you can be seriously soul-crushing.

“One useful way of looking at this is to understand that the feelings of limerence — the euphoria, the excitement, the energising buzz of being with them — are happening in your head. Those fireworks are going off inside you; the other person just lit the fuse,” says Dr L.

Like Dr Tennov, Dr L believes that limerence is simply a part of the process of love and a learning curve for many (some may even benefit from professional help), teaching us to set healthy boundaries and value our own worth. Recognising this can burst your limerence bubble, opening your eyes to your LO’s flaws and allowing you to gain some perspective. Reframing your mindset is essentially the key to reclaiming your life outside of this person. And it is the perfect time to ask yourself, do I really like this person? Are they giving me what I need? What do I want from this relationship? If the answer to all these questions is yes, you then need to ask them if they feel the same way.

In the unfortunate circumstance your feelings towards your LO aren’t reciprocated at all (and as Dr L points out, this is the likeliest outcome of limerence), there is only one answer. “Ultimately, the only way is stoical acceptance,” says Dr L. “If you concentrate on building a purposeful life, then other people become potential partners who may or may not join you on the journey.”

I’ve come to learn that real love is not all about butterflies, all-consuming thoughts or loving someone so much you’d rather die than be without them. Love should offer a sense of calm, safety, excitement, contentment and the promise of a future together. Think of your partner as a planet in your solar system, alongside your family, friends, career and other aspects of your life that are in your orbit — you are the sun and these planets should never eclipse your needs. Perhaps the legacy of Carrie and Big and Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t be hailed as great love stories, but as cautionary tales of limerence.

Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and the features writer at WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.