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Is It Love… Or Limerence?


In affairs of the heart, what separates a healthy obsession from an unhealthy one? These signs can help you spot the difference between the early stages of love and limerence, say experts.

By Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D.

"Every Breath You Take" is a popular song sung by The Police. Its lyrics warn, "Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you." Under normal circumstances, such hyper-surveillance by a near-stranger would be suffocating. However, at the beginning of a hot and heavy romance, it's actually quite flattering to be so carefully observed. Thus, the difference between possession and passion depends on the stage of love you're in and the level of reciprocity involved.

How limerence strikes
Ursula is an attractive blonde socialite with an Ivy League education who carries herself with an air of
If you're not obsessed, you're not in love.
confidence and is in the right social circles to be invited to elegant parties attended by swanky men. However, through the years, she suffered one soured love affair after another. Now that she's in her forties, Ursula feels alone. She desperately wants a loving marriage, but nothing she tries has worked.

One evening, Ursula attended a party hosted by a famous (and single) European prince. As one of the guests at this affair, she whispered to me that she had been dreaming of this fateful day for months. She fantasized that this prince would find her so ravishing that he'd ask her to become his real-life princess. But that night, the royal monarch was surrounded by so many people that Ursula never even got the chance to bat her lovely lashes in his direction — and this left the would-be princess depressed and angry for the months that followed.

The late University of Bridgeport psychologist Dorothy Tennov devised a word to describe Ursula's kind of impossible crush: "limerence." In her 1979 book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, Tennov defined the concept as an intense romantic desire for someone she named "the limerent object," or L.O. Today, research has likened the condition to obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction behaviors. However, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is otherwise known as the bible of psychiatric disorders, has yet to classify "crazy" love as a disorder — and there may be a reason for that.

Love, obsession and your brain chemistry
Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and the founder of Chemistry.com, told me on the phone that although Tennov's work had influenced some of her own early writing, she herself had never adopted the term "limerence" because it simply describes classic, standard romantic love, and she did not feel the need to assign another name to it. Fisher went on to say that infatuation, obsession, and all the excitement of early love has been described the same way throughout the world for centuries. And what's so bad about obsessive love, anyway? "If you're not obsessed, you're not in love," Fisher asserts. "Early intense romantic love is an obsession." And that obsession continues because it feels great!

Limerence strikes both genders, and it's often accompanied by both physical ailments and a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's pleasure centers. This early stage of romance goes much deeper than a nonchalant crush. Ursula joked that she had habitually stalked men in the past when her obsessions with them went unrequited. Fisher confirmed that limerence increases when there are barriers to the relationship, such as rejection. Being rebuffed requires the dopamine system to work harder to generate its rewards. While Ursula laughed about her past, in actuality, this behavior was probably rooted in an overdrive of brain activity caused by these dismissive partners rejecting her.

7 ways to distinguish love from limerence
Have you fallen prey to Ursula's ailments at some point? How do you know whether your heart thumps for true love, or you're hopelessly suffering from the limerence that Tennov describes? Here are some signs to help you spot the difference:

1. Love supports your personal happiness and sets the stage for you to connect with someone who is similarly at peace. Limerence seeks control over your partner in an attempt to make this person dependent on you.

2. Love means give-and-take between two people exists. Limerence connotes an unrequited infatuation by just one individual. When those feelings are not returned, some people become self-destructive. One woman described her limerent feelings as "insanely mad," leading her to thoughts of suicide.

3. Love consists of a healthy non-attachment wherein two people pursue their own rich interests and then reunite to share their experiences with each other. In The Path to Love, Deepak Chopra makes these distinctions: "Non-attachment" is a state of freedom that shows caring; the more non-attached someone is, the more that person can love another. (This contrasts with "detachment," which implies indifference.) Limerence exhibits
Thoroughly assess your next hook-up before you get hung up.
an overwhelming sense of "attachment," which Chopra calls a form of dependency. Yet, according to Fisher, in early love, that dependent connection is a common one.

4. Love means honest communication between two people. Limerence involves game-playing and manipulation. Ursula used the stalking game to try and grab the attention of her L.O.s — which, as she learned, is an unreliable means of securing love.

5. Love involves flexible gender roles that may be contrary to male and female stereotypes. Limerence upholds the antiquated roles of feeble, swooning women and aggressive macho men.

6. Love involves having healthy sexual closeness and physical intimacy with your partner. Limerence omits any sexual fantasies, because its prime goal is to attract the L.O.'s attention and nothing more.

7. Love is a true partnership in which each person supports the other. Limerence positions someone to become a crush's savior. The aim is to become the hero or heroine for which the L.O. will be eternally grateful, then granting that partner the ultimate reward of you sticking around afterward.

When I showed Tennov's writing to Ursula, she sighed that while one part of her would like her consuming feelings of limerence to end, another part of her wanted these exciting fantasies to continue. I questioned whether she was using her obsessive make-believe thoughts to unconsciously stave off any real prospects, thereby avoiding getting hurt. "Wow," she replied. "That would mean that my behaviors have been very successful in blocking love all these years!" I think I had finally gotten through to her.

So what is a limerent person to do?
If you have experienced unrequited discomfort that sounds similar to Ursula's, here are some possible remedies:
  1. Determine if you are running from love and using limerence as a way to protect yourself from potential heartbreak. If you are, uncover why. As soon as you get to the source, you can be on your way to finding healthy love.
  2. Distract yourself with activities you enjoy, including going on real dates that offer what your fantasy love does not.
  3. Wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it each time you drift into unrealistic dreams about your L.O.
  4. Understand that limerence subsides when love is returned, so two limerents would be a good match for each other. However, Tennov cautions that if you are a limerent who falls for a non-limerent, you should "run like hell."
As my Gilda-Gram warns, "Thoroughly assess your next hook-up before you get hung up." Tennov hoped that singles would identify themselves as limerent and non-limerent almost as easily as they classify themselves by their horoscope sign. Unfortunately, like Ursula, most people have not been schooled in the pitfalls of limerent behavior. Fortunately, now that you know the seven signs, you won't be one of them!


Relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., gives Instant Advice throughout the world via Skype, email and phone. She is the 30-Second Therapist for Today.com. Her best-selling books include Don’t Bet on the Prince!, 99 Prescriptions for Fidelity and How to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit her website at (DrGilda.com).
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