Parataxic distortion

Limerence [lim-rens] is a term coined in 1977 by American psychologist Dorothy Tennov to describe an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated. The concept grew out of Tennov’s mid-1960s work, when she interviewed over 500 people on the topic of love, and was first published in her 1979 book ‘Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love.’

Though there are no established preconditions for limerence, there is a high rate of coincidence between limerence, depersonalization/derealization disorders, and dysfunctional attachment environments in childhood. This might suggest that sustained exposure to a psychologically unstable environment in childhood, or unhealthy/incomplete attachment between a child and their caretakers in early life, may make an individual more susceptible to limerence. There is also a statistically significant correlation between limerence and post traumatic stress disorder.

Attachment theory emphasises that ‘many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of attachment relationships.’ It has been suggested that ‘the state of limerence is the conscious experience of sexual incentive motivation’ during attachment formation: ‘a kind of subjective experience of sexual incentive motivation’ during the ‘intensive…pair-forming stage’ of human affectional bonding. Limerence is considered as a cognitive and emotional state of being emotionally attached or even obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings – a near-obsessive form of romantic love. For Tennov, ‘sexual attraction is an essential component of limerence…the limerent is a potential sex partner.”

Limerence is sometimes also interpreted as infatuation, or what is colloquially known as a crush; but in common speech, infatuation includes aspects of immaturity and extrapolation from insufficient information, and is usually short-lived. ‘Tennov notes how limerence may dissolve soon after its initiation, as in an early teenage buzz-centered crush,’ but is more concerned with the point when ‘limerent bonds are characterized by ‘entropy’ crystallization as described by Stendhal in his 1821 treatise ‘On Love,’ where a new love infatuation perceptually begins to transform…attractive characteristics are exaggerated and unattractive characteristics are given little or no attention…[creating] a limerent object.’

According to Tennov, there are at least two types of love: a) limerence, which she describes as (inter alia) ‘loving attachment’; and b) ‘loving affection,’ the bond that exists between an individual and his or her parents and children. She notes however that one form may evolve into the other: ‘those whose limerence was replaced by affectional bonding with the same partner might say…’We were very much in love when we married; today we love each other very much.’ The distinction is comparable to that drawn by ethologists ‘between the pair-forming and pair-maintaining functions of sexual activity, just as ‘the attachment of the attachment theorists is very similar to the emotional reciprocation longed for in Tennov’s limerence, and each is linked to sexuality.’

Limerence is characterized by intrusive thinking and pronounced sensitivity to external events that reflect the disposition of the limerent object towards the individual, and can be experienced as intense joy or as extreme despair, depending on whether the feelings are reciprocated. Basically, it is the state of being completely carried away by unreasoned passion or love, even to the point of addictive-type behavior. Usually, one is inspired with an intense passion or admiration for someone. Limerence can be difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it, and it is thus often dismissed by nonlimerents as ridiculous fantasy or a construct of romantic fiction.

Tennov differentiates between limerence and other emotions by asserting that love involves concern for the other person’s welfare and feeling. While limerence does not require it, those concerns may certainly be incorporated. Affection and fondness exist only as a disposition towards another person, irrespective of whether those feelings are reciprocated, whereas limerence deeply desires return, but it remains unaltered whether it’s returned or not. Physical contact with the object is neither essential nor sufficient to an individual experiencing limerence, unlike one experiencing sexual attraction. Where early, unhealthy attachment patterns or trauma influence limerence, the limerent object may be constructed as an idealization of the figure(s) involved in the original unhealthy attachment or trauma. Lack of reciprocation may, in such instances, actually serve to reinforce lessons learned in earlier, unhealthy bonding experiences, and hence to strengthen the limerence.

Limerence involves intrusive thinking about the limerent object. Other characteristics include acute longing for reciprocation, fear of rejection, and unsettling shyness in the limerent object’s presence. In cases of unrequited limerence, transient relief may be found by vividly imagining reciprocation from the limerent object. Tennov suggests that feelings of limerence can be intensified through adversity, obstacles, or distance .

During the height of limerence, thoughts of the limerent object (or person) are at once persistent, involuntary, and intrusive. Such ‘intrusive thoughts about the LO … appear to be genetically driven’: indeed, limerence is first and foremost a condition of cognitive obsession. All events, associations, stimuli, and experiences return thoughts to the limerent object with unnerving consistency, while conversely the constant thoughts about the limerent object define all other experiences. If a certain thought has no previous connection with the limerent object, immediately one is made. Limerent fantasy is unsatisfactory unless rooted in reality, because the fantasizer may want the fantasy to seem realistic and somewhat possible. At their most severe, intrusive limerent thoughts can occupy an individual’s waking hours completely, resulting- like severe addiction- in significant or complete disruption of the limerent’s normal interests and activities, including work and family. For serial limerents, this can result in debilitating, lifelong underachievement in school, work, and family life. Comparisons made between limerence and substance addiction may draw attention to the constant, free availability of the limerent’s ‘drug of choice,’ as they are essentially suffering from a chemical imbalance within the brain.

Fantasies that are concerned with far-fetched ideas are usually dropped by the fantasizer. Sometimes fantasizing is retrospective: actual events are replayed from memory with great vividness. This form predominates when what is viewed as evidence of possible reciprocation can be re-experienced (a kind of selective or revisionist history). Otherwise, the long fantasy is anticipatory; it begins in the everyday world and climaxes at the attainment of the limerent goal. A limerent fantasy can also involve an unusual, often tragic, event. The long fantasies form bridges between the limerent’s ordinary life and that intensely desired ecstatic moment. The duration and complexity of a fantasy depend on the availability of time and freedom from distractions. Not always is it entirely pleasant, and when rejection seems likely the thoughts focus on despair, sometimes to the point of suicide. The pleasantness or unpleasantness of the state seems almost unrelated to the intensity of the reaction. Although the direction of feeling, i.e. happy versus unhappy, shifts rapidly, with ‘dramatic surges of buoyancy and despair,’ the intensity of intrusive and involuntary thinking alters less rapidly, and only in response to an accumulation of experiences with the particular limerent object.

Along with the emphasis on positive qualities perceived in the limerent object, and preoccupation with the hope for return of feelings, there is a fear that limerence will be met by the very opposite of reciprocation: rejection. Considerable self-doubt and uncertainty may be experienced, leading to ‘personal incapacitation expressed through an unsettling shyness in the presence of the [L] person’ – something which causes pain, but also enhances desire to a certain extent, and can also spread to situations involving other potential limerent objects, though generally it does not affect other spheres of life. However in most cases, this is what helps to eventually destroy the limerence if a suitably long period of time has passed without reciprocation. Although it appears that limerence blossoms under some forms of adversity, extreme caution and shyness may prevent a relationship from occurring, even when both parties are interested. This results from a fear of exposing one’s undesirable characteristics to the limerent object.

Limerence develops and is sustained when there is a certain balance of hope and uncertainty. The base for limerent hope is not in objective reality but reality as it is perceived. The inclination is to sift through nuances of speech and subtleties of behavior for evidence of limerent hope. ‘Lovers, of course, are notoriously frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs (and analysts) as readers of signs and wonders.’ ‘Little things’ are noticed and endlessly analyzed for meaning. Such excessive concern over trivia may not be entirely unfounded, however. Body language can indicate a return of feeling. What the limerent object said and did is recalled with vividness. Alternative meanings of those behaviors recalled are searched out. The belief that the limerent object does not and will not reciprocate can only come about with great difficulty. Limerence can be carried quite far before acknowledgment of rejection is genuine, especially if it has not been addressed openly by the object of limerence.

The physiological correlations of limerence are heart palpitations, trembling, pallor, flushing, pupil dilation, and general weakness. Awkwardness, stuttering, shyness, confusion predominate at the behavioral level. Less common effects include sickness, headaches, etc., and loss of appetite, dizziness and passing out. There is apprehension, nervousness, and anxiety due to terrible worry that any action may bring about disaster. Many of the commonly associated physiological reactions are the result of the limerent fear. Some people however may find that these effects come most strongly either immediately at or some time after contact with the object of limerence, and this is accompanied with an acute feeling of ecstasy or despair, depending on the turn of events beforehand. The super-sensitivity that is heightened by fear of rejection can get in the way of interpreting the limerent object’s body language and lead to inaction and wasted opportunities. Body signals may be emitted that confuse and interfere with attaining the limerent object. A condition of sustained alertness, a heightening of awareness and an enormous fund of energy to deploy in pursuit of the limerent aim is developed. The sensation of limerence is felt in the midpoint of the chest, bottom of the throat, guts, or in some cases in the abdominal region. This can be interpreted as ecstasy at times of mutuality, but its presence is most noticeable during despair at times of rejection.

Awareness of physical attraction plays a key role in the development of limerence, but is not enough to satisfy the limerent desire, and is almost never the main focus—instead, the limerent focuses on what could be defined as the ‘beneficial attributes.’ Nevertheless Tennov stresses that ‘the most consistent result of limerence is mating, not merely sexual interaction but also commitment.’ Limerence can be intensified after a sexual relationship has begun, and with more intense limerence there is greater desire for sexual contact. However, while sexual surrender once indicated the end of uncertainty in the limerent object, in modern times this is not necessarily the case.

The sexual aspect of limerence is not consistent from person to person. Most limerents experience limerent sexuality as a component of romantic interest. Some limerents, however, may actually experience limerence in consequence of ‘hyperarousal,’ a symptom- inter alia- of traumatic stress disorders. In such cases, limerence may form as a defense mechanism against the limerent object, who is not perceived initially as a romantic ideal, but as a physical threat to the limerent. This is particularly consistent among limerents who were formerly victims of sexual abuse or trauma. A limerent episode proceeding from a traumatic stress disorder might be triggered by uninvited physical contact from a limerent object, or even the perception of certain potentially threatening traits in the limerent object.’

Sexual fantasies are distinct from limerent ones. Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality and is intrusive rather than voluntary. Sexual fantasies are under more or less voluntary control and may also involve imaginary situations that could not take place. Limerence elevates body temperature and increases relaxation, a sensation of viewing the world with rose-tinted glasses, becoming more receptive to sexuality, and daydreaming about how good a lover your co-worker or a stranger on the bus might be. People can become aroused by the thought of sexual partners, acts, and situations that are not truly desired, whereas every detail of the limerent fantasy is passionately desired actually to take place. Limerence sometimes increases sexual interest in other partners when the limerent object is unreceptive or unavailable.

According to Tennov, all human bonded relationships can be divided into three varieties being defined by the amount of limerence or non-limerence each partner contributes to the relationship. With an affectional bond, neither partner is limerent. With a Limerent-Nonlimerent bond, one partner is limerent. In a Limerent-Limerent bond, both partners are limerent. Affectional bonding characterize those affectionate sexual relationships where neither partner is limerent; couples tend to be in love, but do not report continuous and unwanted intrusive thinking, feeling intense need for exclusivity, or define their goals in terms of reciprocity. These types of bonded couples tend to emphasize compatibility of interests, mutual preferences in leisure activities, ability to work together, and in some cases a degree of relative contentment. The bulk of relationships, however, according to Tennov, are those between a limerent person and a nonlimerent other, i.e. limerent-nonlimerent bonding. These bonds are characterized by unequal reciprocation. Lastly, those relationship bonds in which there exists mutual reciprocation are defined as limerent-limerent bondings. Tennov argues since limerence itself is an ‘unstable state’ that mutually limerent bonds would be expected to be short-lived; mixed relationships probably last longer than limerent-limerent relationships. Some limerent-limerent relationships evolve into affectional bondings over time as limerance declines and such couples are described by Tennov as ‘old marrieds’ whose interactions are typically both stable and mutually gratifying.


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