June 28th, 2016
A low point for me was when I Photoshopped a picture of my face over his girlfriend’s in a photo where the two of them were embracing. As I examined the collaged image, I felt strangely proud of my work. I loved looking at it! It made me nearly as happy, I felt, as if it had been a real picture taken of us physically together.
If I had been 12, and he’d been Leonardo DiCaprio, maybe making a collage would have been cute. But I was in my twenties, and he was a celebrity to no one but me.
Of all the books about infatuation, I have one favorite that is curiously overlooked: Love and Limerence—The Experience of Being in Love (1979) is one of the best guides for feeling in the grip of uncontrollable, unbearable passion that I’ve found.
In this book, psychologist Dorothy Tennov (1928-2007) coined the word “limerence” to describe “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”
She chose the word because “it was pronounceable and seemed to me and to two students to have a ‘fitting’ sound.”
It’s the word to describe a crush when it becomes…intense.
The book, which combines the best of the literary, psychology and self-help genres, opens with the lines: “You think: I want you. I want you forever, now, yesterday, and always. Above all, I want you to want me. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I am not safe from your spell.”
And that’s just the beginning.
A “Woman’s Province”
Limerence seems to be having a moment. It can be found, for example, in the innovative TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which subverts and explores its eponymous concept to produce, in the words of star and co-creator Rachel Bloom, a “realistic portrayal of someone using love as an escapist drug.” Limerence was also name-checked in Season Two of Transparent: Amy Landecker’s character, Sarah, uses the word to describe her mother’s new state of infatuation. The cult twitter account, SoSadToday, spouts pithy lines of existential angst; self-aware limerence is a favorite subject of its author, poet Melissa Broder, who also describes the state in her recent book of essays.
Limerence, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. In her book, Tennov describes the central role it has played in art, literature and music throughout the ages, using examples like Anna Karenina, Madame Butterfly and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Limerence, she writes, “inspires even ordinary persons to verbal excess”—to refer to “the pleasure that makes life worth living” and “the experience that takes the sting from dying.”
Despite these supposedly panacean properties, Tennov notes that limerence seems to have a correlation with murder, suicide and other impulsive acts of violence.
But whether limerence leads to agony, ecstasy or some combination of the two, Tennov says that it has been considered “woman’s province” and overlooked as a field worthy of serious study—largely and wrongly omitted, for example, from the fields of depression and suicide research, where it would seem highly relevant.
Tennov’s attempt to give the stereotypically female subject of limerence the serious attention it deserves is in keeping with her feminist agenda. She was involved in New York feminist circles in the ‘70s, and also published a book called Psychotherapy, the Hazardous Cure, a critical feminist examination of psychotherapy, and Super Self: A Woman’s Guide to Self-Management. She was a professor of psychology at University of Bridgeport, where she introduced the first women’s studies course.
When limerence has been given attention in the past, says Tennov, it’s been in the service of castigating women for it.
“I am astonished and disconcerted by the blatant misogyny I have so often found in literature,” she writes, “even in recent essays and research reports. Not only is love women’s province, but she is blamed for it mightily.”
Women experiencing limerence are typically seen as sick (as in the case of Freud’s conception of female hysteria), or evil (women have often been punished more harshly for adultery than men). When men evince limerence, women are seen to have maliciously evoked it, and are punished once again; one of Webster’s definitions of “witch” Tennov notes, is “charming or alluring woman.”
Addicted to Love?
Nearly 40 years since Tennov discussed it, limerence still seems to be considered “women’s province” and women still seem to be blamed for it, even as the framing of love as an “addiction” has been increasingly studied and present in popular discourse, as Lynn Parramore has examined for The Influence.
Tennov herself refers to a spate of books about love and addiction that came out before hers in the ‘70s, (including Influence columnist Stanton Peele’s 1975 work, Love and Addiction). These variously categorize passionate romantic love as an addiction, as a sign of immaturity, and/or a mark of of excessive “dependence.”
Tennov calls these views, notably all offered by men, “disparaging.”
“It cannot be concluded,” she writes, “that none of these writers has ever experienced limerence; only that they view it as both illogical and pathological. What my studies suggest is that while it is illogical, it is also normal, and therefore normal human beings can be illogical. For some,” she writes, allowing herself a bit of snootiness, “this seems a difficult idea to accept.”
Peele however, rejects the “disease model” of addiction and rather sees addiction as a part of “normal” human experience, so his conception may not be as different from Tennov’s as she seems to think.
Regardless, she holds a general wariness for psychotherapists who attempt to cure their patients of limerence (or a lack thereof); she sees them as the latest in a long line of those who attempt to control women’s bodies.
Today, Tennov has lost out to a dominant view that limerent love is pathological—see the Judd Apatow show Love among others, which depict people (usually women) despairing over their disease-model-type “love addiction.” It would appear that when it comes to limerence, we are still, as Tennov writes, “exposed to a kind of pro-therapy propaganda promulgated by television sitcoms, advice columnists, and various kinds of popular reading material.” Parramore notes that there are 40 Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous groups in New York City alone.
But the semantics of what limerence is or isn’t aren’t what make the book such a unique and fascinating read. Rather, it’s Tennov’s accumulation and organization of hundreds of pages of Studs Terkel-like first-person testimony about the intimate details of being under another person’s spell.
A Thousand Limerents
Tennov interviewed and surveyed over a thousand people formally and informally about their experiences with (or without) limerence. Some people she interviewed—”nonlimerents”—had never experienced such a thing and could hardly understand what she was talking about. Of those who had experienced it, their limerence “ranged in duration from a three-day spree in Naples to a fifty-year unrequited yearning.”
Among “limerents,” all had experienced certain features; symptoms include “intrusive thinking” about the “Limerent Object,” (or LO as they are referred to in the book ), “acute longing for reciprocation,” an “aching of the ‘heart’ (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong,” and “buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident.”
Limerence, Tennov writes, “is ignited by a set of conditions” that include two important criteria:
1. A sign of hope that the person might reciprocate.
“Then you reach the final torment: utter despair poisoned still by a shred of hope.”—Stendhal
Tennov references The Second Sex, in which Simone De Beauvoir discusses the first feature—hope—in the context of a psychiatric condition called “erotomania.” A “normal woman,” De Beauvoir writes “sometimes yields in the end to the truth and finally recognizes the fact that she is no longer loved.” But in the case of erotomania, the “patient’s mania always succeeds in breaking through the resistance of reality…she always cheats a little” and retains a crumb of hope.
Another feature of limerence is that the subject lives to some extent in a world of fantasy, one that may have little-to-no relation to any true interactions with the object of affection, yet is consumed by them. Limerence’s manifestations range from a secret obsession where the LO literally does not know the limerent person exists, to a fixation on one’s own spouse.
But always there are intrusive, obsessive thoughts. As a limerent person, Tennov writes, “You wonder or imagine what LO would think of the book in your hand, the scene you are witnessing, the fortune or misfortune that is befalling you. You find yourself visualizing how you will tell them about it, how LO will respond, what will be said between you and what actions will—or might—take place in relation to it.”
“I See My Own Construction”
Another commonality is limerence’s solipsistic nature—limerence is not the kind of love prescribed by Kierkegaard in his Works of Love: “to love precisely the person one sees.”
Rather, the LO is a funhouse mirror onto which your own fantasies and fears are projected.
One interview subject commented that Tennov’s choice of the term “Limerent Object” was particularly apt, because the other person really is treated as an object. They are “essentially invisible to me. I see my own construction.”
Another subject shared his diary with Tennov, in which he had written: “The attraction is my invention. It is ugly because it is impersonal. How can I say that I really like Laura when she so clearly is not the sort of person who could really be part of my life?… It is a disservice to the person not to perceive them the way they really are.”
Tennov also interviewed people who had been on the receiving end of limerence. One of them, in response to a confession of limerence, reported: “I was…deeply insulted. Steve didn’t seem to be talking to me. He didn’t seem to know or to care what my intentions were or what I was interested in doing. On the one hand, he was declaring eternal love, and on the other, he showed no concern for my life, my job, my friends, or what I wished. He was a stranger to me.”
Tennov says that “probably the most prevalent” type of limerence interaction is “between a limerent person and an LO who does not reciprocate with limerence”—unrequited love. But mutual limerence, Romeo and Juliet-style, is possible. Unless continued obstacles from external sources, such as parents or society, stoke the limerence, “reciprocity is usually followed by a decline in limerence.” This can be replaced by love, given the right circumstances, and even a happy marriage.
But beware: “To marry your LO is to experience the ecstasy of ultimate reciprocation. Or so you feel.” But when one person is limerent and the other is not, no matter how much they like or love the other, if there is an imbalance, then there may be little relief.
As one limerent person told Tennov: “Okay, so we were married. I still didn’t believe Ed loved me. There was something about the way he acted, little things he did or forgot to do.”
Even the “ecstatic bliss of mutual love” can be on the fine line between pleasure and panic when limerence is involved. Tennov references the book Love Between Women, a 1971 study of lesbian sex, in which one young limerent writes that while embracing her lover, she “felt so wonderfully happy,” “that I wanted to kill us both, so that there should be no anticlimax!”
Women in Love?
Is the feeling of limerence really more common in women? Tennov suggests that it may be so—but not because of any inherent propensity.
Women, she writes, “are expected and allowed to be ‘shattered’ by love; for a man, however, it is unmasculine.” Even with that internalized pressure, though, she found in her research that about 40 percent of both men and women endorsed the statement: “I have been deeply in love with someone who did not love me or know of my feelings.”
Additionally, 45 percent of men agreed that they “often lie awake at night thinking about being with X” (66 percent of women did) and 48 percent of men said they “have been very depressed about a love affair” (60 percent of women did).
Tennov also touches on the approaches of critical feminist writers like Simone de Beauvoir, who pointed to socio-political forces, rather than biological ones, to explain the gender discrepancy.
She writes: “Forced to depend on men for status, security, and survival itself, women have been and are still subordinate to men in society…If love were not a major concern, she might find herself literally left out in the cold.”
It’s not so different from the feminist critique that emerged in response to Freud’s idea of penis envy. Feminist psychoanalysts patiently explained that maybe women weren’t literally envious of a penis, but of men’s power in patriarchal society. (Psychoanalyst Karen Horney took it a step further, and theorized that in diagnosing women with penis envy, Freud was in fact only projecting his own womb envy).
Tennov does not much discuss the stereotypical framing of masculine desire as “sex” and feminine desire as “love,” something reflected in 12-step programs for sex and love “addicts” which tend to skew along those lines. She calls the relationship between sex and limerence “baffling” and “extremely complicated.”
Sex, she concludes, “is neither essential nor, in itself, adequate to satisfy the limerent need…Limerence is a desire for more than sex.”
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Another low point in my own experience of limerence occurred when a therapist said I had to change his name in my head to “Santa Claus,” because that’s how much of a fantasy he’d become. Calling him “Santa Claus” every time I thought of him would remind me I was thinking about a pure illusion I’d created (and hopefully snap me out of what had become a painful obsession). It didn’t really help, though it did make me attracted to Santa Claus.
The pain remained, partly because of one of limerence’s cruel paradoxes: It makes you obsessed with a person, but also terrified of ever speaking to them.
As Tennov reports: “Awkwardness, stammering, and confusion predominate at the behavioral level. And shyness. When limerent, you are fearful, apprehensive, nervous, anxious—terribly worried that your own actions may bring about disaster.”
Philip, a 28-year-old truck driver, told her: “It was like what you might call stage fright, like going up in front of an audience.”
This behavior begins to make sense, once you start to realize that, as psychoanalyst Robert Seidenberg has written (quoted by Tennov): “love is a human religion in which another person is believed in.”
If your LO is your God, it is far better to never get too close—to never reveal your true self—than to risk being actively rejected by God. Would you have the courage to face, much less speak to God, if you were truly in their presence?
It seems to be much easier for the limerent to text God, however. Often repeatedly. Even when the texts go unanswered. Unfortunately, writing in the 1970s, Tennov was unable to address this point.
Why Tennov’s Work Still Matters
There are a few other aspects of the book that read as outdated. Tennov touches on what she calls “homo-limerence” (and interviewed multiple gay subjects about their experiences), but she is overwhelmingly concerned with heterosexual relationships. And I was surprised to read her mention of “computer dating,” until I discovered it wasn’t exactly Match.com or Tinder.
But Love and Limerence feels contemporary in that it functions as both a scholarly work of qualitative research and as a self-help book. It certainly provided this limerent some semblance of clinical distance from which to analyze and challenge the mania.
I hadn’t known, for example, until I read Love and Limerence, that it was a very common limerent fantasy to imagine a death or tragedy that would somehow spur the mutual confession of love. And how did Tennov know that I dreamt of “a scene on a Caribbean island…with you and your LO”?
Lastly, she nailed the part about not having much to dish about to your friends. When an “acknowledged relationship exists,” there are things to tell friends and family—“real events,” she writes. But the “state of unreturned limerence is one of relative (and often self-imposed) isolation” because the only things to tell are “reports of emotional upheaval generated by the subtleties of what limerents imbue with meanings not visible to the listener.”
Reading the book is like being with the least judgmental therapist ever, to whom you don’t even need to confess your shameful secrets, because they already know them.
This may be because Tennov, too, has experienced limerence, though she never goes into the details.
On page 273, she finally admits: “Though like anyone else, I am loath to talk about my own experiences in this sort of context, I feel it is necessary that I do so, and thereby lay the thing to rest. Had I not known the experience of limerence, it would have been harder for me to have discovered it in others.” One may have already assumed from her hundreds of pages and hours of study devoted to limerence, that she just may have had a personal interest in the subject. But it’s still nice to know for sure.
Is There a Cure for Limerence?
Tennov herself finishes the book still unsure exactly how to end limerence. (Despite her insistence that it is not “pathological,” she clearly sees that it causes pain and understands why someone would want to escape its grasp).
At one point she writes: “Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.” If you enter a relationship with your LO, a regular “[l]ove can replace limerence given the right circumstances.” But that’s not a guarantee: “Limerent fantasies,” writes Tennov, “do not necessarily cease when an actual relationship begins. They may diminish or increase in frequency.”
At one point she muses, “Perhaps the best cure you can administer to yourself is to remove all contact and all possibility of contact between yourself and your unresponsive LO.”
But unless she’s advocating suicide or murder, she knows as well as anyone that this “cure” would be nearly impossible (especially today, what with LinkedIn). As long as you both are on this earth, there is the possibility that you could meet again.
Many people I’ve spoken to do seem to grow out of a certain type of limerence (just as many experience “aging out” of addiction). Tennov agrees that “some evidence exists that after the first experience(s), usually in youth and early adulthood, certain coping strategies may be learned that reduce the risks.” One such coping strategy may be the ability to distill the traits of the LO that you once felt so passionately about, and reframe them as traits you envy, and wish to develop or accept in yourself.
The sentiment tweeted by comedian Jessie KahnWeiler rings true:
All I ever wanted was to be some dudes muse until I realized I'm the dude.
— Jessie Kahnweiler (@jesskahnweiler) March 12, 2016
Any of us, whatever our gender, may need to realize that we are “the dude.”
After recognizing and categorizing your limerent experience(s), the next step is to turn your limerent energies in a new direction (or sublimate them, as Freud might have said).
Perhaps you might reframe the idea of being humiliatingly obsessed with someone into the idea of being “creative.” You’re not a pathetic loser, you just have a great imagination.
After all, spending all that time and energy imagining conversations could be called “crafting dialogue.” And fantasizing about what another person might be thinking, what they like and dislike, desire and fear—could be conceived of as character development?
But it may take time to realize you’re not hopelessly in love with that comedian; you just want to get up on stage and tell jokes yourself. Obsessed with that professor? Maybe you’d like to be the one standing in front of a class sharing your insights. Maybe you’re not only attracted to authority, anger, risk-taking, silliness, or whatever other trait you so admire in your LO; maybe you want them yourself. Rather than idealizing an illusive “LO,” “God,” “Mommy,” or “Daddy,” perhaps you may want to:
Though Lorin Stein, editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, is a notable fan of this book (he calls it “wacky but wise”), I don’t think it’s an accident that no one talks much about it these days, or that it lost out to a different formulation.
It’s embarrassing to talk about our neediness, our desire, our raw hunger for meaning, purpose, love, perfection, authority, for absolutes, for power. We want to disavow it, to pathologize it, and render it “other.”
Tennov acknowledged the taboo around talking seriously about romantic love—while working on the book she found herself “assuming a certain lightheartedness when referring to my subject, calling it my ‘ha-ha’ research on ‘ha-ha’ romantic love.”
Maybe “addiction” (which doesn’t feel gendered) seems like a safer way these days of conceptualizing our (quite normal) existential longing.
But learning more about it is one way to tame the beast. And you can always read Love and Limerence on your phone or something, so no one on the subway has to know.