ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

It can be as ad­dic­tive as drugs and last for years. We take a sci­en­tific look at unrequited love and find out if there’s a cure.

It can be as ad­dic­tive as recre­ational drugs, takes years to re­cover from and is be­ing likened to OCD. Annabel Ross ex­plores the very real psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects that re­sult from be­ing on the wrong end of unrequited love

Istill re­mem­ber the day Dy­lan Bar­ton asked to join pa­per chains with me in Year 2. The kid was rudely blessed: tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, he was also pop­u­lar, ath­letic and smart. All he wanted was to make his chain longer, but the sec­ond our eyes met, I was con­vinced it meant more; in my mind, it was a sign. I be­came ob­sessed, and for the next 10 years in­cluded his ini­tials in all of my pass­words and en­ter­tained fan­tasies in which he would de­clare his la­tent pas­sion for yours truly.

Even when I was act­ing as mid­dle­man and mes­sen­ger, pass­ing on the heart-shaped lol­lies he bought from the milk bar for my best friend Shel­ley, I thought it was love. Of course, he never loved me back (though a kiss at a party while play­ing spin the bot­tle re­mains a high­light of my teenage years). What I was deal­ing with was some­thing else al­to­gether; an “in­va­sion of con­scious­ness” known as limer­ence.

At its re­cip­ro­cal best, limer­ence is that bliss­ful state in the early stages of a re­la­tion­ship when elec­tric­ity is ping­ing through the air be­tween you. You’re smit­ten with each other. Life sud­denly feels like a Hol­ly­wood rom-com, in which you get the guy. Ex­cept for when you don’t. The less de­sir­able kind of limer­ence is what hap­pens when these feel­ings are one-sided and you yearn for some­one who doesn’t want you back. They’re al­most al­ways on your mind and they have an an­noy­ing way of af­fect­ing your mood. You hear from him or her, and you’re buzzing for the rest of the day. You don’t, and your heart aches.

Limer­ence can make you go gaga; tongue-tied and su­per-shy in the pres­ence of the one you pine for. Your ob­ses­sion can be so con­sum­ing that you latch onto any­thing they say or do that might in­di­cate in­ter­est to­wards you, and dis­miss the glar­ing ev­i­dence that they’re not, in fact, into you at all. It’s not just a lit­tle crush, ei­ther – limer­ence lasts (on av­er­age) be­tween 18 months and three years, ac­cord­ing to the late Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Dorothy Ten­nov, who coined the term in her 1979 book Love And Limer­ence – The Ex­pe­ri­ence Of Be­ing In Love. In some cases it lasts a life­time. Ten­nov’s pi­o­neer­ing work has in­flu­enced re­searchers in the field to this day: two lead­ing the­o­rists on re­la­tion­ships and love, John Gottman and He­len Fisher, ref­er­ence the con­cept of limer­ence in their new books – Gottman’s The Man’s Guide

To Women, and the fully up­dated and re­vised edi­tion of Fisher’s sem­i­nal Anatomy Of Love.

Fisher’s re­search il­lus­trates the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects of ro­man­tic ob­ses­sion on the brain. Par­tic­i­pants’ brains were scanned while they looked at a photo of their lovers, re­veal­ing high ac­tiv­ity in the ven­tral tegmen­tal area, where the eu­phoric chem­i­cal dopamine is made. When newly in love, the re­lease of chem­i­cals such as dopamine and nor­ep­i­neph­rine is what gives you that woozy rush, mak­ing your palms sweat and your heart beat faster in much the same way that recre­ational drugs do. “No won­der lovers can stay awake all night talk­ing and ca­ress­ing. No won­der they be­come so ab­sent-minded, so giddy, so op­ti­mistic, so gre­gar­i­ous, so full of life,” Fisher writes in Anatomy

Of Love. “They are high on nat­u­ral ‘speed’.” In healthy re­la­tion­ships, mu­tual limer­ence even­tu­ally evolves into some­thing deeper, usu­ally af­ter six months to two years, when the rap­tur­ous ro­man­tic chem­i­cals are re­placed with the bond­ing, calm­ing chem­i­cals va­so­pressin and oxy­tocin. But when the ro­man­tic feel­ings are not re­cip­ro­cated, yet you con­tinue to fix­ate on the ob­ject of your de­sire, that’s when limer­ence can be­come more painful than plea­sur­able. Ten­nov refers to it as “a mad­ness”, as it can make even the most sane among us go a lit­tle crazy.

A friend (we’ll call her Daisy) had a two-year ob­ses­sion with a Bri­tish guy, Dan, who was trav­el­ling around Aus­tralia when they met. She was the one to end a two-month fling with him ini­tially, but when he didn’t seem that both­ered, it sparked her in­ter­est in the way in­dif­fer­ence tends to do. “To be fair, he was a mas­sive head-fuck with his stupid lin­ger­ing hugs, Jeff Buck­ley songs that he’d send to me and other be­hav­iours which made me think he ac­tu­ally cared,” she says. “On the other hand, he did also tell me straight up that things were never go­ing to hap­pen with us.”

The con­di­tions were ripe for limer­ence to blos­som: it thrives on a com­bi­na­tion of hope and un­cer­tainty. If the per­son on the other end doesn’t make it un­am­bigu­ously clear that they’re not in­ter­ested – usu­ally through ig­nor­ing you – the per­son in limer­ence is likely to cling to the hope that there might be a chance.

With hind­sight, Daisy can say she and Dan were never com­pat­i­ble,

“At its re­cip­ro­cal best, limer­ence is that bliss­ful state when elec­tric­ity is ping­ing through the air be­tween you. Life feels like a Hol­ly­wood rom-com, in which you get the guy. Ex­cept for when you don’t”

but at the time she was con­vinced that they were made for each other. “I re­mem­ber mak­ing a photo col­lage out of my favourite pho­tos of him on Face­book,” she says. “CRINGE. And one time I saw him when I was on a bus – he was sit­ting out­side a pub with his mates. The bus went down the hill past the pub, so I got off a few stops later and got the bus back up the hill and then an­other bus back down so I could see him again. I hope to God he doesn’t know I did this.”

Limer­ence is the stuff that in­spires scrap­books and mix­tapes, and in ex­treme cases, turns peo­ple into stalk­ers. Aline Brosh Mckenna, co-cre­ator of the cult US TV com­edy Crazy Ex-girl­friend, named the no­tion of limer­ence as one of her in­flu­ences when de­vel­op­ing the show, which sees Rachel Bloom’s char­ac­ter, Re­becca, mov­ing across the coun­try in pur­suit of a guy – 10 years af­ter they had a fling as teenagers at sum­mer camp.

One young wo­man Ten­nov in­ter­viewed in her book spoke at length about her ob­ses­sion with Paul Mccart­ney. She fan­ta­sised about res­cu­ing his cat and be­com­ing part of his fam­ily. Many oth­ers suf­fered from se­vere anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion as a direct re­sult of limer­ence, which some­times spi­ralled into sui­ci­dal thoughts, at­tempts to take their own lives and be­haviour bor­der­ing on the psy­chotic. One man cut off his fin­ger in a fit of frus­tra­tion af­ter the wo­man he had an on-off re­la­tion­ship with wouldn’t com­mit. An­other went on a ram­page down the street, smash­ing shop win­dows with a sledge­ham­mer. “Of­ten a per­son is un­con­sciously try­ing to fill an un­met need, re­in­force a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy, self­med­i­cate a psy­cho­log­i­cal ill and even, para­dox­i­cally, avoid real in­ti­macy,” says Brenda Schaeffer, psy­chol­o­gist and author of Is It Love Or Is It Ad­dic­tion?. “Be­cause most have been hurt by love ei­ther as chil­dren or adults, we both want and fear love. The high drama of limer­ence al­lows us to walk the edge of real love.”

Ten­nov ar­gues that limer­ence can af­fect any­one and ev­ery­one, but it doesn’t hap­pen to all of us. Some peo­ple just never fall “madly” in love, yet still en­joy sat­is­fy­ing and mean­ing­ful emo­tional and sex­ual bonds with a part­ner.

As limer­ence ac­ti­vates the plea­sure cen­tres of the brain in a sim­i­lar man­ner to drugs such as co­caine, it is thought those with ad­dic­tive per­son­al­i­ties might be more in­clined to de­velop ro­man­tic fix­a­tions. Some ex­perts have been try­ing to get limer­ence into the Di­ag­nos­tic And Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual Of Men­tal Dis­or­ders, used by doc­tors world­wide. Al­bert Wakin, a for­mer col­league of Ten­nov’s and lec­turer in psy­chol­ogy at Sa­cred Heart Univer­sity in the US, likens the ex­pe­ri­ence of limer­ence to ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der.

“One young wo­man in­ter­viewed in the book spoke at length about her ob­ses­sion with Paul Mccart­ney. She fan­ta­sised about res­cu­ing his cat and be­com­ing part of his fam­ily”

“[OCD] is de­fined by per­sis­tent ob­ses­sions and com­pul­sions that are time-con­sum­ing and in­ter­fere with daily ac­tiv­i­ties, caus­ing clin­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant im­pair­ment or dis­tress,” says Wakin in a pa­per. “Limer­ence also ex­hibits ob­ses­sive and com­pul­sive fea­tures that highly re­sem­ble OCD. Like OCD, there is an un­der­cur­rent of anx­i­ety, but in limer­ence the anx­i­ety cen­tres on emo­tional re­jec­tion by the [limer­ent ob­ject].”

Sa­mara O’shea, author of Loves Me... Not: How To Sur­vive (And Thrive!) In The Face Of Unrequited

Love, be­lieves that OCD and low self-es­teem played a part in her limer­ence. Af­ter a year of dat­ing a guy who could never fully com­mit to her, it took O’shea two years to get over him with help from a com­bi­na­tion of ther­apy and an­tide­pres­sants that would com­bat her ob­ses­sive urges. “What did not help me get over him – and this is im­por­tant – was an­other guy,” she says. “I knew if I found some­one else to ob­sess over, then the cy­cle was just go­ing to end­lessly re­peat it­self. I needed to solve the prob­lems that ex­isted within me.”

O’shea was put to the test post-ther­apy, when a guy she’d been hap­pily see­ing for two months ghosted her, dis­ap­pear­ing with­out so much as a text mes­sage. “While I was hurt and dis­ap­pointed he blew me off, I re­solved to leave it be,” she says. “I did not con­tact him for an ex­pla­na­tion or fol­low him around on so­cial me­dia; I wrote in my jour­nal and did yin yoga in­stead. A few weeks later, I was over him.”

Cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy is said to be ef­fec­tive in com­bat­ing limer­ence in many cases, but Wakin says that more re­search, es­pe­cially brain imag­ing, is re­quired to de­velop a com­pre­hen­sive treat­ment plan. Like other ex­perts, he sug­gests that cut­ting con­tact with the limer­ent ob­ject al­to­gether might be the best pos­si­ble cure.

Dear read­ers, I wish I could say I got over limer­ence when I be­came an adult, but in my early twen­ties I had my worst case of it yet. It was shorter than my decade­long crush on Dy­lan Bar­ton, but it was three-and-a-half years of in­tense long­ing for a man named Luis that only came to a head af­ter I fi­nally slept with him, then re­alised it was never go­ing to go any fur­ther.

As O’shea notes, limer­ence has a lot to do with how you feel about your­self. I can see now that self-es­teem cer­tainly played a part in my limer­ence. Sub­con­sciously, I thought if only Luis liked me as much as I liked him, I’d be good enough. These days it doesn’t take me too long to recog­nise a hope­less sit­u­a­tion and let it go. A new-sea­son Chanel bag, on the other hand… now there’s some­thing worth crush­ing on.

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