CRAZY, STUPID OBSESSION
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.