A new crush, relationship, or love affair can occupy your every thought. But what happens when the thoughts don’t stop? Here’s how to deal—and how to heal.
Words by Dani Mohrbach.
I thought of them and everything changed. My pulse quickened. My eyes dilated. My breath became shallow. I imagined what they were doing, what they were wearing, what they had for breakfast. A feeling of contentment settled around me like a warm blanket; I was thinking about the person I loved.
But sometimes, it was more than that.
I didn’t only get that fuzzy-blanket feeling. It would start there, sure, but then the blanket would begin to smother. Thoughts would tumble like an avalanche, threatening to bury me completely. What would we be doing if they were here? What will we name our future children? How are they so perfect? How am I so lucky? How could anyone else ever compare? Why am I feeling so lonely without them?What am I supposed to do without them? Instead of a comforting happiness, my feelings become more of an unsettling euphoria. But I couldn’t stop. My mind was filled with more than passing thoughts—it was full-blown infatuation.
That state of scary obsession with the object of your affection is familiar for many—and it has a name: limerence.
A 2008 study by Sacred Heart University defines limerence as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves intrusive, obsessive, and compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation from the object of interest.” In other words, one can be obsessed with their partner, but also with an ex, a crush, or anyone who might have perceived feelings for them.
Perception is the most important part of limerence. Even if the object of Limerent (L) affection, or the Limerent Object (LO), doesn’t actually reciprocate their feelings, limerence clings to anything that seems mutual. It can take a friendly exchange or kind gesture and magnify it into much more. In her book “Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being In Love,” Dorothy Tennov elaborates further: “Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves.”
One can be obsessed with their partner, but also with an ex, a crush, or anyone who might have perceived feelings for them.Sacred Heart University Study
Tennov, whose book first introduced the word “limerence,” says that the term has several defining characteristics. Besides the intrusive thoughts and longing for reciprocation, limerence also includes moods that depend on the LO’s perceived reciprocity; fear of rejection and “sometimes incapacitating” shyness around the LO; an unfailing ability to interpret the LO’s actions and words as signs of mutual interest; and an “intensity of feeling” that eclipses anything else in the person’s life.
This intensity was confirmed by Sacred Heart University’s 2008 study. According to their research, “said initial feelings and reactions somehow fail to subside, becoming increasingly intense, pervasive, and disruptive, ultimately rendering difficulty in controlling one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” Limerence isn’t just the fun butterflies of a new romance or crush—it is all of those feelings amplified and seemingly never-ending.
Limerence is personified by its endless fantasies and loving daydreams about the LO. If it begins to shift into something more sinister—obsessive thoughts about negative aspects of the person or relationship; worries and fear about how the LO perceives them—this may be a different condition. Kiyomi LaFleur’s online community, called Awaken Into Love, seeks to educate and ease anxiety around Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (ROCD), limerence’s more anxious cousin. She says that limerence can become ROCD if the person begins to “go into certain compulsions to not feel a certain way.” While a person with limerence may want to stay in their warm and fuzzy feelings forever, a person with ROCD will do anything to get their intrusive thoughts to stop.
The state of scary obsession with the object of your affection is familiar for many—and it has a name: limerence.
The paths to both ROCD and limerence are similar. Clinically, what occurs in the brain is a lack of serotonin coupled with elevated levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone, but a concentrated amount may contribute to sleeplessness, anxiety, and exhilaration.
According to LaFleur, a person may also experience limerence because obsessive thoughts become “a protection mechanism from a deep core wounding.” Whether that’s an anxious attachment style, categorized by insecurity and low-self esteem; growing up observing a family member behaving anxiously in relationships; or being abandoned by a parent, a past core wound can affect how someone reacts in the future to feelings of romantic love.
LaFleur explains, too, that codependency plays a huge role, since the L can become more preoccupied with the LO than with their own life and functioning. “We tie a lot of worthiness into other people,” LaFleur says. Since codependency stems largely from an unclear sense of self, limerence makes the LO seem more exciting, more beautiful, more dazzling than oneself—and if they were to reciprocate romantic feelings, perhaps then the L would feel more worthy, too.
Another culprit for limerence may be society’s influence on our ideas about romantic love. When I was experiencing my first love, I convinced myself that my intrusive, obsessive thoughts were normal because they sounded so familiar. After all, I had heard them in romantic comedies, love songs, and any other messaging I’d received from the media about romance. I had learned that the object of my affections was supposed to “complete” me, like I would never be whole without their mutual love. Limerence feeds on this messaging and grows even more relentless, strengthened as it is by society’s warped view of love.
While limerence may mimic the elation of first love, it can become distressing, exhausting, and disrupting to normal functioning. It’s no wonder, then, that someone afflicted with limerence may search for a cure. Unfortunately, the professional, clinical community often disregards limerence as a serious condition, if they’re aware of it at all. A person experiencing it might receive a mental health diagnosis, like depression or anxiety, that only addresses some of their symptoms, so treatment may be incomplete.
I really believe that we can heal. It’s our birthright to heal.Kiyomi LaFleur
However, limerence can be reduced by taking a good, hard look at the subject of one’s affections. One Korean study showed that if the L and the LO had “mutual respect” for each other, limerence decreased. This could be because true respect comes from mutual understanding, and from seeing someone as they truly are—not as their fantastical, over-idealized self that limerence conjures up. A combination of counseling, grounding techniques, and therapy—particularly methods that focus on healing trauma, such as Inner Child work, or on addressing unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—could also be effective.
Perhaps most importantly of all, someone distressed by limerence should be confident in their capacity to change their thoughts. “I really believe that we can heal. It’s our birthright to heal,” says LaFleur. “Our nervous system has the ability to rewire and change… And our body has the ability to change as well.”
As a person who no longer suffers from limerent thoughts, I’m proof of that. I’m married now—not to my first LO, or my next one, but to someone for whom I have incredible respect. I see him clearly, his strengths and flaws, his mistakes and victories, and know that he sees me as well. When I think of him, my thoughts aren’t obsessive or intrusive, but inspire feelings of love, happiness, and comfort. Limerence no longer rules my life or relationship, and if I could find peace, I’m confident that anyone can.