Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Is it Love or Infatuation?

I want you. I want you now, yesterday, and forever. 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. At any moment, the image of your face smiling at me, of your voice telling me you care, or of your hand in mine, may suddenly fill my consciousness, rudely pushing out all else. 

The expression “thinking of you” fails to convey either the quality or quantity of this unwilled mental activity. “Obsessed” comes closer but leaves out the aching. A child is obsessed with Christmas. But it’s a happy prepossession full of excitement, curiosity, and expectation. This prepossession is an emotional roller coaster that carries me from the peak of ecstasy to the depths of despair and back again. 

Everything reminds me of you. I try to read, but four times on a single page some word begins the lightning chain of associations that summons my mind away from my work, and I must struggle to return my attention to the task at hand.1 

Have you ever uttered such words or known someone who fits this description? If so, then you witnessed the impact of what Dorothy Tennov refers to as “limerence.” Do you believe what’s expressed above is love, or is it obsession? Failure to understand the difference might cause the loss of what you hold dear.  

Dorothy Tennov coined the term "limerence" in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. The term was used to describe a condition she had witnessed in her interviews with over 500 people on the topic of love in the mid-1960s. Tennov described limerence as an intense romantic desire. It’s a form of “crazy love” that consumes the thought life of those so stricken. Today that same condition is frequently considered to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but in the world of mental health a diagnostic code for “crazy love” has yet to be assigned. Perhaps that is due to the different states of love. 

For someone who is almost a total stranger to be totally obsessed with you may seem a bit creepy to most, but in the initial stages of a romantic relationship it is sometimes considered quite flattering. The difference between passion and possession largely depends on the stage of a relationship. Obsession can seem romantic in the beginning stages of a relationship, but smothering in a long-term committed relationship. 

Limerence isn’t a new concept, it’s dangerous power has been made known though the ages by authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther2 and by countless eerie “love” songs such as “Addicted” By Kelly Clarkson: 

It's like you're a drug, 
It's like you're a demon 
I can't face down,
It's like I'm stuck, 
It's like I'm running from you all the time.3

Limerence is an intense form of romantic love characterized by an emotional attachment or even an obsession with another person, which usually is involuntary, and which contains a strong desire for the reciprocation of those feelings. According to Tennov, the romantic attachment is such that the emotional state of the limerent (the person who is in limerence) is dependent on how the relationship is fairing. If the other party returns their love and affection then they are euphoric, but that feeling is balanced out by the dread of losing the relationship. If they feel the other person doesn’t return their “love” or if they feel the other party is moving away from them they can become despondent, depressed and even suicidal. At any given moment the state of their emotional well-being is dependent on how the object of their affection responds or whether life’s circumstances support or block their relationship. 

According to Helen Fisher, PhD, in Anatomy of Love, increased levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain drive the passion of limerence, and since lust is involved there are also increased levels of testosterone. After about two years a couple will move into the attachment stage, where you see an increase of vasopressin and oxytocin, and the other hormones return to normal. Most couples in attached relationships have less sex than those in the infatuation stage. The phrase “addicted to love” applies to women and men who crave the excitement (and the sexual activity) of infatuation, floating from one intense affair to the next, leaving a pile of heartbroken, attachment-seeking partners in their wake.4 

Being rebuffed by the other person or having the relationship impeded by external forces only makes matters worse. Unfulfilled desire requires the dopamine center to work harder to produce rewards, over-stressing the brain’s ability to maintain equilibrium. This is often the condition that then triggers the obsessive component of limerence. 

While the obsession created by limerence can be life altering for singles, it is life destroying for those who are married. It’s not even something they have to go out and look for; it’s a chemical reaction that typically is involuntary. The resulting surge in norepinephrine and dopamine will almost immediately eliminate what ails the limerent. Those I’ve worked with through the years report an almost immediate improvement of depressive states and a new sense of feeling alive. On those days where it feels the other person is moving toward them, the sky is bluer, the birds sing sweeter, the air seems fresher. If it seems for whatever reason things may not work out they can begin to feel more despair than they’ve ever known. For them it’s obvious their marriage is blocking them from what they need to be truly happy. It’s suddenly apparent that you’ve married the wrong person. Conviction and commitment tell you have no choice, you have to stay together for the kids and because of your beliefs about marriage, but you know you’ll never again feel happy in your marriage. 

Over time it becomes easier to morally justify the relationship. Your happiness, possibly even your sanity, is tied to the other person and you can’t conceive continuing to live in the despair that you feel in your marriage. Your relational air supply is now tied to one outside your marriage and you know you’ll suffocate if you can’t continue seeing the other person. Even if you decide to end the relationship out of guilt and conviction, the desire you once felt for your mate has vanished and you can’t conceive of ever again having interest in your mate. 

Is it love or limerence? 

Before throwing away all you once held dear, would you like to know if what you’re experiencing is real or if it is the chemical state of limerence? Here are a few ways to tell the difference. 

1.    Love acts in the best interest of another person. Limerence acts in your own self-interest. You know you can never be happy unless you get to be with this particular individual, no matter the cost to others.

2.    Love is a choice, not just a feeling. Jesus taught, “If you love someone who reciprocates and makes you feel good about yourself, what’s the big deal? But loving someone who is difficult to love is love divine.5Limerence has no choice. Looking back over my own limerent state, something that disturbs me was my lack of choice. I wasn’t in control. I was being controlled by feelings stronger than I had ever imagined possible. Obsession isn’t love. 

3.    Love consists of honesty and is willing to be realistic. Limerence is narcissistic by nature. According to Greek Mythology, Narcissus was the object of desire for Echo. Instead of responding he rebuffed her, telling her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life roaming lonely hollows until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He didn't realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. Notice Narcissus didn’t fall in love with himself, but with his own image.  He reached out to his beloved, but the second his hand touched the water the image was distorted. He quickly withdrew his hand, but now there was no way for him to get the substance he so badly needed. Eventually he died at the side of the pool yearning for that which he loved. For the married limerent, it is much the same. The importance of the relationship is such that taking an honest look at themselves or the relationship disturbs the image and prevents them from getting what they so desperately need. Another aspect of limerence is what is called crystallization. The obsession of limerence robs you of your perspective and renders you incapable of properly weighing the negatives of your affair partner. You may be able to see the negatives, but in a limerent state those negatives are seen as strengths or assets. It’s not until the limerent state wears off that perspective is gained. Limerence is blind. To maintain the image of the relationship you have to ignore the obvious and desperately cling to how you want it to be. 

4.    Love isn’t proud, but humble. At the most basic level humility is about trust. It’s about an ability to trust others with who you are. Thomas Merton said that humility consists of being “precisely the person you actually are before God.” Love consists of a willingness to be intimate with who you are and what you’ve done. Limerence is rooted in shame. It is based on fear that you won’t get what you want and that others may see you as you really are. 

5.    Love is about mutuality in relationships, about give and take. Limerence is about an infatuation with someone other than your mate. It leaves your mate in the dark with no clue to what is driving you. 

6.    Love involves healthy sexual closeness and physical intimacy with your partner. Limerence is intially focused on attracting the affair partner’s attention and nothing more. The longing for the sexual connection within the limerent relationship is initially hidden to avoid pushing the other person away. Over time the sexual longing  overcomes the will power of the one in the limerent state.

7.    Love is compassionate and caring to all those in your life. It is others-centered. Limerence is self-deceived and self-centered. One of my daughters was a Commercial Music Performance major at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Only problem was she was she had severe performance anxiety. Her voice teacher was the one who cured her. Minutes before her recital her teacher pulled her aside and told her, “You are the most self-centered little diva I’ve ever worked with. All you ever think about is what others will think about you, instead of being worried about the message God has given you to deliver to others. Here’s the truth, if you are focused on what others think about you, you’re still only thinking about yourself, which makes you 100% totally self-centered. Now quit worrying about what others are thinking and get to the business for which you’ve been called.” 

8.    Love is about a healthy sexual relationship that is mutually satisfying. Limerence is manipulative, trying to get  the other person to respond to you, while rebuffing your mate’s kindness and advances because now all that holds value to you is the attention of someone with whom you’ve become obsessed. 

If you are stuck in limerence, realizing you are stuck is the first challenge you will face. Once you are ready to free yourself from the hold of limerence, here are the next steps you should take: 

1.    Find others who understand and can help you shift your focus to something that helps you develop some self-respect. 

2.    Breaking out of this type of relationship is difficult. Find a safe community to help you stay the course as you move forward. Hope for Healing is a great place to start. It begins to replace the affection and attention given by your affair partner with something else that’s real and healthy. 

3.    It’s not a matter of not thinking about the other person;  it’s a matter of thinking about something else entirely. Learn how to shift your focus and concentrate on what’s truly important.

4.    Get involved with a recovery group such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. Shifting the focus away from sources you can’t currently view positively will help you to once again live in reality instead of in the fantasy world depicted by limerence. 

Before making any permanent decisions about the fate of your marriage, have the courage to look at yourself. Do the work necessary to understand your personal contributions to this mess. Seek to understand your mate rather than trying to get you mate to understand you. You’ll be amazed at what being concerned for others can do for how your feel about yourself. 


1.    Tennov, Dorothy. Love and Limerence.. Kindle Edition: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
2.    Goethe, Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. New York: Signet Books, 1774. Print.
3.    Clarkson, Kelly. Addicted. RCA, 2004. MP3.
4.    Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
5.    The New International Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. (author’s paraphrase)

Sections: 

RL_Category: 

RL_Media Type: 

Add New Comment:

Comments

Question on limerance

My husband was involved in an emotional affair which has completely devastated me and our marriage. We are trying very hard to understand what this woman meant to him and why he was obsessed with communicating with her every day. He swears that he would never have let his relationship turn physical which is difficult for me to grasp considering the level of infatuation he was experiencing. Can you explain further the statement "Limerence omits sexual fantasies, because its primary goal is to attract the affair partner’s attention and nothing more." ? I am not quite sure I understand why this would be true and I am desperately hoping this will help me to believe him. Thank you.

Change in Newsletter

Hello, Thank you for pointing that out. Rick has further clarified his point above: Limerence is intially focused on attracting the affair partner’s attention and nothing more. The longing for the sexual connection within the limerent relationship is initially hidden to avoid pushing the other person away. Over time the sexual longing overcomes the will power of the one in the limerent state.

Limerence or Love Addiction?

GREAT article. Very helpful. Thank you, Rick. Your insight continually amazes me. Could you possibly do another article on the difference between limerence and love addiction? You touched on it in a recent Q&A Call. It would be helpful if you could flesh it out a little more like you did here. Thanks!

Finding Healing

It has been 7 years since my wife had an affair with my best friend. We are still together, have had intensive counseling, and do love each other. But I still find that there are times I still hurt and I wonder if I will ever truly be whole again.

Going through the same

Been 5 years here since my husband told me he loved me but was not in love with me and left to be with his affair partner. After several months away he realized his mistake and moved back home but I still have moments of pain when I think of his infatuation being so strong for someone other than me. It can take me several weeks to pull myself out of feeling sad and put it aside again. I often wonder despite the work done and the renewed feelings if I should have moved on.

This article is really

This article is really helpful. I only wish there was a way to help someone (my husband) realize that they are feeling limerance. Is there? It seems like it's something they have to come to themselves. I just hope it won't be too late. Any insight on how long these kinds of obsessive relationships take to live themselves out? What if both parties are feeling the same type of addiction?

What if you are the betrayed spouse watching limerance?

Hi - I'm the one left behind. He refuses to even discuss the possiblity of limerance, let alone act on your suggestions to move forward. Is there any action for a bystander to take that may influence recognition of limerance? OR do we just lead the horse to water...?
thanks
-J

What if they refuse to admit/acknowledge EA

What if he refuses to acknowledge that he has become emotionally unfaithful & that she is much more than "just a friend"

Limerence

This may be one of the best articles I have read Rick. So helpful. How is it explained that the betrayed spouse (the one that is in love, not the limerent) is the one that becomes despondant or depressed?

What happens after the

What happens after the limerent indulges in the physical desire for sex? My H meets all of the qualifications and has been physically involved with the object of his affections as well. He has filed for divorce, although each time the object of his affections breaks off their relationship he returns despondent, depressed and angry seeking reconciliation. It is always halfhearted and terminates as soon as "she" returns. Where does this leave the heartbroken spouse and family?

Seems my marriage was probably based on limerance

Great article, Rick. While affairs have a lot of different nuances to them I do think most have limerance as one of the strong threads woven into it. Intimacy in marriage changes over time and the immature and self centered person will understand that. Which will feed their limerant obsession.
Interestingly, while reading your article I realize that my marriage itself was probably based on my husband's limerant obsession with me. I overlooked much of the obsessiveness (satisfying my own desire for a committed relationship) and I missed a lot of the red flags that would have indicated "trouble". My marriage survived for quite some time - until we had children and real life responsibilities Broke the Rose colored glasses my husband had on for me. Our dynamics changed and set the stage for the other woman (unhappy in her own marriage) to sink her claws into my husband (not the first of her affairs).
There is a big tangle of terms that fit my husband: narcissist, sex addict, emotionally and verbally abusive, angry, manipulator, and liar.
The worst part is that I allowed it for so long because I loved him. There was a lot to love about him - it's a shame he let the limerence change him - and wreck what would have been a good marriage had he chosen to (or been able to?) grow up.

I, like so many of the betrayed spouses, thought that we could love more and do more to make things better.
Forgiving him was easy because I loved him - or who he was before his own lies got the best of him. He was never willing to do the work to address his sex addiction or reconcile and heal the marriage because he couldn't stand to look inward. And that I guess is the narcissist.
I don't regret forgiving him and trying to reconcile. It was actually harder for me to forgive myself for giving him so much of my life (decades).
The hardest part to get over is how he monopolized the truth for so long and robbed me of the opportunity to let him go and be with his lover, and to find someone who would love me mutually. I lost the "best years" of my own life trying to do what was right for our family.
What amazes me is he still insists he loves me - Usually in terms of how he wants to be intimate with me, or that he doesn't want to be alone.
He still says vile things to me when we have disagreements.
Nope - he just doesn't get it.
It took a while - but I finally get it myself.
Our early marriage was based on limerence.

Exactly my feelings

Currently my husband and I are reconciled but I deal with a daily fear, did I make the right choice? I question myself because why on earth would I choose marriage again with him. It seems I love him or maybe I'm the one limerance just like he was with me when we first met.

Best article yet.

This is the best article you have written and should be a steady topic to help the betrayed better understand why their spouse can be so changes and smitten. Although knowing what limerance is doesn't help lessen the wound at least it might give slight comfort.

uncertainty

My husband had an affair and told me about it willingly...he says they can't be together and that he doesn't love and is not even sure if love exists. He is not attracted to me anymore he wants no responsibilities anymore-doesn't want to be a homeowner, be responsible for my happiness, etc I think he is in the middle of a midlife crisis and have asked to go to counseling..which he says is hewy. I said until I can say that I have tried everything I can think of to repair our marriage I don't want to call it quits. I said can you say that you have tried and he says no but I don't want to try anymore....any suggestions? I told him if I can't be intimate anymore can I at least have my best friend back...he says I won't like him as a friend anymore. I ask can I try to get to know this new person and he says you won't like him. Since there is no one else in his life-I don't want him or myself to end up alone...scared

What about those who don't begin with limerence?

What of unfaithful spouses who are lured into an affair by a relentless AP's overtly sexual advances, constant communication heavy with insinuating messages, constant "accidental" encounters, and touching and praises? What about those who aren't limerent when the affair begins, but rather become almost limerent in order to justify their betrayal?

What about men like my husband, who by his own admission, continued his affair almost two months past the point where he really didn't want/love/felt attracted to the AP any more, simply to spite me? He became so convinced of his own lie that I was trying to dictate who he could be friends with or speak to, that despite finding the AP "a nuisance, a chore, extremely demanding and annoying," he refused to end things because if he did so, it'd be like letting me get my way or some such nonsense. He basically would cut off his nose to spite his face... he may have found her a pest, but just so that I didn't get what I wanted (an end to their affair) he carried on almost two more months, until I had proof and things exploded into chaos.

What role, if any, does limerence play here?

I wish you would address

I wish you would address sexual addictions.

What type of affair was it?

Our free Affair Analyzer provides you with insights about your unique situation and gives you a personalized plan of action.
Take the Affair Analyzer