Wayne Baker
by Wayne Baker, M.A., LPC
Member, Affair Recovery Specialist Panel

How Does My Spouse Escape the Neurochemical Process of Limerence?

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What is limerence?

Limerence is both an emotional and a mental state of intense, obsessive, romantic fascination first defined in the 1970s by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book "Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love."*1 After interviewing more than 500 people on the subject of love, Tennov characterized limerence as a period of excitement and intense emotions that can progress to a seemingly uncontrollable obsession for another person.

Some of the features she observed were:

  • Frequent intrusive thoughts about a potential sexual partner.
  • An intense desire for reciprocation of attraction.
  • Delight when sensing reciprocation, despair when feeling disinterest or rejection.
  • Short-lived relief from unreciprocated feelings through fantasy.
  • Emotions are often intensified through adversity.
  • An overwhelming ability to emphasize the positive features of the affair partner and minimize the negative.

Neuroscience

There is not much specific research on limerence itself. Still, gleaning from what we know about addiction, love, and emotion, we can better understand the mind-boggling nature of limerence and its origin in the brain.

People caught up in a limerent relationship-one in which they think they have found the perfect partner-will often find themselves in a state of hyperarousal which can include faster heart rate, clammy palms, intrusive thoughts, excitement, sexual arousal, and even abandoning their life as they know it.

Many of my clients talk about constant intrusive thoughts and how it seems that everything is a reminder of the (potential or actual) love interest. One man said recently, "I can't turn it off; concentrating on work is almost impossible."

At this stage, norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter leading the charge of limerence. It is most known for causing the fight or flight reaction in our body, but it can also trigger arousal and excitement.

Limerence can be maddening and exhilarating all at the same time. Meeting with or just thinking about an affair partner can provide the same neurochemical reward, which is driven by dopamine. Dopamine's primary role is to recognize and seek what is perceived as good, lovely, or pleasurable. It is important to remember that our brains have evolved to allow us to discern between good, bad, pain, and pleasure, real or imagined. It's complex, but our brains remember the good and pleasurable things and seek them out repeatedly.

Initially, dopamine gives us a bit of pleasure or a sense of calm, but then it can quickly shift into pushing us to pursue a perceived reward because our brain is looking for a dopamine "hit" or way to regulate it or get more of it.

Dopamine is not in any hurry to give up, so we frequently end up with an obsession to be with the affair partner or the limerent object. The only thing that satisfies the urge is the temporary relief of daydreaming about them or contacting them. When two people can express their limerent feelings to each other, even in secret, it can be surprisingly both delightful and tortuous. To make matters worse, there are reminders of them everywhere you turn around, and then your dopamine pathways light up and give you a little hit.

Is it love?

Folks stuck in limerence can get carried away by the emotional flood of anticipation, excitement, and uncertainty. I have had clients argue with me vehemently that what they feel is true love.

In order to distinguish between limerence and true love, we also need to consider and understand bonding. Helen Fisher's research on neurochemicals solidified the notion that oxytocin and vasopressin influence the bonding process, ultimately leading to mature love. M. Scott Peck talks about this in his classic book, "The Road Less Traveled."*2 Peck says that we start with infatuation or limerence-the feeling of falling in love-which, in most relationships, lasts four to six months; then, we fall out of love. But if we then return to love and choose love, that is true, mature love, which is developed over time. One of the hallmark characteristics of mature love is the purpose of nurturing your own and another person's spiritual growth, development, and fulfillment. He goes on to say that the perception that we are falling in love is an illusion. He says that when a couple falls out of love, they may actually begin to really love. Real love does not have its roots in the feeling of love; it occurs in the context in which the feeling of love is lacking yet we still act lovingly to the other person even though we don't necessarily feel loving. This is an essential factor in distinguishing the transactional nature of limerence from the abiding, unselfish nature of true love, especially for those who rate emotional and spiritual nourishment above the excitement of arousal.

Is there any way out?

Neuroscience can give us a good perspective on limerence and why it can be so challenging with its anticipation – reward – bonding – reinforcement cycle that is so easy to get caught up in and so hard to escape.

But the full neurochemical process of limerence is much more complex than I have described here; it also includes testosterone, estrogen, other hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters that constantly feed, change each other, and play different roles in our bodies.

But there is an escape route.

It's not easy to overcome limerence, but here are some tactics to help you take back control of your life:

1) No contact

Dorothy Tennov says that the best, time-tested cure for limerence is no contact, including all online contact and stalking. Having no communication will lead to a vanishing of the limerent obsession. It will take time, but body chemistry and objectivity will return to normal. It might mean a move, a change in jobs, a new church, or new social circles. Please don't allow your brain to convince you that you can be friends; that is just more torture.

2) Solid self-care

Limerence is a significant stressor on your body and brain. In times of stress, many of us seek more "comfort" foods laden with sugar, salt, and fat. A healthy diet that reduces or eliminates inflammation-causing foods can help stabilize your mood. Nutritious food, plenty of exercise, and good sleep are fuel to help your body and brain recover. Think of it as your commitment to yourself.

3) Mental and Emotional Deprogramming

A very useful strategy is to devalue the affair partner. It may not be the most honorable approach, but it is effective. I am not suggesting that you crucify them, but instead of reminiscing on how wonderful they are, find a red flag or a flaw and focus on that. The goal here is to reverse your brain's attempt to romanticize the affair partner by feeding it undesirable information.

4) Accountability

Often, we need accountability; whether we are trying to stop an unhealthy habit, eat healthier, or learn a new skill, self-discipline alone may not be enough. It can be very helpful to disclose what you are struggling with and your plan to heal to a trusted friend. This person needs to be someone who will ask you the tough questions and will notice if you don't take recovery seriously. This person should be someone other than your spouse. Ask for their support.

If you struggle with limerence or an emotionally entangled relationship, I'd highly encourage you to consider enrolling in Hope for Healing. It's a safe place for you to do the work that is necessary to understand your situation and discover a way out of the darkness of hopelessness and despair.

Hope for Healing Registration Opens Today at Noon CST! Space Is Limited!

Designed specifically for wayward spouses, Hope for Healing is a supportive, nonjudgmental environment for you to heal and develop empathy. Over the years, this 17-week, small group course has helped thousands of people find hope, set healthy boundaries and move toward extraordinary lives.

"The sooner after D-Day you can become involved in Affair Recovery, the better. I went from not being welcome in my own home to sharing a bed with my wife once again - much sooner than I expected. EMS Online helped us to communicate effectively, and Hope for Healing really helped me understand the issues I have with myself. Meeting strangers that are in the exact same situation as you is so helpful. They become your friends and confidants." - E., Pennsylvania | April 2021 HFH Participant

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