Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding
“It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.”
By Maria Popova
“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his landmark 1822 “crystallization” model of how we fall in and out of love. What he was actually describing, however — in those Cartesian epochs before it was acceptable or even conceivable that matters of feeling could be functions of mental activity and subjects of the reasoned study we call science — was limerence. A century and a half later, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam on limerence in his lament that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” Except limerence is the profound unmooring masquerading as the mooring post.
Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. Anyone who has never experienced it feels baffled that a state so illogical can so possess otherwise rational and responsible people with no distinct psychopathology. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.
Psychologist and philosopher of science Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerence in the 1970s, drawing on a decade of research: data from thousands of questionnaires she administered, centuries of autobiographies and published personal journals, and several hundred case studies of people she interviewed from a wilderness of backgrounds and life-situations, all revealing a strikingly similar experience. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her work became foundational to attachment theory, she died a footnote in the literature of her field.
Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)
People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.
Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:
- intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
- acute longing for reciprocation
- dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
- inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
- some fleeting and transient relief from unrequited limerent passion through vivid imagination of action by LO that means reciprocation
- fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
- intensification through adversity (at least, up to a point)
- acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
- an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
- buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident
- a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
- a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in LO and to avoid dwelling on the negative, even to respond with a compassion for the negative and render it, emotionally if not perceptually, into another positive attribute
This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:
The onset of limerence has a voluntary feel about it. We go readily and willfully toward its promises of joy. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. Rational bases for hopefulness have been exhausted. The intrusions and literal aches of unfulfilled desire and precious wasted moments of life force the recognition that control may not be total. You even wonder about the past when control seemed possible, if not assured. Uncertainty increases. You wonder if you had the control you thought you had and whether you ever will again.
Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. This exclusivity, which always occurs in limerence, weakens the effect of physical attractiveness, since the most beautiful individual in the world cannot compete with LO once limerence has taken hold.
Even so, and crucially so, Tennov is careful to make clear that although limerence is at odds with rationality, although it can be painful to the point of agony for the limerent and uncomfortable to the point of exasperation for the LO at whom its glaring beam of attention and need is directed, it is not a psychopathology, nor does it have correlation or consistent co-occurrence with any known mental illnesses. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)
Tennov also draws a distinction between limerence and projection:
Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. In the laboratory, it was found that prolonged exposure to the imprinting object or person was unnecessary. In fact, the attachment could be undermined by too much familiarity.
When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:
Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states.
The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov contours the paradoxical demand:
For the process to develop fully, some form of uncertainty or doubt, or even some threat to reciprocation appears necessary. There is considerable evidence that an externally imposed obstacle, such as Romeo and Juliet met in the resistance of family and society, may also serve.
Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. Something must happen to break a totally positive interaction. Not that totally positive reactions are without highly redeeming features in themselves; it is only that they stop the progression to full or maximum limerence.
However unappealing it may be in a universe conceived as orderly and humane, the fact is undeniable; fear of rejection may cause pain, but it also enhances desire.
Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.
A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. It is, in fact, sustained by that slender thread of possibility fraying from the loom of the improbable. Tennov writes:
Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Your limerent daydreams may be unlikely, even highly unlikely, but they retain fidelity to the possible.
She examines the elementary particles and fundamental forces of limerence:
Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.
Because limerent fantasy depends on how you actually perceive reality, its content, which leads up to and renders plausible the ecstatic finale, varies not only from person to person, but from day to day as new knowledge becomes available.
Across all the limerents Tennov studied, the process follows a basic life-cycle and results in a set number of possible outcomes:
Limerence may begin as a barely perceptible feeling of increased interest in a particular person but one which if nurtured by appropriate conditions can grow to enormous intensity. In most cases, it also declines, eventually to zero or to a low level. At this low level, limerence is either transformed through reciprocation or it is transferred to another person, who then becomes the object of a new limerent passion. Under the best of conditions, the waning of limerence through mutuality is accompanied by the growth of the emotional response more suitably described as love.
The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the condition is that no reciprocity of love, whatever its nature or magnitude, can slake the longing for reciprocity of limerence. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.
The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. In such relationships, both the limerent and the LO can suffer greatly in the effort to disentangle one context from the other in order to salvage and reframe in a non-limerent context what is at bottom a deep and valuable connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.
Tennov highlights the difference between limerent and non-limerent attachment, which might share some major surface manifestations but spring from profoundly different emotional needs:
The person who is not limerent toward you may feel great affection and concern for you, even tenderness, and possibly sexual desire as well. A relationship that includes no limerence may be a far more important one in your life, when all is said and done, than any relationship in which you experienced the strivings of limerent passion. Limerence is not in any way preeminent among types of human attractions or interactions; but when limerence is in full force, it eclipses other relationships.
This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:
Knowledge of the limerent state clearly suggests that the nonlimerent LO has certain responsibilities of an ethical kind. Better understanding of what the limerent person is undergoing and how your actions as LO influence that response will help to diminish the pain that the limerent person is experiencing, as well as the suffocating attention that is unpleasant for you.
The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.
With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. Writing in the bleak pit of winter, after several months of limerence, Fred records with astonishing lucidity the respite afforded by a temporary disruption of the vital hope/uncertainty ratio that sustains limerence:
I feel a large impassable gap between us across which I must look ridiculous. Thus it is that my image of her image of me as reflected in her behavior and my own, not a change in her qualities (her attractiveness, for example), has produced this new condition of relative indifference towards Laura. I am afraid that this relief is temporary, however, and I will return to being more intensely stricken, but it shows the dampening effect that clear rejection can have. At least it is giving me an interlude in which I can get some work done.
Six tortuous limerent months later, at the peak of summer, he writes in another diary entry that captures the most terrifying aspect not only of limerence but of all love, at some fundamental level:
It seems to me that being romantically attracted to Laura means that I am bending my image of her until it is distorted. Things that might produce an unpleasant picture, I simply do not see. When she appears by relatively objective standards, beautiful and capable, I look long and hard. But when she is not at her best, when I catch her face in an unflattering angle, I turn my eyes away. If she were in love with me, she would do the same, and we might both be aware of the process in the other because we could feel it in ourselves. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the best angles are allowed to show or be seen. To do anything else is to increase the risk of the dreaded rejection. But it is a disservice to a person not to perceive them the way they really are.
I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. Limerence, in this sense, is the resignation of understanding.
Tennov identifies only three things that can reliably end limerence:
- consummation: the bliss of reciprocation is gradually either blended into a lasting love or replaced by less positive feelings
- starvation: even limerent sensitivity to signs of hope is useless against the onslaught of evidence that LO does not return the limerence
- transformation: limerence is transferred to a new LO
But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov shares the case study of one woman who reflected ruefully in midlife:
Today my children are grown and gone. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. The ironic and really tragic thing is that when my children were little, I was all wrapped up in my love affairs and unable to give them the time and attention I wish I could look back on.
I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.
This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.
Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:
I do not believe that to know limerence is to destroy it any more than to understand the physics of ionization is to destroy the beauty of the Paris sky.
Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.
In an insight of tremendous foresight, presaging the scientific discoveries and still-unfolding mindset reorientation of the half-century since, she adds:
We have watched the field of psychology succumb to invisible pressures to conform to what is now beginning to be recognized as an outdated and inhibiting philosophy, an inordinate and ultimately stultifying disinclination to view ourselves as biological creatures. I believe it is time to reject that philosophy in favor of a new humility which bends to the innermost voices of our fundamental nature, and, in so doing, to shape that nature in accordance with truly human values which can only be discovered when we learn truly what it means to be human.
Published November 25, 2021