Is It Love? Or Is It Limerence?

As the mother of a teenager, I think I speak for most parents when I say I worry about my child completely losing his head over a girl.  Whether your teen is male or female really isn’t relevant to this intensely visceral worry that keeps parents up at night.

Part of what steals parents’ peace of mind when their teen starts dating is that most of us have been there.  We’ve said and done things that make us cringe in thinking back, while praying desperately that our children will have more sense than we did.

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of an entirely new (to me) concept called limerence.  In reading about it, I immediately recognized elements of my teenaged patients’ first experiences with dating and, if I’m completely honest, with my own first dating experiences back when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth 😉

What is limerence?  The dictionary defines this word as “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person.”  Sounds like a crush, right?  There’s actually a bit more to it than that.

The concept of limerence was first explored by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book “Love And Limerence: The Experience Of Being In Love,” which was published in 1979.  She believed limerence was a disordered form of romantic love, closer to obsession.

Tennov’s limerence was characterized by

  • Idealization of the person – to the point that negative characteristics are minimized or not recognized at all.
  • Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the person
  • Extreme shyness and awkwardness, nervousness and confusion around the person
  • Euphoria in response to real or imagined signs the person returns your feelings
  • Fantasizing about or searching for signs of reciprocation
  • Arranging one’s schedule to maximize encounters with the person
  • Being reminded of the person by everything around you
  • Fear of rejection and despair or thoughts of suicide if rejection occurs

Sounds very much like a teenage crush, right?  There’s actually something to that.  There is evidence that limerence, or infatuation if you like that word better, activates the same parts of the brain that addicts activate by using their drug of choice.  The intense euphoria and deep despair, the amount of time spent thinking about the person and the inability to think of anything else strikes a chord with those of us who treat addicts.  Substitute “heroin” for “Judy” and you would instantly recognize your lovesick teenage boy as an addict.

Limerence is much more likely to be seen in teenagers.  First of all, their brains aren’t done developing yet and they are much more susceptible to addictions of all sorts.  Smoking, alcohol, opiates and dating all light up the brain in similar ways, ways in which teenagers’ brains seem to be primed to behave.

If you’ve ever tried to tell a teenager they aren’t REALLY in love and the world won’t REALLY end if Judy doesn’t love him back, you know you might as well tell those things to the family dog for all the good it will do you.

It’s painful enough when one teen has a bad crush and the object of his crush doesn’t want anything to do with him.  What do you do when two teens experience the intensity of limerence for each other at the same time?

These times are when we earn our parenting badges.  Just like addicts, teens (and adults) in limerence are sneaky.  They lie to those who love them and take advantage of them.  Adults in limerence have extramarital affairs.  They do things that, were they in their right minds, they would never do.  Personalities change.  Formerly sensible people have sex in spite of knowing the risks and get pregnant and/or contract sexually transmitted diseases.  Good students ditch school or let their studies suffer.  Money that should be saved for college tuition or car insurance is spent impulsively on gifts and activities to impress the beloved person.

How do we keep our teens safe?  If your teen is dating and you notice a big change in behavior or personality, that should cause you to be very concerned.  Make sure you are talking to your teen about their activities and keep them appropriately chaperoned.

Remember my analogy about the lap bar on the roller coaster.  Everybody pushes the lap bar when they get into the seat on the roller coaster.  We are relieved when the restraint holds firm, NOT when it gives with a little pressure.  Our teens are the same way.  WE are their lap bar in the roller coaster of dating.  Expect them to push against us.  They will chafe against our restraint, but letting go, letting them get themselves in too deep, is not what they need from us.

Limerence, research has shown, does not last.  It generally does not deepen into an adult form of love that leads to happy marriages and families.  It is intense and overwhelming but does not stand the test of time and adversity.  Our teens need us to help them avoid making choices that will alter their life forever.

QUESTION:  Is this the first time you’ve heard of limerence?  Do you recognize the concept (if not the word) from your own adolescence or the experiences of friends and family?

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