What If Profound Lovesickness Isn’t Romantic?

What If Profound Lovesickness Isn’t Romantic?Esquire / Getty Images

Seven years later, I still remember a rainy night standing outside the nightclub near my university looking at the girl across the courtyard. We were huddling under separate umbrellas when we broke away from our respective friends; as we stood in the downpour, our exchange couldn’t have lasted more than a minute.

It’s like the sound faded out and it was just us talking. I don’t remember what was said. My body felt rigid with angst but also an electric jolt of joy to my brain, the aftereffects of which lasted all night.

I was in the throes of the worst all-consuming crush of my life. I genuinely lost sleep, lost weight, lost my sanity over how lovesick I felt. I couldn’t focus on work or my studies or any other relationships in my life. Every event was plagued by thoughts of “What would she think about this?”

No one since has had such a disruptive effect on me. I never disclosed my feelings entirely to her because I knew I was being irrational, and frankly it was embarrassing.

closeup of a tulip field with pink flowers one strangely colored tulip flower immediately catches the eye

Curiously, the only time that I could get some relief from my distress was whenever we would run into each other in person. Then I knew she wasn’t for me. When I would see her, it was obvious that there was little chemistry between us. She would get obnoxiously drunk, and my friends would shoot me dirty looks because they couldn’t stand her.

My imagination was the problem. There I had created a fantasy life for us—books I wanted to recommend to her, far-flung places we would visit. She was a chef; I even concocted hypothetical grocery lists for our meals. I moved furniture around in case she visited my place.

When I spoke about my experience to my friend in San Francisco, Sandy—who, like others in this story, is using a pseudonym—she told me that she’d been through something similar. “I’ve cleaned my entire apartment and set up a charcuterie board that I ended up eating alone,” Sandy recalled. “Not to mention the hours I’ve wasted archiving and polishing my social media for when she’d inevitably stalk me. I’m pathetic. I even changed titles to Spotify playlists.”

It’s incredible how the agony of unrequited love can make you such a narcissist.

I researched online to articulate what I was going through and came across Dorothy Tennov, a psychologist who coined the term limerence in the early seventies to describe this experience. There has been extensive research in romantic relationships with terms such as attachment theory and codependency. But limerence is still largely unknown and, comparatively, under-researched. I found the biggest limerence forum on the Internet, called Living with Limerence, run by Tom, a neuroscientist based in the UK.

When we speak, Tom explains that limerence is essentially the mental state of profound romantic infatuation. “It is characterized by an initial period of elation and intense emotional arousal that can progress to an involuntary, obsessive craving for another person,” he says.

He has created terms for how to talk about the limerent experience. The target of your crush is called the “limerent object.” You experience the “glimmer” when you meet people with traits you might fall in limerence with. They’re a “type,” though not necessarily defined by physical attributes. Rather, it could be a facet of their personality, real or imagined.

banded heart isolated on a white background
Aldo Ottaviani - Italy

For Tom, having experienced limerence himself, the project is personal. His glimmer profile is “damsel in distress”—women who are bold and confident on the outset and who, upon getting to know them, reveal themselves to be psychologically more vulnerable. Tom recognizes he has a kind of white-knight syndrome, a desire to bond with his limerent objects and “save” them.

Tom met the woman who would go on to be his wife while at graduate school. He spotted her at a reception and immediately felt the glimmer. “She was attractive in that peculiar, individual, inimitable way that ignited the pilot light on my limerence furnace.” They talked for a long time, and when it was time for Tom to leave, she offered to accompany him to the station, as she was going the same way. “In time I discovered this claim was a lie and she was going out of her way to get a bit more chatting time in.” She had felt a glimmer for him, too.

They moved swiftly, buoyed by their mutual limerence, moving in together within months. They have now been together for twenty-six years, with children.

From time to time, Tom would recognize the glimmer in someone—but being happily married and settled in his career, he didn’t have a driving force to act on the feeling. Then his most severe limerent episode hit. A female colleague who worked in the same department at the university with Tom became his limerent object. The more he got to know his colleague, the more obsessed he felt. Tom believes she probably realized his feelings toward her, but nothing was ever articulated and no professional boundaries were crossed.

For months, he was banking memories of moments they spent together, like a secret source of high he could experience anytime. “Rather than concentrate on being with my kids in the park, I was thinking about her.”

He felt compelled to tell his wife about his new limerent feelings, as well as his distress. Tom stresses, “It was very important that my wife knew my feelings for my colleague didn’t influence the love I had for her.”

They worked together to try and solve the problem. And when Tom tried to discuss these things with a therapist, he felt that the advice he was given would have almost certainly made the situation worse.

The therapist recommended that he disclose his feelings to his colleague and that spending more time with her would help desensitize him to her presence, which would, in turn, help Tom manage his feelings. “That would have been catastrophic on so many levels,” he says. In time, he thought that other limerent people could benefit from help, too.

Using his neuroscience background and expertise in behavioral addiction, Tom started Living with Limerence. The blog provides resources, like free recovery plans developed by Tom to help people process their infatuation using methods he adapted from cognitive behavioral therapies.

Tom receives so much panicked correspondence to the website that he is unable to respond to everyone. There are thousands of hits a day. Stories flow in from all over the world. Someone in the exact same situation as Tom but in Minnesota. Another person feeling trapped in an isolated community in rural Missouri, trying to come to terms with his sexuality while not having come out yet. He confesses that he is already resigned to never having romantic fulfillment in his life.

a man holding a woman

One blog post is titled “Severus Snape, limerent.” Professor Severus Snape of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter wizarding world is one of the best fictional representations of limerence in pop culture. The potions master at Hogwarts had for much of his life been in love with Lily Evans, mother of Harry Potter. The point is made that Lily was an exceptionally caring and empathetic person, the first person to show Snape any affection. She quickly became the most important relationship in his life, so much so that it is his love for her that ultimately saves and protects Harry from the beginning to the very end of the series.

Romeo and Juliet, maybe The Simpsons’ Smithers for Mr. Burns, Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy—Tom speculates on his blog that limerence was present in these fictional relationships. “I think Darcy was definitely limerent at the beginning, when his behavior was so erratic and frankly rude about not being able to deny his feelings.”

Tom isn’t charmed by these connections, and elsewhere, on a Reddit page for limerence, Abigail, thirty-nine, is scathing. She says that the reason why people like romantic tropes such as soulmates and first loves is the same reason people stop and stare at car accidents. “It's not admiration of our passion; it's the ghastly attraction of seeing how badly someone has damaged themselves and others.”

Abigail has experienced limerence for the same man for over half her lifetime, starting from when they met as teenagers. She tells me, “I wish that someone had been able to get it through to me that one day I’d wake up and I’m still hung up on the same guy from my first year in college.”

Her friends are unhelpful. Abigail says, “They see my feelings as cute, but I’ve wasted two decades of life on an illusion of my own creation.”

In Michigan, Marty, thirty-eight, is currently experiencing limerence for two women. One of them is his best friend of fifteen years, with whom he had a platonic relationship until about a year ago. “We go for a week at a time without talking, but once the limerence began…suddenly it is a world-changing event that she isn’t messaging me. I had to drive across the country when I didn’t hear from her for three days.”

He is constantly checking her social media, thinking about her talking to other people. The experience deeply struck a nerve for Marty. “I have this giant crush, and the idea that they are not thinking about me made me feel discarded.”

In 2017, Marty began experiencing extreme limerent events, beyond his usual crushes. Research on the Internet led him to love addiction. That didn’t feel quite right; limerence did. For Marty, limerence manifests as extreme jealousy and paranoia—his glimmer comes from meeting women and believing that he is being betrayed by them even when he knows he is being completely irrational.

Marty’s other limerent object has been subjected to his delusions. “I believed that she was sleeping with my high school best friend, someone she’s never met,” he says. Marty has been driving to her apartment complex, looking for his best friend’s car, trying to “catch them together in the act.”

Of course, his best friend’s car never appears. But he continues to wait because, he thinks, if he sees them together, he will be able to get over the limerence. “I can’t get any relief,because it isn’t happening.”

Recently, Marty began experiencing tremors from the stress of the experience, to the extent that he was unable to sleep. He has sought professional help, as limerence is such a serious threat to Marty’s mental well-being. “I’ve crossed nearly all acceptable lines you can cross.”

Marty can trace back to past crushes, which always had a degree of limerence, rooted in low self-esteem. Marty’s therapist hadn’t heard of limerence but helped him connect some dots about himself: “When you feel you’re garbage, somehow when someone ‘sees you,’ then you think they are the second coming and become obsessed with them.”

Furthermore, Marty’s best friend from high school is a musician who does well with women, stoking an insecurity Marty has always had. His friend is very patient, even as Marty accuses him of sleeping with the woman he loves.

“I am very fortunate that both my limerent objects are understanding, because otherwise I would be arrested or worse.” He thinks people who don’t experience limerence are lucky. “It doesn’t mean you lack love or empathy; it’s a lack of madness and obsession,” he says. “My logical brain and limerence brain are constantly in battle.”

red broken heart on pastel pink color with torn paper effect valentines day, love, concept close up copy space
Iryna Veklich

After Marty admitted to, essentially, stalking his limerent object, I felt pangs of shame. At probably the lowest point of my own experience, I traveled two hours by train to return the object of my limerence’s book. I even showed up with a small bag of groceries in case we’d prepare some dinner together. She didn’t have a doorbell, so as in a romantic movie, I aimed a bottle cap at her window and miraculously hit exactly the right spot.

To my love-addled mind, her face looking out the window at me was all part of this romantic script I was writing in my head. But the reality was that she came down to take the book back and told me, “You could have kept that.”

I had waited all afternoon to be chucked in moments.

On the Living with Limerence website, Tom has been giving out constructive advice about how to pull yourself out of limerence. One exercise is titled “The Ulysses Contract,” named after the story in Greek myth that Ulysses ordered his ships crew to block their ears with wax and tie him to the mast of the ship when they steered past an island inhabited by alluring creatures called sirens. The idea is to figure out how to avoid being overwhelmed by your limerent object.

Limerent people chimed in on this post with measures they’ve taken to distract themselves from their crush. The methods aren’t always elegant. Someone would screenshot when her crush said stupid things and then scroll through them to remind herself that he’s not worth her devotion.

Another person said you should rely on others to help you. Like in the Ulysses myth, you need the seamen to do their part, or else you fail. This prompted someone to mention that they had told their parents and best friend about the dodgy ways their crush treated them for reinforcement.

Tom has another suggestion, which is to think of what he calls anchor memories. He remembers that he would banter with his colleague, as they shared a similar sense of humor. Once they had been working late. As they walked back to their cars, Tom felt like he was on air when he told a slightly risque joke. She was not impressed and shut him down cold. “I seriously embarrassed myself,” he says. The anchor memory helps ground Tom, preventing him from getting carried away in romantic reveries.

In the past two weeks, I've been embroiled in a strange limerence situation. A woman emailed me on my work email out of the blue, asking if I know this guy, Philip, someone who helped me negotiate a contract once. She's been writing rambling emails to me detailing her feelings, their sex life, and how she stood outside Philip’s house in the middle of the night. I think she’s experiencing limerence. She is antagonistic toward me because she believes that I’ve been with Philip for the latter half of 2023, and nothing we say can convince her otherwise. Philip called me back, crying about how being the focus of her obsession has been disturbing, and he has taken police action against her. Upon taking his statement, the police decided there’s enough to arrest her, but Philip doesn’t want to escalate.

The situation is disconcerting, but I've been patient with her. She seems really vulnerable, and maybe it is limerence that has tipped her over the edge. I looked her up, and she’s a journalist too. I’ve seen her byline.

Now that I’m a side character in a limerence situation, I can see the bare bones of how degrading the experience is. The simultaneous shame and euphoria crumples you into a horrible version of yourself. It's like this woman was me seven years ago–the woman I'll never let myself become again.

You Might Also Like