Love and Limerence: The Forgotten Psychologist Dorothy Tennov’s Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Bonding

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

“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.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

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.”)

Tennov writes:

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…

more…

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