This little-known form of infatuation is easily confused with love. Understand more about the psychology of limerence to know what your true feelings are.

Dorothy Tennov interviewed hundreds of people, studied literature, poetry, and insights from her psychological research. Tennov was tackling the topic at the heart of humanity — love. Committed to understanding how people’s experience of love varied, Tennov was close to a breakthrough. She noticed that what some people described wasn’t love, but something else.

In the 1970s, Tennov released her book, Love and Limerence, where she defined limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction.” This isn’t love but a form of profound romantic infatuation, full of strong feelings and obsessive thinking.

Limerence has an interesting quality — although mistaken for true love, it’s often fleeting, disappearing in as mysterious a manner as it arrives. It’s also a condition of hope, or longing, based upon relationships that aren’t reciprocated. Knowing the difference between limerence and love can have huge benefits in the long run. Here, we’ll explore the key differences, based on Tennov’s powerful insight.

Love, Lust, and Limerence

passionate couple in dark

Whenever you experience intense emotions seemingly directed at someone else, it’s natural to question whether you’re falling in love. Human relationships are never straightforward, and love is often complicated. Understanding what you’re experiencing is half of the battle.

The definition of limerence is “the state of being obsessively infatuated with someone, usually accompanied by delusions of or a desire for an intense romantic relationship with that person.” So limerence has close ties to infatuation, and all of the qualities that come with it — butterflies in the stomach, shyness, fantasies about being with that person.

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Limerence is distinct from love and lust, although there’s no doubt overlap between the three. Falling in love requires some form of meaningful connection and emotional intimacy. Lust doesn’t require a meaningful connection, and is sexual in nature. When experiencing limerence, someone may yearn for a connection that isn’t necessarily sexual.

Signs of Limerence

man upset head in hands

As a research psychologist, Tennov was incredibly thorough in deconstructing limerence. Fortunately for anyone wishing to know more, Tennov clearly outlines what she understands to be the key signs of limerence. Intrusive thinking, a strong and unmet desire for reciprocation, and emotional ups and downs are strong indicators of limerence. Other signs include:

  • Mood changes dependent on what Tennov calls the “limerent object,” or LO, particularly related to the chances of reciprocation.
  • Only experiencing limerent feelings towards one person at a time — hence its obsessive nature.
  • Finding relief from feelings of anxiety or yearning by imagining scenarios where the limerent object reciprocates.
  • A significant positive bias when it comes to the person’s flaws, or seeing with rose-tinted glasses.

While falling in love is exciting and enlivening, limerence causes a lot of emotional anguish. In the beginning, Tennov notes how people “go readily and willfully toward its promise of joy.” But there’s a dark side to limerence. To highlight the level of discomfort (and similarities to obsessive-compulsive disorder) Tennov explains in detail the sense of being “taken over” by a force against your will:

“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.”

Is Limerence Unhealthy?

Despite the unsettling description above, Tennov was careful to clarify that limerence falls within the normal spectrum of human behavior, and doesn’t classify as a mental illness. Because limerence is often built upon genuine relationships — from friendships to acquaintances, or creative partners — it has its foundation in actual relationships and isn’t a delusion. Think of it like an intense form of hopeless romance.

Bizarrely, the fear of rejection, and the uncertainty towards whether love will be reciprocated, tend to amplify limerence.

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Anyone can experience limerence, and doing so isn’t a major warning sign of anything wrong. While under the spell of limerence, people act irrationally. But even the most mature, sane, got-it-all-together people aren’t immune from being struck by its intrusive nature. Certain people are more prone to limerence, though; a limerent bond has a high likelihood for codependency and trauma bonds.

Limerence and Attachment Styles

Tennov’s insight was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Her work was largely dismissed when first released, but has since been built upon in the field of attachment styles. Early childhood experiences and family life, related to attachment, can make people more prone to experiencing limerence in adulthood. For people with an avoidant attachment style, it’s a clever form of self-deceit. Limerence is desire towards someone who is likely unavailable, avoiding intimacy.

People experiencing limerence tend to believe that the object of their desire can fix them, or offer them something lacking in life. Tennov noted that, even in the throws of limerence, many people had high levels of self-awareness — they could see their behavior was irrational but struggled to control it. With that in mind, trying to force the end of limerence could be counterproductive. Patience and self-compassion are vital in riding the wave.

Limerence and Psychological Projection

Love takes on an entirely different perspective when understanding the nature of psychological projection. Jungian analyst Robert Johnson was one of the most lucid thinkers in the field of romantic love. From the viewpoint of romantic love being a part of ourselves, “projected” onto another, Johnson explains:

“Romantic love always consists in the projection of the soul-image. When a woman falls in love it is animus that she sees projected onto the mortal man before her. When a man drinks of the love potion, it is anima, his soul, that he sees superimposed on a woman.”

Projection is linked to the unconscious, the parts of ourselves we suppress or deny. In this context, part of relinquishing projection requires a person to understand what qualities they are outsourcing to someone else and then discern between projection and true love. However, Tennov made a distinction between projection and limerence, which she describes as “emphasis and not complete invention.”

What to Do if You Experience Limerence

Unlike falling in love, limerence comes with a lot of pain. The ache for the object of desire, uncertainty around whether feelings will be reciprocated, the despair at questioning why you feel the way you feel… One thing that is incredibly clear is that limerence isn’t a choice. It can happen to anyone, at any time. That means there’s space for compassion. Fortunately, there’s also space for learning. Tennov notes three ways to end limerence:

  • Consummation: the peculiar nature of limerence means that, once the relationship is reciprocated, limerence begins to fade. Sometimes, that does leave space for true love, and a meaningful relationship, to develop. Or, the person in limerence may be surprised at why their intense attraction suddenly fades.
  • Starvation: over time, with reduced contact with the object of limerence, feelings will begin to fade. The rational mind will start to kick in, and the feelings of infatuation will find their rightful context.
  • Transformation: limerence is transferred onto the next person.

Clearly, it’s unhelpful to keep falling in limerence with person after person, simply transforming the sense of yearning for someone new in an endless loop. Consummation is a risk, too, as you might not have clarity about whether making the fantasy a reality is the right choice. Starvation can be an option, but in many situations — especially with coworkers, for example — this isn’t possible.

It’s unhelpful to keep falling in limerence with person after person, simply transforming the sense of yearning for someone new in an endless loop

The best approach is to deconstruct the experience and understand what factors are contributing to your experience of limerence. If in the eye of the storm, or experiencing intense infatuation, stay present to your experience, but wait for the dust to settle before expecting clarity. At this stage, it pays to be mindful of your thoughts, visions, and sensations in the body, without acting upon them or creating meaning from them.

The history of humanity is sprinkled with experience after experience of people finding difficulty in love, or attraction. Forgive yourself for any difficulty you feel. Avoid shaming or judging yourself. And always remember the most powerful way to overcome limerence is to cultivate a greater sense of self-love. The question is, can you reciprocate love towards yourself?