Romantic Love: Craziness, Infatuation, and Limerence

Romantic love. Things begin and get more and more exciting—crazy even. Just ask an expert:

One is very crazy when in love.
Sigmund Freud

And another social observer:

Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.
Fran Lebowitz

The late psychologist Dorothy Tennov, in her often-quoted book on love published in 1979, coined this feeling “limerence.” Less clinical terms are also used, of course. On Oprah. com, Valerie Frankel: “Lay terms for limerence: romantic love, crazy love, lovesick, mad love, amour fort. You see a theme in the words crazy, sick, and mad. In this condition, one’s body drugs itself mightily with hormones that create a feeling of joy. The rapture is balanced with the panic and dread that it could end. And it will. Limerence has a shelf life.”

Psychiatrist David Sack, The Huffington Post, points out a synonym I hadn’t heard of, “affection deficit disorder,” and elaborates further on the topic of limerence:

Some call limerence infatuation, lovesickness, or romantic love, while others relate it to love addiction. Some have humorously called it affection deficit disorder. Albert Wakin, an expert on limerence and a professor of psychology at Sacred Heart University, defines limerence as a combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction, a state of ‘compulsory longing for another person.’ He estimates that five percent of the population struggles with limerence…

“Struggles” with limerence. As when it hurts not in a good way and goes on seemingly forever instead of the 18 months to two or three years often quoted by the experts. If it does last a really long time, there’s probably something more pathological going on. This kind of fixation may lead, for example, to stalking behavior.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t ever enter the limerent state.

And some people studying this topic don’t see infatuation and limerence as the same thing, with the former being positive and bearable, the latter a more troublesome condition.

So, what causes limerence? Read on if you like details about brain-related stuff. Victoria Fletcher, Daily Mail, explains in clear language:

Studies have shown brain chemical dopamine is at higher levels in those in love. Dopamine is key to our experiences of pleasure and pain, linked to desire, addiction, euphoria, and a surge may cause such acute feelings of reward that it makes love hard to give up.

Tests show that taking opioid drugs such as cocaine have a similar effect on dopamine as love.

A side effect of rising dopamine levels is a reduction in another chemical, serotonin, a key hormone in our moods and appetite.

Serotonin levels may fall in a similar way to those seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, explaining why love can make us feel anxious and jittery.

The love chemical we are most familiar with is adrenaline. This hormone is why our heart races, palms sweat and mouth goes dry when we see the person we like.

The same hormone is also released when we are frightened. This means that two people only vaguely attracted to one another can fall madly in love if they go through an exciting or scary experience together. It may also explain the lure of forbidden love.

Despite the “craziness” of it all, and despite efforts on the part of some limerence researchers, the upcoming DSM-5 does not appear to be including it as a diagnostic category. More studies are needed.

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