11 Concrete Signs It’s Not Love, It’s Limerence: Are You In A Fantasy Relationship?

Lovesick. Longing. Limerent. In 1979, psychologist Dorothy Tennov first coined the term “limerence” in her book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being In Love to describe an involuntary state of deep obsession and infatuation with another person. She interviewed 500 people in the throes of an obsessive love, sometimes on an unhealthy level. Limerence includes a sense of being emotionally dependent on the object of your affections, devastation if these feelings are not reciprocated, and fantasies about the other person which can border on extreme and elaborate.

The Symptoms of Limerence: An Overview

Although there is an overlap between the experience of love and limerence, limerence is different in that a person in limerence isn’t as concerned with caring for the other person so much as it is about securing that person’s affection. Limerence isn’t so much about commitment and intimacy as it is about obsession. A person in the state of limerence exaggerates the positive attributes of the object of his or her affection and downplays their flaws. A limerent person can suffer from such a hyperfocus on the other person that they begin to lose focus on their lives and revolve their entire day around interaction with this person. The lyrics to Jennifer Paige’s infamous song, “Crush” comes to mind. “It’s just a little crush. Not like I faint every time we touch. Not like everything I do depends on you.”

Even the tiniest of interactions with a limerent person’s “crush” tends to give them a rush and an intense sense of pleasure. This is rooted in the biochemical nature of love, which is very much like a drug addiction. Love lowers an individual’s serotonin levels to a similar level as those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and lights up the reward centers of the brain, creating a euphoric dopamine high that is extremely difficult to detox from. Dr. Helen Fisher discovered that the brains of people in love resemble the brains of cocaine addicts. This is why you may experience a deep withdrawal effect when the object of your affection is not around or when they’ve withdrawn from you.

It’s important to note that in limerence, the addiction to this other person is often heightened by the fantasy, not the reality, of who they are and the nature of the relationship. 

A person in limerence tends to look for “clues” that the other person reciprocates their feelings. He or she finds hidden meaning (even if there is none) in the other person’s actions and words that may even hint or indicate any sort of flirtation or affection.

Limerence Is Based On Fantasy Not Reality

11 Signs of Limerence

You may be suffering from limerence if you exhibit the following behaviors:

1. Though the relationship between you two is nonexistent, shallow or just in its early stages, you find yourself fantasizing constantly about what your future together would look like.

2. You find yourself lost in elaborate fantasies about his person, from the typical to the eccentric. Your fantasies tend to have a “heroic” element to them in that you even imagine saving your crush from dangerous situations.

3. You experience physical symptoms when around them or interacting with them in any way. You feel particularly anxious when you’re waiting for their phone call, text response or just about meet with them. You might have extreme heart palpitations when you’re about to call them, or stutter around them in their presence. In extreme cases, you may feel dizzy or as if you’re about to faint when you’re actually around them.

4. You imagine or actually manufacture scenarios that will enable you to “accidentally” run into this person or talk to them. Whether that means hanging around their general neighborhood or their favorite coffee shop, you plan your day around how you can spend time with them. This can range from cute to creepy and stalker-ish, so be very careful if you’re experiencing this one.

5. You idealize them and put them on a pedestal. Everything they do, from the awkward to the charming, gets flagged in your mind as evidence that they are a flawless, loveable human being. Even if they were the worst human on earth, you’d rationalize their bad behavior and undesirable qualities as “adorable.”

6. You’re excessively focused on them and everything they’re doing: who they’re talking to, how their day is going, what they need, their reactions to you (or lack thereof). Your whole day tends to revolve around them and interactions with them.

7. You feel a special and powerful connection to them, almost like a magnetic pull. You believe they are your soulmate, even if you barely know each other.

8. Jealousy can occur even if the relationship is nonexistent. You feel irrationally jealous of potential romantic suitors or competition for your desired mate, even if it’s imaginary. You are also unable to fantasize about or date anyone else because you feel “bound” to them, even if there is no actual, tangible commitment.

9. When the person withdraws from you, you sink into a deep depression and experience an overall sense of hopelessness. You experience mood swings, ranging from euphoric highs when you’re around this person and unbearable lows when you feel rejected or ignored by them. It’s almost as if you were detoxing from a drug.

10. You look very deeply into their words and actions, reliving each moment to find clues that this person feels the same way about you.

11. You feel you can’t live without them. You experience an unbearable and overwhelming longing for their affection, attention and approval.

How Long Does Limerence Last?

Tennov estimated that limerence could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years depending on whether or not feelings are reciprocated. Unlike love in a long-term relationship, limerence can be short-lived and fleeting, as well as one-sided. It can be based on only a few interactions or stem from a relationship. It can happen in the first few months of a new relationship, after a break-up or prior to a commitment. Those in limerence may actually have their feelings strengthened, not hindered, by the withdrawal of the person on the receiving end of their affections.

Limerence Is About Obsession

Limerence: An Example

Lauren met Graham at a mutual friend’s dinner party. They locked eyes as soon as she entered the room. Graham, the eternal charmer, crossed the room to serve her his usual pick-up lines. Before long, they were talking and laughing for hours. Although Lauren was having a good time with Graham, she hadn’t intended to stay so long. She told Graham that she had to get up early the next morning and reached out to shake his hand to say goodbye. Graham, however, moved in closely to her just as she was about to leave, kissed her on the cheek and asked for her number.

With hesitation, Lauren decided she would take a chance and give out her number. She was fresh out of a breakup and wasn’t looking to date someone new, but she figured they had enough of a conversation to warrant a phone call or a coffee date. Although she didn’t know Graham too well, she trusted that their mutual friend Mary wouldn’t be friends with some sort of psychopath. She left the party, thinking not much of it besides the fact that she had a nice conversation with a handsome man.

Graham, on the other hand, had a very different perception of the same event. To him, Lauren had left quite an impression. She was strikingly beautiful, clever and witty – everything he had ever been searching for in a woman. He was usually able to charm women quite easily, but Lauren was different from all the other women he had dated. She seemed a bit more reserved, yet still open and vulnerable. She made him drop the ‘charming’ act and he had found himself being more himself with her than he had been with anyone else. He had relished every moment they had together, reminiscing about every word he said, all the times he had made her laugh and the way her cute smile made her nose crinkle. He decided he would call her the very next day and ask her out to dinner.

To his dismay, his first attempt at calling her went to voicemail. After several tries, he left her a text message asking her if she was free to go to his favorite restaurant in the city this week. He waited anxiously for her response. Finally, around midnight, Lauren told him that she could meet him the next day. After a nice candlelit dinner and another riveting conversation, they took a walk by the river and had a passionate kiss under the full moon. Although Lauren seemed a bit withdrawn, even standoffish at times, Graham didn’t mind: he loved her mysterious nature. Graham couldn’t believe his luck: he had finally met the woman of his dreams.

The only problem was, the woman of his dreams seemed unable to text him back as frequently as he had liked. Graham enjoyed sharing pictures from his day, checking in with her about what she was doing, and engaging in that same witty banter that had first drawn him in. Although they had a couple of more romantic dates, Lauren seemed to become more and more distant as time went on. Eventually, she stopped answering his texts altogether. Graham fell into a deep depression and kept reliving each date they had gone on together with a sense of longing. He fantasized about each kiss they had and re-read her texts with an anxious sense of devotion.

Despite the fact that they shared very little in common, he just knew she was his soulmate and spent the next few days imagining scenarios where he would run into Lauren. Perhaps he would “accidentally” run into her at the gym where she took her yoga classes. Maybe he would save her from a creepy dude at the bar near where she lived. He even began fantasizing about rescuing her from dangerous situations and having her express her undying love for him.

Limerence Is About Obsession

Limerence Is About Fantasy, Not Reality

Graham’s story reflects a sort of obsession that is more far more limerence than love. Not only does he create a “fantasy” of who Lauren is as his dream woman, he also imagines scenarios where he is placed into the role of hero or savior in her life. This goes beyond just sexual attraction; it reflects a deep emotional need to be seen by Lauren and viewed by her in a way that allows him to remain in her life in the long-term.

His rich fantasy life surrounding Lauren even tempts him into engaging in stalker-like, pathological behavior. Notice that they’ve only been on a few dates and Graham has already become depressed due to Lauren’s withdrawal from their short-term relationship. He doesn’t know much about her, but he’s created a picture of who she is based on the surface he’s barely scratched. This is an unhealthy obsession in which Graham has exaggerated Lauren’s positive qualities (her wit and good looks) and downplayed her negative traits (her standoffish disinterest). Graham has created a full-fledged commitment to a woman he barely knows – it is the ultimate fantasy relationship, and it allows him to remain emotionally unavailable while still reaping some of the benefits of what he believes to be love.

The Cause of and Cure for Limerence

Is There A Cure for Limerence?

Limerence can fade eventually if the object of affection does not return an individual’s interest or moves onto another relationship, but there is no guarantee it isn’t strengthened by the other person’s disinterest in some cases. Love and limerence overlap in that the more “challenging” the potential partner seems to obtain, the more alluring that person may inevitably become to you.

Since the state of limerence can lead to some pretty disturbing behavior, keeping the fantasy in check is important. Even coming to terms with the fact that this is an obsession, rather than an organic partnership, can be hepful to grounding yourself back in reality. In the age of social media, it’s easier than ever to create an elaborate fantasy of who a person you’re dating is and how they will fulfill your needs. We have a tendency to look at the online presence of someone and find out everything about them. We fast-forward intimacy by uncovering everything we would normally come to discover gradually and organically.

If you think you’re suffering from limerence or obsession, assess why you feel so drawn to this person and what they represent. Often we aren’t obsessed with this person, but rather what they mean to us. Perhaps they represent a new beginning after a breakup or the fulfillment of deep unmet needs in childhood. Maybe they’re an easier route to cope with our emotional unavailability than, say, actually dealing with the root of our emotional unavailability. Having a fantasy relationship, after all, is often times a lot more of an alluring prospect than having to deal with the actual struggles of maintaining a true relationship.

It’s important to keep in mind that limerence can exist on a spectrum, from the mild to the pathological. You have to assess whether this really is just a crush or whether it’s become a severe problem that requires professional support. If the latter, seeing a therapist can help. Detoxing from an unhealthy attachment like this requires that you look within and uncover any wounds, insecurities, vulnerabilities and traumas that may have led you to feel “tethered” to a love that may not be reciprocal or even toxic.

This article was first published on Thought Catalog in May 2018.