Limerence: When Love Turns into Unhealthy Obsession

By Parul M. Patel, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist, Orange County Health Psychologists, Inc.

Many of us know what it’s like to fall in love: Those butterflies in your stomach. That feeling of excitement or nervousness. How your heart literally races at just the thought of your loved one.

If it is the unhealthy bond of limerence, which can look much like the honeymoon stage of a developing relationship, these feelings do not lead to true love — for the relationship rush eventually fades, leaving behind the real struggles and decisions of an adult relationship.

Sometimes, however, the feelings related to limerence get a little out of control.

Signs of Unhealthy Obsession

Being in a state of limerence means you have an unhealthy obsession with another person. Not only that, but you intensely desire for that person to reciprocate your feelings.

Basically, you’re addicted to the other person.

Here are some signs your feelings of “love” have crossed the line into obsession. Do you:

  • Constantly think about him or her?
  • Feel that you can’t live without this person?
  • Analyze every word that he or she says, searching for some proof that their feelings are reciprocated?
  • Feel happy when you get his or attention, or sad/angry when you don’t?
  • Fear rejection?
  • Idealize him or her, even if you act shy in their presence?
  • Overlook his or her negative qualities (or even defend them as “strengths”) while magnifying their positive qualities?

You might even experience physical symptoms such as perspiring, heart palpitations, dizziness, and disturbed sleep and/or eating.

How Do I Know When It’s Really Love?

Real, mature love does include feelings of excitement, but there is a healthy quality to it — unlike the fleeting, heady, obsessive attachment of limerence.

Think about it this way: A big part of love means you care about the other person. Being in a state of limerence, on the other hand, means you only want to secure that person’s affection for yourself. Healthy relationships are reciprocal, while limerent ones are one-sided.

Limerence can also start after you have only a handful of interactions or a short relationship with someone. Love, however, is about commitment and intimacy — which takes time to develop.

What Causes Limerence?

Unresolved attachment issues can often lead to an obsessiveness in relationships, or limerence.

You can also measure its effects in the brain. Typically, when you’re in the midst of the obsessive, compulsive behavior, serotonin levels are depleted while dopamine and norepinephrine levels are elevated.

How to Get Over Feelings of Obsession

Sometimes, these unhealthy feelings fade if they are not reciprocated. However, the opposite can also happen, leading to unhealthy behaviors such as stalking.

If you experience feelings of limerence or obsession, try to discover the reasons behind your intense attachment to this person. For example, you might not be attracted to the person but what they represent — such as a new beginning after a breakup, escape from a difficult childhood, or fulfillment of unmet childhood needs.

Assuming this is the case, it’s important to address it. Since limerence can range from mild to pathological and problematic, you also need to figure out how severe your feelings are.

A therapist can help create understanding, and ultimately, growth and detachment from an unhealthy relationship. Addressing attachment wounds, vulnerabilities, traumas, and insecurities — as well as the “back story” — can help promote healing and recovery.

About Parul M. Patel, Psy.D.

Parul Patel, PsyDDr. Parul Patel is a licensed psychologist with over 14 years of experience. She received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Systems, from Alliant International University.

Dr. Patel specializes in couples therapy. She helps to shift pain-causing patterns, and to heal from emotional distress, violence, contempt, control and abuse, loneliness and lack of intimacy, or the weight of childhood or past trauma. She works with individuals, couples and families on their journey of recovery from relationship wounds.

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