Hopeless Romantic, Seeking Treatment

Should limerence—a state of obsessive infatuation—be considered a clinical issue?
Photo: Sam Cannon

Feeling homesick during freshman orientation week, Brandy E. Wyant became fixated on her resident advisor. It started one evening when she lost her key and waited outside her dorm room, crying. The RA showed up and consoled her; she invited Brandy to her own room to watch a movie, before letting her back into hers with a master key.

After that, Wyant says, “I felt like I needed her to be around to be okay.” She tried to quiet this anxiety by poring over her RA’s Facebook profile, rereading the emails she sent everyone (i.e., "stop leaving pizza boxes on the bathroom floor"), sometimes making up excuses to meet. She couldn’t help it. “The pull was so compelling. It was like a drug… I would feel high after I had seen her. And then a couple of days would pass, and I would get depressed, because the high would wear off.”

The RA eventually referred her to a therapist. Unfortunately, Wyant’s precise issue fell outside of standard diagnoses. The therapist didn’t know how to help her.

Several years later—still experiencing the same feelings, this time for a coworker—Wyant finally had her eureka moment. Reading an article from a woman’s magazine, she came across a term that perfectly described her experience: a condition first defined in a 1979 book, which has since languished in a gray zone between self-help and psychopathology.

Word is Born

In the late 1960s, psychologist Dorothy Tennov, a professor at the University of Bridgeport, began studying a certain kind of lovesickness. Not passion, exactly, or heartbreak—conditions that usually imply some degree of mutuality—but the obsessive, all-consuming fixations we sometimes develop on people who do not feel the same, or whose feelings we cannot be sure about. This phenomenon was hardly new, but no one in Tennov’s field had bothered to give it a name. So she named it limerence.

“It looks nice,” she explained in 1977, at the world’s first major academic conference on love and attraction. “It works well in French. Take it from me: it has no etymology whatsoever.” According to an Observer reporter, “delegates immediately took to the new word and were later heard using it among themselves, one man even describing himself as ‘a well-fed limerent.’ It was as though they had been familiar with the word since the cradle.”

For some, the term is a novelty—a hyperbolic way to express one’s attraction to a pop star or classmate. It accessorizes well with a brooding or chaotic self-image. For others, the implications are more profound. The word itself proves that you’re not alone. It can seem to describe a whole emotional orientation.

Limerence is a kind of lovesickness. Not passion, exactly, or heartbreak—conditions that imply some degree of mutuality—but the obsessive, all-consuming fixations we sometimes develop on people who do not feel the same.

To some, limerence is romantic; to others, it’s a scourge. For many, it’s both. A recent Cosmopolitan feature described limerence as a self-regenerating obsession that rarely leads to a healthy relationship. The magazine ran a poll alongside the article, asking readers how they felt about “falling in limerence.” Eighty-seven percent picked the answer: “Give me an all-consuming romantic infatuation or don’t waste my time.”

Though it’s almost five decades old, limerence today feels almost excessively timely. It travels well online. Algorithms feed you more of what you already like, simulating obsession, encouraging you to care about people you don’t really know. Social media can intensify a preexisting preoccupation, shoving the person (the LO, limerent object, in the jargon) into your feed, offering opportunities to lurk. But there is help available online, too: spaces for “limerents” to find each other and form community around a shared plight.

At the time of writing, the tag “limerence psychology” has 8.2 billion views on TikTok. Scrolling through the clips, you’ll find a lot of sad memes (“when you realize they’re not obsessively thinking about you, and you’re just experiencing limerence”), and an assortment of self-appointed experts reciting variations on the same definition.

If you navigate to Reddit, or other forums where people congregate in long text blocks, you’ll generally find a more serious tone: users posting at length about their experiences with limerence, and supporting each other through them, often with real tenderness and empathy. “Someone needs you more than your LO needs you,” reads one post on the r/limerence subreddit—that person being yourself.

“I think the biggest misconception is that it’s simply a crush-gone-wild,” says Dan, an r/limerence moderator. When Dan took on moderating duties about five years ago, he says, the sub’s membership was around two thousand. Today, it’s 27.7K and counting, and ranks among Reddit’s top 5 percent largest communities. The more it grows, he says, the more moderation is needed. New people often attempt to raise issues better suited to a relationship advice forum—asking how to catch the eye of a cute classmate or coworker, for example.

The perception that limerence is “just a crush”—defined in this usage as a frivolous, short-term infatuation—arguably contributes to professionals not taking it seriously. This, in turn, makes it harder to find a treatment that works, or that insurance will cover. To many dedicated contributors, limerence is a huge obstacle to living a normal life. More than anything, they want to be rid of it. On the forum, their condition is taken seriously; should the rest of the world follow suit?

Not so Harmless

When it was first published in 1979, Love and Limerence was met with a tepid reaction from the academic community. One of Tennov’s key findings was that some people never become limerent and can’t empathize with the experience. She surmised, 20 years later, that some of her critics might have been “non-limerents” who interpreted her findings as symptoms of a separate pathology. Some thought she was merely making up new words for “love” or “infatuation” —one reviewer called the text “largely semantic rather than scientific.”

Romantic feeling was still an understudied topic in the 1970s, considered by many to be the province of literature, not psychology. Tennov found that “the general view seemed to be that romantic love is mysterious, mystical, even sacred, and not capable, apparently, of being subjected to the cool gaze of scientific inquiry.” Accordingly, her account was very literary. The book is dedicated to Stendhal, whom she refers to throughout.

Love and Limerence is a qualitative study: one long, vivid description, with many firsthand accounts. Tennov interviewed three hundred subjects, and sent questionnaires to eight hundred respondents. She dedicated less time and space to identifying causes, not to mention treatment possibilities. Instead, the book concludes with a call for further study.

One person to heed this call is Brandy E. Wyant, once fixated on her resident advisor, now a psychotherapist based in Massachusetts. Two years ago, she published an article on the treatment of limerence with cognitive-behavioral techniques, proposing a screening tool to assess the condition. She presents herself as a case study. Wyant has experienced limerence steadily since childhood. Her LOs (Limerent Objects) have always been women in positions of authority or mentorship. The attachments were never sexual in nature, but they were much more intense than the romantic “crushes” she developed on men. These experiences were not benign: they caused her a great deal of pain, anxiety, and disruption. There was “horrendous shame attached.”

Tennov’s insistence that limerence was not a “mental aberration,” but rather “an experience both extreme and banal,” went largely unchallenged for decades, mainly because few had extended her research. In 2007, Albert Wakin, a psychology professor at Sacred Heart University, remembered her work—the two had briefly been colleagues in the 1970s—and reached out. Months later, he got a reply from her son, who said that Tennov had recently died, but invited Wakin to look through her file cabinets.

Reviewing her notes and interview transcripts, Wakin came to believe that limerence was not so harmless. Many people who spoke to Tennov described experiences that were long-lasting and clearly disruptive to their lives, sometimes outright debilitating. Working with a graduate student, Duyen Vo, Wakin developed an alternative model of limerence, positing it as a disorder with elements of both OCD and substance use disorder.

Limerence, they write, radiates from an overwhelming desire for emotional reciprocation, and is driven by the uncertainty of obtaining it. As in addiction, receiving a “hit” of an LO’s attention—the suggestion that they just might feel the same way—can feel euphoric. After a while, you need this level of attention just to feel “normal.” You spend a great deal of time strategizing about how to get the next “hit,” and experience physical symptoms when it’s not forthcoming. As with OCD, a person experiencing limerence engages in compulsive behaviors, or “mental acts,” to reduce the uncertainty—talking incessantly to friends about LO, rereading their texts, walking past their favorite spots. They know that none of this is healthy or rational, but they just can’t stop.

Limerence tethers your mood to somebody else’s behavior. There’s no fixed fix, no set of rituals you can rely on for temporary relief. Instead, you are constantly “calibrating and recalibrating” your thoughts and behaviors to your LO’s responses. “Although limerence resembles normative love,” Wakin and Vo write, “it is a state that is necessarily negative, problematic, and impairing, with clinical implications.” Wakin has called for limerence to be added to the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known popularly as the DSM.

Limerence tethers your mood to somebody else’s behavior.

Whether or not it’s included, Brandy E. Wyant argues that limerence “causes as much disruption” as diagnoses that are in the DSM, and merits the same level of seriousness and care. It requires its own approaches to treatment. “When someone goes to a therapist without training in exposure-response prevention, oftentimes the therapist can make it worse,” she says. “There’s a risk that they’ll simply feed an obsession, rather than helping the patient restructure their thinking. If someone’s saying, ‘Why do you think you love that RA so much? What is it about her?'—that’s not helpful. You can’t just let me sit there and talk about the RA the whole session. You’re letting me get high.” So: why hasn’t limerence received more clinical acknowledgment?

Underlying Causes

“I don’t think limerence is a disorder,” says Julia Pema Dolma Gutman, a therapist based in New York. “It should stay in the realm of the human condition.” This is part of Gutman’s broader philosophy: she thinks we’re too quick to pathologize psychic pain, and that some degree of it is part of a life well-lived. She’s never heard “limerence” used in clinical context, but knows of its cultural cachet, and has experienced it several times herself. “I think it’s common, healthy, positive, even if you suffer in despair. And I would be wary of medicalizing it, and monetizing it in that way.” The symptoms involved can certainly be disruptive, she says, but in instances where they were causing significant distress, she would look for underlying causes—attachment issues, OCD, anxiety disorder—and treat those directly.

The tension between Gutman and Wyant’s views corresponds roughly to the “crush” vs. “not-crush” debate on limerence message boards: is it a clinical issue, or just a regular thing people go through? At what level of intensity does it cross over from one to the other? Tennov’s semantic approach left behind a host of semantic problems. It gave us a word for a condition that feels distinct, with a set of common characteristics. But the more people you talk to, the more variably it manifests, in experience and interpretation.

Spend some time on r/limerence, and you’ll see the condition can be utterly debilitating. It impacts people’s marriages and impairs their ability to parent. It destroys their focus and affects their performance at work. Sometimes it leads to behavior that’s outright harmful, or self-destructive. Wyant says she failed most of her courses during her first semester of college, largely because of her obsession. “Regardless of what the condition is ultimately named,” she says, “I want to define how it differs from the diagnoses we already have, so that clinicians like me can know how to treat it effectively.”

She’s thankful for Love and Limerence, although she adds, wryly, that she finds it “a little hard to get through.” It’s true: Tennov’s prose tends toward the purple, and if you’re looking for practical avenues, the long diary excerpts, detours into romantic literature, and paeans to Simone de Beauvoir might test your patience. On the other hand, the tone is heartfelt and the approach is appropriate: a good marriage of clinical rigor and experiential accuracy. It matches the ambiguity of the syndrome it describes.

The problem is not that Tennov defined limerence too philosophically—it’s that hers is the only authoritative text on limerence that remains widely available, and it’s over 40 years old. As Wyant says, “we need an update.” That includes diagnostic tools, treatment methods, and clinical resources that can intervene in people’s suffering. Above all, perhaps, we need a way to distinguish fully disruptive limerence from more manageable cases.

Is it a clinical issue, or just a regular thing people go through? At what level of intensity does it cross over from one to the other?

Good Limerence

Not all limerents want to be “cured.” I’m not sure that I do. I’ve had crushes all my life—in fact, I’ve been “crushed out” for much of it. When a friend first defined limerence for me, it felt like a gift. I’d always been ashamed of how all-consuming my crushes could be, even when I enjoyed them. I’ve often felt desperate to be rid of my limerence, but rarely at the expense of having felt it.

I’ve been treated in the past for symptoms around OCD, which have at times made it hard to live normally. My experience of limerence, at extremes, is very similar to my experience of hypochondria. In either case, the obsession reboots every morning, and dominates my thoughts throughout the day. I’m rereading symptom lists, or text conversations, and constantly looking for reassurance—from friends, from fate—to resolve the uncertainty. I swing from euphoria, when my fears are briefly eased, to despair, when they seem confirmed. The major difference is that, given the choice, I would absolutely not obsess over illness.

That said, there have been times when my limerence has gotten out of hand, and I wished to be rid of the tendency altogether. For me, what marks the difference between wholly negative and ambivalent limerence is not the amount of worry or despair, but the extent of my isolation. Anyone who’s experienced the phenomenon knows just how lonely it can be: damaging your existing relationships, while preempting anything like a mutual relationship with the LO—not only because you can’t be yourself around them, but because you’ve lost your ability to perceive them as they are.

When my limerence runs amok, it feels like a brutal machine, grinding bystanders into its gears. I meet somebody, anybody, and feel the ground start to split beneath my feet. On one side of a chasm is someone I’d have liked to know better; on the other, there’s just me. Limerence can cause a lot of anguish, but, in my experience, the worst part is the underlying suspicion that the affinity itself is not “real.” For me, an official diagnosis might confirm the worst: that the attachment I’d made, all the joy and wonder I’d found in thinking about my LO, was illusory and insignificant.

“There’s two connections [at play],” Wyant says. “The real connection you have with [LO], as a friend, as a coworker, a mentor. Then there’s the person in your head, who’s almost a separate person. You’re not seeing the real them. You’re not seeing them as a human with foibles and flaws. You’re seeing an idealized version, and you have a relationship with that. But that’s not real. That’s for you.”

If she could do it over again, she says, she would not have wanted to meet her college RA. “Was there meaning in that connection? No. I would reach out to her, after the year was over, and she would never answer me. And that was incredibly painful.”

I asked Dan, the Reddit moderator, about how r/limerence members tended to characterize their LOs—was the affinity real, or was the person just fodder? “If you distill that down to, ‘Is my limerence good or bad?’—that’s where the debate rests,” he said. “Most fall on the side of ‘It’s destroying my life,’ while a few, like me, are of the opinion it actually has an attractive component I don’t feel the need to be completely rid of.”

Dan says that he’s been limerent for “two individuals exclusively over the span of around 40 years.” One was a college friend he calls Jon. The two were close: Jon helped him through a breakup and consoled him when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Jon also confided about a daughter he’d never met; Dan helped him process his feelings about that. It was the early ’80s, and neither was out as gay or bisexual. It seemed possible that Jon might reciprocate his feelings, but Dan couldn’t bring himself to make a move.

Decades later, after marrying a woman and raising five kids, “I began having these really obsessive thoughts about Jon. Like from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, and sometimes in my dreams.” Dan managed to track him down—it “took some sleuthing”—and the two reconnected, eventually meeting again in person. They rekindled their friendship, if nothing more, and Dan even helped Jon reconnect with his daughter. Soon after that, Jon passed away.

The implications of limerence are thus highly subjective. A million different factors make the difference: who you are, how your mind works, and what sort of meaning helps you get by. Maybe, Wyant suggests, we need a modifier, to differentiate between limerence that is wholly unwanted, and limerence with other components, similar to how we differentiate between anxiety and anxiety disorder.

Emotionally and culturally, limerence is a liminal space: it’s painful and disruptive, but sometimes life-affirming; it conjures feelings of helplessness and shame, but also euphoria. It’s not “just a crush,” but—to my mind, anyway—it’s not not a crush. No one can tell you with total authority where the two concepts diverge. Maybe they don’t.

The word “crush” connotes something trivial. But it shouldn’t. Crushing is not an idle attraction or childish fascination, but a spectrum that refers to the lives that other people take in our heads—the reality of how we feel about them. Perhaps it’s as simple as that: we ought to take crushes more seriously. ♦

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