When psychologist Dorothy Tennov unveiled the concept of limerence to the world in her 1979 book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, she put a name to a ubiquitous phenomenon that had previously always been shrugged off as “puppy love.” Limerence, as Tennov describes, is a state of emotional attachment that is characterized by irrational behaviors including constant obsessive thoughts, a profound craving for reciprocation and an intense fear of rejection. Unlike love, which entails a genuine concern for the object of affection, limerence implies an unhealthy or unreasonable interest — the term sheds new light on idioms like “crazy in love” and “lovesick.”
So how can we tease limerence apart from earnest feelings of love? The blurry line between the two isn’t helped by the fact that popular media perpetually presents as accurate representations of love what Tennov would have considered prime case studies on limerence. The obvious example would be television dramas and soap operas, in which supposedly “loving relationships” are invariably marked by extreme jealousy and dramatic screaming arguments. Because of this constant preoccupation with the object of limerence (LO), the limerent is almost always dropping the ball on his or her own life as well. This type of script might make for successful daytime entertainment, but it certainly hasn’t helped the mainstream conception of what’s “normal” when it comes to love and relationships.
Born from this is the unhealthy expectation that love must be dramatic in order to be real love, and this peculiar misunderstanding seems to have been augmented within the past few years by the explosive popularity of pop country singer Taylor Swift. Since her days as a MySpace musician, Swift has garnered an enormous fan base, winning dozens of awards on the basis of her musical talent as much as her ability to appeal to hoards of limerents around the world. Swift, whose song titles in themselves are telling — “Love Story,” “You Belong with Me,” “Mine” and then finally, of course, “Picture to Burn” — has become an icon of unreciprocated desire and fixation. It’s no question why she enjoys such enormous popularity, as she opens up about feelings of uncertainty and hurt that almost everyone has experienced at some point.
But Swift’s music video for her single “Mine,” which debuted last fall, is just one example from a vast pool that demonstrates how limerence is misrepresented as love, and this likely has negative consequences our generation’s understanding of romantic relationships. As the music video goes, Swift meets a waiter while sitting alone at a café, the two begin dating, arguments ensue and Swift runs out of the house as her suitor gallantly chases after her. By the next scene, Swift is standing by a window pregnant, watching her husband and her child play in the yard. Fast forward one more scene, and Swift is back in the café as the waiter walks away. Her fantasies make us feel uncomfortable, but such experiences are central to limerence: an unnatural preoccupation with the LO and hope that benign actions might hide evidence of reciprocated feelings.
What’s the impact of limerence being so frequently presented as actual love in the popular media? A comment from Swift from back in 2009 raises one unnerving reality of this bad habit: “In my spare time I like to drive past my ex-boyfriends’ houses ... I just like to check up on them. Everybody does that. It’s just that nobody admits to it.”
No. Just no. I love Taylor Swift and her music, but I was unable to listen to her songs in the same way after I’d heard this comment. This unsettling remark, along the confession she made at a concert in London that she really does take the time to burn photographs of her exes, makes her cute fantasies seem a little less innocuous than they did in the beginning. But limerents everywhere owe their thanks to Swift, as her presence on the national stage has effectively made what previously would have been considered abnormal seem mundane.
In the wake of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore the gray area that lies between love and limerence. If your relationship feels at all like it’s hindering you, it’s probably not love. If you experience intrusive thoughts about this person to the point that you find it difficult to concentrate on other areas of your life, it’s probably limerence. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing a little bit of limerence. Just remember to keep it in context — lest you feel Miss Swift’s disappointment that there’s no prince on a white horse chasing you down the next time you look in your rearview mirror.
— Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.