There is one book that forever changed my perspective on the word “love,” a book that I’ve kept in my possession for about 13 years now (which is shown in the image above). While I was in college at Emory University, there was an elective that only a select few students were admitted to take each time it was offered—”Psychology of Love”—and I was one of those fortunate few who were allowed in.
I remember sharing with the professor my insights on relationships, particularly a theory that I had been convinced of since a very young age: that people are attracted to others who look like themselves. Some of you may be raising an eyebrow or two as my professor did, but only a few weeks into the class he walked in and said, “you were right,” while he handed me a news article from BBC that reported on a research study at a very prestigious university which provided proof for exactly what I was saying (what’s funny is I still have the article, and another as well that supports the same notion; and in case you’re interested, the research involved taking images of individuals, then altering those images enough to make it look like it was someone from the opposite sex, then having people choose from a collection of images who they thought was most attractive—they almost always unknowingly chose themselves: BBC article | CNN article).
That was how I started the course, feeling pretty encouraged that I was somehow going to give more than receive, because, as I thought to myself, I knew the subject of love and relationships pretty well. But then came the book that taught me lessons about love which, although they are evident when you really think about it, were never presented in such comprehensible, clear terms.
What is Limerence?
The premise of the book is simple: actual love is very different than the feeling of being “in love,” which the author, a psychologist named Dorothy Tennov, termed “limerence,” to describe the concept that had grown out of her work in the mid-1960s, when she interviewed over 500 people on the topic of love. Basically, unrequited love (i.e., love that is not reciprocated) leads a person into a state of limerence, where the person will experience intrusive thoughts and emotions that people usually associate with being “in love.” The harder it is to achieve reciprocation of one’s feelings, the more intense one’s feelings become, so that there is a sort of “intensification through adversity.” Along with extremely strong desires for assurance of reciprocated interest, a limerent person will have a tendency to minimize any negative or problematic attributes associated with the object of their infatuation, while at the same time exaggerate anything admirable that they can grasp; and they often fabricate positive characteristics, and justify or provide “reasonable” explanations for negative aspects.
It is during limerence that love songs no longer sound “cheesy,” but they make sense and speak directly to your heart. I want you to notice how the following love song lyrics posit a limerent person who earnestly yearns for reciprocation but cannot find it:
“What would I do without your smart mouth/ Drawing me in, and you kicking me out / Got my head spinning, no kidding, I can’t pin you down” (“All of me” by John Legend);
“Our song on the radio, but it don’t sound the same / When our friends talk about all that it does is just tear me down / Cause my heart breaks a little when I hear your name / … Hmmm too young, too dumb to realize / That I should have bought you flowers / And held your hand / Should have gave you all my hours when I had the chance / … Now my baby is dancing, / But she’s dancing with another man” (“When I was your man” by Bruno Mars)
For me, I remember a song that strummed my heart cords long ago during a period of time when I was quite limerent, from the group “98 degrees,” a song titled, “Invisible Man”:
“I wish you’d look at me that way / Your beautiful eyes / lookin’ deep into mine / Telling me more than any words could say / But you don’t even know I’m alive / Baby to you all I am / Is the invisible man.”
DISTINGUISHING LIMERENCE FROM LOVE
Limerence is very different from love. Limerence is all about the desire to receive. Love, however, in its purest form, as taught in the Bible, as shown by Christ, is solely concerned with giving in spite of receiving nothing.
Limerence example story
Let me give an example of a limerent person:
There is a single young man, lonely and seeking the attention of a beautiful girl. He walks aimlessly through life and passes by many girls, but none seem to show him the slightest interest. One day he walks into church and sees someone new, and he catches a glance at her eyes as she also glances at him. But it was a fleeting moment, and the young man wants to know more about her. He slyly positions himself within the group she is speaking with and finds out they are all going out to eat. Excited at the chance to spend more time in her presence, he expresses his interest to join the group. He exchanges a few remarks here and there, but so does every other guy at the table. He watches as she laughs, and smiles, and wonders if somehow it is possible that he can divert her attention to just himself. Later that day he adds the girl to Facebook, but she doesn’t accept his invite until a week later; his limerence intensifies. She adds him to Facebook, but is slow to respond to comments or messages; limerence intensifies. They eventually start to text each other, but he usually gets less than he gives—shorter texts, less frequent, slower to respond; limerence intensifies. They begin to have regular phone conversations, but he calls more than she does and she seems to always end the calls earlier than he wants to; limerence intensifies. They’ve been going like this for a year and they are both clearly interested, but the young man wonders how interested the girl really is; he brings up the notion of things getting more serious, as in maybe getting the parents involved and even engagement, but her response is a bit mild, and she tells him to wait a little because she isn’t ready yet; limerence intensifies considerably.
As they are in this state of limbo, there a number of things about this girl that would dissuade his otherwise rational self from proceeding forward in the relationship, but his limerence is so intense, he cannot think straight. First, the girl always argues with him; his limerent mind tells him, “It’s okay, it’s probably me.” The girl is particularly fond of him paying for nice things, and brings up money constantly; his limerent self just ignores it as being the normal course of things. The girl has lied to him on several occasions, but he forgave and made excuses for why it’s no big deal. The young man finds out that the girl is not as devout as he is, loves to party and drink until she drops, smokes marijuana occasionally, has a bad habit of cursing, does not care to participate in church services nor to pray with him, and although the young man is not normally agreeable with all of these things and would otherwise have never chosen a girl with these sorts of flaws and habits, he is too limerent and just thinks, “Maybe she’ll change.” When his friends ask the guy about why he is with this girl, he simply says, “She makes me feel good; being with her, it just feels right; I just love her.” When pressed about all the flaws they notice, the limerent young man makes excuses for them all, and eventually gets offended and tells his friends that he “just knows” she is the right one; he decides he will stop telling his friends about the issues he sees, because they make a “bigger deal” about them than they are, at least to him anyways.
I think by now you get the point. Now tell me, where in any of this do you see a rational assessment of love?
Genuine Christian love
The word “love” has unfortunately been misapplied in so many phrases that many people fail to recognize a distinction between genuine love and everything else. Think about it. Being “in love,” “making love,” I love my job / car / shirt. When you say any of those phrases that incorporate the word love, what you are really saying is: “I love what that ________ gives me.” The girl makes me feel less lonely, the car brings me attention and is fun to drive, the job gives me money, the shirt … I don’t know … makes me look less fat.
But genuine, biblical, Christ-like love is concerned solely about giving in spite of not receiving. I will start with the quintessential chapter on love from the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. Notice how love is described only as giving (by either doing something, or inhibiting yourself from doing something that would hurt the other person), and it is all centered around one theme—“Love … does not seek its own” (v. 5):
- suffers long
- is kind
- does not envy
- does not behave rudely
- is not provoked
- thinks no evil
- endures all things
Where in any of that do you see limerence—the feeling of being “in love”—and all its associated emotions? The bible is clear that love is giving of oneself, sacrificing, irrespective of what you receive, as Christ showed us: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). See how St. Paul teaches us that loving is doing: “Walk in love” (Ephesians 5:2). And when he later writes to husbands, telling them, “love your wives,” he points again specifically to the notion of sacrifice and giving, as he says, “just as Christ also loved the church [Christ’s bride] and gave Himself for her.”
DANGERS OF NOT RECOGNIZING THE DISTINCTION
1. Your “love” gauge is skewed by circumstances that manufacture a false sense of “love.” I will never forget a phrase I read in my literature class during my senior year of high school. It comes from a chivalric code during the time of knights in armor, and it says: “The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty in attainment makes it prized.” See how that summarizes limerence? Here is the problem: your “love” [actually limerence] intensity level is dependent on circumstances that have no bearing on whether the other person is a good partner or not. Every time something happens that reminds you of your uncertainty that the other person will be yours indefinitely, your intensity level rises, so that “difficulty in attainment” makes the other person more “prized”; the other person has not changed, but only the circumstances. Many will associate that with being “in love” and thus will make choices based on a set of circumstances that have nothing to do with whether the person you are choosing really does love you.
2. Finding a super hot guy/girl may drive your limerence up, but not necessarily your future happiness. Since limerence hinges on the scarcity of someone’s affection, rather than focusing on whether genuine love is being exchanged, seeking an extremely attractive mate (high demand, low availability = scarce—thank you Economics 101) may take precedence over other more important attributes which affect your sense of happiness. It goes something like this: the more attractive someone is, the more you perceive them to be scarce, the more “prized” they become in your eyes, the more you are willing to give up other more rational and meaningful wants just to achieve your desire for the most “prized” mate you can find.
3. When your limerent state of mind dissipates, so will all the excuses you made for the person’s flaws. You may end up with someone with characteristics and habits that you have a hard time tolerating since what was formerly making it tolerable was all the excuses you gave while you were still limerent. That’s why I always advise people to make a list of wants in a potential spouse BEFORE you are actually in a relationship, when you are thinking rationally; and then, when you get into a relationship, check the list against your limerent state of mind.
4. If love is associated with the feeling of limerence, then when you are no longer limerent you will think you no longer “love” the other person. How many times have we heard someone say (e.g., on TV) that they are getting a divorce because they no longer feel they are in love anymore, and that the “spark” they once felt is gone. Well, if only they understood the distinction between limerence and love, they would understand that those wonderful feelings before marriage were mostly caused by a desire to achieve reciprocation from the other person, and now that they are married, real love—i.e., giving, and sacrificing—has taken the primary role. Think about couples who, when they get engaged, start to bicker more, when it seems counterintuitive to them—“We are about to get married, why is this happening?” Unfortunately, many marriages and relationships have ended or suffer because people think that the limerence in a relationship is a true indicator of the health of the relationship. Love hasn’t left the relationship until both people decide to stop making effort to express it in their actions (and inactions).
5. You may turn someone down who actually loves you, but just doesn’t give you the “feeling” you were looking for. Think about it: what if the right guy or girl comes in your life, who will genuinely love you, but their affection is easily won? You will quite possibly not have as limerent a feeling as you desire, and so may pass them up and seek instead that other person whose affection is harder to acquire. And if you are able to actually receive sufficient reciprocation to move forward, you may be duped into thinking that you were grounding your relationship on “true love” with that person, even if he or she treats you a lot worse than that other person you could have been with who would have genuinely loved you.
6. If someone understands the “game” you could end up losing, big time. Some individuals understand this “game” of limerence and they play it very well, stringing your poor little heart along, knowing that every time they make themselves “hard to get,” you want them more. Imagine if a person plays that game all the way until marriage; when you are finally there, the person has the “upper hand” because you are willing to do anything to keep their affection, and that person will be able to get away with doing more things than usual because you “love” them. You may find that person getting their way and controlling the relationship, because they have the undying affection of their partner, and their partner’s sense of security is at stake.
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM PRESENTS TWO OPTIONS: CHOOSE WELL OR ACCEPT OTHERWISE
While the excitement of newfound affection is quite exhilarating, unless that person happens to be good at genuinely loving, eventually that excitement will fade and all you will be left with is a person who is inadequate at making you feel happy. And in that case, while you would have the opportunity to express lots of genuine, Christian love yourself, you have to decide whether you have the capacity of selflessness needed to keep things going.
St. John Chrysostom therefore tells us of two options to choose from: You can either look for a good spouse through a sound assessment of their capacity to love, or accept the blessing of ending up with a difficult one.
“You know that you must make one of two choices. If you take a bad wife [or husband], you must endure the annoyance [including, as St. John Chrysostom indicates elsewhere, a spouse who is “wicked, deceitful, alcoholic, abusive, foolish, or subject to any other such fault”]. If you are not willing to do this, you incur the guilt of adultery by divorcing her [or him]…. If [however] this is heavy and burdensome, then take every care to choose a good, kind, docile wife [or husband].”
If you choose the former option, you have to determine whether you are able to be happy giving love in a relationship more than you are receiving. Certainly, “when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:24); “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully” (1 Peter 2:23).
For most people, however, this is not sustainable no matter how altruistic they think they might be. To keep from division, one person will have to give more; otherwise, a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25). Certainly, Christian love, as with many virtues, has degrees, and we are called to reach the highest degree of selfless love, but most will fall short to some extent. For the majority of people, then, who are not able to achieve perfect love, making a wise decision about choosing a spouse is dire to future happiness.
For some good reading on the subject, check out:
“On Marriage and Family Life,” collecting some of St. John Chryosostom’s sayings on the subject, including a chapter on how to choose a good spouse.
“Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love” by Dorothy Tennov