HEALTH
17/11/2017 8:08 AM AEDT | Updated 17/11/2017 8:57 AM AEDT

Can You Be Addicted To Love? We Take A Look At Limerence

How obsessive love can take over your brain.

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What happens if you're stuck in an obsessive stage of love for years, or even decades?

Falling in love is one of life's most powerful and overwhelming experiences. The euphoric high, those butterflies in the stomach and that can't-stop-thinking-about-you feeling when you meet a person to whom you are both emotionally and sexually attracted.

And after the initial excitement, most of us settle into more steady feelings of a deeper, more content love. But what happens if you don't? What happens if you're stuck in that obsessive stage of love for years, or even decades? This rather unpleasant concept actually has a name -- limerence.

"Limerence is a combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and addiction for another person. And it interesting because, this is not a love addiction per se and it's not a sex addiction. It's an addiction for another person," co-author of 'Love Variant: The IDR Wakin-Vo Model of Limerence', Professor Albert Wakin said.

"The ones that stand out are the individuals that tell me that it's been decades and they can't get the other person out of their mind. The OCD has obviously calmed down, but they think about the person many times a day, every single day, and it has been decades."

But if you haven't heard of the term limerence, don't worry. The term only became part of common lexicon in 1979 when Dorothy Tennov's book, 'Love and Limerence: The Experience Of Being In Love' was published. So what has more than three decades taught us about this elusive, torturously ongoing stage of love?

What Exactly Is Limerence?

Wakin said that Dorothy Tennov first understood limerence to be a manifestation of a love relationship, the emotions and feelings associated with falling in love that some people feel more intensely than others. She believed that these feelings could settle down into a normal healthy relationship -- making limerence simply a stepping stone to long-term love.

However, Wakin continued Tennov's research into limerence following her death and found that contrary to her beliefs, limerence is actually problematic.

"We've definitely found that limerence is a love variant and it is a problem," he said.

The person is preoccupied with the limerent object (the subject of their obsession) as much as 95 percent of the time.

Wakin explained that when you are first falling in love you will naturally go through the wonder, euphoria and the high associated with it. After several months, for the healthy love relationship that subsides.

For the limerent person, at that time the feeling intensifes and the need for reciprocation from the other person becomes insatiable -- even if you are in a relationship with the person that you're experiencing limerent feelings for.

"It's an addiction for another person. And we find that the obsessive-compulsive component of it is extremely compelling. The person is preoccupied with the limerent object (the subject of their obsession) as much as 95 percent of the time.

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An individual with limerence will never be satisfied with reassurance that their partner loves them.

"The addictive part of it, is also compelling. Because if a person is addicted to alcohol, at least they don't worry about whether or not alcohol will be available if they need it. They don't worry that alcohol might find somebody it likes better and therefore will leave them. (With limerence) when you're addicted to a person, you worry about those things."

Suprisingly, limerence can occur both in a relationship or when love is unrequited. The latter is likely to incite greater feelings of desperation in the individual experiencing limerent feelings, and can continue for many years without feelings of love being reciprocated.

"The feeling has been known in many cases that we have reviewed to go on for years. You get constant comment about how 'I've moved on, I've found someone else, I'm married, I have children, but a day never goes by that I don't think about this person and long for the person and wish the person were back in my life,'" Wakin said.

What Are The Symptoms of Limerence?

Wakin said that since he started researching limerence, he has "come across hundreds of cases". This is how he describes the direct effects and side effects of the condition.

You are experiencing a state of limerence when romantic intensity and infatuation rule your every waking moment

Direct effects:

  • Physical aching for the limerent object -- including aching in the chest area;
  • Intense longing;
  • Panic;
  • Obsessively thinking about the limerent object;
  • Focusing almost completely on the limerent object -- including getting in touch with the person, getting reciprocation from the person, thinking about the person, rehearsing what to do and say when you do meet the other person again.

Side Effects:

  • Neglecting health and exercise;
  • Neglecting social life, friends and family.

"You are experiencing a state of limerence when romantic intensity and infatuation rule your every waking moment. Your heart races when you are around them and you physically yearn for them when you are apart," said Melanie Schilling, psychologist and founder of TheDATEready Project.

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A person experiencing limerence can spend up to 95 percent of their time thinking about the object of their affection.

What Is The Difference Between Love Addiction And Limerence?

The basic difference between love addiction and limerence is that while love addiction leads people towards wanting to replicate the feeling of falling in love again and again, limerence is focused on feelings for a specific individual.

With limerence, the focus is on a particular person. Love addiction is a strong need to be wrapped up in a feeling.

"Love addiction is about repeating the limerence stage with partner after partner, chasing the high and repeating the same pattern without ever progressing to a deeper, more meaningful stage of a relationship," Schilling explained.

"In other words, with limerence, the focus is on a particular person. Love addiction is a strong need to be wrapped up in a feeling," Wakin agreed.

There is also no solid evidence that people with OCD or substance addiction will be more likely to experience limerence. Wakin explained that they already have their own issues to contend with. Those with substance addictions are focused on substances and those with OCD contending with obsessions and compulsions independent of limerent feelings.

What Are The Causes Of Limerence? And Can It Be Cured?

Unfortunately, at this stage the causes of limerence aren't fully understood. However, Wakin and his colleagues are looking to get funding for brain imaging research on people who experience limerence in the hope of getting closer to having limerence included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (DSM), or at least more widely known and understood.

"We know already that if you do a brain imaging research, the brain lights up in a particular pattern for OCD, the brain lights up in another pattern for addictive people," Wakin said.

"We feel that limerence is going to be a unique pattern that might help to establish it as something unlike everything that has been diagnosed already."

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Professor Wakin is hoping to get funding for brain imaging research that will help better understand limerence.

Although there is little hard evidence, Wakin explained there are also two theories on what could be behind certain people experiencing limerence.

Chemistry

"We believe that there is a particular chemistry or something that happens between the two individuals. That the person possesses some quality, some chemistry that would get an otherwise 'normal' person experiencing 'normal love feelings' to fall into a limerent relationship."

Unresolved Feelings

"Some individuals without realising have unresolved needs and they could go on unresolved all their lives and they may have good relationships until they meet the individual that triggers those unresolved feelings."

Because so little is known about the condition treatments for it are limited, but Wakin explained there is some hope if you are struggling with limerence.

"So far the only treatment program that I have heard of that has worked for some people has been cognitive behavioural therapy," Wakin said.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy where a psychologist helps manage unhelpful thinking patterns.

If you're concerned about feelings you're experiencing, or feel like you may benefit from CBT, the best course of action is to speak to your doctor.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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