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Limerence and the Biochemical Roots of Love Addiction

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Popular culture has done us a great disservice in our understanding of romantic love. From a young age, we watch movies and read books that form the scripts of our adult relationships. But popular culture usually gets it wrong, often in the name of entertainment, and ends up confusing love with limerence.

What Is Limerence?

Limerence, a term coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, has been described as "an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person."

Much to the dismay of diehard romantics, research suggests that limerence is the result of biochemical processes in the brain. Responding to cues from the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland releases norepinephrine, dopamine, phenylethylamine (a natural amphetamine), estrogen and testosterone. This chemical cocktail produces the euphoria of new love and begins to normalize as the attachment hormones (vasopressin and oxytocin) kick in, typically six to 24 months into a relationship. In much the same way that changes in the brain cause drug addicts to feel an intense, all-consuming draw to get and use drugs, limerence can drive people to extremes in the pursuit of the object of their affection.

Some call limerence infatuation, lovesickness, or romantic love, while others relate it to love addiction. Some have humorously called it affection deficit disorder. Albert Wakin, an expert on limerence and a professor of psychology at Sacred Heart University, defines limerence as a combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction, a state of "compulsory longing for another person."He estimates that five percent of the population struggles with limerence.

Signs of Limerence

Although it can be difficult to objectively evaluate the signs of limerence when you're in this altered state, Tennov identified the following core characteristics:

• Idealization of the other person's characteristics (positive and negative)

• Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the other person

• Extreme shyness,stuttering, nervousness and confusion around the other person

• Fear of rejection and despair or thoughts of suicide if rejection occurs

• A sense of euphoria in response to real or perceived signs ofreciprocation

• Fantasizing about or searching obsessively for signs of reciprocation ("reading into things")

• Being reminded of the person in everything around you

• Replaying in your mind every encounter with the other person in great detail

• Maintaining romantic intensity through adversity

• Endlessly analyzing every word and gesture to determine their possible meaning

• Arranging your schedule to maximize possible encounters with the other person

• Experiencing physical symptoms such as trembling, flushing, weakness or heart palpitations around the other person

Love vs. Limerence

Early in a romantic relationship, it can be difficult to distinguish love from limerence. One begins to follow a calmer, more rewarding path that feels good to both partners, while the other intensifies and stops feeling good to one or both partners over time. Limerence is smothering and unsatisfying and cares little about the other person's well-being. Securing the other person's affection takes precedence over earning their respect, commitment, physical intimacy or even their love.

In healthy relationships, neither partner is limerent. They are in love, but they do not struggle with constant, unwanted thoughts about their partner. Rather than pursuing reciprocity, the couple bonds through mutual interests and enjoyment of each other's company.

In most relationships where limerence is an issue, one partner is limerent and the other is not, according to Tennov. These relationships are unstable and intense. If both partners are limerent, the relationship typically fizzles as quickly as it sizzled. Experts disagree about the likelihood of limerent relationships evolving into affectionate, long-term commitments. While some may grow into healthy, mutually gratifying relationships, others end in rejection and disappointment.

Limerence lasts longer than romantic love, but not usually as long as a healthy, committed partnerships. By Tennov's estimates, limerence can last a few weeks to several decades, with the average being 18 months to three years. The duration depends whether the individual's affections are requited. When requited, the feelings may persist over many years. When unrequited, the feelings typically dwindle away and eventually disappear, unless the object of their affection sends mixed signals or physical or emotional distance prolongs the intensity and uncertainty (e.g., one partner lives in a different state or is married).

When Love Becomes an Addiction

For reasons we don't yet fully understand, not everyone experiences limerence. People who do may experience it only once and then move onto a healthy relationship, or may fall into a lifelong pattern of obsessive relationships. Like drug addicts, some chase that lovesick feeling at the expense of their careers, families and health. Those who cannot let go of the intensity and euphoria of romantic love may be struggling with relationship, romance or love addiction. Behaviors may become dangerous, such as stalking or unwanted contact, and require outpatient or residential love addiction treatment, professional counseling and/or 12-step work.

There is still much to be learned, but scientists have taken on the science of limerence and set out to explore the effectiveness of a variety of medications and behavioral therapies. While some experts view limerence as a natural part of early love, others are evaluating its potential placement in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For now, the best course of action is to begin addressing unhealthy relationship patterns with a therapist.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that includes Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch outside Nashville, The Sexual Recovery Institute, and The Recovery Place.

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