You know that awful feeling when you have a really stupid crush on someone? The really embarrassing kind of crush, that you know is ridiculous and pointless, but that you can’t quite shake off? The kind that leaves you tongue-tied and giggly in the presence of the object of your affection, that has you staring out the window for hours dreaming up scenarios where they declare their undying love as you rescue them from a burning building/their current marriage/life without you? The kind of crush that creeps up unawares and unwanted, and drives you half crazy with frustration, hope and embarrassment? Well, I just learnt that you probably do know what I’m talking about, whoever you are reading this, because such crushes are far more common than we like to admit. And rather than being a neurosis or a sad sign of of inability to progress beyond teenager-hood, they are perfectly normal! As long as, that is, you are not one of the weird ‘non-limerant’s’ out there that have no idea what I’m talking about. Craziness, it seems, is the norm in love rather than the exception.

Recently I succumbed to something almost as embarrassing as a crush itself – namely, I brought a pop-psychology book called “Love and Limerence” by Dorothy Tennov. Full of the kind of stories that start with sentences like “Margit, a 36-year-old sportswriter, met Bert on March 6th, and by the next day her preoccupation percentage had gone up by 15 percent”, its has enough dodgy ethnocentrism and misplaced historical-archaeological reasoning to make me understand why anthropologists tend to bristle and spit at the mere mention of their arch-rivals, psychologists. But although I started reading it with great scepticism, I think I have been converted. Not least because it makes so much sense, and in making sense, makes many very embarrassing experiences in my own life seem a lot less crazy.

Tennov’s book sets out to understand a particular experience of that crazy little thing we call love. But in doing so, she defines something that she insists is different from love, or at least, what it is helpful to distinguish as a particular (if very common) form of love – that which she calls limerence. Limerence is essentially a very strong, involuntary feeling towards another person (the Limerent Object – LO), that results in constant intrusive thoughts about them (daydreaming); feelings of both elation and depression that are the result of how the limerent person perceives the LO to be disposed towards or against them; otherwise irrational action and reasoning in relation to the LO while other areas of the limerent’s life are entirely ’sane’; extreme nervousness and shyness around the LO and a fear of rejection that is both combined and confounded by a passionate desire for reciprocation. Tennov argues that limerence is different from other forms of love, such as strong affectionate love and companionship, while resisting casting judgement by implying that one is normal and the other not. in fact, her lack of condemnation of what appears to be an inherently embarrassing but entirely common issue is what makes her book so refreshing to read and closer to the ideal of observation without prescriptive judgements of ‘normality’ that anthropologists are more comfortable with.

Her study of 500 men and women found that limerence was felt equally strongly by both men and women, something that she discusses in detail in relation to cultural stereotypes of gender differences in terms of the ability or tendency to fall in love. While limerence can be understood loosely as what other people have called ‘romantic love’, she has quite a few chips on her shoulder about how psychologists have previously tried to describe limerence as a pathological or neurotic illness. Perhaps one of the most interesting (and reassuring!) parts of her book is that she does not discriminate between limerence that is reciprocated and that which is not. Given that she mostly interviewed only the limerent, rather than the LO, and that limerents very frequently find it incredibly difficult to communicate their limerence to the LO, she sought to understand limerence as a thing that is only partly dependent on anything the LO actually is or does. Limerence frequently is felt towards someone who has no idea that they are the object, who (objectively) have no impact on its origins or development. The limerent person spends hours and hours analysing each little last detail of the LO’s actions, trying to find proof or disproof of their feelings, but this is all in the mind of the limerent, and not necessarily based in the ‘real’ actions or feelings of the LO at all. More worryingly (for their peace of mind), the limerent maybe well aware of the ‘craziness’ of their projection, but they can’t stop themselves – no matter how they try and ’snap out of it’, limerence is the very opposite of rationality.

One of the defining features of limerence is that it requires a combination of hope and adversity. Confirming the oft-stated rule that one should play ‘hard to get’, or that we never want what is too easy to get, limerence requires just enough hope and groundedness in reality that it could theoretically be possible that the LO returns the limerent’s feelings, with the perception that there are obstacles to be overcome that inhibit the limerent from admitting their true feelings. For example, while sexual fantasies often thrive on entirely fantastical scenarios that would never have any possibility of coming true, limerent fantasises are based in the day-to-day world of the limerent and are only satisfying if they could – no matter how improbably – be realised. But ironically, limerence often declines once its goal is reached such that, for instance, a couple of limerents can go through cycles of either one or the other being more or less limerent in reaction to each other. The infuriating thing is the lack of logic though. The limerent tries to set themselves ‘tests’ – “if she looks at me today, that will mean she really does like me”, “if he doesn’t call me tonight I’ll know for sure he doesn’t care” – but each time they find a way to twist whatever the result is to mean that, in fact, the LO really is hiding their true feelings of equally longing.

While Tennov admits that she had no idea how one could cure oneself of limerence, she claims that it usually only ends when a) the limerent is finally given irrefutable evidence that the LO doesn’t care, b) when they cut off all contact and gradually over time limerence fades, c) when their limerence is transferred onto someone else. Even so, she gives 18 months – 3 years as an average amount of time for limerence to last! An interesting part of her study, though, is the discovery that there exist people who have never been limerent at all – the non-limerents. Of these people, some may just not yet have been limerent, but others will never experience it (and she seems to think that many of the psychologists she criticises, who tell their patients to just pull themselves together and be rational, are among this category). Non-limerents, apparently, have no idea what the rest of us go through. While they can care deeply for someone, enjoy being around them, and feel themselves to be in love, they have never experienced the overwhelming feelings of passion and out-of-control-ness associated with limerence. They can control their emotions, they don’t spend hours daydreaming, they are quite able to see both the bad sides as well as the good sides of their lover, without distortion. But more to the point, they have no idea what everyone is going on about when they talk about love. The non-limerents Tennov interviewed were confused and bemused by the endless pop-songs, novels, movies, operas, etc etc etc about love, by their friends endless tears and raptures, by the experience of being adored and worshipped as a LO themselves – to the point that some non-limerents think that its all a big conspiracy.

The book is a little dated (if was written in 1979), particularly in its treatment of homosexual limerence and love, and could do with a more thorough grounding in ethnographic and historical contextualisation before it makes sweeping statements about ‘human nature’. But otherwise I’m convinced, much to my own surprise. I just wish I could convince myself to get over my current LO quite as easily….