This post is a submission to the November 2021 Carnival of Aros hosted by me, at this blog, on the theme of “Limerence.” The call for submissions can be found here. I am responding to the prompt “Thinking about the past themes on the Carnival of Aros, can you relate any of them to the concept of limerence?” In this post, I am relating the concept of limerence to the February 2021 carnival hosted by menacingaro on the theme “Relationship Anarchy.”
Content Warning: This piece involves a discussion of incest, and references to pedophilia and abuse.
When I was suffering from the worst of my limerent heartbreak, I turned to reddit to vent. Venting about my internal feelings helped; reading about others’ similar experiences helped; but seeing some people’s narratives also hurt. I wrote about that in the post “It got better. I met someone amazing.” These kinds of stories are hurting me. #Rant
My main problem with these kinds of stories was this:
But why are these stories always suggesting that it will get better only if we meet somebody else who is truly amazing? What if I don’t meet that amazing new somebody? Am I doomed to be miserable for the rest of my life?
But I had another gripe with stories such as this. And that has to do with the role romantic relationships are supposed to play in our lives.
Why is finding someone else supposed to make everything so much better? Is my LO supposed to be a completely replaceable person in my life? And I need someone else to fill the void he left?
If my brother decided to cut all ties me with me (I love my brother dearly, but we have a contentious relationship), would people tell me, “Don’t worry, you’ll make a new friend who’ll be like a brother to you”??? No, if I lost my brother, no one could replace him or mean the same to me.
And to that, one commenter responded with
The fact that you compare your brother to your LO is an indication of a lack of perspective on what the difference is between those two relationships.
Many months later, that comment still bothers me. I’m still not sure exactly what it means. Here are some possibilities.
- Limerence is inherently bad. If you become limerent for someone, you should never think of that person as family, even if you are very close with that person. You should cut ties and work on ridding yourself of limerence.
- If you have a romantic relationship with someone, you should not think of them as family because that is a fundamentally different relationship.
- Having an incestuous relationship with your family members is bad.
Let’s discuss each in reverse order.
I have no idea if the commenter read incest into my comparison of my LO and my brother. Certainly, no incest was implied. But in a world that’s obsessed with sex, and a world that insists romantic relationships are about sex, if I compared (a male) someone for whom I had “romantic” feelings with my brother, I suppose there is a possibility they might misinterpret my relationship with my brother rather than my relationship with my LO. There are strict rules about these relationships. Thou Shalt Not Have Sexual Feelings For Thine Brother. Thou Shalt Have Sexual Feelings For Thine Husband.
Incest is a sensitive topic I don’t want to dive too deep into right now. But I will acknowledge that there is a logical reason behind why it is condemned: the offspring of incest could suffer from major health conditions, both physical and mental. But while incest refers to the act of engaging sexually with one’s family, even having sexual thoughts or impulses about one’s family is demonized. (A related concept was discussed by Blue Ice-Tea here regarding how pedophilia and child molestation are not the same thing – impulses and actions are not the same thing.)
While I can say confidently that I haven’t had sexual feelings for any of my family, at the same time, I haven’t had sexual feelings for most people (my LO being the sole exception). The thought of sexual relations with my family does disgust me, but the thought of sexual relations with most people also disgusts me. I suppose there is a difference between the two kinds of disgust, but I haven’t been able to characterize that difference just yet.
I am in no way advocating for incest. (I am also not passing opinions about what takes place between consenting adults.) What I am saying is that if the comparison of a potential romantic partner with one’s family invokes images of incest, then that indicates a very limited view of how people relate to each other. That being said, I don’t think this particular commenter was thinking of incest.
Romantic partners are not family
I am very confused by this second interpretation. To quote the commenter further, they say
No one can replace family relationships as they are formed through your childhood to adulthood. That doesn’t mean those relationships are good for your or that they should be maintained, but they are fundamentally different from how you relate to a LO.
Again when the commenter says “how you relate to a[n] LO,” I don’t know if they mean how you relate to a romantic partner in general or how you relate to someone you are limerent for. I will address that when I discuss the first interpretation.
But this comment would imply that only those relationships that are formed through childhood through adulthood are not replaceable. That’s categorically false. People don’t know their children from childhood through adulthood, but of course their children aren’t replaceable. (But then again, I’ve known my share of people who have told grieving parents, “It’s OK. You’ll have more children someday.”)
But I am confused by the assertion romantic partners should not be thought of as family. I don’t get it. Husbands and wives are legally family; and husbands and wives tend to be romantic partners. Are they not supposed to think of each other as family without that legal paperwork?
Family relationships are those that are “through … childhood to adulthood” so if someone gets together romantically with their childhood best friend, they should stop thinking of them as family? The first example that comes to mind is from the show Kim Possible. (Errrr… spoiler warning?) Kim thought of Ron as a brother for her whole life, but then things changed towards the end of high school. Now that they are together, did Kim’s feelings for Ron fundamentally change and she no longer thinks of him as family? And won’t until they have a legal certificate to do so?
What about those who grew up in a foster home and connected with their birth family as an adult? Can they not relate to their birth family as family because they did not grow up with them from childhood through adulthood?
What about “chosen family”? Sure, you can argue that we do not necessarily relate with our chosen family in the same way we do with our birth family. But do we necessarily relate with our chosen family differently than how we do with our birth family? Are there rules about how we’re supposed to relate to our chosen family vs. our birth families?
I wonder, if I had compared the loss of a childhood best friend who decided to cut ties to the loss of my brother who had decided to cut ties, would the commenter have said I have a lack of perspective regarding the difference between those relationships? So what makes a potential romantic partner so different?
Limerence is inherently bad
The problem with the word “limerence” is that everybody is not necessarily using it in the same way. Dorothy Tennov, the psychologist to originally coined the term defined it as an altered state of mind some experience as “being in love”. The symptoms are summarized by Dr. L in this article. I think most people will read this list of symptoms and not think there is something inherently bad or unhealthy about feelings these things. (If they do, they are probably “non-limerent”.) However, many people, particularly in the psychology field, have been thinking of limerence as a mental illness. Dr. L discusses this further in this article, and draws a comparison with anxiety: Sure, anxiety can become a disorder if someone becomes pathologically anxious, but every instance of experiencing anxiety isn’t a bad thing that needs to be treated.
Similarly, if limerence is causing distress or disruption to one’s life, it is of course a problem that needs to be treated; but if you become limerent for someone you just started dating, that doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed and you should say goodbye right now and cut ties. The limerence could even be helpful in developing that relationship.
Where Does Relationship Anarchy Come In?
That comment bothered me so much because that comment didn’t occur in isolation. That comment reflected a mentality I’ve encountered IRL, which is why I cannot openly discuss my heartbreak: when I do, I am presented with the idea that romantic partners or romantic interests ought to be viewed as replaceable. I don’t like this idea.
This sentiment has not always been true. At different points in history and in different cultures, marriage has been viewed as the only valid form of a romantic relationship or life partnership; and marriage has also been viewed as permanent. It’s only very recently, with the rising emphasis on the individual, that this sentiment of romantic partners being replaceable is becoming prevalent.
I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. I recognize that sometimes it is necessary to end relationships even if they are irreplaceable. An example of such a situation is abuse, but sometimes it becomes necessary even for reasons less extreme. Of course I wouldn’t want anyone to think their life is over if a relationship – any relationship, romantic or otherwise – doesn’t work out. But I resent being told that I should not grieve the loss a cherished relationship the same way as I would the loss of a relationship with a family member. This is true regardless of whether I had romantic aspirations of said cherished relationship or not.
I don’t like being dictated to about how I’m supposed to relate to people based on the “category” of relationship I’m supposed to shoehorn them into my life as. You must feel A about your parents, B about your siblings, C about your children, D about your friends, E about your romantic partners, and so on. I don’t like it when people impose such rigid rules about how you are supposed to feel.
I have often compared my feelings of a familial bond with LO with my feelings of a familial bond with my brother, and elsewhere, with my parents. But after some thought, I think, my feelings for my LO have been more similar to what I might potentially feel for my child. Parents can tend to lack objectivity about their children. To them, their children might be perfect no matter their flaws. The parents might not to blind to the flaws, but their children continue to be perfect despite those flaws. If I am fortunate enough to be a parent, I’d like to think I’d stand by my child(ren) and support them and be there for them and do emotional work for them no matter what. (Barring abuse, but I hope I’d raise them well so that wouldn’t be an issue.) Similarly, I was not blind to my LO’s faults, but in my eyes, he was perfect despite those flaws. And I was ready to stand by him and support him through life no matter what. (Barring abuse, but I wouldn’t anticipate that having been in issue in his case.)
In evolutionary psychology, there are studies on the process of maternal bonding and paternal bonding that lead to the development of such emotions among parents for their children. From an evolutionary standpoint, these feelings contribute to parents caring for and protecting their children, thus ensuring propagation of the species. Similarly, from an evolutionary standpoint, limerence is speculated to promote pair bonding between a mating pair, so that they stay together to work as a team to rear the young. Of course, limerence isn’t only about pair bonding, but it may have its evolutionary roots there, as Dr. L discusses further in this article and this article.
Personally, I do see my limerence for my LO as an altered state of mind in which I viewed him as perfect despite his flaws and was prepared to stick by him through thick and thin as family. I think parents can tend to have an altered state of mind about their children as well. That could be why parents tend to feel their children are more special than all other children in the world. (But we don’t usually tend to have this altered state of mind for other family members.) If my potential child, as an adult, decided to end their current relationship with me and says our relationship won’t be anything beyond “look me up if you’re in town”, I would be devastated. And that’s basically what happened with my LO. It was devastating.
If I can ever feel this way about anyone ever again, I want to be able to feel such things with pride and not have face shame from others because they have a narrow view of what relationships ought to be like and/or because they view romantic relationships of this nature as “unhealthy”. The point of relationship anarchy is that there should be no prescription for what any kind of relationship ought to look like. What I have described doesn’t even stray that far away from The Norm. But that doesn’t stop people from bringing out their prescriptive attitudes about what XYZ relationship should look like. That doesn’t stop people from shaming others when the way to relate to a particular relationship is even a little bit different from what Instagram and Tumblr are declaring what XYZ relationship ought to look like.
I have faced criticisms in how I relate to people other than my LO as well. Third parties have tried to set boundaries in relationships. “Don’t discuss such personal matters with your friends.” “Don’t be so emotionally vulnerable with your parents.” “Don’t discuss female health concerns with your father.” Each of those are their own can of worms that I won’t open right now, but I’m sure I’m not alone in facing such relationship policing by third parties.
I want to be free to relate to all of my relationships, limerent or otherwise, in the way I am most comfortable, and in the way the other person in the relationship is most comfortable; and I don’t want to have to deal with anyone passing opinions on how that relationship should or should not look like.