It's messy. It's passionate. And the first time usually hurts the most. Studying this four-letter word is perhaps the most daunting of tasks for psychologists. I am, of course, referring to the all-consuming, universal, experience of L-O-V-E. Robert Sternberg, the leading theorist on all things amorous, has added years to our lives, saving us from reruns of 90210 (Team Dylan) and rereads of Sweet Valley High, by uncovering the mechanisms that make our hearts tick. Sternberg took the plunge into the elusive and complex nature of this topic and presents us with the triangular theory of love (Get out your protractor!). This three-prong theory maintains that there are three components of love, which form a triangle and that these elements are the building blocks for the various types of love that we endure.
The first side of the triangle is intimacy, which includes feelings of communication, support, and friendship that characterize warm, loving relationships. The next is passion, which takes the form of physical feelings of desire– essentially the heat and intensity typical of the beginning stages of a relationship. The final component, commitment, completes the triangle and is marked by the decision to remain devoted to one's partner and to work through any problems that may arise; this constituent of the triangle is what allows a relationship to sustain itself even during fluctuations of passion and intimacy. Of course, no experience is the same for any pair of individuals, so we say that that the triangle comes in various shapes and sizes with each of the three components varying in intensity during stages of a relationship. Psychologists have characterized all kinds of different experiences– from "empty love," when a couple is high in commitment, but lacks any intimacy and passion, to "infatuation," when the passion is pumping but in the absence of any intimacy or commitment.
Although these are simplistic notions of love, Sternberg concedes that love is a multifaceted experience and usually the three sides of the triangle work in tandem to form more complex experiences. Typically a couple that experiences high intimacy and passion is on the road to "romantic love." If this stage of love feels like a high to you, that's because it is. This honeymoon stage of a relationship is marked by feelings of intense euphoria and the release of our reward-activation neurotransmitters, like dopamine. If you have ever found yourself in a trance-like state whereby your person of interest is the only thing on your mind and you engage in 20-minute conversations with friends, but haven't heard a word they've said, there is scientific evidence to support that you are (insane?) experiencing a normal stage of love.
This passionate stage of a relationship is the one in which Western societies place a huge emphasis, so much so, that people refuse to marry without it. In fact, in Western societies some only marry with this ONE component present (Sorry Khole and Lamar, I do love your pistachio commercial though). However, coupled with commitment, it is the component of the triangle that, if we are lucky, lasts in some form. Usually after around six to twenty-four months though, the feelings of intense euphoria dissipate to a normal degree, which is actually beneficial for both your productivity and sanity.
Get to the point of all this you say! This brings me to my point (sometimes I need to be pushed), what if this euphoric, lovecrazy component lasted indefinitely? And what if this stage of love was unrequited? I came across an article presented in a popular magazine, which discussed Limerence, a condition that affects five percent of the population. To give you the cliff notes version, a woman recounts in first-person a previous relationship in which she dated a man happily for six months until he ended things. The woman describes feelings of intense grief during these days apart and after eight months sent him an e-mail only to learn that he was engaged to another woman. This news generated feelings of sickness in the form of dry-heaving, chest pains, heart palpitations, insomnia, lethargy, and an inability to consume food. Upon experiencing these symptoms she was informed by a therapist that she fit the profile for Limerence, which Albert Wakin, a leading expert on Limerence and Professor of Psychology at Sacred Heart University, defines as an involuntary and incessant state of "compulsory longing for another person."
As aforementioned, although most feel intense euphoria and experience the release of dopamine, oxytocin, and elevated levels of testosterone and estrogen at the beginning of a relationship, these hormone levels eventually return to normal after six to twenty-four months. However, those who suffer from Limerence are permanently trapped in this stage of euphoria and their cognitions and behaviors become obsessive and compulsive. Although recovery research on this condition is relatively inchoate, individuals can undergo a combination of medication and therapy to combat symptoms of Limerence. Those who are impacted can enter treatment involving cognitive behavioral therapy as well as take antidepressants, which inhibits the part of the brain that is responsible for obsessive thoughts.
Although the medication and therapy are providing promising results, the leading experts on Limerence ascertain that usually individuals suffer Limerence for three to five years. However, in some cases Limerence can last for decades. Albert Wakin even states that one patient who suffers from Limerence has had the condition for nearly 60 years. Although not recognized yet in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV), some researchers hope that the condition will be added for the forthcoming manual due in 2013.
After reading this article I immediately formed a litany of questions regarding this diagnosis. I reached out to Professor Wakin and he was kind enough to respond to some of my questions. Professor Wakin ascertains that Limerence can happen to anyone- this includes all age groups, both genders, and those from various socioeconomic levels. He also mentioned that the woman referenced in the popular women's magazine is doing quite well and that one of the most effective approaches to eradicating Limerence is to completely disconnect from the ex-paramour.
However, the condition of Limerence is ripe with room for dialogue. First and foremost, is this an actual condition or are we merely giving people an excuse for letting their thoughts go into overdrive? Secondly, since some antidepressant medications have shown to work in inhibiting the obsessive thoughts, is Limerence actually an extension or unique sub-type of depression? Can disconnecting from the person of interest really eliminate these maladaptive symptoms?
It is also possible that this condition is an exacerbation of an anxious style of attachment (in-depth attachment post to come). Lastly, although it is possible to impact both genders, I imagine that there is a large disparity between men and women. According to Professor Wakin, brain-imaging research as well as screening devices are currently underway to further delineate our understanding of Limerence. Professor Wakin also states that this condition is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted (one dictionary even describes Limerence as emotionally exciting-I think the aforementioned woman would beg to differ) and that further empirical research is in progress to yield a more comprehensive understanding of this condition. He notes that there are several parallels between Limerence and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as Substance Dependence and future research should illuminate these similarities. Furthermore, it is imperative that individuals do not equate "infatuation" with "Limerence" as the two are distinct experiences and although euphoria may play a role in both, it is Limerence that leads to deleterious consequences, whereas more pleasant emotions are derived from "infatuation."
Whether one is experiencing the beginning stages of L-o-v-e or walking along the more perilous tightrope of Limerence, both experiences deserve future attention and research. To reference another distinguished expert on the power of love, Celine Dion, if you find yourself sitting in your parked car in the pouring rain all by yourself during nights when the wind was so cold, wondering if someone is your strength when you are weak, have no fear---your heart will go on...unless of course you begin to experience heart palpitations and dry-heaving, then it may be time to investigate exactly which L-word you are suffering from.
Miller, R. S. & Perlman, D. (2009). Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
O' Shea, S. (2011, August). Lovesick? You Might Have a Legit Illness. Marie Claire, 18(8) 188.
Wakin, A., & Vo, B., Duyen (2011). Love-Variant: The Wakin-Vo I.D.R. Model of Limerence. Retrieved September 23, 2011.