It's messy. It's passionate. And the first time usually hurts the most. We're of course discussing the all-consuming and universal experience of love. 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's research presents us with the triangular theory of love (protractors not necessary), which affirms three key components as the foundation for the various types of love we endure throughout our lives.
The first side of this triangle is intimacy—feelings of communication, support, and friendship that characterize warm, loving relationships. The next is passion, which takes the shape of physical feelings of desire—essentially, the heat and intensity typical of the beginning stages of a relationship. And the third component, commitment, completes the triangle, marking the importance of working through relationship issues and actively deciding to remain devoted to one's partner. According to Sternberg, it’s commitment that allows a relationship to sustain itself during fluctuations of passion and intimacy. Of course, no experience is the same for all couples (or even for the individuals within a couple), so psychologists note that Sternberg’s triangle comes in countless 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 rich in commitment, but lacks any intimacy and passion) to "infatuation" (when the passion is pumping, but intimacy and commitment are in short supply).
Although these are simplistic notions of love, Sternberg concedes that love is a dynamic experience, and that each side of the triangle supports the others to form more complex experiences. Typically, a couple familiar with high intimacy and high passion is speeding down the road of "romantic love." (If this route feels like a high to you, that's because it is.) The honeymoon stage of a relationship is marked by feelings of intense euphoria and the release of reward-activation neurotransmitters, like dopamine. If you’ve ever found yourself in a trance-like state whereby your brain (and twenty-minute conversations with friends, during which you probably haven't heard a word they've said) is occupied by that sole person of interest, there is scientific evidence to support that you are insane—er, I mean, experiencing a normal stage of love.
This passionate stage of a relationship is the one on which Western societies place so great an emphasis—so much so, that people refuse to marry without it. In fact, some people marry with only this component in mind. (Sorry, Khloe and Lamar. I do love your pistachio commercial, though.) If we are lucky, this passion will last to some degree: Usually after six to twenty-four months, feelings of intense euphoria dissipate to a “normal” degree, which is actually beneficial for your productivity and your sanity.
But what if this love-crazy component lasted indefinitely? And what if it went unrequited? This actually occurs in five percent of the population, who suffer from a condition known as Limerence. Patients recount feelings of intense grief following a break-up, characterized by chest pains, heart palpitations, insomnia, lethargy, and an inability to consume food. Albert Wakin, a leading expert on Limerence and Professor of Psychology at Sacred Heart University, defines Limerence as an involuntary and incessant state of "compulsory longing for another person."
While many experience intense euphoria and 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) for most people. However, those who suffer from Limerence are permanently trapped in this stage of euphoria, their cognitions and behaviors turning obsessive and compulsive. Although recovery research on this condition is relatively inchoate, individuals can undergo a combination of medical treatment (usually antidepressants, which inhibit the part of the brain responsible for obsessive thoughts) and cognitive behavioral therapy to combat symptoms of Limerence.
While medication and therapy show promising results, leading experts on Limerence find that individuals typically suffer symptoms for three to five years. In some cases, Limerence can last for decades. Albert Wakin even encountered one patient who’s suffered it for nearly 60 years. Although not yet recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (4th edition, DSM-IV), some researchers hope the condition will be added for the forthcoming manual, due out in 2013.
In the meantime, though, I’ve reached out to Professor Wakin, who was generous enough to answer a few of my lingering questions. Limerence, Professor Wakin tells me, can happen to anyone—of any age group, gender, or socioeconomic status. And one of the most effective approaches for eradicating it, he recommends, is by completely disconnecting from the ex-paramour.
Still, the (official) verdict on how to categorize and treat Limerence is out. First and foremost, is this an actual condition or are we merely giving people an excuse for letting their thoughts go into overdrive? Second, since some antidepressant medications have shown to be effective in inhibiting obsessive thoughts, is Limerence actually an extension or unique sub-type of depression? Can disconnecting from the person of interest really eliminate maladaptive symptoms?
It’s also possible that this condition is an exacerbation of an anxious style of attachment. Although Limerence impacts both genders, I imagine there is a large disparity between its effects on men and women. According to Professor Wakin, brain-imaging research as well as that using screening devices is currently underway to elucidate our understanding of Limerence. Professor Wakin also states that this condition is still widely misunderstood and that further empirical research is necessary to yield a more comprehensive understanding of its nature. He notes that there are several parallels between Limerence and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as well as Substance Dependence, and that future research should illuminate these similarities. Furthermore, it’s imperative that individuals resist automatically equating 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 often derived from infatuation.
Whether one is experiencing the initial stages of L-o-v-e or walking along the more perilous tightrope of Limerence, both experiences deserve further 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, in which case it might 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.