What Looks Like a Crush but Feels Like Obsession? Limerence.

Dorothy Tennov on Love and Limerence

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What Looks Like a Crush but Feels Like Obsession? Limerence.

The experimental psychologist Dorothy Tennov writes in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love of the moment she began to take an interest in the systematic study of romantic love.

“You think:

I want you.

I want you forever, now, yesterday, and always.

Above all, I want you to want me.

No matter where I am or what I am doing, I am not safe from your spell. At any moment, the image of your face smiling at me, of your voice telling me you care, or of your hand in mine, may suddenly fill my consciousness rudely pushing out all else.”

Dorothy Tennov (Love and Limerence)

It was a fall afternoon in the mid-1960s when Dr. Tennov walked into her office from class to discover her student Marilyn Weber waiting for her. Ms. Weber was particularly impressive and bright, but that day, her posture was sloped, and her eyes were time-stamped red, marking hours of crying.

She’d come to apologize for having failed to hand in an assignment and vowed to get it done within a week.

Without detailing her distress, Ms. Weber said she couldn’t pull herself together, that she wasn’t sure why she was behaving the way she was, but wondered aloud whether life was just too hard for her.

Dr. Tennov flashed to a conversation about romantic love she’d had with two graduate students, a few weeks earlier. Both students described the pain of past breakups, and how it rendered them utterly useless.

The emotions they expressed were ones Dr. Tennov had herself experienced, and she wondered if there was a universally shared progression to the stages of romantic love.

As Ms. Weber headed out of the door, Dr. Tennov couldn’t help but ask whether her distress had “anything to do with a disappointment with love?”

Indeed, it had.

Dr. Tennov was curious about this distress caused by love that Ms. Weber was experiencing—indeed, her students had been describing something similar. She turned to her textbooks, journals, psychology papers, and other writing on romantic love, but she found nothing about the agonizing pain of loving another.

What was this state called?

The question gripped her until she decided to simply conduct the research herself.

Guided by the notion that this particular love-distress was not a pathological state, nor an aspect of neurotic personality (based on the psychological states of students who were known to her), she concluded that the pain from love must be a normal condition, a universal experience.

Her research required her to seek the answers to the following questions:

  1. What caused people to fall in love?

  2. Were some people more likely than others to fall in love?

  3. Could those who were unhappy in love be helped?

From there she would record the incidence of unhappy love, and look for commonalities that induced love-distress.

She created a questionnaire comprising 200 true or false statements about romantic love, sex, and personal relationships. She solicited volunteers through ads, on bulletin boards, in newsletters, and in person. She interviewed over 500 people.

Yet, it was during a conversation about unrequited love that she realized she was closing in on the answer. Those who did not reciprocate love, who didn’t feel the same intensity of feeling, who weren’t gripped by agonizing ruminations about another were the ones who helped her crystallize the state she was seeking to name.

The term “love” wasn’t quite right. Love doesn’t stay propped in such a heightened state as reported by those trapped inside unrequited longing.

Being in love also didn’t suffice, as the condition described included feelings one had to sometimes endure.

The state being described repeatedly was of an unrequited and agonizing longing for another, a yearning that seeks reciprocity above all else.

This is the state that Tennov coined “Limerence.”

Ivana Helsinki "Lonelytiger" postcard collection, 2009


In her book Love and Limerence, Tennov expressed the difficulty of conveying the specific craving a limerent has for their limerent object (LO) for full emotional enmeshment with another human being

“Obsessed comes closer, but leaves out the aching,” Tennov writes.

This all-consuming state affects a staggering 5% of the population, with indications that there’s a genetic component. There is also some scientific data to back up claims that limerence is a type of cognitive obsession—the state of experiencing “catastrophic misinterpretations of the significance of one's unwanted intrusive thoughts”—possibly caused by low serotonin levels in the brain.

To be in its thrall causes a wondrous euphoric high, but then leads a person to descend into the hot quicksand of despair, only to rise again into a halo of rabid, enthusiastic energy, strong enough to power a hundred suns.

Limerence, Tennov declared, is a mental activity, centered not only on the emotional sensations themselves but on the limerent’s interpretation of events.

For the limerent, the possibility of reciprocity is the driving force. Like drugs, it’s wildly easy to fall into its grip, and absurdly difficult to escape.

Original art for How to Live by Edwina White


When you’re around a person in the throes of limerence, you may notice that the praise they heap upon their LO sounds like a young person experiencing romantic love for the first time.

Their declarations of love for the object of their affection are over-the-top, from the moment limerence strikes, even if it happens a week after meeting. You might hear the limerent describing a person they’ve just met using declarative statements usually reserved for people one has known well, and for years.

“I have just met the most self-aware person I’ve ever known. They are so attuned, and so deeply in touch with their soul. I’ve never known anyone like them.” —limerence from a fictitious limerent

At first, it may sound sweet, but for a limerent person, these over-the-top pronouncements can often replace the healthy stages of falling in love, and when they fall head-over-limerence every few months or years for a new person, it should be a cause for concern.

A chronically limerent person is stuck in a damaging cycle that often doesn’t change, no matter how many years pass nor how old the limerent person is. Choosing to quit is as difficult as quitting actual drugs.

One can safely deduce from a person who struggles often with limerence that they have difficulty forming healthy relationships.

The act of desiring enmeshment with one person to the exclusion of all others is a clue that the limerent is seeking something that has nothing to do with the LO.

Vintage Cut Out Paper Dolls

The LO is simply the mirror reflecting the limerent’s difficulties, but the limerent is unable to see that their struggle is with themselves.

When limerence is in full force, it eclipses all other relationships. One of the main characteristics of its powers is the extreme emotional dependency a limerent has on the behavior of their LO.

The limerent will be driven mad by the uncertainty of an unreturned call or a monosyllabic text. Not knowing what this absence means will send a limerent into a tar-fired hell of cognitively distorted interpretations.

These wrongly decoded interpretations by the limerent, always foretell a future where their LO has tired of them or is leaving them. The limerent reacts to their loss narratives as though they are reality, which causes them to spin out, and become unglued for an hour, a day, a weekend, or longer.

The mental and physical toll this takes on a limerent is nothing short of frustrating and even heartbreaking. 

No matter how many times a limerent lives through these moments and has their mistaken interpretations proven false, they will cycle through this over and over. The limerent consistently traps themselves while wrongly concluding the LO is to blame.


There are so many negative aspects of limerence—for the limerent, for the LO, and for those who are in the limerent’s orbit, both in the short and long term. When a limerent does nothing to help themselves and finds themselves chronically limerent it takes a toll on everyone.

A majority of what drives limerence is the limerent’s conclusions about what the LO’s words and actions mean. The responses to the texts that don’t come, the hyperventilation when a full day passes without hearing from them, can be agonizing because of how the limerent reads into the LO’s silence.

Watching their LO posting on social media when they haven’t yet called or texted you back, can feel like an acid bath for the heart. And the silence to a limerent can only mean one thing: The LO is taking their love away from them.

Because for the limerent, everything is about them and what they’re losing. It is never about the LO and the ten reasonable explanations of why the LO isn’t responding to the limerent.


A person gripped by limerence is bound to develop a handful of toxic relationships because they demand attention and care from others for their catastrophic and constant agonies suffered by their insatiable cognitive obsession; they fail to reciprocate and be fully present for them.

A relationship built on limerence is unhealthy because it is fueled by symptoms of addiction, rather than on genuine feelings or actions of love.

The chemicals released in the brain when people enter limerent episodes mirror a drug addiction.

The limerent—exhausted from years of riding the euphoric highs of positive responses from their LO, to the wrenching lows—is unaware that they are chasing answers to their unhealed wounds and unmet needs. They are chasing after the wrong person.


Simply put: They can’t help it. Limerence isn’t a decision. It’s something that happens to you. It can feel impossible to extricate yourself from its grip, but once you become aware of your limerence, it is not impossible to be single-minded about healing.

Limerents who continue without helping themselves eventually hurt the ones around them.

For example, limerent parents can disrupt their children’s childhoods by being negligent to the point of rendering their kids invisible.

Making decisions under the influence of limerence can lead to catastrophic decisions that can destroy trust, friendships, or families.

They can ruin their marriages and their friendships. An active limerent can give only so much to people who are not their LO, and because they are stuck in an unhealthy pattern of relating, they aren’t emotionally available for a healthy symmetrical relationship.

Because many limerents pull others into their constant and ongoing dramas and crises. Often, the LO is all the limerent can talk about. If you pay attention, you might suddenly realize that you only hear from your limerent friend when they’re in a downward spiral, but when they get positive attention from their LO, you won’t hear from them until they are down again.


In addition to ignoring responsibilities, friends, and family, limerents try to sell themselves to their LOs.

This can manifest in a variety of ways—from dressing like the LO to listening to music they know the LO loves—adopting their interests.

They might lavish their LO with gifts and opportunities, hoping it will lead to reciprocation.

While this can appear like generosity, it is transactional, even if they’re not conscious of it. That undertow of obligation involves a sense of the limerent now “owning” the LO’s attention. This is a dangerous game that can lead to huge financial losses and being taken for granted—even exploited.


Childhood roots of adult limerence can often be found in children who have been abandoned by their primary caretakers and left in the care of others.

They might feel (rightly) like they are secondary to their primary caretakers’ attention, and this sense might drive them to subconsciously regain that thwarted attention from people later in life, drawn to the familiar resonance of the emotionally absent, mistaking the feelings that are stirred for safety, repair and a sense of completion.

Limerents are gripped by fears of rejection, and the driving psychological force appears to be filling the unmet need for unconditional love, which the limerent seeks out by creating an environment of love that feels conditional.

An important thing to remember is that people treasure people and things they consider high value. Sadly, this means that someone excessively moved by another, emulating them and constantly trying to sell themselves, buy their love, or prove their worth, is profoundly off-putting.

It’s an inauthentic way to connect, and the behavioral mode of constantly craving attention from the LO is disempowering, sending messages to the external world and yourself that you, the limerent, don’t think you’re worthy.

True, healthy, loving relationships involve caring about someone despite their flaws, and an LO can never live up to the limerent’s idealized version of them.


Being an LO is not a fortunate position to be in, especially if you are a non-limerent person, or do not feel mutually inclined toward the person who is fixated on you.

The limerent person never wonders whether the LO is good enough for them. Their focus is almost entirely on whether they are good enough to be accepted and chosen by their LO.

Ultimately, the relationship a limerent has with their LO is predicated on a power imbalance, one that serves only to disempower the limerent.

When one person is in exquisite pain from romantic longing, and the other person is not, it is impossible to grow as a balanced and healthy unit. A limerent is driven to please their LO, while an LO is not driven to please the limerent.

A healthy LO would address the dynamic, the asymmetry, and try to create distance and prevent the escalation of the limerent, for both their sakes. An unhealthy LO would revel in the intensity and the attention, worsening the limerence.

The non-limerent, if aware of the limerence, has a certain ethical obligation as a friend to understand the limerent state and learn how their actions as an LO might influence the limerent’s responses.

If you’re an LO, you can and should help diminish the pain as well as the suffocating attention of the limerent.


Ivana Helsinki "Lonelytiger" postcard collection, 2009

When you are the object of a limerent, you might feel love-bombed, bombarded by a level of attention that feels out of proportion with the relationship. They might buy you things, invite you to go places, struggle to accept your boundaries, unable to take no for an answer.

Limerents have their own love language. Some limerents show their interest and need for reciprocation by lavishing constant praise on their LO, being incredibly affectionate. Other limerents might simply want to spend all their time with their LO. Many pay careful attention and present their LO with things they’ve mentioned in passing they wished to have.

If they are in positions of power, they might try to help fulfill your dreams. Because if you’re happy, and they’ve made you happy, then you are connected.


If you are friends with a limerent and they always turn to you in the depths of their despair, stop being so available to them. When you are consistently there for them, you’re teaching them to over-rely on others and under-rely on themselves.

The more a limerent friend depends on you, the less you will be seen by this friend as an equal, and the more you’ll be used as a dispensable crutch.

Oftentimes, this is an unsustainable dynamic and the non-limerent friend might have no choice but to walk away.


When you are limerent, you have significant unmet psychological needs, deeply ingrained belief systems, and a self-concept that is not serving you.

To recover, you must learn how to meet your own psychological needs and, in a real sense, learn how to reprogram your subconscious mind. Face and address your unmet childhood needs, thinking patterns, and belief systems.

The truth is, that your limerent emotions are not more meaningful than anyone else’s, nor is your love for the LO more profound. The thoughts that accompany your limerent feelings are harmful delusions that are plaguing you.

One way to begin healing is to take note of the non-limerence your LO exhibits toward you.

Ivana Helsinki "Lonelytiger" postcard collection, 2009

Notice that you are not on their pedestal. Take stock of where you fall among their priorities. See if you can follow their pace for a day.

Then another day.

Allow yourself to mourn what you cannot have. Become distracted and busy by other things. Spend time elsewhere. Have less contact with your LO.

Seek professional help, look for limerent support groups.

Identify as many triggers that send you into limerence and slowly try to break or avoid them. You might have to stop listening to certain music or change up the routes you walk.

Read everything about limerence, addiction, love addiction, OCD, and relationships.

When you are limerent, you are an active addict, and like all active addicts, you remain at the age when you first started using. For example, if you are 52 in biological years, and you’ve been limerent since you were 21, you are emotionally 21.

Try to focus on the negative aspects of it, the toll it’s taking on your life, on your friendships, on the relationship you have with yourself, on the power of the highs, and the exquisite pain of the lows that feel like withdrawal.

Look at it with a more clinical flavor—if possible.


Love and Limerence by Dorothy Tennov


This podcast episode with relationship coach Jessica Higgins

And you? Were you familiar with limerence before this? Have you ever experienced it or known anyone who did?

Until next week I am…





Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the greatest hits of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.

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