When you love someone, what does that mean to you? When I previously wrote about this topic, I defined it this way:
I define love as the mental state by which another person’s happiness becomes linked to your own such that changes in their happiness cause corresponding changes in your happiness. I make no distinction between romantic love and any other type of love. A person can love a romantic partner, a family member, a dog, or all of humanity (though I wouldn’t recommend it). When you love someone, their happiness makes you happy. It’s in your self-interest to help them be happy in any way that you can.
Limerence (otherwise known as infatuation) is defined as “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation.” Limerence is inherently selfish, being all about what you want, regardless of what the object of your limerence wants.
It’s easy to see how love and limerence can come into conflict. Conflict is only avoidable if all parties experience the exact same amount of limerence. In that situation, all parties will obsess over each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle of euphoria. This is pretty much the textbook definition of New Relationship Energy. Ideally, all parties in a relationship start out at equal levels of love and limerence, then over time, love grows and limerence fades.
But what happens when parties experience substantially differing amounts of limerence? If this happens early on in a relationship, the less limerent party(-ies) can get creeped out, and in extreme cases, this sort of thing can lead to boundary pushing or even stalking. In less extreme circumstances, the situation can be handled by clear boundary-setting by the less limerent partner(s), and respecting of those boundaries by the more limerent partner(s).
This can also happen in more established relationships, where both parties love one another, but one experiences more limerence than the other. It can often lead to intense feelings on the part of the more limerent partner of jealousy, possessiveness, and desperation for a partner’s affections, time, or attention. The less limerent partner can often feel intense pressure to give reluctant attention, to hide their feelings, and act as though their feelings match their partner’s. The situation is also exacerbated by societal narratives that tell us that if something is “true love,” the intense limerent feelings should last forever, and if they fade, that means there is something wrong with us or our relationships.
The solution generally starts with developing an appreciation for Old Relationship Energy (ORE). While NRE is flashy and fun, ORE is safe, comfortable, and for a lot of people, more rewarding. Strong limerence is often accompanied by intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and feelings of despair. It can be intoxicating for a while, but if sustained, it can cause all sorts of problems. In healthy relationships, limerence will fade with time. This is a good thing. Learn to appreciate it.
Love as EmpowermentThe other way that I’ve found to managing mismatched limerence is to develop what I call empowering love. Empowering love is a way of loving another person such that we stop wanting to limit them, even if it means we don’t get what we want. Empowering love means that we want our loved one to pursue their happiness wherever it leads them, even if it leads them away from ourselves. Empowering love turns our limerence on its head, causing us to only value the enthusiastic attention of our partners. Empowering love is key component of consent culture, and is one of the driving forces behind relationship anarchy.
Empowering love changes the focus of our feelings. When we love someone in an empowering way, our love stops being about what we want, and it becomes about what our partners want. It’s also scary, because it requires an acknowledgment that our partners might leave us, and there is nothing we can do about that. But that’s always true, whether we want to believe it or not.
Empowering love is the opposite of possessiveness. Where possessive feelings encourage us to hold tight to our partners and nurture a sense of ownership, empowering love encourages us to free our partners and trust in their decisions. Better to lose an empowered partner than to keep a partner as a possession.
Love doesn’t have to mean limits. Love can mean empowerment.