Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Infatuation is the chemical phase of love. Sometimes it is called passionate love, as opposed to companionate love (Hatfield & Walster, 1978). Other names for it are romantic love, obsessive love, lovesickness, and limerence.
This unique state is unfamiliar to some (see below) but when it happens to people, it is unmistakable. Sometimes it follows a long friendship, sometimes it happens at first sight. It is distinct from both friendship and long-term love.
Love at first sight is the most dramatic example of infatuation. Occasionally it results in marriage.
My students turned in essays about their parents who fell in love at first sight. The following is typical of such stories, which have an embellished quality, as if they have been retold many times and perhaps exaggerated in the process.
What is a typical quality of stories about love at first sight?
My father plays basketball a lot. One day when he was playing, my mother walked by on her way to work. My father had never seen her before.
Well, he took one look at her and said to all his friends, "See that girl over there? I am going to marry her." Of course all of his friends thought he was kidding and crazy.
He was very serious. That night after basketball he went home and called his parents who lived in California and told them that he was engaged. He still did not know her.
They became good friends, but my mother only thought of my father as a friend. She was engaged to someone else.
Finally my mother and father's friendship turned into love and they got married. Five kids later they're still in love. [Author's files]
Love at first sight sometimes leads to durable relationships. But it is easy to get a misleading impression about the proportion of successful love at first sight romances. Typically, only the successful outcomes are reported.
When famous people are involved, failures are more conspicuous. Erica Jong (author of the novel Fear of Flying) told how she fell in love with her husband the first time they met on the steps of the Beverly Hills Hilton. They later divorced. She said she was looking for more of a friend the next time. (She ended up staying with husband #4.)
People sometimes act as though they think intensity of love predicts durability. That is not the case.
Research suggests that intensity of feeling is negatively correlated with long-term success of a relationship. One group of researchers administered a "love scale" measuring degree of passion to college couples. They found "the subjects with the very highest scores at the outset were the ones whose relationships tended not to last" (Pam, Plutchik and Conte, 1975).
What did research by Pam and colleagues reveal?
Love at first sight is based on a distinct chemical reaction within people. DeCourcy Hinds interviewed researchers who explained this immediate, intense attraction as a biological phenomenon similar to a self-induced drug high. DeCourcy Hinds wrote:
Love is a chemical reaction, according to Drs. Michael Liebowitz and Donald Klein, who are studying the chemistry of love at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Love feelings, they say, are similar to amphetamine highs, because the loving brain produces its own intoxicating substance
What do Liebowitz and Klein say about the chemistry of love?
Are phenylethylamines "love chemicals"? Not necessarily. They are also elevated in people with chronic paranoid schizophrenia (Potkin and colleagues, 1979).
However, Odendaal and Lehmann (2000) did report that phenylethylamine levels increased after 5-24 minutes of pleasant interactions between humans and dogs, and they were elevated in both the humans and the dogs. So maybe there is something to it.
There is little reason to doubt that love in its early phase is a distinct biological reaction. Few responses are more directly related to reproduction and hence likely to be programmed into our biology. Dr. Liebowitz summarized his theory in simple language:
What is involved in romantic attraction is that, in response to an interaction with another person, certain brain centers go bonkers. (Collins, 1983)
The brain centers Dr. Liebowitz was talking about are dopaminergic portions of the limbic system. They are involved in the phenomena of pleasure and pain, sex and aggression, reinforcement, and addiction.
When activated strongly, the result is euphoria, loss of hunger, abundant energy, and a tendency to see the world through rose-colored glasses. The reward, motivation, and emotion systems of the brain are strongly activated by intense romantic love. (Aron et al., 2005)
Not just newly infatuated couples light up those reward areas. Acevedo, Aron, Fisher and Brown (2012) scanned the brains of people married an average of 21.4 years while they viewed facial images of their loved ones. The same areas of the brain lighted up as seen in early-stage romantic love studies.
One psychologist, Dorothy Tennov, made a specialty out of studying infatuation, which she called limerence. Limerence is the initial, exciting phase of love when chemistry is dominant. It can be mutual or one-way (unrequited), and sometimes it thrives on hopelessness.
What is limerence? What are components of the limerence syndrome?
Tennov lists 12 basic components of limerence. The abbreviation LO refers to the Limerence Object, the person loved.
1. Intrusive thinking (can't stop thinking about LO)
2. Acute longing for reciprocation (wanting LO to love back)
3. Dependency of mood on LO's actions or interpretation of LO's actions (e.g. interpreting actions as indicating reciprocated love)
4. Inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (e.g. being turned off to boyfriend or girlfriend while having a crush on somebody else)
5. Fleeting relief through vivid imagination (e.g. feeling momentarily better by imagining a scenario in which the LO becomes available)
6. Feelings of shyness and fear of rejection when around the LO
7. Intensification of limerent feelings by adversity ("impossible" love)
8. An "extraordinary ability" to interpret neutral behaviors as signs of hidden passion in the LO
9. An aching of the "heart" (central region of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
10. Buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when hopes are high
11. A general intensity of feeling for the LO which leaves other concerns in the background
12. A tendency to emphasize the positive and downplay the negative characteristics of the LO (Adapted from Tennov, 1979, pp. 23-24)
Not all these characteristics are found in each case of limerence. For example, some people never experience an "aching of the heart."
However, the syndrome as a whole is distinct and recognizable. Previous authors called similar symptoms love sickness. Tennov blames it on an overactive limbic system, which is about the same as Dr. Liebowitz saying "certain brain centers go bonkers."
The only way limerence can be turned off, says Tennov, is by totally removing any hope of an actual relationship. Statements from the LO intended to be a gentle let-down, like "We can still be friends," are not effective in ending limerence, because they permit hope. Only an absolutely final statement ("I don't love you" or "I love someone else") ends all hope and may also end the limerence.
What is the only way to discourage limerence, according to Tennov?
Time can also be a cure for limerence. Strong attractions can occur between normal people who are already committed to a faithful, long-term relationship. If not acted upon, such attractions tend to mellow into a friendship with perhaps some extra sparkle, but not approaching the strength or obsessive quality of limerence.
What tends to happen if strong attractions are not acted upon?
In collecting her interview data on limerence, Tennov encountered people who had limerence feeling only for members of the same sex. Homolimerence, as Tennov called it, is (in other characteristics) just like the heterosexual variety. It may persist in the absence of an actual relationship.
Tennov expressed the opinion that such limerence feelings could not easily be redirected toward the opposite sex. She referred to gender orientation as the most "immutable" (unchangeable) quality of limerence.
Tennov did not do research on this, however; she collected informal observational data. In view of Diamond's (2003) finding that a quarter of young lesbians changed their sexual orientation over a period of five years, Tennov's assertion might be true only of a subset of individuals.
Is Romantic Love Necessary?
Not everybody is familiar with limerence. Tennov found that some people at her lectures were bewildered. They did not recognize her description of limerence and said they had never experienced any such thing. Tennov called these people nonlimerents.
Nonlimerents said they never felt crushes or passionate episodes of falling in love. The very idea sounded alien and a little crazy.
However, some told Tennov that her description of limerence helped them understand the attitudes of others. Previously the strong attention paid to romantic love in popular culture seemed like a conspiracy to make something out of nothing.
What did Tennov discover, when lecturing about limerence?
Tennov claimed to find two categories of nonlimerents (people who never experienced the "falling in love" syndrome).
1. Some nonlimerent people had a low ability to experience joy, ecstasy, or intense pleasure of any kind. That resembles the disorder called anhedonia which is an inability to experience pleasure.
2. Some nonlimerents were anything but pleasureless. They were guiltless hedonists (pleasure seekers) who were sexually liberated and could not relate to the idea of focusing love on one person. They regarded limerence as rather silly, even psychologically unhealthy, promoting overdependence.
Tennov suggested that people who advocated guilt-free sex with many partners are generally nonlimerents who do not feel emotional attachment to a single person. The same thing that makes many partners possible (lack of attachment) also makes limerence unfamiliar to these individuals.
What were two very different types of nonlimerent persons, according to Tennov?
There are indeed experts who find the whole idea of romantic love silly and unrealistic. Goode (1959), for example, wrote of the Romantic Love Complex that (he said) distorted American thinking on the topics of love and marriage.
Goode defined the Romantic Love Complex as "an ideological prescription that falling in love is a highly desirable basis of courtship and marriage." To Goode, this was a questionable prescription. He pointed out that many cultures around the world do not find romantic love necessary or even desirable as a precursor to marriage.
What did Goode call the "Romantic Love Complex"?
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell seemed to regard the ideal of romantic love as distinctively Western, although praiseworthy. He traced the ideal of an emotional and committed partnership to notions of courtly love such as those found in the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Is romantic love found in all human cultures?
Perhaps there are particular ways of defining romantic love which make it seem like an invention of Western Culture. However, the desire for love is not a Western invention. Buss (1994) summarized cross-cultural research this way:
Feelings of love are not recent products of particular Western views. Romantic love is universal. Love thoughts, emotions, and actions are experienced by people in all known cultures, from the Zulu tribe in the southern tip of Africa to the Eskimos in the cold northern ice caps of Alaska.
In the International Mate Selection Project [research on the Darwinian concept of evolution through mate selection] we found that "mutual attraction or love" was more desired than any other characteristic we examined. (p.18)
Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012) Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN), 7, 145-159. doi:10.1093/
Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Haifang, L., & Brown, L. L. (2005) Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94, 327-337.
Buss, D. M. (1994, Spring). Mysteries of human mating. LSAmagazine, 11-19.
Collins, G (1983, February 14)). Chemical connections: Pathways of love. New York Times, p.15.
Diamond, L. (2003) Was it a phase? Young women's relinquishment of lesbian/bisexual identities over a 5-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 352-364.
Goode, W. J. (1959) The theoretical importance of love. American Sociological Review, 24, 38-47.
Hatfield, E. & Walster, G. W. (1978). A new look at love. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Hinds, M. D. (1981, February 14). They fell in love at first sight. New York Times, p.18.
Odendaal, J. S. J & Lehmann, S. M. C. (2000) The role of phenylethylamine during positive human-dog interaction. Acta Veterinaria Brno, 69, 183-188.
Pam, A., Plutchik, R., & Conte, H. R. (1975). Love: A psychometric approach. Psychological Reports, 37, 83-88.
Potkin, S. G., Karoum, F., Chuang, L. W., Cannon-Spoor, H. E., Phillips, I., & Wyatt, R.J. (1979). Phenylethylamine in Paranoid Chronic Schizophrenia. Science, 206, 470-471.
Tennov, D. (1979) Love and Limerence. New York: Stein and Day.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.