Emotional / Limerence affairs

When dealing with emotional affairs, without fail when we are working with the betrayed and or the betrayer in our affair recovery practice, when we mention limerence and  its symptoms, there is invariably a light bulb moment. The erratic and bizarre behaviour of the betrayer suddenly makes sense to the betrayed. The betrayer themselves may or may not depending upon what phase of limerence they are in, also realise they have been caught up in feelings and behaviours that has many parallels to an addiction.

So what is limerence? 

The original definition of limerence, a term coined by Dorothy Tenov, a psychologist in the 1970’s is an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated. It is characterised by:

  • Intrusive and obsessive thinking about the object of infatuation – referred to as the Limerent Object (LO)
  • Replaying and rehearsal of interactions with the LO
  • Anxiety and self-consciousness around the LO
  • Emotional dependence on the LO
  • Impaired functioning around the LO

Reading this list, many will recognise the early stages of the infatuated addictive energy of love (or perhaps what would be better called lust) that we feel in early relationships – so called New Relationship Energy (NRE).   When there are no barriers for the relationship to be consummated and with time and reciprocation, this may transform into a more secure and enduring love. 

Where the progression of a romantic relationship is hindered often by marriage or other long term relationship enduring limerence often ensues. Why do emotional / limerence affairs develop? For a fire to develop it takes 3 essential ingredients: fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. Our belief is that affairs follow a similar pattern. The fuel is the betrayer’s past history that is played out, unconsciously in the current relationship, the oxygen is the past history that is played out, again unconsciously by the partner and the ignition source is the affair partner. Let’s look at these elements and how they play out.  In some ways our brains can be compared to computers.

When born, we have a blank hard drive that has a basic operating system ready to download aps and programmes. This core operating system is determined to some extent by our genes and also the conditions we experience whilst in our mother’s womb. The first few years of life are where we are absorbing more information than we will at any other time in our lives. And part of the challenge is whilst we are sensing so many new experiences, we have yet to develop a vocabulary to make sense of things. 

If we grow up in a family with a mother and other significant others that makes us feel safe by being calm and loving, consistent, nurturing, gentle and encouraging, we learn to trust. We appreciate that its healthy to communicate how we are feeling and how to ask for our needs to be met. We take these experiences into all our other relationships, with friends, family, work colleagues and most significantly our romantic relationships.  This is what we call secure attachment style.

When we don’t get these needs met in early life, and sadly too few of us do, then we are left too clingy, too needy, too controlling, too avoidant or one of many other maladapted ways of coping with a fear of intimacy and rejection in our relationships. These may exhibit as what we call anxious or avoidant attachment styles. In many long terms relationships, couples drift apart with the passage of time. 

Boredom, routine, the stress of raising children, interfering parents and siblings, work and financial pressures plus a multitude of other life stressors add to the mix. We each retreat into our shells building up more and more resentments. This is where sex then often becomes a battleground, where often the woman who feels the emotional disconnect, feels little desire to be physically intimate with her partner.  These resentments build and don’t get discussed and worked through. Because so much of our behaviour is unconscious, we fear being rejected and being vulnerable, so these becomes major blocks to us communicating cleanly, concisely and clearly. With time, the oxygen and fuel start building up and the conditions for an affair become ripe.

This is what we call the perfect storm.  All it takes is an ignition source. And we often see the person that is the betrayer comes from a from a family where they experienced infidelity from a parent whilst growing up. It’s as if they are trying to heal the wounds of this parent’s own assignations, all at an unconscious level. The phases of limerence Like other addictions, we see limerence originating from early life psychological wounding. We use it to fill a hole in our soul.  We  describe  limerence as the mother of all distractions and when working with clients in limerence we are  curious to uncover what is it the person avoiding dealing with?  So often there is deep unresolved emotional pain. The client has protected themselves by covering their hearts over the years and decades with layers and layers of reinforced concrete.  This was a survival mechanism necessary from growing up in a dysfunctional and often narcissistic family system.  

However as adults, these behaviours no longer serve their need – but old patterns die hard. And then comes along comes limerence and its associated romantic heartbreak.  A window of opportunity for some much needed emotional growth is presented.  We are not sure why some of us become aware that limerence is not about the magical other and is all about us, whilst others jump from one failed marriage to another, taking themselves and all their own unresolved emotional baggage with them, playing out the same dramas.  As they say in 12 steps. wherever you go, there you are.

The reality is limerence never lasts – typically it spans from 6-36 months. Just long enough for us to pair-bond and continue the survival of the species. Recent advances in neuroimaging and neurochemistry are now mapping out these pathways for romantic love. We also feel limerence is a gateway to grief. It marks a transitional phase where we enter a liminal space. Whilst the initial grieving maybe for the ending of the affair or perhaps the failed marriage, it can open access to much needed grieving from so many other losses from our own childhood and other traumas and who knows, perhaps the loses of our generations that went before us. And this explains why so many opt for the easier path, choosing never to take responsibility for our own behaviours, continuing to blame others and continuing to behave at an emotional level as children and adolescents trapped in adult bodies.  Doing this growth work takes courage and determination. Its what we call the heavy lifting.

Advice for the Betrayer

Depending upon where we are at within the lifecycle of limerence will depend upon how receptive we are to appreciate that this condition is all about us, our early life attachment wounds and that there is no magical other that’s going to make us feel better about ourselves. Seeking other esteem is never the solution to building our own self esteem.  In the early phase which we mentioned lasts from 6-36 months, it’s hard to break through the defences.  Sadly, the neurochemicals really do distort one’s perceptions, they literally rewrite history, obliterating all the good that existed in the past relationship. The betrayer really believes they have met their soulmate. We don’t like this term and don’t believe in this myth.  

We prefer the term woundmate where unconscious early life wounds are what is being activated in the person that is in limerence. They see the LO as an Adonis, as someone that is perfect in every sense and the answer to all their problems. They feel seen and validated and understood at a deep level. Their LO just gets them. And they feel like they love their long-term partner but are no longer in love with them. Limerence plays cruel tricks on the mind.  They see their long-term partner as a barrier to having a life with their LO. Their unresolved anger issues are put onto their partner either by passive withdrawal or active attacking.

With time and with the diminishing of the neurochemicals, chinks begin to appear. It is here where an opportunity exists for the person to realise this is a relationship based on a fantasy. Perhaps the betrayer can start extracting themselves from the real or perceived relationship with the LO and to start doing their own self-development work. It may be possible in the very early stage of limerence where there has not been consummation of the relationship, that the addictive spiral can be broken.

This will require self-will and discipline to break all contact with the LO and to enter some form of talk therapy program to explore what led the person to develop limerence.  It is rare for us to see clients at this stage. All too often, this opportunity is missed and full blown emotional and or physical affair ensues. Then it’s a case of waiting until the person comes out of what we call the fog. Where they can start seeing more clearly as to the reality of their situation. And so the journey of self-discovery may begin.

For a detailed article on how to heal from limerence see http://loverelations.co.uk/healing-from-limerence/

How the betrayed behaves during this phase can make a significant difference as to the chances of the pre-existing relationship being rebuilt.

Advice for the Betrayed

The discovery of an affair is traumatic and will be accompanied by many overwhelming emotions – denial, rejection, betrayal, anger, rage, sadness, bargaining and many others. These are the classic symptoms we go through when confronted with a significant loss. It’s often described as the cycle of grief, a process first described by the physician Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Ironically, your partner will be going through their own grief as well. There is a natural temptation to act out these feelings onto the person that is betraying you. To vent your anger and rage onto your partner.

Unfortunately, this will have the effect of pushing your partner further away from you and just reinforces that you are the one that is controlling, needy, demanding or any other number of negative traits that your partner will latch onto. The person in limerence is confused and not acting with any real rational thought. They are being controlled by their emotions and are acting from a young impulsive part of themselves. There are several strategies that may help you and with time, perhaps help your partner to see you are a better option to rebuild a relationship with. This list may sound counter-intuitive. It’s based on solid research and has worked for the many people we have worked with in our affair recovery practice.

Become a non-judging, non-shaming place of unconditional love for your partner. Anything that drives a wedge between you and your partner will push them further away. As difficult as it may be, the more you can be there for your other half in a non-judging non-shaming way, the less they can use you as the excuse for things not working out.  We ask clients how would they react if they discovered their partner was addicted to cocaine or alcohol? Would they be more supportive, more compassionate? We appreciate this is difficult because of the lying and breaking of trust that goes hand in hand with limerence and all other addictions. 

Limerence is so much tougher to endure though because the addiction is to another person. The sense of betrayal is huge and engulfing. Addicts already feel significant shame and by you being judgemental to their behaviour makes them feel more shame. Shame is one of the most toxic and soul crushing of feelings and rarely helps a situation.   That does not mean there are not to be consequences for their behaviour and that is where strong healthy boundaries come into play.

Develop healthy boundaries

We all need to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Psychological defences are created in childhood to serve that purpose unconsciously, but they also lead us into unhealthy and unproductive behaviour. Boundaries are conscious and healthy ways to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Some of us have difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries, a difficulty that invariably stems from inadequate and often abusive parenting whilst a child.

This abuse can range from subtle emotional manipulation to severe sexual and physical abuse. We can’t enforce enough how important it is that boundaries with consequences that are enforced for violation are set up. If the consequences are not enacted, the boundary becomes an empty threat and loses its potency.  Each person has to decide how much they are willing to tolerate from their partner’s behaviour and where the boundary lies. Much has been written on boundary setting and the length of this article precludes going into further detail. If boundaries are hard for you to keep to, it may be worth getting some help to explore why you find this so difficult.

Work on yourself. 

People either move towards pleasure or away from pain. Being attracted to another is a pleasurable experience. Attraction is based around 4 key areas. Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual (PIES). If you work on yourself on all 4 of these areas to make yourself more attractive, you have a better chance of your partner being drawn back towards you. That said, we recommend you work on yourself for yourself, whatever happens to your relationship.

If your partner sees you as becoming more desirable, than that’s great. Its not a guarantee things will work out though. Likewise, if you become critical, negative, judging, clingy, aggressive, vengeful or display other less than desirable behaviours, your partner is more likely to move away from you and more towards their LO.

We would recommend you also look at yourself in a fierce and honest way to see what behaviours you may have shown in the relationship that were less than loving. Relationships always take two people and as we say, it takes two to tango. That doesn’t mean we condone anyone going off and embarking on an affair.

Be careful who you tell

Each person will have their own view and opinions based on their own history and experiences. Whilst advice may be given with good intention, its often misguided and unhealthy. Better you seek advice from a pro-marriage professional.

As we say what defines us as people is not what we feel, but how we act on our feelings. We are only humans and its not unnatural to develop strong feelings for other people whether we are in a committed relationship or not.  – it’s what we do with these feelings that matters. The stronger you make your marriage, the more you affair-proof it, the less likely these feeling will trip either of you up.


David qualified as a Medical Doctor (GMC number 2941565) in 1984 from St. Thomas’ hospital, London. He obtained his GP and family planning certification. In 1999 he left medicine to set up docleaf, a leading Crisis Management and Trauma Psychology Consultancy. He has experience as a hypnotherapist and holds a postgraduate diploma in psychotherapy and counselling from the Centre of Counselling and Psychotherapy Education in London and is currently studying for an advance diploma in executive coaching.

David spends part of his time as an executive coach and running docleaf leadership which works with CEO’s and other C suite leaders in helping them develop and grow.

David has written extensively about limerence, sex and love addiction as well as trauma and PTSD. His interest in romantic relationships led him to set up www.limerence.net, a support forum to help those impacted by this debilitating condition.

David is passionate about men’s work and his mission in life is to help people become more conscious by teaching and helping others and continuing his own self-development. He is actively involved in volunteering with the ManKind Project charity which helps men live their lives with more integrity, honesty and taking more personal responsibility.

Recommended Articles