This term was coined by a relatively obscure psychologist in the Seventies, and it has no obvious etymological roots. This inscrutability mirrors the nature of the concept itself: like a prime number, the idea can’t be clarified by dividing it into parts. Nor is there any synonym in English that parallels the word’s meaning. The closest would be obsessive crush, or unreasonable pining, or love so bad it hurts.
And yet, in our culture that elevates romantic love over all other kinds, limerence is an everyday byproduct of our need to find our own mates, rather than having them assigned to us by our families or other social limitations like caste, class, or proximity. We can pair ourselves with virtually anyone, and this unending possibility leads to unending disappointment as we project ourselves into the lives of inappropriate and uninterested potential partners, wondering why they can’t see how great we’d be together.
Using the famous Eskimos-have-fifty-two-words-for-snow logic, you would think English would have dozens of words meaning obsessive, unrequited love, love that makes people anguished, insane, irrational, love that distracts us from every meaningful thing in our lives, that makes us irresponsible, unreliable, unproductive, that makes our lives into a long visit to the oncologist’s office, hoping with all our being for good news, crushed but not surprised when the news is bad.
But aside from limerence, we don’t really have a word to describe this state of being, which might explain why the emotion itself is so difficult to remember or relate to until we are experiencing it ourselves. Every time I find myself in this condition, I am shocked by how physical it is, how immune to reason, how distraught I can be over somebody who I have absolutely no claim over.
Nor do we have simple words to describe all the other extreme psychological and physiological consequences of attraction: obsessive elation, a feeling that nothing else matters besides seeing the object of our affection, the diminished importance of everything we usually care about, horrifying loneliness when the person leaves town for two weeks, the certainty that we could never be enough for this person, wanting to kill the person, wanting to kill the person’s attractive friend/coworker/second cousin, wanting to kill ourselves, the lacklusterness of everything else once the person is gone, the forgetting of what the purpose of life was and how we got through our days before we met this person.
What we do have, however, are hundreds of thousands of songs alluding to this sort of love, songs that are as blank and inscrutable as the word limerence itself, except when we are experiencing love-related derangement, at which point the lyrics suddenly light up with flagrantly obvious meaningfulness. For example, crazy and baby are the most commonly rhymed words in pop songs, despite the fact that they don’t rhyme at all.
You drive me crazy, baby.Our stubborn insistence on forcing these two words together shows how acutely we feel love as a mental illness. And the consciousness-altering effects of love are evident in all the songs that link the words or concepts love and drug:
I go crazy for you baby.
Love is crazy, pretty baby.
Love is the drug for me.These songs all seem to describe the pleasant part of the love-trip, the drug “that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you” rather than the drug that makes me feel like my life is completely pointless without you. We have to focus on this aspect of love or we would come to our senses and go cold turkey, just as we go out drinking for the high, not for the hangover.
You are the perfect drug.
I want a new drug, one that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you.
Still, there’s a new love-drug song out right now,“Your Love is My Drug,” that describes the negative side-effects:
I’m looking down every alley.Songs like these show that we instinctively understand the connection between love and drugs, that love makes us completely out of our minds, that it’s a bunch of chemicals that make us feel this way.
I’m making those desperate calls.
I’m staying up all night hoping,
Banging my head against the walls.
We tend to minimize and dismiss this insanity, but we feel it, and we see its results every day: students dropping out of college over break-ups, people ruining their hard-earned careers by having affairs with their coworkers, politicians sneaking out of the country to be with their lovers when they are supposed to be governing, people walking in front of trains because they can’t imagine a life without the person who has rejected them.
These are serious drugs that have consequences as bad or worse than cocaine or heroin. But we can’t outlaw them or wage a war on them, because these drugs are in our own bodies, and we can’t get them out until we’re dead.