NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. This is the first installment.
In her 1979 book Love and Limerence, psychologist Dorothy Tennov set out to give a formal account of “the experience of being in love” — not love itself, in the sense of a deep mutual bond, but “limerence,” the “condition of cognitive obsession” that marks a serious infatuation: the intrusive thoughts, the wild ups and downs triggered by your perception of their perception of you. I learned about “limerence” through a friend: I was mooning over someone, I can’t remember who, and she told me there was a term for what I’d always interpreted as a symptom of weakness. Since then I’ve passed that term along to several friends, who were just as relieved as I was. Tennov’s book includes “hundreds of pages of Studs Terkel-like first-person testimony about the intimate details of being under another person’s spell,” as Sarah Lev Beller put it in an essay for the Influence. It’s an anatomy of the hopeless crush, a syndrome “both extreme and banal,” which is shockingly uniform: For those of us prone to limerence, there are few surprises beyond the fact that some people never go through it at all. The fact of the book is enough. Part of the torment of infatuation is that it’s both all-consuming and totally frivolous; Tennov legitimized a state of seemingly illegitimate feeling.
“Limerence” legitimized a state of seemingly illegitimate feeling. It is a program running in the background of your days, arranging your impressions in the shape of your fixation
I was born limerent, and my relationship to limerence itself is ambivalent. Crushes map life over with meaning and joy, and I’d always choose heartbreak over boredom. They can also gain on me like a frightening, unpredictable force that lifts me out of my life and drops me back, months later, with a lot of mess to clean. They feel disruptive and wasteful — a misallocation of emotional energies, a source of outsize pain for stupid reasons — and, though it’s partly the point, they alienate me from myself: crushing involves adopting a set of hypothetical standards against which I’m necessarily lacking. Worse is the sense of inappropriateness, as if these attachments are in some way a violation, or degradation, of the person on whom I’m crushing: it’s like I’ve accidentally cloned them without their knowledge or consent. The most perverse thing about limerence is how impersonal it feels.
The limerent crush, or “limerent object” in Tennov’s terms, is a quick and deep way of reaching beyond yourself, especially when you feel atomized or disoriented — if you’ve found yourself shuffling through jobs, say, and living quarters and intimacies. Just living online can feel like living in a big city: you make an ephemeral acquaintance, or click a link into an entirely new set of priorities, suppositions, and patterns of logic, sometimes totally at odds with your own and yet just as convinced of itself. The issue is not just that context bleeds and collapses; it’s that every new window opens onto a different horizon of concern, each with wildly different stakes, but equally urgent. One adaptive response is deep, cyclical immersion — you can set your focus to firehose blast, so that whatever world you’re in now is the only one, for as long as you’re here. The limerent crush is a temporary organizing principle, an epistemic soap bubble, where a person coalesces a whole suite of judgments and impressions, values and aesthetics, a system as totalizing, and as doomed, as a dream.
Limerence is a program running in the background of your days and nights, arranging your impressions in the shape of your fixation. Strange faces resemble theirs; a license plate containing their initials serves cosmic confirmation of your destiny together. “Just as all roads lead to Rome,” Tennov writes, “when your limerence for someone has crystallized, all events, associations, stimuli, experience return your thoughts to LO [limerent object] with unnerving consistency.” Tennov cites Stendhal, who likened the experience of falling for someone to immersing a branch in a salt mine — months later it emerges “an object of shimmering beauty.” For me it feels more like something from body horror: Some interaction sets a transcription process in motion, and you incubate their double, which lives in your head thereafter, overseeing all your thoughts and actions.
In the throes of limerence, as with hypochondria, my attention is doomed to slip away from daily tasks into hours of litany and quantification: recounting the evidence for and against; calculating the odds; assembling and reassembling the narratives in which x is true and in which it isn’t. In either case, social media platforms and search engines both mimic the structure of an obsession and provide new compulsions for it: googling names, scrolling profiles and message boards, messaging friends who might be willing to review the evidence and deliver a temporary verdict. The internet has a way of literalizing obsession, beaming your crush into your private space, during your private moments, producing the vertigo of potential contact. It also realizes the fear of being found out: the LO knows you’ve watched their stories; all it takes is one slip of the finger to indicate you’ve been scrolling too deep.
The internet has a way of literalizing obsession, beaming your crush into your private moments, producing the vertigo of potential contact
The great irony in limerence, of course, is that in chasing the idea of someone else you only wrap yourself up in you. Obsession, as one of Tennov’s sources notes, is terribly selfish; even kindness toward the LO is a private pleasure, while kindness toward anyone else is tedium unless you imagine your LO’s approval. In an essay for the New Inquiry, Tiana Reid noted that “quitting smoking seems easier” than stopping a burgeoning crush; the evidence that you’re not a good match might be no less obvious, and no more compelling, than the evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. My orientation toward a hopeless crush is, if I’m being honest with myself, acquisitive: their qualities, their physicality, their world as I imagine it is all lit up for me, and I can’t stand the thought of my life without it.
“Crushes offer a singular power to make concessions to the scary idea that things change,” Reid writes, “and that’s what makes the unrequitedness worth the rush. In the end, all I want is the practice of crushing itself.” The sweet part of crushing is that careful, excited attention to someone else, before fondness is subject to need. This is how it feels at the beginning, or, sometimes, at the end, because full-blown limerence requires some hope of reciprocation. Half the time I crush, what I want — or what I want to want — is not possession, but instead a respectful and completely unilateral relationship to the idea of someone else. I want to be let alone to contemplate, and to leave alone — to respect the difference between my interest and the unknown, or unknowable person it correlates to.
This might sound like willful solipsism, but when I flip the perspective it almost feels right. Times when I’ve been a limerent object, I’ve wanted to be as little involved as possible, not only for reasons of decency (“limerence has only one answer,” Tennov writes: “Do what is necessary to eliminate any trace of hope”) but because it doesn’t seem like my business. It’s nice to know that the thought of me holds some significance to someone else. But I don’t, and can’t know exactly what that significance is; I don’t want to confuse it for something inherent in me, or for anyone else to be so confused. Rather than bringing two people together, a reciprocal crush can produce a certain kind of relationship, and maybe the one I like most, wherein you remain at a distance while giving each other something to think about.
The internet, while it can cocoon you in a fixation, can also help formalize distance. It legitimizes deep attention to others at a considerate remove, and allows for conversation at staggered timescales: you leave an impression of yourself, in text or image or audio, for anyone else to pick up at their leisure. Proximity in public can create a distance of its own. One of the things I love most about living in a city is the constant possibility of instant intimacy; I really don’t mind being interrupted from my book at the bar. Shared history can be a distracting third party, and sometimes it’s easier to be kind without it. It doesn’t matter what strangers tell each other about themselves. Neither of you shows evidence of who the other has been. You trade impressions, and for both of you something will stick.
Strangers are more dependable than friends, who are cycling through their lives just as you are; if you never lose interest in other people, you’re never exactly alone. Of course you can be lonely with anyone, and you can forget that you’re lonely. Anyone who’s made a habit of admiring strangers knows how badly they can remind you of who you miss.