can i manage infatuation in a "healthy" way?
mixed feelings is a multi-voiced advice column. Once a month, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer and editor Eliza Dumais unpacks the all-consuming feeling of limerence.
dear mixed feelings,
I learned a new word recently called "limerence," which is, essentially, the state of being obsessively infatuated with someone marked by intrusive thoughts, delusions, etc. I can't help but think this describes my life perfectly right now...When I have a crush, I will do DELUSIONAL things to feed my fantasies. Like...drive past their house to imagine what their route to work might be like, stalk them online, among other things. I feel like my crushes are starting to rule over my life. I think about them constantly, ruminating over fictitious conversations I have with them in my head. When and if I'm rejected, I am wounded so badly that I’ll cry on the couch for hours. I know that on some level I NEED a crush as a distraction — I feel broken and hollow without one. And while I don't necessarily want to stop wearing my heart on my sleeve, I do think that this is becoming a problem in that I'm spending so much of my time on social media and talking my friends' ears off. How do I learn to manage my infatuation in a healthier way? — crushinhard97, she/her
“Crush” has no business being a monosyllabic word. Surely in French there’s some rhythmic, hyphenated phrase far better-suited to the high-acid untidiness of the thing — but for our purposes, few adequate synonyms come to mind.
Limerence, on the other hand, sounds properly watery and diagnostic. It lends a bit of maturity to the mix: A crush, all grown up. The problem, then, is the “delusion” clause. At best, it qualifies the act of “crushing” as fundamentally unhinged. In reality, however, adoration is not interchangeable with hysteria — regardless of what 18th century literature would have us believe. Which is to say, we’re still missing syntax that gets at the real thing: Adult and fully-formed, romantic and devastating, unpolluted by notions of instability.
It is perhaps gauche to mention that your submission made me seethe with jealousy. I’ll admit that well over a year has passed since I last experienced anything I might describe as a proper crush — beyond, say, the fleeting warmth that arises from back-and-forths with certain genetically-blessed bartenders. Of course, there are explanations: Two nearly back-to-back monogamous relationships totaling 6 years in duration — both ending in phases of hurt that seemed far too heavy to fit under the subject-heading of “breakup”. But now, sixteen months later, my propensity towards romantic enthusiasm still feels cauterized. For every dalliance — casual date, months-long periods of “seeing” any one person in particular — my friends have, in turn, had the absolute misfortune of enduring my repeated, reliable refrain: “I feel nothing.”
limerence as poetry
As a writer by trade, you might imagine this to be vaguely problematic. Numbness elicits far fewer adjectives than lust. Au contraire, the breed of wrung-out, switched-on infatuation that you speak of is pure gold as creative fodder. What you describe as delusion — the conjuring of someone else’s commute, the drafting of conversational material — to me, that’s what poetry feels like.
“Having a crush is such a creative act if you think about it” sayslong-time Vanity Fair writer and author of Central Places — a novel that operates a revisionist history of a high school crush. Cai began drafting her book in an amorous haze after crossing paths with the object of her hometown fantasies over the holidays (as is the sole purpose of the holiday season). The run-in did not kindle something fresh between them — and once again, contact lapsed. “I think [the book was] my attempt to construct an alternate ending of sorts. Crushes always leave a few what ifs on the table, even decades after the fact. This was how I put those lingering questions to rest,” she says.
Think of it this way: Dating is a project in fiction. The whittling of oneself into character, the suspension of disbelief, the tidy act of projecting a personality and exposition onto someone who has hardly exceeded two-dimensional form for you. That’s not a bad thing — in fact, it may bring you reprieve to ruminate on that notion in the midst of romantic despair. When you’re mourning the end of a tryst — or merely weathering the ego-blow of rejection — you’re not grieving a real thing, not really. More so, you’re lamenting the slippery, polished idea of a thing, the seasoned future you began conjuring upon your first encounter. And for all you know, the whole mirage might’ve been ruptured on date number three when you discovered your counterpart was cruel to waiters. What you’ve lost, instead, is potential — and while such malaise is entirely valid, it’s not the same as losing all the living, breathing contours of a fully-formed human being.
That said, I am not suggesting you water down any of that high-decibel emotion. The inclination to experience things in CAPSLOCK is human. And to a degree, that impulse ought to be commended. Offer yourself some grace. That said, not all things can be justified on the basis of hyperbole. Compartmentalizing, then, can be a useful tool. Void of driving past your crush’s house, or unpacking dramatic developments among friends, where else might you redirect that kinetic energy?
In the midst of my phase of break-up delirium, I began to write fiction for the first time. It seemed that I could find ways to amend on paper what I could no longer shift in real life, and designating that project as a proper resting place for my ennui was what propelled me out of my own fog. In your case, what if your inclination to imagine yourself within the interiors of your crush's brain could be used as a tool? What if you worked through it on paper? Long runs? TikTok dance routines? Good old-fashioned journaling? Rather than drowning in the loudness of it all — and submerging your friends along with you — I suggest you put that raw material somewhere sturdy.
But compartmentalization is rarely easy. The desire to silo your romantic fervor in any one quadrant of your brain certainly does not keep it from leaking elsewhere. But I do believe that your sentiments are in need of a vessel — ideally somewhere with teflon boundaries.“If you're fantastic at making up stories about people with a very limited amount of information, put away the Instagram search bar,” says Cai. “Get into fiction writing instead.”
At some time last year, a friend of mine took on a writing assignment for an Internet Magazine: 50 first dates over the course of a summer. She was hoping to immerse herself unabashedly in the dating world, while still sheltering behind the convenient guise of journalistic purposes. The problem with such a disclaimer, however, is that it does not preclude you from the hope that you will, indeed, fall in love — even if you shout from the mountaintops (read: the internet) that it was never your intention to do so in the first place.
In the end, she went on 75 dates, failed to submit the assigned story, and determined that she’d fallen in love, instead, with dating itself. For her, the piecemeal high of those first encounters was a certain kind of magic: The articulation and re-articulation of self, the warm gauzy lighting, the optimism of an untainted beginning. The appeal of those crushes, no matter what followed, was in the format: low-heat and short-form.
“Here’s the thing about first dates:The truth doesn’t matter,” she wrote me in an email around that same time (we’d spent the summer sending one another long rambling missives in a bid to write every day). “You’re trying on different archetypes, different ways of presenting yourself, and there’s something so affirming in hearing yourself tell the story of you out loud — while admiring someone else for doing the very same thing. Your whole rapport is a vignette: It’s even more appealing before it exists as something real.”
It is this same friend — a woman unabashed in her capacity to love at full volume — who taught me to quit sifting between emotions categorically designated for romance and friendship. The loves of our lives, I’ve heard her soliloquize on many occasions, will not often be the people we’re sleeping with. They may be, of course. But we’re mistaken in reserving the absolute giddy euphoria of affection, or companionship — the glee of infatuation — for our partners.
For you, reader, this is an easy notion to swallow. Your inclination towards the full-throttle momentum of feeling is a remarkable thing. Perhaps you’d do well to see where you can disseminate that material. Rather than beleaguer your circle consistently with sagas of romantic warfare, let your friends, too, carry some of the lusty magic you’re oh so good at conjuring. If compartmentalizing doesn’t work, spread that ardor even wider.
In that vein: One fault in loving as you do — be it at arm’s length or otherwise — is contextual. The sentiment renders other facets of your life smaller. It sands down the import on work, friendship, creative output. So, instead, see where you can put that romantic horsepower to use: write love letters to friends on bar napkins, board airplanes alone, allow yourself to be struck, violently even, by the way the sun hits the jagged edge on certain skylines. Imagine how the man at your bodega — maybe he knows your name, remembers your birthday, the brand of cigarettes you smoke — gets to work each day. Let his commute move you. I assure you it will make you feel more whole than any given deep dive into the trenches of Instagram.
The most excellent bit of romantic prose that I’ve ever encountered was, much to my chagrin, written by a man: “There are worse descriptions of what it is to fall in love than this: An unjadening.” It comes from an Irish author by the name of Rob Doyle. Unlike with limerence, it steers away from the delusional or the erratic. If such things are part of the equation, they are far from the crux — which concerns itself, instead, with the opposite of numbness.
Regardless of how you learn to divvy up your sentiment — amongst friends, cities, legal pads — know that the raw, untidy material of your affection is a worthy byproduct of being fully engaged in the project of living. It’s your rally against the plight of jadedness — a word I have not one synonym for.