Love and Limerence
Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Shall I tell you how he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter....
These are the opening lines to a satirical poem by Thackeray about Goethe's classic love story, Die Leiden Jungen Werthers (The Suffering of young Werther.) What did Werther suffer from? Some people call it "romantic love". Psychologist DorothyTennov calls it "limerence."
Thackeray's "SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER"
Charlotte was a married lady,
and a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.
Charlotte having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.
The Limerent State
When people are limerent, according to Dorothy Tennov, they experience the following symptoms:
1) Obsessive and intrusive thoughts about the Limerent Object. (That would be the person they are in love with, in ordinary parlance.)
2) Crystallization and idealization of the Limerent Object's more positive qualities.
3) Reordering of priorities so as to be in a position to run into the Limerent Object by chance.
4) Extreme shyness around the Limerent Object, even to the point of not looking them in the eyes.
5) Transports of joy at possible signs of reciprocation, even to the point of elation and euphoria.
6) Extreme despair at possible signs of rejection, even to the point of considering suicide.
7) The ability to daydream about the Limerent Object in very vivid ways, to the point of having a rich fantasy life whose content is more meaningful and spiritual than everyday life.
People who are limerent are not really fantasizing about sex or marriage. What they long for is some sort of spiritual union. Their feelings are more like reverence and less like affection.
And here's the kicker: Not everybody is susceptible to limerence. It is not a universal emotion. This is why many people, including some renowned psychologists, have denied the reality of the limerent state of mind.
Limerence is an extreme form of attraction. As we will see later, attraction is one of three main emotion systems that motivate mammals to engage in reproductive behavior. The way in which attraction is treated by society is a cultural issue. The twentieth century did not condone limerence, as its focus was primarily materialistic. Freud believed all motivation stemmed from the sex-drive. Earlier periods showed varying degrees of understanding and tolerance for limerence.
The Iliad by Homer (8th Century B.C.)
The Epic Cycle, which contains the Little Iliad
Limerence and Literature
We can see the development of the concept of romantic love in the way that literature portrays the same stories in a different light over the ages. While attraction has been a force to be reckoned with since the dawn of man, societal attitudes change from culture to culture and from era to era.
I would like to focus on a character from ancient Greek literature, Andromache, the wife of Hector, and observe how succeeding generations treated her story.
The Iliad is attributed to Homer and is said to have been written sometime in the 8th century B.C. Prior to it being written, the Iliad probably was recited orally, and the origins of the story may be considerably older than recorded history. In the pre-literate world great epics were passed down from one generation to the next through bards who memorized large bodies of verse. Verse had to be metrical, because meter aided memory. Today's poets and writers have largely abandoned this aspect of literature, and many think of metrical poetry as at once the province of the cultured elite and of the unlettered masses. In fact, it is the common heritage of all mankind.
The Iliad does not cover the entire story of the Trojan war. Many parts of the story are told in the Epic Cycle, a series of poems by different authors that treat the same characters in different periods of their lives. It is a little like today's fan fiction that deals with what happened to the hero after the closing credits roll, or during an interlude between scenes aired on commercial TV. Nobody had copyright to the story, and different bards felt free to add their own interpretation.
We could argue that attraction played a big role in the story of the Trojan War, since Helen is said to be "the face that launched a thousand ships." However, Helen herself played only a minor role in the story, and the plot centers on the derring-do of the male heroes, who risked everything for honor -- something very abstract and tenuous that modern intellectuals don't quite understand and rarely identify with. I have a feeling that chimpanzees are more likely to "get" the Iliad than any modern reader.
Women in the stories surrounding the Trojan War belonged to the victor and were traded like chattel. Attraction was largely limited to aesthetic appreciation of their anatomical endowments. Let's look at what happened to Andromache, the wife of the Trojan hero, Hector, following the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles,
The Little Iliad is a part of the Epic Cycle surrounding the story of the Trojan War. It tells how Andromache was taken captive after the death of her husband Hector and made to serve as the concubine of the son of Achilles.The oldest extant telling of this story goes something like this: after Hector died, the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, took Astyanax, Adromache's baby, from the arms of his mother and threw him off a cliff. So much for Hector's male heirs. Then he took Andromache as the spoils of war, brought her to Epirus where he became king, and she bore him a son named Molossus.
The next time we see this story, the action gets a little more complicated. In the play by Euripides, Andromache (425 B.C.), the women get more lines.
Andromache in Captivity
- Andromaque - Wikisource
The text of Andromaque in the original French
Andromaque -- A Play by Racine
Andromache is seeking sanctuary in a temple, because Hermione, the wife of Neoptolemus, is very jealous of her. Hermione, and her father Menelaus, are plotting to kill Andromach's son by Neoptolomus, Molossus. Eventually, Orestes, Hermione's former fiancé kills Neoptolemus, but Molossus is saved by his grandfather.
In Euripides' play, the killing takes place off-stage, and it is the women's feelings of love and jealousy that take center stage.
It is not until seventeenth century France, however, that this story is reworked into one in which limerence is the true power behind the action. The play is by Jean Racine, a neo-classicist. Andromaque (French spelling) has been taken to Epirus by Pyrrhus (another name for Neoptolemus) but he has not raped her. Instead, true gentleman that he is, he has asked for her hand in marriage. Andromaque still loves Hector. She doesn't want to marry Pyrrhus, but she is concerned for the well-being of her son Astyanax. In this story, the Greeks mistakenly threw a different baby off the Trojan walls, and Hector's son is safe and sound. Pyrrhus, totally enamored of Andromaque, promises that if she marries him, he will make Astinyax his heir. The Greeks, concerned that the son of Hector might one day seek vengeance for his father's death, send Oreste as an emissary to Epirus, to ask that Pyrrhus marry Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, to whom he is betrothed. Oreste, who has just been exonerated of matricide, (he had a good excuse, his mother Clytemnestra had killed his father Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigena -- but that's a different tragedy), is secretly in love with Hermione.
Andromaque is torn between her maternal feelings for Astyanax and her undying passion for the dead Hector. She finally decides to resolve the conflict like this: she will marry Pyrrhus, securing his promise to provide for her son, but at the last moment she will commit suicide without ever consummating the marriage. She never gets to carry out this plan, though, because when Hermione hears that Phyrrus and Andromaque are getting married, she gets very angry and tells Oreste that she wants Pyrrhus dead. Oreste, who is a little trigger happy anyway, after that whole matricide business, goes and kills Pyrrhus right away, even though Hermione has already changed her mind and has sent a messenger to tell him to call the whole thing off. When Hermione hears that Pyrrhus, her true love, is dead, she naturally commits suicide, and this makes Oreste go stark raving mad, which is what ancient prophecy predicted for him, anyway.
Andromaque, seeing the bodies pile up before her, realizes that she doesn't have to commit suicide after all. She puts on widow's weeds for her deceased husband, Pyrrhus, and rules Epirus with an iron fist until her son is able to take over. So all's well that ends well.
This is the happiest ending to a tragedy that I know of, since the main character got exactly what she wanted.
Andromaque (1667), a tragedy, by Jean Racine
Andromache Mourning Hector -- According to the French
The diagram above represents with arrows the unidirectional limerence of each of the main characters in Racine's Andromaque. The beauty of the thing is the symmetry. In the enlightenment, individual desires took center stage. This story is not merely about the aggressive actions of men or the passive suffering of women. Each individual, man or woman, has an intransigent preference for a mate, and each is willing to die for his or her choice. Limerence is an equal opportunity emotion. Statistically women bond better, so attachment is seen as the feminine side of love. Statistically, men have stronger sexual urges, so the sex drive is seen as male dominated. But limerence is the province of the mind, and while not every individual falls prey to it, it strikes equally at both sexes.
Limerence creates a state of euphoria that has nothing to do with getting what you want. It's more like being rewarded for daring to want. Limerence is the prize for engaging in goal directed activity. It is an energized state of mind that promotes the expenditure of even more energy.
Limerent euphoria is not like domestic contentment or sexual satiety -- feelings of well-being that come after a goal is attained. Limerence is the pursuit of one's own preference. It came to be culturally accepted at the same time when the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" came into vogue.
With limerence, there are no guarantees of success. The pursuit is its own reward. Which brings us to the neurobiology of love and the reward center of the brain.
The Brain's Emotion Centers
Evolutionary Origins of Limerence
The Evolution of Mammalian Reproductive Strategies
In a paper entitled "Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction" (Human Nature, Vo. 9, No. 1, pp.23-52), Helen Fisher suggests that mammals exhibit three main emotion categories for mating and reproduction. The three categories are (1) lust, (2) attraction and (3) attachment. Lust is the sex drive, pure and simple. Attraction involves focusing attention on one or more specific potential mates. Attachment is the process that leads to bonding. In humans, the attraction category includes limerence. It involves feelings of exhilaration, intrusive thinking about a potential mate and the craving for "emotional union."
There are specific "neural correlates" to each of the emotion categories. Androgens and estrogens govern lust and sexual arousal. Catecholamines govern attraction and limerence. Attachment involves neuropeptides like vasopressin and oxytocin. Each of these systems of emotional response evolved in order to take care of a different aspect of mating, reproduction and the nurture of dependent off-spring.
Lust governs sexual arousal and consummation. The hormones estrogen and testosterone are the primary chemical agents that ensure sexual receptivity and arousal. Animals can mate with conspecifics only when the mechanics of libido are working properly. This system fosters short-term behavior which is necessary for procreation. Since female arousal is less essential than male arousal to reproductive success, the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for orgasms in both sexes, is more concentrated in the male gonads. The effects of sexual arousal are short-lived and fulfill a specific purpose. The part of the brain which is stimulated during this process is one we share with our non-mammalian ancestors. It is the amygdala, which governs our most basic functions.
The attraction system evolved in order to help individuals focus on specific candidates for mating. Sexual selection is one of the evolutionary forces at play in shaping the bodies of animals and creating sexual dimorphism -- the ways in which males and females of the same species differ in their non-reproductive anatomy. Certain traits in the opposite sex are seen as advantageous and individuals show preference for mates who exhibit these traits. The attraction system has nothing to do with what traits are desirable. Instead, it helps individuals to remain motivated to act on their preferences, whatever those preferences happen to be. While the sex drive uses hormones produced in the gonads to target sites in the amygdala, the attraction system uses catecholamines produced in the lower hindbrain to target sites in the forebrain -- such as the pre-frontal cortex. Attraction is a newer, more advanced system that we share with other mammals. It is an emotional system built to motivate abstract thinking.
Attachment is an emotional state that kicks in after consummation. Its function is to keep families together long enough for the young to mature and become independent. Attachment applies both to the feelings of parents for their young and to the feelings of monogamous pairs of bonded mates for each other. When individuals are attached to each other they like to maintain close proximity, feel separation anxiety and show concern for the well-being of those to whom they are attached. Neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and vasopressin, produced in the hypothalamus, target sites in in the lower brain. Attachment is less evolved an emotional system than attraction, although it is more recently developed than the sex drive.
During the evolution of humanity, according to Fisher, these three emotion systems became "increasingly independent of one another", and this accounts for the extreme variety of mating strategies employed by humans. People in arranged marriages and in long term marriages entered into by personal choice tend to report the same degree of attachment. It is possible to feel attachment for a bonded mate without feeling either sexual arousal or attraction.
Some people have sex without experiencing either attraction or any sort of bonding. Some people experience sexual arousal followed by attachment and bonding. And some people become limerent (an extreme form of attraction) with or without the accompaniment of sexual arousal or bonding.
Of the three emotional systems, the sex drive is the oldest and most primitive. It is pre-mammalian. The newest of the three is the attraction system which uses catecholamines to target the pre-frontal cortex. Attraction is the thinking person's form of love.
What are catecholamines? They include dopamine and norepinephrine. They are neurotransmitters that you may have heard of in the context of drug dependence and getting high. They are responsible for the feeling of exhilaration that we associate with "being in love." However, once the function of attraction and limerence has been emancipated from its evolutionary origins as a mere stage in the mating process, this same feeling of exhilaration can be felt in a number of non-sexual contexts.
One of these is religious rapture. Another is the high that we attain to in the process of artistic creation or scientific discovery.
The same feeling is involved in each of these experiences. Some people are more susceptible to limerence than others. For those who have never experienced such a high, it seems far-fetched.
Limerence and Social Norms
The key to understanding limerence is its unidirectionality. Limerence does not require reciprocation in order to exist, unlike a normal relationship. In fact, it rarely survives reciprocation. Limerence is an emotion experienced by one person for another. It is not a bargain made between two people. Most societies don't condone limerence precisely because it is essentially asocial.
Marriage requires consummation and ends upon death. Some people believe that love is just another word for a relationship. When the other person dies, the relationship is over. So is the love.
But limerent love is not a relationship. It is a one-sided emotion that can outlive its object. In fact, the object need never have existed in the first place. Religious worship is a kind of limerence.
Limerence has been called "selfish love." But "selfish" is a tricky word, and it means different things to different people. When you are selfish, you don't go out of your way to please another person. When you are not trying to please others, you are also not selling yourself out. Limerence promotes intransigent adherence to one's own values.
Among the founders of new religions and new sects are people with a limerent temperament. To love a god who is not evidently and obviously there requires one to be open to non-reciprocated love. One has to be a visionary. The followers of most established religions, on the other hand, are people who expect to find fellowship with others by joining. Hence the paradox that most church-goers have never seen their god, and most people who have seen their god are thought to be insane by their fellow religionists.
The same goes for ordinary romantic love. Most people in a relationship do not experience limerence. Most limerents are not in a relationship.
Is limerence essentially self-destructive? Not necessarily. When Goethe was suffering from unrequited love, unlike Werther, he didn't blow his brains out. Instead, he wrote Die Leiden Jungen Werthers.
It takes all kinds to make a world. Hopefully we can tolerate each other's different ways of loving without necessarily labeling any one form of love undesirable.
(c) 2008 Aya Katz
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Dorothy Tennov died in 2007
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