Sex + Dating

Your Insane Obsession With Your Ex? There's a Word for That.

Breaking up is hard to do. But sometimes, moving on can be damn near impossible.

Don't pretend you haven't been there. What starts as a some harmless lurking on Instagram quickly devolves into an NSA-level probe of your ex that pushes even the most egregious privacy violations of the Patriot Act. You're not a stalker, you're just heartbroken... or something like it.

Love that slides sideways off the rails and devolves into obsession is no picnic. But it's also not terribly unusual, afflicting about 5% of the population at one point or another. And this particular brand of suffering's got a name: limerence.

Limerence is not love

The word "limerence" was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book Love and Limerence to describe the early stages of infatuation. According to Tennov, limerence is the reason your heart skips a beat every time your new beau (or belle) texts you; and the reason a day apart can feel like weeks.

In most relationships, the limerent phase eventually gives way to something more comfortable and, frankly, less thrilling. This long-term, less intense feeling is what social psychologist Elaine Hatfield calls "companionate love."

Like its name suggests, companionate love implies commitment, attachment, and companionship; and NOT the insane, can't-live-without-you, can't-think-of-anything-else sensations so many of us have felt. Of course, you don't have to actually be in a relationship to feel limerence. This candle burns at both ends: Limerence is the spark that ignites a relationship... and the house fire in your heart when one ends.

Limerence is normal (to a point)

Feeling limerent? You're not alone. There's an entire subreddit dedicated to this obsessive pain-in-the ass (and heart) of an emotion. And it's not necessarily your fault. In her book, Tennov assures readers that limerence is involuntary and 100% normal... until it’s not. Once it starts to interfere with your day-to-day life (like, say, repeatedly driving by your ex's house to see if the lights are on, or checking his or her Facebook feed several dozen times a day), your limerence has crossed the line into something significantly more sinister. And creepy. And harder to stop.

Psychologist Albert Wakin believes that this condition can be so serious, it deserves a place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Makes sense, considering at its most extreme limerence can cause decades-long obsessions and compulsions that teeter-totter on the verge of insanity (and grounds for restraining orders).

But before you go pointing the finger at you're so-called crazy ex, know that Wakin says limerence can strike anyone at any time. And you don't need to have a history of psychological illness to fall victim to its clutches.

Limerence hurts… literally

Love is one hell of a drug. Neuroscientists Lucy Brown and Helen Fisher discovered that romantic love triggers a dopamine response in the brain, in the region responsible for reward and motivation. The sensation is absolutely addictive, too: Bear in mind that cocaine does basically the same thing.

Think of limerence as a kind of narcotic withdrawal that affects your mind and body. In addition to your unrelenting obsession with the target of your affection, limerence brings with it physiological symptoms that include chest pains, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, and insomnia. You're not just suffering from a broken heart! Your brain is broken, too.

None of this is made any easier by the internet. Continuing our limerence-as-narcotic analogy, Mark Zuckerberg is basically the world's most notorious drug lord. Facebook has become the go-to site for online trolling of love interests and exes. And we all know that once you jump down that rabbit hole, climbing out of it is no easy feat.

Longing for love, and a cure

Experts are still trying to get a hold on what exactly defines this tricky condition. Treatment typically involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. Sufferers usually stay in this state for three to five years, but for some it can last DECADES. Bad news for broken hearts; but it makes getting through four years in Trump's America seem like a piece of cake. Too soon?

And there are ways to self-treat: like unplugging from social media for a while to resist temptation, taking that trip you've always wanted to go on, or finding a perfectly good, mediocre rebound to get you over the hump.

Besides -- you know all that online stalking and regrettable late-night texting isn't good for anyone.

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Julia Reiss is a writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City. You can follow her as she subtweets all of her exes on Twitter @thereisspiece.