Still dizzy

Pub date October 24, 2006

Dear Andrea:
About what you said about infatuation — isn’t it possible to be head over heels in love with someone and also have caring and mutual support? What would preclude it? I am not talking about commitment — there are lots of “committed” couples out there who don’t care at all and take each other for granted, as well as couples in the starry-eyed stage (I hope) who care for each other deeply. Caring should happen soon, otherwise it’s a crappy relationship, in my humble opinion.
Starry but Supportive
Dear Support:
There’s such a thing as spaghetti sauce, right? It’s made of tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, and probably some oregano or something, but regardless — the existence of spaghetti sauce does not negate the existence of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and so on. Each still has its individual reality; all can be combined in any permutation and will still probably be OK on pasta, even if these mixes can’t reasonably be referred to as “spaghetti sauce” specifically.
Right? Oh, what am I talking about? Love, intimacy, sex, romance, caring, trust, and commitment are components — any given relationship may contain any or all of them. Your relationship with your best friend? It has love, intimacy, caring, trust, and commitment. Your relationship with your husband? You probably hope to have all of them, with some in ascendance at certain times while others slack off, eventually to return. Not that a satisfying relationship must feature all seven above plus the ones I forgot. A pickup in the park doesn’t promise any more than sex alone, but if that’s what the participants were looking for, it’s hunky-dory. Even the classic “men are from Mars”–type hetero marriage is often big on trust and commitment (and some have plenty of sex and romance, even many years in) without being nearly as intimate as many people’s close friendships or even work partnerships. We tend in this culture to hold up an idea of perfect partnership. At San Francisco Sex Information we use a Venn diagram with love, sex, and intimacy as intersecting circles, with the middle representing the holy grail. But satisfactory relationships can be forged using whichever components suit the participants’ needs. There is no duty to conform to the current local ideal if you don’t feel like it. Nor is it a sin to settle, if you ask me. One does what works.
I make a distinction between loving a whole lot and limerence (which differs from infatuation both in duration and intensity). Limerence — or longing for reciprocity — is not so much a feeling as it is a form of madness, and like other forms of madness is turning out to have a biochemical basis. “When I think of you my serotonin plummets, my darling! O, how my dopamine soars!” Not that faithful, mutually concerned, monogamous pair-bonding is entirely without its biochemical aspects — look up “prairie vole” on the Web sometime. Drugs and varmints aside, though, of course you can love and care for and be supportive of the same person you’re deeply in love with but perhaps not madly in love with. You do have to know the person to have that sort of relationship, while to crush out wildly on someone, you needn’t even have met. Since true limerence is a form of madness, it doesn’t tend to concern itself with planning for the future either, beyond the obvious (and unprovable) “I will always love you.”
Now, while we’re on the subject of love and limerence, a reader tipped me off that I was mistaken: Dorothy Tennov did not pull the word “limerence” out of her scholarly butt back in the ’70s and the word does share a root with other English words, which I’d list here if I hadn’t promptly lost her e-mail. I was horrified, since who wants to be wrong? Happily, not only does the Wikipedia entry on limerence back me up on Tennov’s pure invention of the term (“The word was pronounceable and seemed to her and two of her students to have a “fitting” sound…. The coinages are arbitrary; there is no specific etymology”), but here’s Tennov herself, back in 1977: “I first used the term ‘amorance,’ then changed it back to ‘limerence’…. It has no roots whatsoever. It looks nice. It works well in French. Take it from me, it has no etymology whatsoever.”
So there we have it. As long as it works well in French! Unless Dorothy Tennov writes in telling me that she didn’t, after all, pull “limerence” out of her scholarly ass, I’m standing by my story.
Andrea Nemerson has spent the last 14 years as a sex educator and an instructor of sex educators. In her previous life she was a prop designer. And she just gave birth to twins, so she’s one bad mother of a sex adviser. Visit to view her previous columns.