by Nicole Matusow, LCSW, Co-Director, CHD
February 6, 2023
Psychoanalytic practitioners of all persuasions have theorized that infants psychically retreat into an ideal and omnipotent fantasy space in order to cope with anxiety that stems from breaks in the caregiver/child connection. When distress calls prove fruitless, some infants defend against distress by fully retreating into fantasy with a romanticized object who is perfectly attuned to the infant. The fantasy satisfies the infant’s need to feel wanted and cared for. Although this false protective construction fosters a false confidence, hopelessness and fear of a motherless world is quelled, for now. Relief from the terror of the void provides a blissful experience worth revisiting.
The withdrawal described above bears a resemblance to limerence: seeking comfort, pleasure, and self-esteem through fantasizing about being wanted. And, if someone wants you, you must be worth something. And, if you’re worth something, you’ll continue to be wanted.
Limerence fantasies culminate in a sense of being desired, special, and validated. The limerent’s story arc needs to end with a promise of requited love. The best outcome, in fact, is for the limerent object to be reciprocally limerent in the service of satisfying an imaginary romance for the ages.
Much like the experience of a cat who chases a laser, the limerent’s fantasy is never as satisfying as the real thing; it doesn’t endure the test of time. The psychic retreat is meant to comfort a distressed infant with a picture-perfect figment of past pleasure and satiation. Relationships with real people are disappointing; a relationship with longing and desire can be anything you want it to be.
A limerent’s object of desire is initially and perhaps ultimately inconsequential then, because the filled-in fantasy is not fundamentally about a relationship, but about the longing. Longing for someone unavailable reenacts the infant’s circumstances under which the psychic retreat was originally constructed. It was the experience of retreat in infancy, not the mother’s presence, that led to the relief of distress, and it is the very same retreat in adulthood on which the limerent depends for satisfaction.
In infancy, satisfaction, satiation, gratification, a sense of self worth were constructed much like a house of cards. A limerent person knows of no other way to resolve the deep-rooted longing to feel comforted by feeling wanted. One cannot be omnipotent in relationship with a real person like one can be in fantasy. Meanwhile, the fantasy has diminishing returns because an imagined relationship does not provide sustenance or reciprocity when it comes to love.
People in the midst of limerence, much like their caregivers, have lost touch with and often eventually reject this very young part of themselves which retreats into fantasy for a reprieve from the loneliness of the void. By the time someone enduring the familiar, agonizing pangs of limerence finds their way to my office, they have spent years of confusion and self-recrimination for vulnerability they somehow feel they should have been able to heal by themselves, as they managed to do – however imperfectly – as infants. The temporary comfort of a fantasy relationship is like a fragile tree attempting to survive in dry dirt; it won’t live for long. It contrasts with a relationship which thrives and flourishes in the nutrient-rich soil of real reciprocal love. For an individual to accept that transplantation to reality is necessary for roots to reach nourishment takes patience, understanding, and compassion. Rejection of the limerent self only intensifies the compulsion to retreat back into fantasy.