by Nicole Matusow, LCSW, Co-Director, CHD
July 15, 2021
In limerence, obsessive fantasies of an idealized love object and that happily-ever-after rush are made possible by splitting the love object’s bad qualities off from the good. In object relations theory, splitting – a concept first coined by object-relationist Melanie Klein, then expanded upon by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn – refers to the coping mechanism whereby infants unconsciously defend against having negative feelings toward their inattentive or neglectful caregivers, splitting the nuanced array of emotions into good and bad. Fairbairn suggested that some infants compartmentalize these feelings, seeing and preserving the caregiver as the idealized object and then internalizing all the bad feelings. Considering that limerent objects keep their special status as long as they remain unsatisfying to the limerent person, the parallels to splitting seem uncanny.
Limerence typically looks like this: An object of unrequited craving and desire emerges based on a variety of factors (sexual attraction, receiving special attention, a relationship’s ending, etc.). The intensity builds like a tornado and is fueled by compulsive ruminating about the real or imagined breadcrumbs of interest or love that the object of desire has offered. The ruminating can feel like a pleasant torture that at one time feels gratifying or soothing, and at another, excruciating.
In infancy, our object of craving and desire is our caregiver. We long for our caregiver’s nourishment, touch, soothing, and love. However, if she’s unpredictably absent or misattuned, then frustration, anxiety, or sadness might fill that space where the craving originates. When she’s back and giving us what we need, those negative feelings – perhaps expressed by crying or shrieking – might drive her away. Preserving her ability to care for us by ignoring her failings and ascribing only good qualities to her is a great defense against abandonment and neglect. But, in preserving our mother, we’re also left feeling unworthy of her care. Similarly in limerence, the limerent person inevitably feels unworthy of love and affection as their limerent object continues to disappoint or dissatisfy the need for reciprocity. Just like with the mother, the limerent object takes a place of importance and becomes the barometer of worthiness. The cycle continues as feelings of love and frustration – just like in infancy – get split between the limerent person and the limerent object.
Sigmund Freud concluded that patients would transfer primitive childhood feelings to their therapists. This transference is ever-present in limerence. We transfer that longing to feel a sense of worth from the care of our mothers and fathers to another person who can at long last fulfill those needs for us. And, the same characteristics from our infancy that led to our need to split and self-soothe when faced with our caregiver’s deficits emerge in limerence: longing, fantasizing, preserving. Repeat. If you’ve ever been limerent, you know this pattern well.
Many limerence-sufferers are looking to break this spiraling coping mechanism with a “cure.” But, you cure diseases, not coping mechanisms. Considering this, let’s look at it from another perspective: If we formed a complex spectrum of emotions in an early, non-verbal phase of life in order to cope, then we need to form a new way of coping once the mechanism is no longer working for us. The origins of your limerence and a more effective coping mechanism can be worked out with your analyst. In the meantime, consciously undoing your coping mechanism when it’s not doing its job any longer is your best course of action. If the opposite of splitting is combining, then combining both good and bad qualities of our limerent object can bring us back to reality rather than keep us in fantasy about a potential relationship with this person. The fantasy version of the person is much more fulfilling than the reality version can ever be, therefore unmuting the less-than-desirable qualities in your limerent object and incorporating them into the fantasy version can serve to continually burst the limerence bubble. The more you bring your splitting to consciousness, the closer you’ll get to preserving your own life and getting your needs met in reality rather than fantasy.