Dear Dr. Eva,
I’m in a relationship with someone I care for very much. We are not young, and we have had other long-term relationships. We enjoy being together and I think our prospects are good.
My partner thinks that our relationship may not be the right one because neither of us feels “in love.” When I ask what she means by “in love,” what she describes sounds unhealthy: “butterflies,” rapid heartbeat, obsessiveness about the other person, and a higher sex drive than either of us has had for years, with any partner. I’m not sure I’ve been “in love” by this definition since high school. Any thoughts on this? Is “in love” a teenage fantasy, or some sort of physical reaction, or am I missing something? She says this is not about romantic gestures like giving flowers, but about a way she feels, or in this case, doesn’t feel.
Don’t Want to Lose Her
Dear Don’t Lose,
I sympathize with you both.
The psychological / medical term for “being in love” is limerence. Limerence is the powerful emotional and physical reaction people sometimes feel at the start of a new romantic or sexual relationship. Limerence includes signs of excitement and tover-alertness like rapid heartbeat, “butterflies”, lightheadedness, constantly thinking about the other person, and increased sex drive. Evolutionary biologists think limerence creates a connection between a couple that helps them stay together long enough to form a more lasting relationship based on shared experiences and raising children. Limerence usually lasts between six and 18 months. It lasts longer if the desired person is unavailable, for example if they are married or geographically distant, or if it is an internet-only relationship.
Limerence is part of the novelty, the newness, of a romantic connection. Because it is part of the first stages of a relationship, limerence is always short-term. It is essential to understand that being in love, which is part of the early, discovery stage of a relationship, cannot be ongoing in a stable long-term partnership. In fact, people who have a strong need for the feeling of being in love sometimes create instability in their long-term relationships, for example by getting into arguments, to bring back the instability and uncertainty of limerence.
The experience of limerence is like being high. For some people, falling in love is like the first taste of an addictive drug such as heroin or cocaine: they keep chasing that initial high, not realizing they will never again be able to feel it so intensely. Not wanting to acknowledge that limerence cannot last, people often attribute the “cooling off” of relationships to overwork, fatigue, or parenting stress.
So how does this relate to your situation, since neither of you have experienced limerence in your current relationship? There could be a few reasons.
Limerence happens most often in youth. This is related to sex hormone levels, which are higher in young people, declining by age 30. Also, people who have already been through several relationships may learn not to let themselves get caught up in limerence, since the consequences of being in love can be disastrous.
If your partner can understand that limerence is just a shortcut to establishing the kind of caring, committed relationship that you are already building, she may be able to see that falling in love does not have to be part of building a happy long-term relationship.
In love. Like in pain, in trouble, in debt, in distress. Can you think of another “in –” term that describes a good thing. Build on the strength of what you have!
- Eva Hersh is a family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org