Crushes are fun. Especially when the person you're crushing on likes you back. However, despite pop culture's romanticization of infatuation (think: Love Actually grand gestures), crushes aren't always 100% harmless — sometimes, they can turn into a potentially harmful experience known as limerence.
This refers to when someone can't help but be infatuated with a love interest, to the point that they're obsessed with making sure their feelings are reciprocated. The term was originally used by psychologist Dorothy Tennov, PhD, in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. Dr. Tennov defines limerence as "an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person." And although her research was based on relatively small-scale surveys and anecdotal interviews, and it's not currently a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the term is still used by psychologists and therapists while treating patients.
Early on in a crush or new relationship, it can be difficult to distinguish between the normal excitement associated with attraction and the obsessive phenomenon, says Kat Van Kirk, PhD, a licensed marriage, family, and sex therapist and resident sex expert at Adam & Eve. However, she says that a good starting point is to ask yourself whether the infatuation is rooted in fantasy or reality — if it's the former, you may be experiencing limerence. So if you find yourself obsessing over a stranger or acquaintance's Instagram or Twitter feeds, that may be a good time to do a gut check. Of course, limerence can also be experienced with a crush you actually have a chance with (though, like Dr. Van Kirk said, it's normal to feel nervous or excited about a crush or someone you're just starting to date, to a point).
Another way to tell if you're experiencing limerence, Dr. Van Kirk says, is to ask yourself if you find yourself wanting to emulate your crush. A good, albeit exaggerated, cultural reference for that is the 2011 film The Roommate starring Leighton Meester.
While Dr. Van Kirk says clients who are experiencing limerence often casually refer to their obsessions as "love sickness," the side effects of limerence can be serious and interfere with everyday life. If you find yourself idealizing someone, experiencing intrusive thoughts, replaying every encounter with the person, or engaging in stalker-like behavior (like rearranging your schedule to bump into them), you could be experiencing limerence, she says. "There is often a perceived reciprocity of limerent behavior and feelings that may not actually exist," Dr. Van Kirk says. "This can cause issues for both the object of affection and the person themselves, [such as] extremely hurt feelings, self-shame, and in some rare cases, aggressiveness towards the unrequited partner."
There is often a perceived reciprocity of limerent behavior and feelings that may not actually exist.
Kat Van Kirk, PhD
According to Dr. Tennov's initial research, states of limerence can last for weeks or years. If limerence is experienced within a relationship, it tends to begin intensely and emotionally, but may burn out or quickly end in disaster, Dr. Tennov wrote. In healthy relationships, neither parter is limerent. For instance, after three months, the couple may transition from sex marathons and nerve-riddled dinner conversations to calm evenings together watching Netflix in sweatpants. And this transition from new love excitement to long-term relationship stability happens naturally, she wrote.
For people experiencing limerence outside of a relationship — like, those who have a mild obsession with their cute barista or that cool DJ on Twitter — Dr. Van Kirk says that, fortunately, these obsessive feelings usually run their course. "Either the individual or someone close to him or her will help the infatuated person realize that their interest is one-sided and not sustainable in a realistic relationship," she says, adding how important it is to rely on objective feedback from trusted friends and family.
Whether or not you're in a relationship with your crush, if the intrusive thoughts don't fade and begin to interfere with your daily life (like you're forgoing showers or not able to concentrate at work), Dr. Van Kirk says it's best to seek help from a therapist. Not only can therapy help you learn to cope and get over your obsession, but Dr. Van Kirk says it can get to the underlying issues that can cause limerence, like childhood abandonment or infidelity and broken trust in previous relationships.
The good news: Even if your romantic obsession is indeed limerence, rather than a more benign crush, there's no need to stress. As Dr. Van Kirk said, it's likely to go away on its own, and if it doesn't, you might just have to talk out your feelings with a professional who can help you get to the root of your involuntary obsession. Sometimes all you need is honest advice from friends and family, or a trained professional, to help you get back to enjoying (and suffering through) the pleasure and pain that is crushing on someone.