Valentine’s Day, the annual celebration of Western romantic ideals, has become almost pervasive in recent years, despite the fact that many people seem to resent it — possibly due to the expensive cards; the  over-reserved restaurants that play Celine Dion more than necessary; or the overpriced roses men feel pressured to buy. If you think about it, the near necessity to be amorous on one particular day of the year is a strange phenomenon; one that lays down a huge minefield in many relationships.

If you’re single, Valentine’s day can also seem like society's way of emphasizing the fact, often in a manner that suggests there is something wrong with you. You can’t even shrug off that fug with a night on the town because  going to a bar or restaurant  involves several encounters with couples, roughly equivalent to a zombie apocalypse — all wandering incoherently, shiny-eyed, and lost in each other.  

There's also the sprinkling of older people sitting in silence, worrying about the kids (or the cost of the babysitter). Don’t get me wrong, everybody needs love and there is nothing wrong with a little romance. But there’s more to love than gigantic teddy bears. (What are you actually supposed to do with these, anyway — and just where do you store them!)

The problem, perhaps, is that the songs and films of Western culture don’t typically celebrate long-term, mature relationships but are instead fixated on another “L-word.” At best, this makes up but a small part of the love process — at worst, it could be seen as something closer to a troubling psychosis.

That L-word is Limerence. It’s a term coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love . It is a state of mind, a big crush, or a temporary infatuation. It’s also been described as “romantic, puppy, or passionate love” toward another person (who is the “limerent object,” or LO). Most of us, at some stage, have found ourselves going a little doe-eyed for somebody, so it sounds like no harm.

Albert Wakin, professor of psychology at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. and one-time colleague of Tennov, sees the darker side. Although he has acknowledged the many variants and extremes of love, he is more interested in its darker aspects. As he stated in a paper : “In a love relationship, one often experiences initial intense feelings and reactions and absorption in another person that tend to moderate over time, allowing for a more stable, intimate, trusting, and committed relationship to flourish. However, in limerence, said initial feelings and reactions somehow fail to subside, becoming increasingly intense, pervasive, and disruptive, ultimately rendering difficulty in controlling one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”  

Limerence: a normal part of the love process or poor mental health?

Waken is not the only one who has considered limerence abnormal behavior. Dr. Lynn Willmott of the University of Sussex, in a recent paper on the subject introduces limerence “as an unexpected, overwhelming and debilitating experience that relates to the feeling of "being in love" but in an intense form which is often, though not always, unreciprocated usually resulting in negative outcomes. The condition has been implicated as a major cause of relationship and family breakdown, as well as being related to antisocial behaviours, including stalking and self harm.”

There is even a web forum devoted to it called Limerence.net, where apparently perfectly self aware contributors describe symptoms of their malady in the same way one might describe a flu or glandular fever. Their experiences are almost universally reported as negative and there seem to be few signs of the “high” that’s associated with a crush.

According to Waken, as many as one in 10 people struggle with limerence, or this form of limerence, depending on how you interpret the term. As described on the website above, he’s noted the intrusive nature of obsession and that the lifespan of limerent feelings can last for several years. The primary driving force, however, is the uncertainty that surrounds the relationship and the status of the LO’s feelings toward the limerent. All of this results in fluctuations in mood, feelings of ecstasy, depression and anxiety, decline in cognitive coping strategies, shame, guilt and impaired functioning.

Robert Weiss, an   an international sexual addiction expert, had a more prosaic view on the term . “It is a universal experience of bonding and relational attachment,” he told me. “It is normal, healthy and a part of how we mate. Every love song on the planet is written about it.” Limerence, he believes, refers to the period of early bonding and attachment in all intimate/love relationships — we are biologically programmed to experience it so if pregnancy occurs, limerence will ensure that the man will remain in the picture to protect the mother and child.

Weiss, who is also senior vice president of clinical development at Elements Behavioral Health, has acknowledged that about 10 percent of people struggle with early trauma and emotional wounds, which leave them craving the intensity of limerence with new partners because they fear (or simply don't know how to create) the deeper, more intimate bonds that evolve later.

It’s a brain thing

However you interpret the semantics of limerence/love, experts have largely agreed that it’s rooted within the chemicals produced in, and by, our bodies. Many studies have shown this over the years, and five of these chemicals tend to get a regular mention in the popular press. Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine seem to be particularly associated with the initial kick of new love, while vasopressin and oxytocin are likely the reason why we stick around at all after the initial giddiness has worn off.

Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain. It’s released during pleasurable situations and coaxes a person to seek out the pleasurable activity or occupation. Norepinephrine stimulates the production of adrenaline, which makes our heart race and the palms sweat. High levels of norepinephrine in the brain increase the experience of joy. While this is happening, serotonin levels may fall in a similar way to those seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, explaining why love can make us feel anxious and jittery.

However, it’s a bit far-fetched to label these as the “love chemicals” and it’s also grossly simplistic from a scientific perspective. These chemicals are an important part of a normal, functioning brain and we don’t fully understand the complexity of their actions. For example, food, sex and several drugs also stimulate dopamine release in the brain — obviously with very different consequences. (Although this didn’t stop one British newspaper from postulating that cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine. I enjoy a cupcake as much as the next man… but really?)

Even real affection is not divorced from our biology. Oxytocin and vasopressin are, if anything, more interesting in that they seem to play a crucial role in healthy attachment. Oxytocin is known as the “cuddle hormone,” but in fact, that glosses over just how important it is in all our routine social interactions.

So powerful are these chemicals that Diane Witt , a neuroscientist with the National Science Foundation, has shown that if you block the natural release of oxytocin in sheep and rats, they reject their own young. Conversely, she also demonstrated how injecting oxytocin into virgin female rats caused them to show great affection and attention to another female’s young,  protecting them as if they were her own.

In an even more noteworthy finding, mice who have had the oxytocin gene ‘knocked out’ have been found to be more aggressive than normal mice and fail to recognize other members of their own families, even after repeated social encounters.

Voles in love

The prairie vole, apart from being quite cute, is considered a good animal model to explore the biochemical and neurological routes of mating and attachment. Prairie voles indulge in far more sex than is strictly necessary for the purposes of reproduction and, like humans, they like to be in stable relationships.  Its also got a cousin, the montane vole, which is much more a playboy (or whatever the equivalent is in vole country).

When prairie voles have sex, vasopressin and oxytocin are released. If the release of these hormones is blocked, prairie-voles' sex becomes a much more passing event, like that normally enjoyed by their more promiscuous cousin, the montane vole. Conversely, if prairie voles are given an injection of the hormones but prevented from having sex, they will still form a preference for their chosen partner. In other words, researchers can make prairie voles develop an attachment with an injection but it doesn’t work with the montane vole, which is without the necessary receptors.

The brain has a reward system designed to make us, voles, and every other animal do what they ought to. Without it, we would apparently not bother to eat, drink, wash, or have sex — the result being that we wouldn’t be here at all. When a male rat has sex, it feels good to him because of dopamine. He learns that sex is enjoyable and seeks out more. But, in contrast to the prairie vole (and more like the montane), at no time do rats learn to associate sex with a particular female, possibly due to the lack of necessary vasopressin and oxytocin receptors in the appropriate brain areas. Rats are not monogamous at all — they are, in British tabloid speak, real-life “love rats.”

But this may not an all-or-nothing effect.  Over the past decade, Dr. Steven Phelps along with his mentor Dr. Larry Young of Emory University has found great diversity in the distribution of vasopressin receptors between individual prairie voles. This hints toward a variation in response, allowing some individuals to be more sociable or capable of showing more fidelity than others.

Wired to hurt

So what happens when love turns bad. I defer to noted American anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher, who has spent many years studying the brains of both those in love and, more interestingly,  those who were in dumpsville. As she stated in her 2008 TED talk , “When you've been rejected in love,not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you're also feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working and you're feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation, and the willingness to risk it all to win life's greatest prize.” A perusal through Fisher’s work will show you that your brain is basically wired to hurt you when you are rejected.

So, if we believe that life’s greatest prize is a sustainable, long-term, and loving relationship, is being off our heads really the best way to obtain it? Not if you believe American psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein who found that within 10 years, those who had arranged marriages tended have a stronger relationship and feel closer to each other than those in “love” marriages after 10 years. He argues there are “four pillars” to a successful long-term relationship: commitment, realistic expectations, intimate knowledge, and “essential relationship skills,” such as respect and honesty.   

So, there you have it. Next time, you find yourself at a bar or out on a date and you feel yourself getting lost in somebody's eyes, and you’re starting to think  about the alignment of the stars, the cosmos, and the elements in harmony that have brought you “the One,” consider instead laying off the wine and calling your parents.

Dr. John Carrigan is a biochemist from Dublin, Ireland with over 10 years experience in both the biotech and research environments. He has worked in such diverse fields as engineering enzymes for diagnostic kits and analyzing the metabolic effects of cancer. More recently, he has been focused on the potential for algae oil as a food source. When away from the lab he likes to write, drink Guinness, and bet on horses.