One big problem that western culture has is that we only have one word for love, even though we all know there are different kinds of love. What’s worse is that our entertainment glorifies the most exciting types of love that also happen to burn out the fastest, without ever giving balance to enduring love, and what it takes to get there. One of the reasons I want to distinguish between the types of love is because if you practice polyamorous or anarchist forms of nonmonogamy, it’s good to understand and differentiate the different types of emotions and desires you have with any given person so you can communicate them clearly.
One of the first things you learn when you start getting your graduate degree in counseling psychology is that early psychologists often came up with different words for the same phenomenon and then passed it off as their own brilliant idea, described slightly differently. It doesn’t help when lay people get a hold of an idea that’s used clinically and then they add their own interpretation of it. Passionate love, having a crush, falling in love, limerence, and NRE are all different flavors of the same phenomenon, likely existing along a spectrum. This makes things extra difficult when you are trying to do research on a phenomenon and then relay that research in a way that isn’t extra technical and dry.
After doing a lot of my own reading, I’ve decided to break things down thusly (plus I get to use the word thusly!) Passionate love is the type of “love” one feels at the beginning of a relationship where both people are reciprocating the emotions and generally happy with the direction of the relationship. Limerence can be the version of passionate love where it doesn’t quite feel like reciprocation is happening, either because the other person is not a relationship interest, unobtainable, or they are not engaged in the relationship in the way the limerent person wishes them to be engaged in the relationship. Compassionate love can be what you feel towards a friend, a respected colleague, or a family member – it’s well established and based on a foundation built on trust and understanding. This would still be different from unconditional love, in which you expect nothing in return for your love, and the other person can “do no wrong” to make you stop loving them.
Limerence and Passionate Love
One of the reasons I spend so much time focusing on Tennov’s work with limerence is that I see the way nonmonogamous relationships straddle the space between passionate love and limerence. In a society that relies primarily on monogamy, where expectations about relationships are standardized, limerence is either shunned as harmful or shunted into passionate, reciprocated relationships. Even Tennov broke the world down into those that experienced limerence and those that didn’t. Given the way biology works, it’s much more likely that this is a phenomenon that works on a spectrum, and some people experience it to varying levels of extreme from barely perceptible to life-changing.
Let’s go back to how nonmonogamy might be straddling these worlds. In nonmonogamy, you are designing your own relationship. If you grew up in a monogamous society and have no idea what you want your nonmonogamy to look like, and you tend more towards the limerent side of the spectrum, you may be very confused about how you want your nonmonogamy to look. Remember how we discussed the way oxytocin affects your attachment styles? Your attachment style is likely to inform the way you want to express your nonmonogamous relationships.
Think about it: The more you tend towards the avoidant, the more happy you are going to be with some space in your relationships. The more anxious you are, the more you are going to want a tight-knit community. While you are in the NRE phase, as an avoidant person, you may make decisions that bring you in closer to partners than you want to be in the long term. As an anxious person, you may accidentally push away people who are otherwise a good match.
But let’s go through a few key traits of limerence and see how they could be exaggerated by nonmonogamy, where they might go under the radar if you were in a monogamous relationship.
Intensification of Feelings by Adversity. This is the main one that I think gets set up in nonomongamy for several reasons. First, you might feel adversity if you and your partner don’t want the same relationship style or have different ideas about the amount of time you want to spend together. If one of you wants to live together, but the other is already living with a nesting or anchor partner they aren’t going to leave any time soon, this may create a sense of adversity, real or imagined. This can also happen if the excitement is cooling to compassion over passion for one person faster than the other, or if one person has a less limerent energy than the other. The person in the higher limerent state is going to experience the adversity and then their overall limerence is going to increase. This can lead to an increase in other limerent traits…
Exaggerated dependency of mood their partner’s actions, elation when sensing reciprocation and devastation when there is disinterest. This can get into a very frustrating spiral when you are only seeing your partner once or twice a week, but your limerence is telling you that you should be seeing them three or four times a week. You are great in their presence, but you are devastated when you aren’t allowed to talk to them when they are on dates with other people, which then could turn into envy or jealousy. You may not even fully understand what the envy or jealousy is about, since you don’t normally feel this way except in this relationship. If you tend towards a preoccupied attachment, you could be inclined to interpret their inability to spend more time with you in a negative light, when really it’s just a lack of time. Time tends to be at a bit more of a premium in nonmonogamous relationship as people need to balance more commitments and competing needs. A partner’s interest in someone else could be interpreted as disinterest in you if you are the type to do a lot of comparing yourself with others.
Compassionate Love / Established Relationship Energy
If you make it past the NRE/limerent/passionate state of a relationship, you need compassionate love to really keep a relationship together. Compassionate love is often defined as having a feeling of a secure friendship with someone that can accept that each person makes mistakes and is growing in some way. For a long term, committed relationship to exist past the initial stages, the relationship must have some form of compassionate love, some form of intimacy (sex isn’t the only form of intimacy (we’re coming out with a whole series of posts about this topic)), and a pledge of commitment.
Look, I’m a big fan of long-term relationships, personally, and I really enjoy living with my two partners. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been conditioned by growing up in a largely monogamous society with a secure attachment style. This arrangement works for me for a lot of reasons, and I found people that give me the space where I need it. It is important for you to take the time to determine if the pluses and minuses of a long term relationship are within your values, and realize it’s okay if they aren’t.
Possible positives of a committed long-term relationship: sharing resources, having a secure base to explore the world, sharing of domestic labor and tasks, increased community as you age; sharing of help when illness arises.
Possible drawbacks of a committed long-term relationship: decisions around job or living situation may be limited to consider others, may run into difficulties around sharing of living spaces, less flexibility in long-term travel or work assignments, less alone time or overall autonomy.
Other Types of Love
Different types of love have been identified by people throughout time, many with similar names. I want to highlight a few here just because I think they are important to talk about, but I don’t think they will fit into a whole blog post of their own. Or maybe they will if people give me enough feedback. Passionate love and Compassionate love are normal parts of mature adult relationships. Other forms of love can be healthy and normal in the right context, but become unhealthy when a person attempts to get them in a relationship because they end up creating a power imbalance.
Unconditional Love: This is the type of love you give to a child or a pet. It consists of loving without putting any conditions on that love – the other person can do no wrong. This can be a problem for relationships because it can mean that there is very little accountability in a relationship if the other person is behaving badly. Our partners should be our equals, not our parents (excepting for some kink relationships). Expecting unconditional love from a partner is toxic because you are setting yourself up for enmeshment, codependency, and a loss of identity or ability to advocate for your safety.
Filial love: This is the love a child has for their parent, which often includes some duty you have towards that parent. If you had a parent that wasn’t around physically or psychologically much when you were growing up, you may struggle to trust someone is going to stick around for you while loving them at the same time. When you see a parent bouncing from relationship to relationship, it can really damage the way you trust in the new relationship energy phase of the relationship. There may be many other ways this shows up. In a nutshell, whatever unresolved issue came up in your childhood with your family, you may be replaying in your current relationship in an attempt to “repair” the damage or fill a hole you can sense, but can’t explain.
Affectional Bonding: Researchers made a case for separating out the sexual attraction system from the bonding system. For some people, this is a duh. For others, this is not so obvious. Sometimes the more you have sex with someone, the more you feel bonded to them. But these two systems are very distinct. Affectional bonding takes place when you are in close proximity to others, and can have all the hallmarks of limerence and passionate love without the desire for sex. When people are segregated by sex for long periods of time, they develop relationships that are nearly like mating relationships even when they aren’t attracted to same-sex mates. This is a survival system that is evidence that humans are generally communal animals. There’s no reason affectional bonding can’t also exist between, say, two pansexual people who happen to not be sexually attracted to each other. To counter the age-old cishet adage: yes, men and women can be just friends and nothing else.
Love In Nonmonogamy
It’s quite common to be experiencing passionate love, limerence, or compassionate love simultaneously in nonmonogamous relationships. Sometimes when we’ve been with someone for a long time and we’ve been sitting in that compassionate space for a while, it can be distressing or confusing to see your partner in a passionate love space and wonder if the love has been lost. Or if you have been relying on passionate love to tell you if you are IN love, you may convince yourself that the deep and comfortable connection you’ve built with another person isn’t actually love.
If you find yourself repeatedly looking for one of the other types of love, you may want to consider how your family of origin may have left a hole in your life and find a way to heal that wound.