by Manj Bahra
We’ve all seen a person become enamored or even obsessed with someone despite not being close to a romantic relationship with them. While everyone else knows the feeling is not mutual, they remain engrossed in a fairytale, often compulsively analyzing apparent signs to convince themselves there is hope. In most cases, they don’t dare to admit their feelings for fear of rejection, leaving them in a void of agonizing uncertainty.
What if that person is you? What if, despite a reputation for level-headedness, your mind has been consumed by irrationality. Days, weeks, and months can fly by as you remain blinded by your fantasy, unwilling to accept the truth — they don’t feel the same way. Your inability to admit facts only encourages you to waste time overthinking and mentally masturbating.
The purpose of this post isn’t to give you a magic bullet solution, but rather to understand why you struggle in these situations by exploring three psychological concepts. Not only will understanding these concepts help provide closure to our nonsensical behavior, but they also offer a rare opportunity to delve into our insecurities and heal them. We have the chance to display courage in admitting weakness and commit to building strength. More importantly, it provides encourages us to forgive ourselves for being human and avoid indulging in a foray of negative self-talk that erodes our sense of worth and esteem.
With that said, let’s look at three psychological concepts that can cause you to deviate from rationality and perpetually chase an unrequited love.
Cognitive Dissonance — The Agony Of Psychological Tension
Have you ever spent hours trying to decipher the behavior of a love interest, and ended up with an uncomfortable tension in your mind? While you try to maintain composure, you slowly become increasingly agitated, until finally, you boil over with a dramatic outburst or flurry of messages.
In Psychology, this feeling is called Cognitive Dissonance — the psychological discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values simultaneously (Festinger, 1957). When present, dissonance makes it extremely difficult to focus on anything but the cause of the tension and a means to reduce it.
In the context of relationships, we experience dissonance when we try to reconcile mixed signals — behavior that indicates a person likes us vs. behavior they don’t. A classic example is when you both hit it off well (hot), and then the other person pulls away unexpectedly (cold). The opposing signs cause us an uncomfortable psychological feeling that we seek to reduce.
When presented with conflicting behaviors and beliefs, your mind has three methods to resolve the psychological tension:
- Change your belief — e.g. decide that they don’t like you and move on
- Obtain new information — e.g. acquire some piece of knowledge that sways you in one direction
- Reduce the importance of the scenario — e.g. not dwelling and instead choosing to focus on other parts of your life
Most people choose option two, which significantly increases the difficulty of moving on. Rather than making a swift decision and concentrating on more important things, they decide to search for more information. Most commonly, there are two routes taken — a confrontation demanding an explanation for their behavior, or an analytical deep-dive into interactions with the person in question.
The former route is rarely helpful as the other person can plead ignorance and suggest you are overthinking. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant — you have wasted time that you cannot get back and allowed another person to dictate how you feel. You’re far better off focusing on living your best life than trying to get answers from someone who doesn’t care as much as you do.
Alternatively, choosing the analytical route results in you spending more time thinking about that person and all your interactions with them. As I’ve written about before, this is dangerous. The more time we spend thinking about a person, the more we become invested in them.
The result is simple — you work yourself into a loop of consistently dissecting all your encounters and projecting what you want to be true into all of them. You start to mistake a genuine smile for a sign of attraction. You start to google “Signs he likes you” or “What does it mean if she brushes her hand against you.”
Our constant need to resolve the dissonant belief repeatedly fuels a continual search for evidence that disproves it. We want to find reasons and proof that they like us — even when they don’t exist. The more we do this, the more we become invested and entrenched in the fantasy. Over time, we start to rationalize our effort is an indication of our immense feelings of attraction. On the contrary, your natural human inclination to reduce Cognitive Dissonance has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reason people suffer for so long is that they refuse to confront the situation directly. If you just asked the person out or made a move, you remove all questions and get a clear answer. You then have the clarity to change your belief (Option 1) or reduce the importance and focus on other things (Option 3). Instead, so many choose to live in hope out of fear of rejection, subjecting themselves to a continual loop of psychological distress.
You can read more about Cognitive Dissonance here, but for now, think about whether you might be suffering its unintended consequences.
The Dopamine Chase
There is no denying we all love the thrill of the chase. Routine and predictability are dull — uncertainty is sexy. The anticipation, the highs, the lows, and the rollercoaster of emotions are all integral components of what we affectionately refer to as the chase. We know that Cognitive Dissonance plays a role in pursuing someone who seems unsure about us, but else about the age-old hot and cold tactic drives us so wild? Why are unpredictability and uncertainty, seemingly counterintuitive behaviors, so damn attractive?
The answer is Dopamine. A drug like chemical that pulsates the body in search of pleasure. It’s the dopamine-driven reward loop that triggers a rush of euphoric drug-like highs when chasing a crush, and the desire to experience them repeatedly.
Dopamine provides us the ability to see rewards, take action towards them, and generate pleasurable feelings in response. While it positively motivates us to take action, it simultaneously exposes us to excessive pleasure-seeking and addictive behaviors.
Standford Professor Robert Sapolsky has studied the chemical extensively. His research demonstrates two critical findings:
1 — Dopamine levels in humans rise in anticipation of reward, not just receipt
2 — Dopamine levels are highest when uncertainty is as it’s greatest (50%)
These revelations are extremely telling for anyone in the heart of a romantic chase. What this tells us is that the act of chasing someone alone is enough to generate a release of pleasurable chemicals (anticipation alone is enough ), and crucially the amount of dopamine is highest when we are not sure of the outcome. In other words, chasing someone who elicits a sufficient balance of mixed signals is going to generate addictive endorphins — even if you never reach the goal.
You can forgive yourself for enjoying the game and pursuing the chase aimlessly. Dopamine is unbelievably powerful and rewarding to humans. It’s the driver behind you checking your phone constantly for notifications that usually have no significance. Whether you like it or not, someone playing hard to get with just the right balance will drive you wild with a mix of pleasure and anguish. Recognize this danger and evaluate if your chemistry is playing you.
If you’d like to read more about the role dopamine plays in attraction, I break down the specifics of this cycle in more detail here.
Limerence — An Obsession With Reciprocation
Sometimes your feelings can be so unique and intense that you genuinely believe them to be once in a lifetime. In your mind, it’s a matter of destiny, and no matter what you do, you can’t stop thinking about that person. Throughout the day, your mind wanders, and yet with each new situation faced, you involuntarily find a way to relate it to the object of your desire. It’s like your mind has been hacked and overridden, and all thoughts are outside of your control. Above all else, you want them to feel the same way as you do because you care so much.
If the above sounds familiar, you may be suffering from Limerence — a psychological condition of cognitive pre-occupation.
Limerence was first introduced in the 1960s by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her book “Love and Limerence: The Experience Of Being In Love”. She defined Limerence as:
The cognitive and emotional state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, that is typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings”
How do you separate Limerence from Love and Infatuation? There are four vital signs to look for in yourself:
- You find yourself continually thinking about the person, and unable to focus on daily activities without seeing the relevance to them
- Your primary desire is for the reciprocation of feelings rather a sexual relationship or intimacy
- Your focus is on winning the person over rather than their happiness or welfare
- You’re compulsively reading into the person’s behaviors and drawing conclusions, e.g. examining text length and frequency extensively
As stated by Tennov, those with Limerence will refuse to take no for an answer. Almost nothing done by the subject of the fantasy will discourage a Limerent from their pursuit. In some cases, any perceived obstacle or rejection is reframed as a challenge to overcome.
I don’t blame you if you’re thinking this sounds ridiculous. One of the most interest findings of Tennov was that people who had never experienced Limerence would be unable to accept its existence. The idea of being constantly preoccupied with one person and the reciprocation of feelings can appear laughable to anyone without a personal experience to relate it to. With that said, Tennov’s research in the 1970s uncovered a surprising number of people who experienced the symptoms of Limerence, including one man who sustained a nine-year obsession for a co-worker. He had filled forty notebooks and several thousand audio cassettes with details of how she looked, whether she smiled or spoke to him, and other minute details that only he could appreciate. His distraction led to poor performance at work, several demotions, and eventual dismissal.
As I write about here, Limerence is often the root of an obsessive unrequited crush. If you suspect yourself as Limerent, your next steps are simple. First, know that you are not the only person to go through this experience, and it does not define you. Second, commit to focusing on the areas in your life that you have been neglecting with your fantasy. Take up as many new activities as possible and become absorbed in something you are passionate about, perhaps a project or a goal. You are 100% responsible for your actions, and nothing anybody else says or does will change your situation.
We have covered three psychological concepts that often explain why humans can be prone to chasing unrequited love and even develop a romantic obsession.
These concepts provide a base understanding of some of our psychological vulnerabilities that can be exploited unknowingly by common dating behaviors such as playing hard to get or giving mixed signals.
Your goal is to understand yourself and spot when you may be falling prey to any of the ideas discussed above. We are human beings who are fallible and prone to emotion. There is no shame in any of the above, and more people are affected than you realize. Most importantly, it’s a reminder to us all to focus on living our lives rather than seeking happiness from romance alone. Develop passions and pursue them actively. Be a person with aspiration who lives an exciting life, tries new things, and discovers what the world has to offer.
If you want a comprehensive guide on moving on from these struggles, then I recommend you check out the strategies outlined here. Until then, know that when you dedicate yourself to living your best life, you’ll be too busy to allow any one person to distract you in such debilitating ways. Best of all, the more you pursue passions and adventure, the more attractive you become. It’s a win-win, a no brainer, and your choice.
Make it happen.
Originally published by Manj Bahra on Medium.com.