We spend a lot of time with our co-workers, and some of them are very attractive. This can be a challenge. In 2015 the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt made a crass joke at a conference of science journalists in Seoul about women in science:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.”
The fallout was swift and decisive. His institution, University College London, asked for his resignation (from an honorary position), and then announced that he had been sacked. Other organizations that Hunt advised soon followed suit. In the midst of the storm, Hunt tried to explain his own experience:
“I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”
It is a blunt truth that people sometimes become sexually and romantically attracted to co-workers. We hear a lot about the sinister end of this spectrum and the sorts of #metoo behaviors that get collected under the umbrella of “toxic masculinity”, but far more common are the many men and women who become infatuated with a co-worker unintentionally. People who wish they weren’t feeling this deep desire but can’t switch it off. They know how they should behave around this intoxicating other person, but instead, they act like a lovesick teenager and embarrass themselves (and others). They are madly in love, or that’s how it feels. How did it happen? What the hell happened to their self-discipline? Why can’t they get their thoughts and emotions under control? It’s like they’ve been bewitched.
In the 1970s a psychologist named Dorothy Tennov was researching romantic love. She was doing it on the quiet, because then, as now, there was a certain snobbery about whether love and romance was a fit subject for scholarly enquiry. After interviewing hundreds of subjects, she started to notice a pattern. A consistent set of symptoms seemed to recur in many of the people she talked to, but not in all of them. Some people seemed to experience the early stages of romantic love in a particular way, and Tennov coined a new term to describe this mental state: limerence.
The defining features of limerence are:
- Frequent intrusive thoughts about the limerent object (LO), who is a potential sexual partner.
- An acute need for reciprocation of equally strong feeling.
- Exaggerated dependency of mood on LO’s actions: elation when sensing reciprocation, devastation when sensing disinterest.
- Inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time.
- Fleeting relief from unrequited feeling through vivid fantasy about reciprocation by the LO.
- Insecurity or shyness when in the presence of the LO, often manifesting in overt physical discomfort (sweating, stammering, racing heart).
- Intensification of feelings by adversity.
- An aching sensation in “the heart” when uncertainty is strong.
- A general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background.
- A remarkable ability to emphasize the positive features of the LO, and minimize, or empathize with, the negative.
Tennov also identified uncertainty as a key factor for the development of limerence—the accelerant that turns a spark into an emotional inferno. The limerent senses some hint that the other person might be interested in them too, but there are impediments to them finding out for sure. Perhaps they are married, perhaps their co-worker is married, perhaps they are the boss or she is, perhaps the company has a strict no-workplace-relationships HR policy—whatever the cause, there is some obstacle that means they cannot express their feelings openly. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the limerence go away, it makes it stronger.
Neuroscience and addiction
To understand why uncertainty inflames limerence, we need to know something about the neuroscience of desire. There are two key neural systems that are particularly relevant: reward and arousal.
Reward is mainly driven by dopamine, and is responsible for that euphoric “high” when they respond to your witty joke, or sly flirt, or emotional oversharing, by reciprocating and encouraging your interest. Arousal is driven by noradrenaline. That’s the sense of excitation, of heightened awareness, the racing heart, sweating palms and dilated pupils of a body on high alert.
These two systems work together in the early stages of romantic attraction. In the company of that special someone, arousal kicks in and makes us hyperalert. It makes them the centre of our attention, makes us excitable and tense and nervy, because this feels like a high stakes situation where what we see and do really matters. Coupled to this, if they seem to be into us too, we’ll get a nice dopamine high that gives us a buzz of success and pleasure, signalling that this interaction is especially rewarding.
In the normal course of things, this could be the start of a promising relationship, but with the barriers and uncertainty of the workplace in the way, things deteriorate. The euphoric high and excitement of the early stages shifts to emotional volatility, to intrusive thoughts you can’t control, and the inability to concentrate on anything else. Instead of enjoying their company, you start to crave it. You neglect other responsibilities and seek solitude so you can spend uninterrupted time daydreaming about them. You start to behave, in short, like a junkie. It’s like you’re addicted to this other person.
How to cope with limerence
The “person addiction” framework for understanding limerence has a lot of explanatory power. It helps properly locate the source of the issue (within the brain of the limerent) and clarifies the fact that this infatuation is not due to the spectacular magnificence of your co-worker—it’s predictable neuroscience. The way out of the trap, is to recognize that your choices and behaviour have established an ingrained mental connection between your co-worker and pleasurable reward. You have accidentally trained yourself to seek them. Freedom comes from breaking that connection.
You must disrupt the habits of ruminating about them, spending as much time as you can with them, and trying your best to emotionally bond with them. Instead, you need to avoid them (limit contact to the minimum necessary), find other sources of reward, and put down the daydream crack pipe. All that reverie and fantasizing is a reinforcement loop that deepens the dependency. Oh, and no, you can’t “just be friends”.
This no doubt seems a dreary prescription, and if any limerents are reading this, their subconscious minds are probably already rebelling and rationalizing, and bargaining for more contact with their intoxicant of choice. But it’s also an optimistic perspective: you have the power to rewrite the subconscious program that made you succumb in the first place. That’s the safest way to wean yourself off your addiction, saving both you and them from further discomfort and embarrassment, and from any unpleasant encounters with HR.
Workplace infatuations are a fact of life; it’s how you respond that determines whether it becomes a crisis.
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