The difference between a daydream relationship and limerence

At one time or another, most of us have mentally dated someone we’re not involved with in real life, whether that’s someone who’s unavailable or not interested, a celebrity we have a crush on, or a character we’ve invented to fill a need for connection and intimacy. But when we daydream about a real person, we need to be careful the daydreaming isn’t fuelling an unhealthy limerence.

The term limerence was first used by Dorothy Tennov in 1979 to describe an intense attraction to another person. If you’re experiencing limerence, you probably have an overwhelming desire to be in a relationship with the person you’re attracted to (who is referred to as the limerent object, or LO). You’re sensitive to everything your LO says and does; if your LO hints that they might like you or have something in common with you, you feel elated; on the other hand, if they mention being attracted to someone else, it can plunge you into deep despair. Thinking about your LO takes up a significant part of your day; you’re likely to daydream about your future together and how that might come about.

Aspects of limerence sound very similar to a daydream relationship. In both cases, we spend our time imagining being with that person, often neglecting our real-life work and friends in favour of the romance that’s playing out in our heads. We fill in the gaps in what we know about the other person with traits and history that make them more attractive to us. But there’s a crucial difference between limerence and a daydream relationship, and it’s one of separation.

If you’re experiencing limerence, you want to be in a relationship with your LO in real life. You’re constantly watching everything they say and do, looking for things that you can incorporate into your fantasy. You keep your daydreaming at least somewhat realistic, because you’re mentally rehearsing something that you hope will actually happen. In fact, sometimes it feels like more than hope – you feel you need your LO to notice you, to like you, to validate you.

And that’s the problem with limerence. You give the other person power over you that they really shouldn’t have. You feel elated when you think they like you, depressed when you think they don’t. Your moods are dependent on their actions. You convince yourself you will never be happy unless your feelings for them are reciprocated. No matter how much time you spend with them, it’s never enough. You create unrealistic expectations, and then you’re devastated when your LO doesn’t live up to them. Although limerence can feel good when you’re lost in your fantasy about your amazing future together, in the end it usually leads to more negative feelings than positive ones.

In summary, when you’re experiencing limerence you don’t make a clear distinction between the person in your head and the person in real life. You expect the real-life person to live up to your fantasies, and then you’re devastated when they don’t. In contrast, in a healthy daydream relationship, you’re fully aware and accepting of the fact that the person you’re mentally dating only exists in your head. Even if you based them on a real person, you understand that your character will have traits and experiences that the real person doesn’t share.

In a daydream relationship, you’re free to develop your character and their feelings for you in any way you choose. You don’t have to keep your fantasy grounded in a plausible version of reality, because you know your daydream isn’t going to actually happen. You don’t need to know how the real person’s life is unfolding, because you’ve accepted that they have their own path to walk. You don’t yearn for a real-life relationship in the future, because the one you have now is enough for you. You can chat to your character about your day, imagine walking on the beach with them, cry on their shoulder when life feels unbearable. They can be whatever you need them to be. You accept the relationship for the delicious fantasy it is, and you don’t need or expect anything from the real-life person. You’re grateful they inspired you to create something wonderful, and you shape that creation into what you want it to be. In a healthy daydream relationship, you take responsibility for what happens in your mind, and you don’t give your power away to anyone else.

If daydreaming about someone you’re attracted to is making you miserable, I encourage you to reflect on whether you’re expecting someone real to be exactly like the idealised version of them you’ve created in your head. Daydreaming about your crush without mentally separating your crush and your character can lead to an unhealthy obsession that takes a long time to get over. On the other hand, mentally dating a character you based on your crush can be a lot of fun and can fill you up with positive emotions. More importantly it sets your crush free from having to live up to your expectations, and sets you free from an unhealthy emotional dependence on them.

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