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Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet (film still)
Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, 1996 (film still)

Why you so obsessed? The online safe space for the infatuated

On r/limerence, members gather to share advice on how to manage their overwhelming feelings of obsessive longing – but is it actually helpful?

“It’s a longing. It’s like a pining. The dopamine hit is insane. Nothing else, no substance can give me that same euphoric feeling.”

Ashley* isn’t addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling, though she’s seen people compare her own affliction to these things in the past. Instead, she’s been working hard to overcome a lifelong reliance on something – or rather someone – else. For the past 16 years of her life, Ashley would periodically become obsessed with another person. Each infatuation would last for around a year and a half – flooding her with a rollercoaster of uncontrollable emotions – before dramatically dissipating as quickly as they arrived.

“The highs and lows are so extreme that my friends are like, are you OK?” Ashley, who lives in Vancouver, tells Dazed. “You’re just bouncing from being in heaven to being completely devastated, just lying on the floor crying.”

After years of repeated episodes and online sleuthing, Ashley finally found the term for what she was experiencing: limerence. First coined by Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being In Love (a text so seminal that over 40 years later it still serves as a Bible for the limerent community), limerence is more intense than a crush, but different to romantic love. Definitions vary, but generally tend to describe an overwhelming state of unrequited infatuation with another person, referred to as the Limerent Object (LO). For many people undergoing limerence, the condition can be so serious that it affects daily functioning.

“I stopped eating properly, I stopped sleeping properly, I couldn’t function properly,” James, who is 27 and has experienced limerence for an ex-girlfriend, tells Dazed. “I was basing all of my reactions, my feelings and my emotions on that person.”

Despite its insidious interference in their everyday lives, James, Ashley and thousands of other self-identified limerents seek out the bulk of their support online. One of the larger and more prolific communities is subreddit r/limerence, where over 17,000 members share advice on how to manage their feelings – whether that’s learning to untangle limerence from their professional and personal relationships, or cutting off contact with their LOs completely. The group’s anonymous moderator, who created r/limerence after experiencing the condition himself, sees it not only as a bustling hub of resources, but also as a safe space where people can speak freely without judgement. He believes that the ease of access to online spaces makes them a particularly appealing medium for anyone confronted with this complex condition. “There’s a lot of information out there if people want to pursue it, but I would argue that online it’s just more convenient,” he explains. “We’re kind of intellectually lazy and just want to bond with people over a perceived commonality, and that’s where the internet thrives.”

The anonymous nature of Reddit and the condition’s secretive characteristics also make for a perfect match – as users feel more comfortable sharing intimate details with strangers behind a screen than with anyone IRL. This has been especially instrumental for Ella*, 28, whose limerence for a former lover has spanned 12 years and eclipsed multiple other relationships. “You don't want to talk about it with your friends or your psychologist, especially if you’re in a relationship with somebody else, or you’ve got kids,” she tells Dazed. “I can definitely see why people seek out help on the subreddit because there’s some shame to it.”

Member Sam*, who lives in the South of England, is similarly drawn to the anonymity of r/limerence, but also feels his therapist doesn’t know enough about the condition. “My therapist that I’ve been seeing regularly has an idea of limerence, but she only knows intellectually. Going into these subreddits, I can truly be around people that actually understand, and that's been a major relief for me.”

“The highs and lows are so extreme... You’re just bouncing from being in heaven to being completely devastated, just lying on the floor crying” – Ashley

It’s unsurprising that those suffering from limerence elevate the collective knowledge of the internet over sparse and intermittent offline support. For one thing, there’s an impressive behemoth of content to explore, extending far beyond the confines of Reddit and onto other platforms (the hashtag #limerence has accumulated 9.9 million views on TikTok alone). The matriarch of the online limerence family is undoubtedly Crappy Childhood Fairy (aka Anna Runkle), a YouTuber whose self-help videos on limerence have helped Ella, Ashley and thousands of others. “I’m not a doctor or therapist,” Anna, who was unavailable for interview, writes in her YouTube bio. “I’m someone who grew up with several alcoholics in the family, and all the dynamics that tend to go with that.” Despite her lack of medical credentials, Anna has no issue directly connecting limerence with C-PTSD and childhood trauma, to her audience of over 276k subscribers. Coupled with the rise in controversial digital diagnoses over the past few years encompassing everything from synesthesia to narcissism, this begs the question: is limerence genuinely a common condition linked to conditions like C-PTSD, or simply another example of the chronically online overpathologizing normal behaviour

Therapist Stefan Walters explains that limerence is certainly real, and a sign of a dysfunctional attachment style, though he hasn’t encountered it as much as the internet might imply. “I’d say it’s quite rare, I think. From having looked at the research, apparently four to five per cent of the population will experience this sort of infatuation,” he explains. Walters does acknowledge that this number may be skewed because clients may be reluctant to reveal the extent of the problem. “You never know whether there is that element of secrecy and if people do prefer to take this sort of thing to an online forum rather than talk about it openly.”

R/limerence’s moderator also works to trim the overgrowth of posts of anyone imitating or misunderstanding the condition. Posts that describe regular crushes are removed, while those definitively linking limerence to things like C-PTSD and ADHD (another common culprit) are also banned. “As a moderator, I’m keen to make sure people aren’t offering advice or guidance that they have no business doing because they’re not a licensed mental health care professional,” he states.

That said, although r/limerence members are quick to distance themselves from more hardline communities – such as r/obsessive_love, a much smaller subreddit which romanticises the yandere (Japanese for lovesick) aesthetic popular in anime – they do occasionally glamorise limerence. The abundance of threads entitled ‘What’s the craziest/creepiest/most bizarre thing you have done to an LO?’ or similar shroud the subreddit with a significantly more threatening aura. Behaviours listed range from more benign social media stalking to real-life stalking and harassment – including calling LOs over 100 times in a day, tracking down their addresses and spying on them with monoculars. “There was a recent case where I gave some advice about a woman who was living with a female roommate,” James explains, “and one of the things that was getting out of control was that she was going through her phone, she was smelling her clothes, she wanted to be close to her all the time. She feels such a need to be in that person’s space that she was going into her room and going through her things when she wasn’t there.“

“If it wasn’t for the subreddit, I wouldn’t have been here. I’d probably be just dwelling on my object for 15 hours a day or something, I don’t know” – Sam

When asked about these threads in particular, r/limerence’s moderator explained that he was wary of gatekeeping or micromanaging the subreddit, preferring to keep a hands-off approach and let the community dictate the direction of posts. “There is no clear violation of our rules there, even though it may skirt very close to criminal behaviour,” he says, noting that it’s far more common to see people threaten suicidal behaviour – and that in these cases, users are told to seek help outside the platform. “We do have the occasional threads of self-harm because people are at their wit’s end,” he explains. “We always direct people to consult a licensed mental health care professional if they feel like they're struggling with issues that are intruding on their daily life and affecting the way they live.”

It’s clear that r/limerence occupies a grey area in between two extremes, not unlike the condition it is built around – operating simultaneously as a place of support and an echo chamber that can sometimes become toxic. But for the vast majority of users, the community has allowed them to process negative behaviours and incite them into making changes for the better. For Ashley and Ella, r/limerence, as well as Crappy Childhood Fairy’s content, never served as a substitute for therapy or an arena to brag; instead, it was a stepping stone that encouraged them to make real changes in their lives including addressing deeper causes and seeking other diagnoses.

In reality, most users are just relieved that the subreddit has allowed them to feel less alone. “When I was undergoing limerence it was such a huge relief just to read people’s stories and to see that connection there,” Sam reaffirms. “If it wasn’t for the subreddit, I wouldn’t have been here. I’d probably be just dwelling on my object for 15 hours a day or something, I don’t know.”

James agrees: “I think just the very aspect of going there, writing out how you feel and having other people going, ‘This isn't cool man’ or ‘I can relate to you.’ I think that helps people feel less alone in the general scope of things... I think that’s a great thing overall.”

*names have been changed