Thoughts on maladaptive daydreaming and limerence

It’s been over a year since I wrote about the difference between a daydream relationship and limerence. And although I still believe that daydreaming and limerence are fundamentally different things, it’s clear that they can overlap in ways that can be both healthy and unhealthy.

Daydream relationships and limerence both involve imagining romantic encounters with someone you aren’t romantically involved with in real life. The easiest way to tell which you’re experiencing is to ask yourself – do you desperately need to be with this person in real life, or is fantasising about them enough for you? If you need to be in a real relationship, it’s probably limerence. If the fantasy is enough, you could be in a healthy daydream relationship.

Maladaptive daydreaming makes limerence worse

But although daydreaming and limerence are different, when they coexist, they produce something greater than the sum of their parts. If you’re experiencing both maladaptive daydreaming and limerence, you already know this. Maladaptive daydreaming makes limerence worse. Because our limerent fantasies aren’t like a non-daydreamer’s limerent fantasies. We’re capable of building an entire fictional life with someone. We can meet someone once (or see them on YouTube) and our daydreamer mind goes into overdrive. Within days, we’ve mapped out all the details of our future life together.

And our fantasies are so vivid and detailed that they can sustain the limerence even when the real person is completely absent from our life. Normally, if you cut someone out of your life (or if they were never really in it), the limerence will fade over time, because you don’t have any new information to feed your fantasy. But daydreamers don’t need new information; we’re perfectly capable of making up our own scenarios. We can fall in love with a figment of our imagination and it can feel real. We feel all that excitement of new love. And we can relive the key moments again and again and again. Which means we can sustain the excitement using nothing more than our imagination.

This is how maladaptive daydreaming and limerence can combine in an unhealthy spiral. When you’re limerent on someone, you think you need to be in a relationship with them to be happy. You convince yourself you have a special bond with them, and all that’s necessary for you to live happily ever after is for them to feel it too. And you are in love. But you’re in love with the daydream version of the person. And because your special bond is with the character in your head, there’s nothing the real person can do to break it. They can disappear from your life, they can act abusively towards you, they can be in love with someone else. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll edit all of that out of your fictional version of them.

Maladaptive daydreaming can sustain limerence for years, even in the absence of any perceived encouragement from the person you’re limerent on. And if your happiness depends on convincing this person to love you back, you’re lining yourself up for a lot of pain and unhappiness.

But what if there could be a happy ending?

But could experiencing both immersive/maladaptive daydreaming and limerence actually be an opportunity? If you can separate the daydream character you’ve created from person you’re limerent on, your limerence can evolve into a healthy daydream relationship. One of the features of limerence is that we believe the other person is perfect. If they say or do something we don’t like, we ignore it or make excuses for them. We tell ourselves they’re not really like that. Of course in real life, nobody’s perfect. But in your daydream world, they can be. The real person you’re limerent on has flaws, just like everyone else. But you can edit out those flaws when you create your daydream character.  

Once you make your daydream character perfect, it’s obvious that the real person will never measure up to them. And then you can see that the relationship you’re having in your head is better than anything you could experience with this person in real life, because the only problem with it is that it’s not real. That might seem like an insurmountable problem – until you realise that reality was never an option.

Your perfect daydream partner doesn’t need to be real to bring happiness and fulfilment and meaning into your life. And your limerence doesn’t have to turn into a real relationship for you to feel those things either. The love you feel is real, and you can be grateful every day that you have the ability to feel it. You can live every day in a way that would make your daydream partner proud of you. Their voice in your head can be a powerful antidote to your inner critic, and an unlimited source of comfort and inspiration.

Real-life relationships and daydream relationships are very different, and they serve different functions. I personally need both in my life. I’m not saying that true, real-life love isn’t important, because it absolutely is. But real, lasting love doesn’t start with limerence. Daydream love can do.

[Photo by Erik Karits]