Limerence and the “Halo Effect”

Limerence comes in many situations and in different forms.

A young man falls in love with his college sweetheart and experiences limerence; if both he and the sweetheart are single, there is likely little problem. A deep sense of longing and desire for the partner develops; she is perfect and can do no wrong, and this makes him feel euphoric whenever he is with her and makes him yearn for her when she is away. This is the romantic love that is the subject of so many novels, poems, movies, and songs.

A middle-aged woman connects with a man in the workplace or in some other environment they both inhabit and becomes limerent. One or both of them are married and their relationship violates societal norms and the moral codes of various religions. Yet they feel that they are getting something vital from the relationship—something that is missing from their primary relationship with the spouse. This partner seems perfect and can also do no wrong, despite the fact that there are obvious character flaws that have allowed their inappropriate relationship to develop. Nevertheless, they  feel euphoric when they are together, pine for each other when they are apart, and experience guilt at the impropriety of their actions. Theirs is a forbidden love, one that is also the subject of so many more novels, poems, movies, and songs.

One feature common to both of these relationships is the belief that the romantic partner is “perfect,” yet there is an obvious problem here: no one is perfect; everyone has his or her flaws, major or minor. The college sweetheart might be rude to waiters at restaurants; her boyfriend dismisses this as a sign of her perfectionism that demands the best from everyone—especially if she is paying for something. He may even find this endearing, but certainly will overlook it. The middle-aged woman ignores the ring on her affair partner’s finger and the knowledge that this man is willing to violate his marriage vows to be with her. She will make excuses for his behavior and tell herself that he is still trustworthy, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

This is the “halo effect.”

These two relationships are on opposing ends of a spectum; on the one side, “normal” relationships occur, and on the other, “deviant” ones, such as adultery. But, this is a spectrum, and there is room for relationships to fall somewhere in the middle. This post is the story of one such relationship.

There is a person I know, albeit not very well—she is more or less an acquaintance I have made through professional circles—who has been quite public over the past few months via social media about relationship developments in her life. In the past, I have mostly known about her married life, her two kids, and her apparently devoted husband of the past decade. Thus it came as quite a surprise a few months ago when another man entered the scene and apparently created an odd sort of relationship triangle. This man was interacting with the kids and with her husband, spending time at the holidays with both in what seemed like a rather uncomfortable way. There were pictures of his presence and interactions with the kids and professions of how wonderful he was and how patient and accepting the husband was of the situation. Yet it was hard to tease this apart; it looked for all the world like an extramarital affair, but there was no direct evidence of such, and the husband was aware of the whole thing.

Very recently the nature of this relationship became clear as the whole situation crumbled to the ground. These revelations came directly from the acquaintance as she aired all her thoughts and feelings over social meda in the form of a public confession.

A couple of years ago, this acquaintance reconnected with an old college friend whom she had not seen for perhaps a couple decades. He was in jail at the time for some sort of drug-related offense. They began to talk on the phone, and the conversations became more frequent and intimate until they were happening nearly every day. By her own admission, they would talk for up to two hours at a time, and her chats with him allowed her to open up emotionally in a way that made her feel understood, safe, and loved.

I’ll just pause the narrative right here to point out that this is already the sign of a serious problem in the marriage. Ideally, the spouse is the person who should make his partner feel understood, safe, and loved; a spouse will typically usually confide in someone else in this way if there is a breakdown in the intimacy of the marriage. Mort Fertel, in his marriage coaching program Marriage Fitness, refers to this dynamic as “emotional infidelity.” This can happen between a man and a woman, as it had in this case; it can also happen between a woman and her closest girlfriend, or a man and his best golf buddy. The key thing here is that the emotional intimacy of the marriage is being compromised by the presence of a third person who is being told things that only the spouse should know.

Returning to our story, the acquaintance developed a deep emotional bond over the subsequent months with the incarcerated friend, going to visit him in jail, writing him letters, phoning him every day, and making plans. At some point, she apparently felt that this man was the love of her life that she was fated to be with. He was soon to be paroled and she even publicly asked her acquaintances via social media to write letters to the parole board in support of his case. It was also around this time that she asked her husband for a divorce.

Her husband agreed; not that he had much choice, mind you, as this is all taking place in a state with no-fault divorce laws. She merely needed to assert that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”—wording that is ever so conveniently pre-written into divorce petitions in this state—and the courts would willingly agree. Her husband nonetheless maintained a presence in her life through all this because of the kids, although it is hard to know whether they still lived together.

Soon after the divorce proceedings were filed, this man was paroled and came to visit his professed life partner. They spent the holidays together in the aforementioned public and rather awkward relationship triangle that was broadcast so visibly over social media. It seems that there also had been a number of people who had advised her that she was on the wrong path. After all, she was married, had kids, and was wanting to throw all that down the drain in favor of a relationship with a man who had documented drug abuse problems and who resultantly for years had been in and out of jail.

This is not to say that this man is a bad person, of course—I doubt he is—but rather that her choice did not appear to be a very sound one. Emotions are illogical, however, and a person in the throes of limerence is not likely to listen to the logical appeals of friends and family. If it feels right, it must be right. She willingly overlooked the behavioral flaws of this recent parolee and professed that he has changed, and that he can and will change further.

This is the “halo effect” in action.

The divorce appears to have gone final in the early part of this year and soon thereafter appeared on social media engagement pictures of the acquaintance and her recently paroled friend, both wearing engagement rings. They lived many miles apart—he had been jailed in another state—but had plans to be together for good. There were the expected “likes” and statements of congratulations; behind the scenes, there likely were also the admonitions and words of caution from concerned friends and family.

A few short months later, the story of these fate-driven life partners falls apart. The man’s addictions won the day and he soon found himself back in jail again. The acquaintance felt betrayed and heartbroken. She made a public confession over social media that their engagement was over and that they would not marry. She had decided to break of their relationship entirely. She asked others not to say “I told you so.” She struggled to come to terms with her obvious and understandable grieving. She sought counsel from friends and professionals. The halo that she saw over this man’s head was just an illusion after all.

It’s unclear where this person’s story leads now. She is divorced and caring for two kids. The ex-husband is still in the picture and appears devoted to his family and still seems to care for her. My instincts and experienc tell me that this aborted engagement could be a blessing in disguise; it could be the impetus by which they could learn the relationship skills that would give them a real life-long partnership filled with trust, devotion, and profound intimacy. It could be the start of a successful reconciliation. Only time will if that will be their outcome. I do hope it is.

To me, this brought home the extent to which a person can be deluded by romantic fantasy. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, of course, so it’s difficult to watch someone else go through it—especially knowing that the person will never listen to the timely and well-intentioned (and possibly well-informed) counsel of others. Limerence and its halo effect is just too powerful. They sometimes only learn when it is too late and the damage has been done. Hopefully for her and her family, that damage will be repaired.

2 thoughts on “Limerence and the “Halo Effect””

    1. It’s really true. It seems like the more I hear these stories, the more things they have in common. This one is interesting because this person was really in the throes of “phase-two” limerence and then got hit with a huge dose of the reality she was choosing not to see. It is really quite tragic, considering what has already happened to her family (her kids are young enough to not really understand it all) and also the suffering she has brought upon herself.

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