The news that SC governor Mark Sanford described his mistress Maria Belen Chapur as his soul mate had not yet grown cold when another "married man in the wrong situation" story hit the airwaves. Former Tennessee Titan's quarterback Steve McNair was murdered and his body found alongside that of the woman who expected him to divorce his wife and marry her, Sahel Kazemi.
No, this isn't an attack on either of those men or their recent tragedies. My heart breaks for their families, particularly their children, as well as for their wives and the men themselves. Instead, if you will think with me for a few moments, perhaps we can get a clearer picture as to why good people – both Sanford and McNair claim Christianity – make very destructive decisions. Also, maybe we can put to rest the tired clichés surrounding the concept of finding a soul mate.
Every month I spend three intense days with a new group of married couples in crisis. Though certainly not true of all that attend, many come to my workshop with stories that parallel those of Sanford and McNair except theirs hasn't been broadcast on national television. (Well, actually, some have.) Not just men, mind you, but women as well who have violated their marriage vows through strong emotional (and usually sexual) connection with another. For more than twenty years I've listened to their stories, hundreds upon hundreds, and learned the commonality that runs through them. Yes, there are always "unique" circumstances. And, yes, those in these situations believe that no one else has experienced what they are experiencing nor understands what they are feeling. However, the foundations are so similar and the path so worn that to their astonishment I accurately and vividly describe for them their experience, emotions, and expectations of what comes next. The typical stunned response is something like, "You just spoke my heart!" or "You told my story!" or "How did you know?"
Nope, I'm not a magician. (I believe in miracles rather than magic.)
Uh-uh, it's not a word of knowledge or divine revelation, though if God decided to do that with every couple I met it would certainly make my work easier.
Limerence was coined by Dorothy Tennov, PhD, in 1977. A great deal of research into it has been done by Helen Fisher, PhD, and her colleagues. I've witnessed it up close and personal through years of work with thousands of couples. As I describe it you will realize that you've seen it too – maybe even experienced it. (Don't worry if you never have; not everyone does.)
Limerence is being madly and overwhelmingly in love to the point of obsession. While it incorporates some dimensions of the agape (Ephesians 5:28) and phileo (Titus 2:4) forms of love that Christians are familiar with from Scripture, it also has several shovelfuls of eros mixed in. One in the throes of limerence thinks constantly about the limerence object (LO, the designation used to identify the one the limerent is madly in love with). The limerent feels strong passion and tremendous pleasure and happiness, even euphoria, associated with the LO. In the eyes of the limerent, the LO rises above normal humanity and is viewed as nearly flawless. I could spend pages describing it, but this gives the idea. (See chapter four of my book Your LovePath for more.)
From Fisher's work we know that in this state the limerent's brain increases dopamine (the ecstasy, happy, feel-good chemical in the brain) and decreases serotonin (the inhibitor, finish things, bring things to a conclusion chemical in the brain). To draw us toward the lover and overcome any barriers that might distract or prohibit us from pursuing, the brain goes into a phase in which logic and intelligence surrender to feelings and emotions. It's a natural high that is as strong, if not stronger, than nearly any drug. And it gets stronger. Emotions continue to intensify as fear develops that somehow one may lose the LO and the relationship will not last. Fear increases passion. That's why it is so euphoric while at the same time so scary. In short, the limerent's brain is a cauldron of unbalanced chemicals that lead to the absolute misery of blissfully intense love; happy thoughts mixed with fearful thoughts, wonderful fantasies about the future diluted by nagging doubts, euphoria sometimes dropping suddenly into depression, and giddiness competing with Godliness.
With inhibitions reduced and ecstasy increased, one in limerence describes his/her feelings in glowing, romantic terms. Governor Sanford said of his relationship with Chapur, "This was a whole lot more than a simple affair. This was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day." He believes that he will reach death "knowing that I had met my soul mate."
If Sanford is in limerence with Chapur (a given, don't you think?) you can see why he believes that. Look up the origin of the phrase soul mate and you'll find that it began with the idea that Zeus (people later attributed it to Karma and eventually to God) split souls and we spend our lives looking for the person that is the other half of us. Therefore, if we are so lucky as to find and develop a relationship with the person who deeply understands and validates our emotions, thoughts, and dreams, we have found the soul who completes us – our soul mate.
Sounds so romantic and beautiful, doesn't it? However, there are two major problems with it.
First, it's just not true. The fairy tale, myth, fantasy, or whatever you wish to call it has been propagated through the centuries via the human experience of limerence. It's a given in the marriage business that whomever you marry brings with him/her a set of problems. Marry this one and you get one set of problems. Marry that one and you get a different set. The absolute is that there ARE problems in every relationship and that each person on the planet is imperfect. While it's a fun fantasy to think that putting two imperfect people together would create perfection, it has no basis in reality. There is not one passage in the Bible that teaches that God has the perfect person for us out there somewhere. And there is no passage that tells us how to know if we actually encountered that person if such a person exists. Should we base it on how we feel? As you'll see in a moment, that won't work either. Why? Limerence fades away. Always.
Second, it makes God the one responsible for very bad decisions. Since Adam blamed God for making the woman that caused all the trouble (Genesis 3:12), people have been claiming that through circumstances and situations God led them to do the thing they did. As one woman leaving her husband for her "soul mate" said to me, "This is the man God meant me to have and be with all my life. He completes me. I know I was wrong to sleep with him before I divorced my husband, but there is no doubt that God sent this man to me." If you believe that God indeed has a specific soul mate for you and you finally beat the six billion to one odds and find that person, then who can blame you for abandoning the one you married before you finally found the person that God really meant you to have in the first place?
It's hard to convict people of sin when they partner God in the sin.
The end of limerence.
Medical and social research shows that limerence exists to draw two people together, but it was never intended to keep two people together. As God made our bodies, including our brains, He made us very complex beings. (Psalm 134:19) Part of His design is that at least some people are strongly attracted to each other through the process that we call limerence. Not everyone experiences it. When it is experienced between two people who have a right to each other, we love to watch their love. When it is experienced between two people who don't have a right to each other, it leads to very bad situations.
We know that limerence lasts somewhere between six months and thirty-six months. When the limerent isn't limerent any longer, things change in his/her perception of the LO and of life itself. Flaws and problems move from the realm of the denied or obscure to that of the acknowledged and obvious. You hear former limerents saying things such as, "Was he always like that? I never saw it. I don't think he was like that before." Other priorities in life become important again. The person leaving limerence broadens his/her life, making more time for friends, hobbies, and the like.
This is as it should be and is yet more proof of the wisdom of God. If we didn't move past limerence the human race would have died out eons ago because rather than planting the crops, lovers would have been sitting under trees reciting poetry to each other. As noted earlier, limerence is made to draw us strongly together, but it is not the element that bonds us for life. That is a different kind of love that is very deep, but much more rational and far less euphoric and obsessive.
That is one of the difficulties Governor Sanford faces now. The Associated Press writes, "Sanford said he is trying to fall back in love with his wife, Jenny, even as he grapples with his deep feelings for Chapur." The ecstasy – though short-lived – of limerence will never compare in intensity with the type of love that makes for a wonderful, life-long marriage. He will need the proper help to overcome the one and find deep and true fulfillment in the other. Unfortunately, it would take a book to explain our success in helping people overcome limerence and learn to love their spouses in deeper ways than they ever imagined. Therefore, instead of providing the answer to limerence, allow me to mention at least three ways that limerence may end.
If two people are in limerence with each other, they usually don't evolve past limerence at the same pace. Often one is still entrenched in limerence while the other has lost most or all limerence. That often leads post-limerent to abandon the still-limerent, either physically, emotionally, or sexually. Because of the intense emotions felt by the one still in deep limerence, logic, rules, values, and even self-preservation may disappear in a fog of desperation. The limerent typically tries to stop the post-limerent from ending the relationship and will employ increasingly intense actions to keep the LO from moving on. Tactics may include manipulation, control, guilt, seduction, blackmail, threats, slander, public scenes, suicide, and murder. Obviously not every limerent being abandoned will do every option listed here. Some do hardly any. But the truth is that some will do all of them, or in an intensely fearful moment jump straight to killing the LO and/or self.
This appears to be what happened to McNair and, as always, it is such a shame. By all accounts he was a good man who genuinely cared about people and who would roll up his sleeves and get directly involved in helping. On Nashville television a fellow church member described the kind of man that McNair was. But even the best of people, even those who love Jesus and want to do right, can get into terrible situations if they fall into limerence with someone to whom they have no right. It appears that Steve did. It also appears that Sahel did to a level that would not allow him to do anything but marry her or die. Many hearts broke and those who loved them will have a tough time healing.
Of course, trying to convince two people in limerence that one of them might become that desperate some day is fruitless. While still in limerence people usually see no flaws in the other and anticipate living happily ever after. If they have a right to each other, that impossible expectation isn't as harmful as when they don't have a right to each other. Either way, no relationship lives on limerence for more than three years and must have something deeper to survive a lifetime.
At least Governor Sanford is alive and so is his paramour. However, the embarrassment and shame he faces publicly, including the demands that he resign from office and the humiliation suffered by his wife and children are a terrible price to pay. As long as he is in limerence he will likely see his love for Maria is worth it. When limerence fades – and it definitely will, no matter what he believes about it now – he will come to a point of self-examination and guilt that will likely be far worse than whatever he faces now. At least I know that will happen if he is the good man that others believe him to be. A good man who did a bad thing. Not because he intended to be bad or that he even contemplated how his actions violated his values. A good man that, as Paul wrote it in Ephesians 2:3, succumbed to his sinful nature (flesh) because we are by nature children of wrath.
When I read that passage now, I think of how the very things within our bodies (our flesh) that make us human can lead us to selfishly, almost blindly, go after what our emotions focus on if the focus is strong enough. I've seen enough Godly men and women destroy their lives by yielding to their flesh (brain chemicals and all the other things involved). Haven't you?
There are only two ways that I know of to overcome the natural. You do it either through natural means or supernatural means. If I have cancer and the physician's employ surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or whatever else they have in their arsenal to kill those destructive cells and save my life, I happily embrace their use of nature to overcome nature. Like many other Christians, I see no lack of faith in taking an aspirin when my head hurts or downing an antihistamine during ragweed season.
Similarly, there are rational, natural means for combating limerence. I use them every month and see amazing success. Bring your spouse or twist the arm of someone you love to come to my weekend workshop and our record since 1999 proves we have a three out of four success rate in overcoming marriage problems – even limerence – and saving the marriage. Our system is scientifically valid. It's a use of the natural.
But don't for a moment forget that the supernatural can overcome the natural in the twinkling of an eye. The most amazing miracle in the Bible is that of conversion, a person yielding to God and being changed in ways that humans cannot begin to measure accurately. Therefore, I often pray for conversion for the converted when that converted person has yielded to the flesh, particularly in the ways of limerence. Though I understand that brain chemicals drive them and make them illogical, I also know that one can choose to walk by the Spirit or by the flesh. Yielding to the Spirit not only can change our directions, it can change our emotions, and, yes, even balance out our brain chemicals so that they don't have as much influence over us.
Just as God heals some naturally and some supernaturally from their physical diseases, He can and will heal them either naturally or supernaturally from their "brain" and emotional misdirections such as limerence. The primary difference is that they have to yield to Him rather than to their flesh.
There is hope and there is a love that can develop for each other – the limerent spouse who strayed and the wounded spouse who stayed – that is so much more fulfilling and brings much more contentment and happiness than any intense short-lived love. Let us help if you will but whatever you do, surrender to the Spirit and walk by His guidance rather than that of your own desires, no matter how strong those desires are.
Joe Beam founded Beam Research Center, an organization that provides marriage help to couples having trouble.