Synopsis: This mini love lesson starts with a getting to know Nympholepsia; then discusses unrequited love; a typical case; getting the accurate picture; confusions; sex and Nympholepsia; not wanting what’s wanted; ever seeking and never finding; and what’s to be done about this False Form of Love.
Getting to know NympholepsiaNympholepsia is one of the most interesting forms of false love. Sometimes it is like being in love without having to go to the trouble of actually having any relationship at all. It even can be a love-like relationship with someone who doesn’t even exist. Nevertheless, the emotions involved can be extremely intense, the behaviors involved quite complicated and sometimes the outcome is quite devastating.
Judge Roy Bean, of “The Law West to the Pecos” fame, is thought to have had a pretty bad nympholeptic problem focused on the greatest actress of his time, Lily Langtry. He went to all sorts of trouble concerning her, including even renaming a town for her, Langtry Texas. However, he never had any but the most formal personal contact with her. One of America’s greatest salonnières and the female who was declared the World’s First, Great, New Age Woman, Mabel Dodge Luhan, is said to have had a terrible nympholeptic relationship with John Reid, the amazing young chronicler of both Poncho Villa and the Communist revolution in Russia and who wrote the incredibly influential “Ten Days That Shook the World.”
Unrequited LoveIn the age of chivalry, knights who were supposed to chastely and platonically ‘pine for’ unattainable Royal ladies, who were above their own rank and station, may have been being led to suffer from Nympholepsia (also known as nymphlepsy). The same condition is thought to affect a fair number of the thousands who go into frenzies when adoring the rock star of the moment. Then there are those who learn of some hero or heroine of a past time and are quite sure they have hopelessly fallen in love with that person who is no longer counted among the living.
Tragically some of those even suicide so as to have a chance to find their love-interest in the hereafter. Others swear they meet their paramour in their dreams, while others testify strongly to having had wonderful sex with their favorite lover ghosts. Some even claim to be madly in love with literary characters that never existed in real life. Most who suffer from this false form of love do so in a more ordinary way, but that doesn’t make their suffering any less intense.
A Typical CaseChastity was brought to counseling by her husband who said she cannot sleep, won’t eat and is in a frenzy about everything, but can’t tell anyone what is wrong and we are all very worried about her. Talking to her alone Chastity frantically fidgeted, got up and paced around and showed many other signs of agitation. After miscellaneous comments she began to blush and whisper that her condition began right after she learned her pastor was moving to another church in a distant city. Slowly it all came out. She had become enamored of her pastor soon after he arrived at their church some six years ago.
He was a popular, handsome, charismatic figure that many women found intensely attractive. Chastity quickly came to secretly worship him from afar. At the church she volunteered for everything that would put her in contact with him. At night she dreamed romantic but never erotic dreams of him and never let anyone know her true feelings. She gave him and his wife and their children very nice appropriate gifts, did them favors and never strayed over the lines of propriety. It was enough for her to just serve him and be in his shadow, though her actions slowly became more and more frenetic.
Her husband, and her children, and later even her parents occasionally complained that her church activities seemed a bit too much but that’s all they did. But now that the pastor was going to be even more completely unattainable than before she was in a frenzy of uncontrollable, rapidly changing, very difficult to handle emotions. In time with therapy and some medication she did become healthier.
Chastity came to see she actually did not have an adult, real, romantic relationship with her pastor but rather she was fixated on the fantasy of him loving her. By being valued by him in her fantasies she too became valuable. In real life he would often thank her, praise her, compliment her, and make laudatory remarks about her to others. This gave her meaning, purpose and fulfillment for a time. Later she figured out that all had to do with her childhood and her father who never was very loving, seldom praising and almost never thankful. She saw that she didn’t want her pastor to respond to her erotically or even very romantically because those actions would be too different from a father to a daughter.
These dynamics are not common to everyone who suffers from Nympholepsia but they were her dynamics. Today she is well past all that and has actually grown from the experience but she would not want to go through it again.
Getting the Accurate PictureThe two most important words for understanding Nympholepsia are ‘frenzy’ and ‘unattainable. The condition throws people into a frenzy of emotions, and scrambled thoughts and sometimes peculiar behaviors. The dynamics often involve seeking or even feeling one has love for and/or from that which is unattainable.
In the worst cases some people ‘go crazy’ trying to attain the unattainable and then fall into the pits of depression or even psychosis. In the 1800’s the condition was thought to frequently cause convulsions and seizures, along with other somatic symptoms.
The word Nympholepsia comes from the Greek ‘nympholeptos’ which means to have been caught and bewitched, or entranced by a naked, highly erotic, attractive nymph or Sprite who was by definition unattainable to humans. This, it was thought, drove people into an emotional frenzy causing them to spend their lives in hopeless pursuit of the nymphs and finally to wither and die.
In mythology and Catholic theology the term meant accidentally seeing a naked nymph and being driven into a frenzy of ecstasy, never again to be satisfied by a mere mortal human. The only salvation from this demonic possession required a full-fledged exorcism. Today the term refers to going into an emotional frenzy while trying to obtain something or someone unable to be obtained and being destructively effected in the process.
ConfusionsNympholepsia sometimes is confused with pedophilia because it often involves people of rather different ages being attracted to each other or one to another. It also has been confused with the ‘Lolita complex’ and misidentified as something that mostly men do with younger females.
It, furthermore, has been confused with nymphomania, probably partly because it has the prefix nymph and partly because it has to do with romantic-like relationship situations and dynamics. It also has been misidentified as something young girls do toward and with older men.
Some of the people thought to suffer from this false form of love have been known to be quite fixated, and obsessive and occasionally even violent in their acting out of their passion. The ones in this condition who are highly sexed sometimes are confused with having a sex addiction and the nonsexual ones with having a neurotic or, more recently, with having a sexual desire problem.
It’s interesting that some therapists seem to think this condition mostly occurs only in males and others think it mainly shows up in females. In my experience it’s pretty gender even. It also seems to occur in homosexuals, bisexuals, older people, younger people, all races, all socio-economic classes and every other category I know, although there are those that disagree with me about that.
Sex and NympholepsiaWith this condition there can be people who have no sexual desire nor even any sex feelings involved in their nympholeptic condition. With others there is a great deal of sex especially frenzied, passionate sex. Sometimes the sex is with a surrogate and sometimes with the target of their passions, and if that target is unattainable sublimation may occur. A common complaint goes something like “he (or she) professes lots of love for me, has great sex with me, but won’t stay with me, marry me and won’t stop going off with others, or won’t stop doing big, long, involved things that have nothing to do with me and don’t including me”. Another common complaint is that she (or he) is emotionally unavailable while at the same time being very sexually available.
Some nympholeptics have serial sex. I once counseled a girl who just knew she was truly, and deeply, and incredibly in love with one drummer after another. She had all-consuming, frenzied emotions with each drummer right up to the morning after a wild, passionate night of sex together. Then she would have the realization that the drummer would be going on to others and never really be hers at a heart level, and he just would be like the last several drummers and probably like the next one, which essentially was that he would be unavailable for a healthy, real, love relationship. In her case the background cause was very poor self love and very musical parents.
For some people suffering this condition it all can change if the female becomes pregnant. At that point they often lose interest in the other person and it’s all over. This leads some of my evolutional psychology friends to suspect the whole condition has something to do with genetic survival mechanisms.
Not Wanting What’s WantedSome people suffering from Nympholepsia are quite secretly and safely satisfied if the unattainable person remains unattainable, though they still suffer about it. By longing for someone they can’t have, they have a relationship without having a relationship. They can tell people that they love someone and often can tell a great deal about their romantic feelings, but when they want to do something as a single they are completely free to do it. This accounts for some of the people who marry a prisoner serving a life sentence or serving a very long sentence. They can say they’re married, they can send love-like messages back and forth, they even can visit, and they can have romantic, long-suffering experiences which brings the drama of romance to their life but with very little of the trouble.
This may be a sort of pseudo-Nympholepsia or just another form of it. Sometimes people in this variation of Nympholepsia panic and run away if their ‘romantic target’ suddenly becomes available or somehow actually comes into their real life. Others truly pine away and, to a large degree, either dysfunction or excuse their dysfunction with their unrequited love situation.
Ever Seeking Never FindingA fair number of people repeatedly go after the unattainable lover, and for a long time they just won’t quit. This wears them out, drains them, distracts them from healthy productive living, causes a lot of agony, depletes their self-confidence, generally wastes a lot of life, and sometimes gets them to turn to various addictions, become depressed and sometimes suicidal.
Some of these people keep going after the same person over and over, and others keep going after ‘versions of the same person’ but either way they never really get what they’re after. That’s because what they’re after is truly unattainable. Do they subconsciously know this? Some therapists think so, others think not.
Interestingly for many with Nympholepsia if they actually do seem to attain the lover they are after, one of two things happens. They either have finally won the prize and don’t need to go after it anymore, so they basically sort of say “thank you, goodbye” and go on to something healthier.
The other outcome is that what they have attained turns out not to be all that desirable after all. In both cases the relationship comes to an end.
In its milder forms Nympholepsia is like a ‘crush’ or ‘the idealization’ phase of an IFD False Form of Love pattern, maybe without the F and D stages. (See False Forms of Love: The Devastating IFD Syndrome) In a stronger form, the frenzy can get quite destructive and the lack of attainment can be very deeply frustrating and depleting. All forms of Nympholepsia generally are thought to have a tendency to block people from having healthy, real, love relationships develop.
What’s to be done?Some form of fairly deep psychotherapy usually is what’s needed to cure this affliction if it is severe. There are those who seem to ‘mature out of it’. Some who are good at insight and redirecting themselves, figure it out and learn about healthy, real love and go after that instead. Knowledge about this condition helps people avoid it, especially in its earlier stages. If a friend or family member seems to be headed toward suffering from Nympholepsia I suggest you encourage them to read this mini love lesson and then direct them toward a therapist known to be able to do deep, psychotherapeutic work.
As always – Go and Grow with Love
Dr. J Richard Cookerly
Illustration: Nymph by Blanche Paymal-Amouroux, French, 1899, public domain, thanks Wikimedia Commons.