Eighteen years ago, Tina Swithin had just begun dating a new man who, on the third date, told her she was “the one he had been waiting for.” The comment caught her off guard and made her uncomfortable, and yet she found it kind of endearing at the same time.
Then, just two months after their first date, he asked her to move in with him. The grand gestures didn’t stop there. When she casually mentioned wanting to go to Jamaica, he purchased plane tickets that same night. He also sent huge flower arrangements to her office a number of times and left poems on the windshield of her car.
“I was so overwhelmed by his perceived love and attention that I didn’t even have time to think, which in hindsight, was his goal,” Swithin, author of Divorcing a Narcissist: Advice from the Battlefield told HuffPost. “I was being lavished with attention, compliments, emotions, gifts and over-the-top charm at every turn. The reality was, he didn’t even know me.”
What initially seemed sweet and thoughtful quickly descended into something decidedly unromantic and even emotionally abusive: love bombing.
What is love bombing?
Love bombing is a form of manipulation, which narcissists and other toxic people often use. It involves using extravagant gestures and displays of affection very early in the relationship to gain power and control.
“Things like saying, ‘I think I might be falling in love with you,’ or ‘I want to take you to Paris this weekend’ or ‘Here’s a $200 bottle of perfume’ on the first date,” Virginia Gilbert, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in high-conflict divorce, told HuffPost. “The gestures imply a level of commitment that’s out of proportion to the length of time two people have known each other.”
And make no mistake: there is nothing “loving” about these calculated acts.
The term “love bombing” was reportedly coined in the 1970s by the controversial Unification Church of the United States. Cult leaders, like Jim Jones and David Koresh, used the tactic as way to control their followers. The psychology community later adopted the term as a way to describe a type of toxic, manipulative affection.
“Love bombing, unlike real love, is a self-centered, anxious pursuit, with the singular goal of acquiring someone because it boosts the bomber’s ego,” Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism, told HuffPost. “It’s not about care or compassion or tenderness. For the love bomber, you’re no different than a shiny new toy that captures their attention for the moment.”
Other examples of love bombing might include making plans for a future together ― like talking potential wedding venues on the third date ― as well showering the victim with things such as fancy dinners, lavish gifts, compliments and a barrage of doting text messages and emails.
“One of my clients aptly described the intensity of this experience: it’s like having the sun shine on you, and only you, for days, weeks, maybe even months,” Malkin said. “It’s too good to be true because it’s all an illusion. Love bombers can’t love you because they don’t even know who you are yet.”
How is love bombing different than a sincere romantic gesture?
At the beginning of a relationship, it’s normal to for both parties do nice things for each other because they want to make their partner feel appreciated and special. With love bombing, however, the acts may appear generous when really, they’re self-serving.
“There’s nothing wrong with surprising someone with a trip if you’ve known each other long enough to take a trip, or if the intention is truly to get to know each other better,” Gilbert told HuffPost. “Love bombers use grand gestures to manipulate. They fake a genuine interest in another person to get something they want, usually some combination of sex, money, attention, a live-in housekeeper and access to important people.”
A gesture that might be perceived as romantic a year into a relationship can be off-putting and potentially a red flag if it occurs, say, in the first month of dating.
“It’s like having the sun shine on you, and only you, for days, week, maybe even months. It’s too good to be true because it’s all an illusion. Love bombers can’t love you because they don’t even know who you are yet.”- Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism
“A healthy individual recognizes that a potential long-term relationship takes time and they are willing to allow the other person time and space, valuing their boundaries and opinions,” Swithin told HuffPost. “A healthy adult does not need to crank their charm dial to high-speed, nor will they try to create an instant bond or relationship. A new relationship that begins to resemble a romantic movie or romance novel is cause for alarm.”
What’s more, the victim of love bombing may feel pressured to go along for the ride, even when they’re not particularly flattered by or interested in the gestures anymore.
“There’s a desperate insistence to love bombing, like you’re not playfully being put on a pedestal ― you’re being glued to it,” Malkin said.
What’s a love bomber’s end game?
The thing about love bombing is that it doesn’t last forever. Once the toxic person has taken what they need from you, they’ll pull the rug out from under you. A person who was affectionate and attentive suddenly becomes scornful and controlling. Experts call this shift the “devaluation phase.”
“It’s a classic bait-and-switch,” Gilbert said. “They seem to be doing all the giving until you realize you’re doing all the giving and they have used you for your body, your wallet, your home, your caretaking ability and your empathy.”
““It’s a classic bait-and-switch. They seem to be doing all the giving until you realize you’re doing all the giving and they have used you for your body, your wallet, your home, your caretaking ability and your empathy.””- Virginia Gilbert, marriage and family therapist
Swithin likened the way a love bomber approaches a new relationship to the way a salesperson thinks about closing a deal.
“They will go above and beyond to close sale ― or the relationship ― and win you over,” she explained. “This grandiose show of love, attention and affection will not last and usually ends when they feel they have you in their clutches.”
When you try to assert your independence ― by speaking your mind or making plans with friends and family that don’t involve the love bomber ― the toxic partner may feel like their position of power is threatened. Then, they may punish you to regain control.
“Little flashes that you’re human, like feeling tired yourself or not wanting the wine picked for you often lead to brooding silence or even flashes of anger,” Malkin said.
This can lead to a vicious cycle that includes a period of idealization followed by a period of devaluation, again and again. During the periods of devaluation, the victim may try desperately to get back in the love bomber’s good graces.
“I’ve seen patients who’ve given up family, friends, favorite hobbies, financial stability and even health, all in an effort to earn back a love bomber’s affection and attention,” clinical psychiatrist Dale Archer wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today.
If you think you’re being love bombed, what should you do?
If what you’ve read above sounds all too familiar, you may be a victim of love bombing. Our experts recommend having an honest conversation with your partner to express your concerns about how fast things are moving in the relationship. Their response may tell you everything you need to know.
“When you are talking, is your partner truly listening and valuing your perspective or are they trying to talk over you, change your mind or cause you to question yourself?” Swithin said. “A person who is trying to force a relationship into place at lightning speed is not healthy. A toxic individual is out for a quick gratification and is incapable of handling the ups and downs that come with a long-term relationship.”
Gilbert echoed a similar sentiment, saying “A non-love bomber will respect your wishes and follow through. A true love bomber may give you lip service, but they’re never going to admit they’re love bombing or change their ways.”
You can also reach out to a trusted friend or family member and ask them to assess the situation from their more neutral perspective.
And if your partner simply refuses to take your concerns seriously or uses gaslighting, guilting, stonewalling or any other manipulation tactic to get their way, take that as a sign it’s time to break things off ― for good.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.