It seems as if love is getting harder and harder to find. Dating used to be fun, low-key, and an easy way to get to know someone. Nowadays, the playing field is more akin to The Hunger Games arena than an afternoon at the park. There are no rules, no expectations, and the game can change direction at a moment’s notice.
Getting to know someone can be scary. Unfurling your layers one by one—not knowing if this person will stick around or run for the hills—and sharing your good days and bad days with someone you just met can be intimidating. If we are open and honest with others, we expect people to be open and honest with us. Finding love means accepting and being accepted. However, when narcissists step into the dating arena, the already confusing game of love can take a sinister turn.
Narcissists, and those with narcissistic tendencies and traits, have a toolbox they keep stocked when on the prowl for a partner. These methods of manipulation include several forms of emotional abuse: ghosting, gaslighting, breadcrumbing, and love bombing. These actions aren’t new but have gained attention due to the widespread and common usage of online dating services.
For all their faults, narcissists appear as charming, gregarious, warm, and loyal individuals. They hide their fragile self-image and rock-bottom self-esteem behind a façade of personality, intelligence, and overwhelming ego. They adopt a “self-regulatory style” that maintains the inflated self-views and enhancements (Seidman, 2015). Despite their inner fragility, they believe themselves to be far above average in terms of intelligence, attractiveness, physical health, and careers. Their bombastic exterior is a ruse for not only observers but also themselves.
Naturally, they seek out partners to complement their stellar qualities. Love is not romantic to a narcissist; rather, the partners are merely there to fill a gap and complete the narcissist’s image. They don’t just want arm candy for a party or a handsome face alongside theirs in their social media posts; they need it to complete the image of perfection.
This is why it is so easy for a narcissist to ghost a partner or love bomb a new date: There are no actual feelings involved for the narcissist. There is no affection behind the flowers, words, or actions. Everything a narcissist does is simply a means to an end.
Love bombing is one of those painful situations that can only be understood in hindsight. Whether you are a jaded veteran of the dating world or a hopeful newbie to the apps, love bombing can affect anyone due to the heightened emotions and fast pace. In their 2016 study, Hayes and Jeffries refer to love bombing as the “helpless, falling-into-romance we see so often in films and books. Fueled by the addictive attention of someone funny and attractive, someone who obviously likes us, admires us, and wants to be around us.”
Attention from a narcissist can be a highly addictive drug. It’s fun and exciting—and sometimes too good to be true. Love bombers attack with praise, compliments, gifts, and attention; but the pretty wrappings are simply meant to detract attention from the true person.
Narcissists are “highly skilled offenders: and hide their real intentions behind affection and flattery (Hennessy, 2012). Hayes and Jeffries refer to love bombing narcissists as “romantic terrorists,” which is sadly fitting: They calmly appear out of nowhere, cause havoc, and then leave the mess for someone else to clean up. These romantic terrorists take all the joy out of dating. Nowadays, “dating is no longer a metaphor for love. It’s a metaphor for hunting” (Visvanathan in Walia, 2017). Narcissists are hunting for the perfect partner, tool, or complement to their image and the quickest way to lure them in is by love bombing.
Casey has been on dating apps on and off for two years. She has since smartened up and recognizes the signs of love bombers, but only because she was once prey. Casey admits she fell victim to a love bomber shortly after ending a serious relationship.
“I was very emotionally raw, and he was incredibly kind and attentive," she says. "We spoke online for a few days, met for a date, and then that was it. We were together all the time and were in love after a few weeks. I met his parents and he met my parents and we had our kids playing together. And then, not even two months later, he dumped me over a text message in the middle of the night.”
It was very painful at first because Casey was totally caught off-guard. “He checked all the boxes. He was handsome and funny, we got along great and laughed a lot, he was so charming and attentive to me. My family and kids loved him. I just didn't realize it was all smoke and mirrors."
Casey’s vulnerability and emotional rawness made her a prime target for a love bomber. “It was this amazing whirlwind of love and affection and then it was like the bubble popped and he never existed,” she recalls.
Casey admits to having some moments of wariness. “I would sometimes feel uncomfortable with how quickly things were progressing. He would do these romantic things for me, like making dinner, and I could just feel something was not right. But when I would share these feelings with friends, they would say I was just scared because of my last relationship. They would remind me how amazing and charming my new boyfriend was, and how lucky I was. He dumped me when I finally relaxed, and he felt he ‘had me.’”
This is not unusual, according to psychologists. These type of narcissistic love bombers show their true colors when their partner is totally reliant on them (Walia, 2017). Casey says, “I am very cautious around new people now. If someone starts getting too lovey-dovey too quickly, the alarm in my head goes off.”
Love bombing can also lead to the narcissist showing their hidden nature. Lucia fell for a love bomber and within a short time, they were living together. “It was super intense, and in the beginning, he couldn’t get enough of me. I ended up kicking him out when we were arguing, and he got physical and flipped a table. But I was definitely bamboozled with attention in the beginning.”
Love bombing can even happen without meeting someone in-person. Online dating offers a seemingly private, intimate area to get to know a new person.
Matthew was the victim of a love bomber he met through a dating app. "We were talking for a few days, and she was just so incredibly flattering to me. It was nonstop flirting, compliments, talking about how she hoped my mom would like her and that she couldn't wait to meet in person and get started with our life," he recalls. "I didn't take her too seriously, but it was nice hearing those things. She would say how she waited her whole life to meet someone like me. Then she just...disappeared. It was just so odd."
It is entirely possible to have strong romantic feelings for someone you just met, or for someone to fall head over heels for you after a few dates. A true and lasting relationship requires time and effort in order to build a strong foundation. Being love-bombed by a narcissist, however, is a totally different ball game. “As quickly and as intensely as he was infatuated, he just as quickly and intensely hated me," recalls Lucia.
Speaking from experience, Casey suggests that if you feel you are being love-bombed, “you probably are. Your gut knows. Your friends won’t know, but your gut will. Take a step back and reevaluate.” Lucia agrees and adds, “Be careful. While it feels great, keep your guard up.”
Seidman, G. (2015). Narcissism, intrinsic and extrinsic romantic ideals, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(8).
Walia, N. (November 2017). Love bombing. The Times of India.