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The Danger of Manipulative Love-Bombing in a Relationship

Spot the warning signs of love bombing early and recover faster with these tips.

Key points

  • Love bombing is an attempt to influence another person with over-the-top displays of attention and affection.
  • Love bombers can be experts at detecting low self-esteem and exploiting it. 
  • To manipulate someone, a love bomber often builds the other person up as if they were an idealized object.
Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

"Lisa," a 30-year-old patient, came to see me regarding a tumultuous relationship: Two years prior, she had met the perfect man, "Jake." This was a guy who called every day, sent flowers, planned romantic getaways, and was so thoughtful and understanding about everything. After just a few weeks, Lisa was head over heels in love and thought, “This must be my soul mate!”

Then one day, Lisa got a call from an out-of-town college girlfriend, who wanted to go out, have a few drinks, and catch up. She made plans to go, but rather than say, “Have a great time!” Jake became very angry. How dare she spend time with a friend without his permission? He started screaming, “You don’t deserve me," and stormed out.

Lisa was in shock. How could this loving man, who had been attentive, caring, thoughtful, and considerate in so many ways, suddenly get so angry over something so trivial? Distraught, and desperate to put a positive spin on it, she decided his anger was further evidence of his tremendous love for her; it was protective, not controlling.

Over time, a pattern developed. Whenever Lisa tried to spend time away, Jake got angry. According to Mr. “Soul Mate,” she was being “selfish.” Any desire to maintain past friendships simply proved that their relationship wasn’t enough, and wasn’t meant to be. During these times, he would belittle her and say she would never find someone like him again. Eventually, he would break up on the spot and disappear. Then, after spending some time apart—usually about as long as it took Lisa to stop feeling devastated—the "perfect" version of Jake showed up again, flowers in hand, professing his love, saying they had to make it work, and this time would be different.

This pattern repeated at least five times over two years. Somewhere in the middle of the craziness, driven by confusion and frustration, Lisa came to see me for help. But despite being in therapy, it still took several more cycles before she took charge of the situation and ended things for good.

“Love Bombing”

The first people to use the term “love bombing” weren’t psychiatrists; they were members of the Unification Church of the United States (sometimes known as “Moonies”). In the 1970s, their founder and leader Sun Myung Moon said:

Unification Church members are smiling all of the time, even at four in the morning. The man who is full of love must live that way. When you go out witnessing, you can caress the wall and say that it can expect you to witness well and be smiling when you return. What face could better represent love than a smiling face? This is why we talk about love bomb; Moonies have that kind of happy problem.

Notorious cult leaders Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and David Koresh weaponized love bombing, using it to con followers into committing mass suicide and murder. Pimps and gang leaders use love bombing to encourage loyalty and obedience as well.

Love bombing works so well, some have tried to use its powers for good. In 2010, British author and psychologist Oliver James recommended love bombing as a technique for parents to get their troubled children to behave better. A reporter for The Daily Express tried the technique with her son and reported:

It’s not rocket science that showering a child with affection will impact positively on their behavior but what surprised me was how much my behavior changed. Love bombing enabled me to see my child through a fresh lens, my disposition towards him softened and he seemed to bask in the glow of positive attention.

Though it has a long history, this article covers love bombing used as a manipulative technique, to maintain power and control in a relationship.

How Love Bombing Works

Love bombing is an attempt to influence another person with over-the-top displays of attention and affection. We’re not just talking about romantic gestures, like flowers and trips. Love bombing invariably includes lots of romantic conversation, long talks about “our future,” and long periods of staring into each other’s eyes. It’s the combination of words and deeds that makes love bombing so powerful, especially considering today’s technology. The ability to call, text, email, or connect on social media 24/7 makes it easier to be in constant contact with the object of one’s affection than ever before.

Love bombing works because humans have a natural need to feel good about who we are, and often we can’t fill this need on our own. Sometimes the reason is situational, brought on by an event, like divorce or job loss. Other times, it’s more constant and traces back to our childhood. Whatever the source, love bombers are experts at detecting low self-esteem and exploiting it.

The paradox of love bombing is that people who use it aren’t always seeking targets that broadcast insecurity for all to see. On the contrary, the love bomber is also insecure, so to boost their ego, the target must at least seem like a great “catch.” Maybe she’s the beautiful woman who’s lonely because her beauty intimidates people, or he’s the guy with the great career whose wife left him for his best friend, or she’s the hard-nosed businesswoman who’s avoided marriage and motherhood because her childhood was so traumatic.

On paper, these folks are attractive, but something makes them doubt their own value. Along comes the love bomber to shower them with affection and attention. The dopamine rush of the new romance is vastly more powerful than it would be if the target had a healthy self-image because the love bomber fills a need the target can’t fill on her own.

It wasn't Lisa's "fault" she was love bombed. Love bombers are manipulators who seek and pursue targets. They’re like emotional vampires, because they use attention and affection to build trust, as a means to maintain control, and end up sucking the emotion and joy for life right out of their partners. In fact, “drained” is a common term the victim will use.

My patient Lisa represents a composite of many patients I’ve had over the years, mostly female, who have been victims. The common thread is a cycle that starts with intense courtship and idealization over a very short period of time—days or weeks, not months. Idealization is when partners see each other as “perfect,” “meant to be,” or “soul mates.”

This is not to say that idealization by itself is unhealthy in romantic relationships. Over time, all couples can grow to think of each other in these ways, but the key is “over time.” No matter how perfect the connection, how great the sex, or the seemingly endless list of mutual interests, you can’t get to really know someone in less than six months. That’s why “love at first sight” is often a recipe for disaster.

The Phases of Love Bombing: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard (Repeat)

The key to understanding how love bombing differs from romantic courtship is to look at what happens next after two people are officially a “couple.” If extravagant displays of affection continue indefinitely, if actions match words, and there is no devaluation phase, then it’s probably not love bombing. That much attention might get annoying after a while, but it’s not unhealthy in and of itself.

On the other hand, if there’s an abrupt shift in the type of attention, from affectionate and loving to controlling and angry, with the pursuing partner making unreasonable demands, that’s a red flag.

This is classic psychological conditioning at play here. Just as the love bombing is the positive reinforcement (you do what I want, and I’ll shower you with love), the devaluation is the negative consequence (you did something wrong, so I’m punishing you).

Devaluation started when Lisa stepped away to spend time with a friend. The once-loving boyfriend suddenly became a harsh critic, finding fault and threatening abandonment. His abrupt change in attitude was all the more jarring because it seemed provoked by objectively neutral behavior. Spending time with friends isn’t associated with betrayal. After all, two healthy people who adore each other have no reason to be jealous, and part of the joy of new love is bragging to friends and family about it, right?

Not for love bombers. These manipulators use devaluation to control romantic partners. No matter how confident they might appear, they lack self-esteem and use others for validation. Devaluation becomes a tool to keep the victim isolated and dependent. Jake devalued Lisa, tearing her down to solidify his power over her. When she gave in to his angry outbursts, canceled plans, and avoided friends, Jake felt more powerful and in control, and when Lisa pushed back or defended herself, he felt threatened, and would use the threat of a breakup as further punishment.

Most couples involved in this toxic cycle will go through multiple rounds of idealization and devaluation. Each time, the devalued partner has to work harder to get back in the love bomber’s good graces, usually by sacrificing something that competes with him for attention. 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.

Note: In the following examples, I refer to the love bomber as “he” and the victim as “she” only because, in the vast majority of cases, love bombers are men.

The final phase in the love bombing cycle is the discard, which usually happens for one of three reasons:

  1. The devalued partner no longer supplies what attracted the love bomber in the first place. Seeing his partner as exhausted, broke, depressed, or less attractive, the bomber discards her for someone shiny and new.
  2. The devalued partner gets fed up and starts pushing back, demanding reciprocity for sacrifices or defending boundaries, making it clear she refuses to be manipulated anymore. Feeling exposed, the love bomber discards his non-compliant partner for one who doesn’t yet see behind his mask of phony perfection.
  3. The love bomber uses the discard as part of the manipulation, fully planning to reconnect in the future. Think of it like devaluation on steroids. He disappears, sometimes without warning, leaving the victim feeling devastated and confused. Then days, and sometimes months later, he reappears, out of the blue, professing undying love and promising to change. Curiously absent in many cases is an apology. Instead, the return is a test of his power and control, a challenge to see if his discarded partner can be conned into another round of abuse. If so, the cycle repeats.

No matter how these manipulators do it, the discard comes as a shock. Even for the partner in scenario #2 who pushes back. How could this happen, especially after all the sacrifices to make him happy? Aren’t soul mates supposed to stay together forever, no matter what?

Source: Unsplash/bewakoof

3 Early Warning Signs

Spotting the love bomb is both easy, given enough time, and difficult over the short run. There’s more to it than raising an eyebrow if someone sends you flowers after the first date. In fact, that could be a sweet romantic gesture. So how do you know if the guy who has you daydreaming at work, and feeling like a teenager again, is a love bomber? If any of the following occur before six months have passed, slow down, take a step back, check your boundaries, and remember the old adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

1. “I know we’ve just met, but we’re perfect together!”

Manipulative love bombers don't just walk up and say: "We belong together." They have to give you evidence that it’s true. That's why they target the vulnerable. Masquerading as "good listeners," the bomber gathers intel on your likes, dislikes, insecurities, hopes, and dreams. Before you know it, they're saying you have so much in common, therefore you must be soul mates.

A good litmus test is to think of your best friend, how much you have in common, and how often the two of you agree (or disagree). Now consider how long it took to build that bond. Is it likely someone you’ve just met knows you as well as your best friend? If you find yourself saying, “Yes, they do!” warning bells should be ringing.

2. “Our future’s so bright, we’ve got to wear shades!”

Love bombers aren't just confident you belong together for all time; they describe the future in detail, as if it’s a Hollywood screenplay. They use phrases like "We're going to be so happy together..." and "Someday, when I take you to Europe..." and "I can't wait for my parents to meet you..."

Notice how all these statements are foregone conclusions, not questions? Love bombers don’t ask; they declare how things will be, with conviction. They don’t sound crazy, because chances are you’ve already shared your hopes and dreams, while they were being such “good listeners.” All they have to do is pretend to be the hero who will make those hopes and dreams come true.

This is how the love bomber tricks you into thinking he is indispensable to your future happiness.

3. “You're so perfect, you deserve the best of everything!”

To manipulate you into thinking you’ve just found your soul mate, the love bomber builds you up to an idealized object. They constantly point out all the good traits you possess, and minimize any of the bad. Mention that you’ve gained a few pounds, and the bomber will say how much healthier you look with a little extra weight. Hubby left you for a younger woman? The reply will be he’s blind, stupid, crazy, and you’re the most beautiful woman alive. Complain about the boss who doesn’t give out compliments, the love bomber will say she’s an idiot for not recognizing your talent!

The love bomber is there to give you the self-image you wish you had, but lack. In fact, they’ll make putting you on a pedestal a round-the-clock project: Text sessions that last for hours, depriving you of sleep; flowers sent to work, with notes extolling your virtues; surprise visits, trips, gifts, all with the same message: “You deserve nothing less!”

If you fear that you may be in the early phase of a love bombing attack, picture that you are at a railroad crossing with a locomotive barreling down the tracks. The warning sign there is true here as well: Stop. Look. Listen.

  • Stop: Slow things down. Have a talk and say: “I really love everything about you, but let’s slow things down a bit, it’s moving too fast, and I’m a bit scared of that.”
  • Look: Actions speak louder than words. If his words and actions are not in sync, that’s a big red flag.
  • Listen: Listen carefully to what he says, and don’t be afraid to challenge the assertions. If he says: “We will be perfect together,” reply: “Well it’s early, but so far, so good.”

Also, remember that love bombers hate to be challenged, and a snarky reply to any of your comments above is another warning.

Recovery From Love Bombing

On the other hand, if you’re reading this too late, and need to recover from love bombing, follow these steps:

1. Go no contact.

No contact means just that, none, nada, zero, never. Block him electronically, and make clear in writing that attempts to contact you by showing up at your home or work will be considered harassment. Be prepared to follow through with a restraining order if needed. Manipulators often think “No” is a challenge, and will pursue even harder unless you draw a clear line upfront.

You cannot remain “friends” with a love bomber, nor can you leave yourself open to communication. The love bomber will keep trying to exploit your insecurities to get you back, and the cycle will repeat again, and again, and again.

2. Reconnect with family and friends.

Remember Lisa, and the way Jake cut out her family and friends? The key to her recovery was reconnecting with a healthy support network.

The love bomber isolates you as a means of control, so no one else can give advice and say, “Lisa, what the hell are you doing? Get out now! ”

Family and friends can’t stand the love bomber, because they see all the changes and want the old you back. You may need to apologize for disappearing, but friends will understand. In fact, coming clean about the devaluations and breakups will make them sympathetic if they are true friends. Imagine a close friend telling you the same story—would you encourage reconciliation, or do everything in your power to keep your friend from going back for more abuse?

3. Remember: Love bombing is abuse.

The important thing to remember about love bombing is that it is psychological partner abuse, period. When one person intentionally manipulates and exploits another’s weakness or insecurity, there’s no other word for it. Love is not about controlling who you see or what you do.

Healthy relationships build slowly and are based on a series of actions, not a flood of words. Love bombers are experts at talking, but when held accountable for their words, they tend to lash out. It’s normal to feel confused or betrayed, and the urge to make excuses for the love bomber is strong because they’ve worked hard to tie your self-esteem to their good opinion. And that’s what makes this cycle of idealization, devaluation, and discard so devastating. Love bombers exploit the natural human need for self-worth and turn it into shame, regret, and self-loathing.

Final Thoughts

The last thing I want to touch on, and it’s a delicate subject, is that there are things you can do to make yourself less of a target for a love bombing raid. We never want to blame the victim of abuse, but these are things to keep in mind before you are love bombed:

Maintain healthy friendships. Stay in contact with your family. Have close friends that are open to discussing and giving advice on things that are happening in your dating life.

Make sure you are fulfilled in your work life. Be outspoken about your needs and wants in a new relationship and always take it slow. Finally, remember to stop, look, and listen.

In closing, I want to say that Lisa ended up marrying a great guy and is now a mom with a fantastic career as well. There are happy endings.

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

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