Don't Fall for This Manipulative Dating Tactic

·7 min read
Photo credit: Margie Rischiotto - Getty Images
Photo credit: Margie Rischiotto - Getty Images

There are several healthy, sweet, absolutely heart-warming ways to fall in love with someone. Maybe you start off as best friends who fall for each other over time, maybe you meet on a dating app, or maybe it's love at first sight during a meet-cute at a coffee shop, bar, library—basically the plot of every early 2000s-era romantic comedy. But sometimes, falling in love goes south. Like, way south. Enter: a manipulative tactic called love bombing, which is not only abusive, but also extremely hard to detect when it’s being unleashed in your unsuspecting direction.

“Love bombing is characterized by excessive attention, admiration, and affection with the goal to make the recipient feel dependent and obligated to that person,” explains licensed therapist Sasha Jackson, LCSW. The chilling tactic is often used by narcissists, abusers, and even con artists. Remember that Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler? Perfect example.

What makes love bombing so confusing for the recipient is that at first, it actually feels really good thanks to all the dopamine and endorphin boosts you get from the bomber's lavish gifts and attention. “You feel special, needed, loved, valuable, and worthy, which are all the components that contribute to and increase a person’s self-esteem,” Jackson says.

So for a while, everything seems beyond perfect. Like, hello, all the validation and affirmation you’ve ever wanted. But later down the line, after the love bomber has gained your trust, the conning, manipulation, and abuse begin. Like a switch, this person who once made you feel like royalty starts to belittle, control, and devalue you.

It’s the stuff of nightmares, which is why we tapped a bunch of experts to help you navigate a potential love bomber situation. From a closer look at what love bombing is to red flags you gotta be aware of, here’s everything you need to know.

What is love bombing?

Love bombing is a manipulative dating tactic used by narcissistic and abusive individuals. “Love bombers seek to quickly obtain the affection and attention of someone they are romantically pursuing by presenting an idealized image of themselves,” says Lori Nixon Bethea, PhD, owner of Intentional Hearts Counseling Services. The overall goal? To enhance their ego by gaining power over those being pursued.

Anyone is capable of love bombing, but it’s most often a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, says psychotherapist Ami Kaplan, LCSW.

“Love bombing is largely an unconscious behavior,” Kaplan explains. “It’s about really getting the other person. Then, when they feel like they really got the person and they feel secure in the relationship, the narcissist typically switches and becomes very difficult, abusive, or manipulative.” She adds that the same person who was just super idealizing of their partner will switch to devaluing them.

While Kaplan mentions it's common behavior among narcissists, love bombing wasn’t first coined by psychologists. It's a behavior that actually started amongst famous cult leaders. Members of the Unification Church of the United States (a notorious cult better known as the Moonies) love bombed new recruits to encourage them to join their fellowship. Other narcissistic cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh used a similar method of excessive positive reinforcement in order to manufacture feelings of intense unity and loyalty.

What are some signs you are being love bombed?

Dating a love bomber isn’t going to look the same in every situation, but a few telltale signs of a love-bombing partner are extravagant gifts, obsessive flattery, constant complimentary texting, and always expecting a prompt reply.

If you’re looking for more specifics, here’s what a love bomber might say, says Jackson:

  1. “I want to spoil you.” (Aka if your partner buys you excessive gifts in a short amount of time.)

  2. “I just want to be with you all the time.” If you feel guilty for wanting boundaries or space, not a good sign.

  3. “I like to check on you because I get worried.” If they check in every once in a while, cute. Constantly checking in on your whereabouts, checking on social media pages, or asking for passwords? Love bombing.

  4. “We are meant for each other.” Be cautious if things feel really intense really fast or they mention you being their soul mate or twin flame early on.

  5. “It’s you and me forever, right?”

And here’s how a love bomber might act, per Bethea:

  1. The love bomber will demand your attention and time and may isolate you from your family and friends (for example, they may become angry and make you feel guilty for making plans with others).

  2. The love bomber will excessively compliment you and shower you with affection.

  3. The love bomber will persuade you toward making a commitment to them very early on in the courtship.

Why is love bombing so dangerous?

Love bombing can be incredibly detrimental to your mental health because it's a form of emotional abuse, and Jackson says it has everything to do with the law of reciprocity: “If someone gives you something, you feel that you owe them something equal or greater in return. So if your partner is giving you excessive love and attention, you feel like you have to give this behavior, dedication, or ‘loyalty’ in return despite the red flags you experience.”

It also may become a cycle of abuse, says Bethea. “Once the targeted person becomes hooked on the love bomber, the love bomber has not only gained control over their partner’s mind and heart, but they also have their ego boosted. At this phase, they no longer have any use for their partner and begin the process of withdrawing from the relationship.

“Once the love bomber begins to withdraw, they may begin emotionally abusing their partner. They may hurl insults, make disparaging remarks, gaslight, and cause their partner to feel invalidated and devalued. The love bomber is aware that they have control over their partner and may eventually walk away from the relationship, with an understanding that they can return at any time to continue the cycle of abuse.”

What to do if you’re being love bombed

Point-blank, love bombing is a form of psychological manipulation. Still, it’s normal to feel a strong attachment to a love bomber or even to defend their actions. When narcissists target their desire to control someone, they look for deep-seated insecurities and find ways to exploit them. For instance, you may feel like this person truly gets you or sees you for who you really are. It might feel like this relationship—however controlling it is—has also provided you with the kind of validation that you’ve always wanted.

If you realize the person you’re with is love bombing (or doing any sort of manipulative behavior), you should do what you can to safely remove yourself from an abusive situation and seek out support systems outside of the relationship.

If it’s still early days and you think this behavior could just be hard-core crushing rather than love bombing, it’s still worth having a conversation and expressing how the attention is making you feel. Something as simple as “Hey, this seems to be moving pretty fast and I need to set some boundaries” is a good place to start.

It’s in your best interest to try to safely stop communicating with someone who you realize is acting to control or manipulate you (or others in your life). It’s almost certainly not within your capability to change a love bomber’s behavior, and it’s not your job to do so anyway (leave that to the professionals who *aren’t* emotionally invested). The best course of action is simple—dump them, unfollow them, and find the support you need to back you up.

Kaplan suggests turning to someone outside the relationship to fully acknowledge the fact that you’re dealing with a manipulative person. Seek out a close friend or family member who can keep your confidence, or search for a therapist or narcissism support group—there are many that specialize in dealing with love bombing (even if they don't use the term).

“You want to get some support from other people who have been in relationships with narcissists,” Kaplan says. “The question is how to start setting boundaries so you're not getting abused. Just take small, slow steps based on your circumstance.”

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