Over-the-top displays of affection, flowers, and declaring love within weeks. Romantic gestures like these might seem straight out of a movie – but they can also be a sign of something much more sinister.
Singer-songwriter FKA twigs recently filed a civil lawsuit against former partner Shia La Beouf, stating that the actor subjected her to physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and verbal threats during the course of their relationship. Twigs' account of the abuse includes details of how La Beouf showered her with affection and attention soon after they met, jumping over the fence of her London home to leave love notes and sending her up to twenty bunches of flowers a day. She now identifies his behavior as "love bombing", a tactic often used by abusers to manipulate their targets.
But what exactly is love bombing? And how can you tell if you're a victim of this concerning practice?
What is love bombing?
In a world that tells us that love stories should start with overblown obsessions and declarations of devotion, love bombing can be difficult to identify. According to psychotherapist and relationship counselor Denise Dunne, it is initially characterized by intense displays of adoration and the sense that a new relationship is too good to be true.
"Love bombing describes the behavior of flooding someone with flattering and grandiose messages, normally at the start of a relationship," she says. "It is recognizable by feelings of being swept off your feet, or alternatively, a bit smothered."
Love bombers tend to use a barrage of affection in order to later exert control over their partner. The target becomes addicted to the adoring behavior that the love bomber initially displays — when these attentions are withdrawn they find themselves pursuing the high that they experienced at the start of the relationship. Love bombing is most common among narcissists and goes hand-in-hand with other toxic relationship traits including gaslighting and emotional abuse.
"While intoxicating at first, the period of intense seduction is inevitably followed by very sudden denigration," explains Dunne. "The admiration is abruptly withdrawn, leaving the admired feeling worthless and confused, or forced to chased the admiration through submissive means."
How can you tell if you’re experiencing love bombing?
Not every overly-affectionate person is necessarily a manipulator and not every new romance should be viewed with suspicion. Tatyannah King, a certified sex educator, believes that there are some key signs that might indicate that a new interest is leveraging love bombing.
"It's tricky to pinpoint love bombing when it first happens, because new relationships typically go through what we call 'the honeymoon phase', where couples feel a romantic rush of euphoric emotions towards each other," she says. "However, you might notice that despite going into a relationship with the intention of taking things slowly, you find yourself coerced into doing the exact opposite, because a love bombing partner will demand your undivided time and attention. They'll text, call, and message over social media, and likely get upset when you begin to place boundaries with them."
Dunne suggests that love bombing might come to light once a partner's tactics shift, and they move into the emotional abuse stage of the process.
"Sometimes people really do fall in love at first sight," she says. "But you should be prepared to bail if you experience frequent and sudden shifts in dynamics from good to bad, recurrent accusations of being in the wrong, finding yourself acting uncharacteristically submissively, or being put down."
How to deal with love bombing
Love bombing is a form of manipulation, and if you suspect that your partner's behavior is consistent with this tactic then the relationship is likely to become extremely unhealthy.
"Strictly communicate that you don't want to rush into the relationship, and let your partner know that the constant showering of gifts and displays of affection makes you uncomfortable," says King. "If they care about you and truly don't mean any harm then they'll change their actions for the better. However, if they become angry or double down on their excessive and controlling behaviors then you should consider leaving the relationship as soon as possible."
Abusers will often attempt to isolate their victims from friends and family, so King recommends ensuring that you maintain contact with your support system. If your partner's behavior escalates, then Dunne suggests severing contact completely.
"This type of psychological manipulation is deeply problematic and is unlikely to develop into something healthier," she says. "My advice is to get out of the relationship by cutting all emotional ties and communication – someone with narcissistic traits will often try and entice you back, even if just for an argument."
Extricating yourself from a relationship that involves love bombing can be hard. The practice is specifically structured to make you feel reliant on your partner, meaning that it is difficult to identify and cut ties. "Because of the difficulties of extracting yourself from the relationship's reward dynamic, I would also recommend psychotherapy if you feel in any way injured by the experience," King says.
At the end of the day, it's important to remember that real relationships take time to evolve – and if a new love feels too good to be true then this might well be a warning sign.