Written by Meehika Barua
Love bombing involves excessive attention and admiration at the beginning of a relationship, with often troubling goals driving it – and new data reveals we’re googling the term more than ever. So why, exactly, is it on the rise, asks journalist Meehika Barua.
Earlier this year, I went out with a guy who told me he was in love with me on the third date. We had known each other for just 72 hours at that point – a fact that made his sudden confession equal parts flattering and delusional. Why would he say something so unrealistic? Did he think I would straight up invite him into my bed if he said he loved me? Do I look that stupid, I wondered.
By this time, though, I’d also had enough of these experiences to start noticing a pattern. I had often been curious why the men I dated behaved the same way very early into the relationship (I’m talking the first few weeks) when it came to showing affection – forehead kisses, caressing my hair and tucking it behind my ear, rubbing my neck for a few seconds. Then there was the excessive oversharing. One time, a guy from Hinge started sharing deep and personal parts of his life on our very first date, repeating how comfortable he felt talking about such things with me, and hence how much he liked me. He couldn’t wait to see me next. After a few texts the next day, I never heard from him again.
It was extremely confusing. The more I started talking about it with other women, though, the more the trend seemed to have a name: love bombing. Mostly seen at the beginning of romantic relationships, love bombing is characterised by extreme attention and admiration with the sole goal to make you dependent. It could range from anywhere between lavish gifts to someone going out of their way at an unsustainable pace to make everything beyond perfect.
A recent survey by Shane Co. of 1,014 people aged 18-55 in the US said that a whopping 70% of respondents say they have fallen victim to love bombing at least once in their lifetime. 70% of respondents also had a new romantic partner say “I love you” within the first month of seeing each other. That made me realise that I wasn’t the only one, and a spike in Google searches about love bombing suggests that it’s on the rise, too.
The term has been used since the 1970s. Its origins can be traced back to members of the Unification Church, a controversial religious sect commonly regarded as a cult. Its members used extreme flattery and admiration to recruit new members. Similarly, I noticed the tactics used in love bombing were eerily like those used by pick-up artists (a movement of majority men who use a variety of ‘tricks’ to coax women into having sex with them), who mostly use touch as their approach. Think: reaching out to hold your hand randomly for a few seconds during a conversation or hugging you for an unusually long time.
According to psychotherapist Jack Worthy, the difference between pick-up artists and your standard love bomber, however, is that pick-up artists are self-aware in their deceptions and manipulations. They select ‘targets’ and make calculated moves for sex and companionship. Worthy explains that just like love bombers, pick-up artists run hot and cold – they bathe you in affection when they want you close, and then turn cold when they want distance. And the ‘hot’ and the ‘cold’ alternate – but there are also crucial differences. “In genuine love bombing, the love bomber’s not running a premeditated strategy. Rather, there’s an actual experience of attraction and obsession,” says Worthy. “It’s all hot at the beginning, but the hotness is often then replaced by conflict and criticism.” On the other side of that conflict and criticism, the bombed person can wonder if it was real or was that feeling of love totally fake?
Zoe, 36, who lives in Oxford, met a man online and started dating him. “He was incredibly charming and it felt like he had put me on a pedestal,” she recounts of her own love bombing experience. He agreed with all her opinions and claimed to feel passionate about all the issues that she cared about. “He decided to go vegan shortly after we met because I was vegan. He’d send me links to gorgeous houses on Rightmove, suggesting that we could one day live in such places. He even talked about the pets we’d have.” However, by the time she started to fall in love with him, he had lost interest. “He no longer organised lovely dates and instead cancelled our plans.”
Despite things not being quite as good as they had been, they already had a holiday booked together. “A week before our holiday, he simply stopped replying to my messages. He blocked me on all social media,” she says. “I went from having a serious relationship, in which I’d become completely besotted through love bombing, to being left high and dry. It was extremely disorienting and left me feelingcompletely lost, overwhelmed and unstable. It took a while for me to get over the experience.”
Love bombing is indeed disorienting for victims, explains clinical psychologist Dr David Hawkins. “Remember that love bombing often follows abuse, and the abuse is central in their minds. While the victim hopes for change – and promises of change are made – fear is part of the equation.” All of a sudden, the perpetrator of abuse seems to be remorseful and ‘will do anything’ to have the person back in their life, he points out.
It is tempting to forget the harm that has been done and settle back into the relationship, without the commensurate change that is so desperately needed. “Promises are made for change without a real plan of how to accomplish the change. The victim feels all the good things they felt at the beginning of the relationship, but typically the change is short-lived and harm is just around the corner.”
It’s important to note, too, that in a post-pandemic world, many are anxious to attach, to be in a relationship, to be loved, says Dr Hawkins. “We want the pleasures that come from connecting, but are sometimes naïve about what love really demands of us, at least mature love.” Mature, healthy love, Hawkins explains, is connecting on an ongoing basis, meeting one another’s needs for attachment, and not needing to love bomb because the relationship is stable and harm is limited.
So, how do we protect ourselves against love bombers? Notice the pressure to commit, says Worthy. “Falling hard and fast is not necessarily bad, but the pressure to be exclusive or to move in too quickly – these are signs that someone might subconsciously believe that you’re what’s been missing their whole lives to feel complete.” Notice how the potential partner feels about differences, too, he suggests. “Do they need you to be just like them or are they happy for you to hold different opinions?”
While I don’t want to become hardened to potential relationships because of a fear of love bombing, it makes sense to be on guard for warning signs before fully committing. Had I continued dating those who’d come on too strong in the past, I may well have ended up disoriented when the excess eased and we were unable to settle into a normal relationship – or worse, when they disappeared entirely.
Resisting love bombing can be hard in the heady fizz of a new relationship, but it’s also crucial.
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