When a new partner's over-the-top displays of affection cross a dangerous line.
When a couple first starts dating, it’s normal for each partner to want to make a good impression with plenty of compliments, romantic gestures, and sweet gifts for their new significant other. And when that affection is mutual, it can be a perfectly healthy sign of a blossoming relationship.
But sometimes that behavior isn’t entirely mutual. Sometimes, one partner pours on the attention thicker than the other—and thicker than what seems “normal” when they’ve only known each other for a short period of time.
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Maybe you’ve been there: A guy you’ve recently started seeing begins splurging on expensive jewelry and planning romantic weekends away, or dropping the “L” word and openly fantasizing about what you’ll name your kids, long before you’re comfortable having those conversations.
And yes, these behaviors may just mean that your new man falls hard and fast, or that he’s truly that into you. But they can also be signs of emotional manipulation, say relationship experts—and they may even be signals that the relationship could turn abusive. Here’s what you should know about “love bombing” and the people who do it.
What is love bombing?
The idea behind love bombing isn’t new, and in fact, the term isn’t either: It was reportedly used in the 1970s by Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the cult-like Unification Church of the United States, to describe the over-the-top happiness and love his followers displayed toward others. According to Psychology Today, love bombing has also been used by pimps and gang leaders to encourage loyalty and obedience.
In recent years, though, psychologists have begun applying the term to troubling behaviors sometimes seen in romantic relationships. And thanks to today’s world of online dating and constant connectedness, it’s easier than ever for love bombers to strike, and to hit hard.
Geraldine Piorkowski, PhD, author of Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy, describes this type of love bombing as “a seductive tactic—consisting of excessive affection, attention, flattery, gifts, and praise—designed to ingratiate oneself and create positive feelings in the other person.”
Excessive is the key word in that definition. Love bombing differs from normal relationship behavior in that it feels unrelenting and unwarranted—or, depending on how taken in the receiving partner is by the attention, too good to be true.
“As in wars, love bombing is a bombardment or storming of the gates, designed to break down resistance—that is, the protective walls we all erect to shield ourselves from harm,” says Piorkowski. “The victim in love bombing is usually vulnerable at the time, and readily influenced by the inordinate attention.”
Why do people love bomb?
Piorkowski says there are two main types of love bombers. “First, there’s the kind of person who’s really very desperate for a relationship,” she says. “They’re needy, depressed, and they’re looking for someone to fill up their emptiness.”
These types of love bombers aren’t necessarily harmless; they often form unhealthy attachments to their romantic interests, and can even turn into stalkers. But their feelings toward their partner, while misguided, tend to be somewhat genuine.
The other type of love bomber is more sinister. “These are the narcissist sociopath types, who deliberately engage in a strategy to control someone,” she says. “It’s almost a conscious ploy to gain favor and power with a partner, regardless of how they truly feel about them.”
Dating this type of person almost never ends well. Love bombers often become angry or act hurt when their partner doesn’t fully return their affection and attention—or questions or contradicts them. Eventually, they may lose interest in their partner as quickly as they fell in “love” in the first place. Even worse, they could become controlling, verbally abusive, or even violent.
How can you spot a love bomber?
Often, the most obvious sign of love bombing is how a partner’s behavior makes you feel. “Intimacy comes with a lot of risks, like being embarrassed or rejected, so it’s human nature to proceed cautiously in a new relationship,” says Piorkowski. “When someone goes very quickly, you have to ask yourself: Why are they doing this?”
Besides the constant affection and grandiose gestures, there are other things to watch out for, as well. “One-sided conversations are an important sign,” says Piorkowski. “Love bombers often talk a lot about themselves, and your own needs and wishes don’t matter much.” One exception? They’ll likely pay you lots of compliments—but even those can start to feel insincere and inappropriate.
Pay attention to how your partner treats other people, as well. “The bullies of the world are bullies not just in romantic partnerships, but they tend to be bullies with others in their lives, too,” Piorkowski says.
Unfortunately, says Maggie Parker, a doctoral student at Binghamton University who studies intimate partner violence, it’s not always easy to tell if love bombing will progress to something worse. “The intention with love bombing, or any first phase of violence, is to make it so the person you’re doing it to isn’t aware that you’re doing it,” she says. “Abusers want to catch their victims off guard and pull them in.”
Intimate partner violence tends to start gradually, says Parker, and love bombing can be a part of that. “The first stage is getting to know the person and making them feel comfortable: being a smooth talker, showering them with gifts, having them rely on you,” she says.
But that can soon phase into manipulative tactics. “They begin cutting down your self-esteem, making you feel worthless, socially isolating you by criticizing your friends and family,” she says. “If they’re showering you with this much attention, they’re probably not spending much time on themselves—and not allowing you to spend much time on yourself, either.”
Can a love bomber be saved?
Love bombing isn’t always a sign of emotional abuse or deliberate manipulation, says Piorkowski; sometimes, it’s truly a matter of crossed signals and a little too much enthusiasm. But the only way to find out, she says, is to have a serious conversation about what’s bothering you.
“You need to sit down together and say, ‘This is going too fast for me; I want to slow down’—and then see how they react,” she says. “Do they acknowledge your feelings and pay attention to them, or are they like a good salesperson who keeps talking you out of whatever objections you have to buying something?”
Parker says that victims of love bombing often realize something’s not quite right after their partner gets angry for the first time. “If you can have open communication and get to the root of why he or she reacted that way, you may be able to work things out and move past it,” she says. “But if you’re unable to have that conversation calmly, it may be time to end the relationship.”
If you’re worried that your situation could become dangerous, tell a friend or coworker about your concerns. “These types of things can turn violent very quickly, so having someone who knows what’s going on—and who you can stay with, if needed—can be very helpful,” says Parker. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can offer support and references to resources. And of course, if it’s an emergency, call 911.
On the other hand, what if you really are feeling head-over-heels with a new partner, and you’re truly loving the attention? Enjoy it, says Piorkowski, but enjoy it cautiously.
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“Some people do fall in love quickly, and those feelings in and of themselves are not bad,” she says. “But you have to check those feelings against the reality of who this person really is.” In other words, make sure you’re both really into each other—not just the idea of love.