Eighteen years ago, Tina Swithin had just begun dating a new man who, on the third date, told her she was “the one he had been waiting for.” The comment caught her off guard and made her uncomfortable, and yet she found it kind of endearing at the same time.
Then, just two months after their first date, he asked her to move in with him. The grand gestures didn’t stop there. When she casually mentioned wanting to go to Jamaica, he purchased plane tickets that same night. He also sent huge flower arrangements to her office a number of times and left poems on the windshield of her car.
“I was so overwhelmed by his perceived love and attention that I didn’t even have time to think, which in hindsight, was his goal,” Swithin, author of Divorcing a Narcissist: Advice from the Battlefield told HuffPost. “I was being lavished with attention, compliments, emotions, gifts and over-the-top charm at every turn. The reality was, he didn’t even know me.”
What initially seemed sweet and thoughtful quickly descended into something decidedly unromantic and even emotionally abusive: love bombing.
What is love bombing?
Love bombing is a form of manipulation, which narcissists and other toxic people often use. It involves using extravagant gestures and displays of affection very early in the relationship to gain power and control.
“Things like saying, ‘I think I might be falling in love with you,’ or ‘I want to take you to Paris this weekend’ or ‘Here’s a $200 bottle of perfume’ on the first date,” Virginia Gilbert, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in high-conflict divorce, told HuffPost. “The gestures imply a level of commitment that’s out of proportion to the length of time two people have known each other.”
And make no mistake: there is nothing “loving” about these calculated acts.
The term “love bombing” was reportedly coined in the 1970s by the controversial Unification Church of the United States. Cult leaders, like Jim Jones and David Koresh, used the tactic as way to control their followers. The psychology community later adopted the term as a way to describe a type of toxic, manipulative affection.
“Love bombing, unlike real love, is a self-centered, anxious pursuit, with the singular goal of acquiring someone because it boosts the bomber’s ego,” Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism, told HuffPost. “It’s not about care or compassion or tenderness. For the love bomber, you’re no different than a shiny new toy that captures their attention for the moment.”
Other examples of love bombing might include making plans for a future together ― like talking potential wedding venues on the third date ― as well showering the victim with things such as fancy dinners, lavish gifts, compliments and a barrage of doting text messages and emails.
“One of my clients aptly described the intensity of this experience: it’s like having the sun shine on you, and only you, for days, weeks, maybe even months,” Malkin said. “It’s too good to be true because it’s all an illusion. Love bombers can’t love you because they don’t even know who you are yet.”
How is love bombing different than a sincere romantic gesture?
At the beginning of a relationship, it’s normal to for both parties do nice things for each other because they want to make their partner feel appreciatedand special. With love bombing, however, the acts may appear generous when really, they’re self-serving.
“There’s nothing wrong with surprising someone with a trip if you’ve known each other long enough to take a trip, or if the intention is truly to get to know each other better,” Gilbert told HuffPost. “Love bombers use grand gestures to manipulate. They fake a genuine interest in another person to get something they want, usually some combination of sex, money, attention, a live-in housekeeper and access to important people.”
A gesture that might be perceived as romantic a year into a relationship can be off-putting and potentially a red flag if it occurs, say, in the first month of dating.
“A healthy individual recognizes that a potential long-term relationship takes time and they are willing to allow the other person time and space, valuing their boundaries and opinions,” Swithin told HuffPost. “A healthy adult does not need to crank their charm dial to high-speed, nor will they try to create an instant bond or relationship. A new relationship that begins to resemble a romantic movie or romance novel is cause for alarm.”
What’s more, the victim of love bombing may feel pressured to go along for the ride, even when they’re not particularly flattered by or interested in the gestures anymore.
“There’s a desperate insistence to love bombing, like you’re not playfully being put on a pedestal ― you’re being glued to it,” Malkin said.