This tactic used by narcissists (and cult leaders 👀) is more common in the dating world than you think.
There’s nothing like a string of one-sided relationships, multiple ghostings, or Tinder horror stories to make you feel like a human garbage can. Especially when you’re just out here trying to find love!!! So imagine, in the midst of all your dating darkness, that you meet someone who’s not only into you but who also absolutely showers you with the kind of constant heart-eyes emoji affection and validation you’ve always wanted, right off the bat. Have you just found your person?
It’s totally normal to be over-the-moon about a new crush. But if all that positive attention you’re getting feels obsessive or if the relationship feels like it’s moving abnormally fast, your newfound love could actually be engaging in a form of psychological manipulation known as love bombing.
The love bomb, despite sounding like something you’d happily sign up for, is actually a narcissist’s cryptic way of manipulating others with overwhelming love and affection. Sound horrific and also very confusing? Don’t worry—a few experts on relationships and narcissistic personality disorder broke it all down.
Hold Up, What Is Love Bombing?
Love bombing is the practice of showering a person with excessive affection and attention in order to gain control or significantly influence their behavior. The love bomber’s attention might feel good, but the motive is all about manipulation. What separates love bombing from just regular honeymoon feelings is an abrupt switch—one moment they may be totally idealizing their partner, and the next, they’ll cut them down to size in an effort to control them.
Anyone is capable of love bombing, but it’s most often a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, according to Ami Kaplan, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York City.
“Love bombing is largely an unconscious behavior,” Kaplan says. “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 it’s common behavior among narcissists, as Kaplan mentions, love bombing wasn’t first coined by psychologists but 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.
How Do I Know If I’m 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.
So it’s confusing, because there’s a fine line between what signifies love bombing and what counts as a grand romantic gesture. The key to spotting the difference is to wait and see “what happens next,” psychologist Dale Archer, MD, wrote in 2017. If the extravagant displays continue and their actions continue to match their words, it’s probably just how they act ~in love~, not love bombing. But Kaplan emphasizes the characteristic 180 in affection—the love bomber will build and build their partner up, only to later knock them off pedestal they built. Or in other words, it’s all about control.
Really, though, it’s all about how you feel. If the affection feels like something you’re not asking for or even want, pay attention to that intuition. Nicole, 22, says her ex-boyfriend showed his own manipulative hand through a common theme in his excessive compliments, which all pitted Nicole against other women.
“Constantly, both face-to-face and through text, he would compliment me and show physical affection—like, ‘you’re so much more thoughtful than any of my past girlfriends’ or ‘you’re the hottest girl at this party,’” Nicole recalls. “By crowning me as the best woman, he’s winning. His girlfriend is funnier than his friends’ girlfriends. ‘My girlfriend is the prettiest.’”
As the relationship progressed, Nicole says her ex became “indirectly controlling” by passive-aggressively signaling to her that he didn’t want her doing certain things without him. “After a while, I barely ever went out or drank with friends or spoke to my male friends,” Nicole says. “It was easier that way.”
Alex, 21, noticed a different theme in his partner’s affection. “I would get showered with love when my boyfriend felt guilty that he hadn’t been doing enough,” Alex says. “It was always compensatory, like he’d be incredibly self-centered or distant for weeks at a time and then make up for it with spending a night in, buying me food, whatever. It felt like he wasn’t there, just kind of compensating for inaction with pseudo-action. Breaking up with a narcissist, just like dating one, can really throw you for an existential loop about where your attraction to certain personality types comes from. It has certainly made me more guarded.”
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.
“After we broke up, I had no idea how to feel validated again.”
“After we broke up, I had no idea how to feel validated again,” Nicole says. “I had been receiving extreme affection every day for a year, I felt a huge withdrawal. I’m still in the process of learning how to feel like I’m worthy without being verbally validated every day.”
It’s almost like going from eating a cake every day (which might feel good but is objectively bad for you) to being completely sugar-free—it’s a severe adjustment, and it may take a while to figure out what tastes sweet.
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 to 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 and 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 finding someone outside of the relationship to fully acknowledge the fact that you’re dealing with not only a manipulative person, but also a mentally ill person. Seek out a close friend or family member who can keep your confidence, or search for a therapist or support group—there are many that specialize in dealing with narcissism.
“You want to get some support of other people who have been in relationships with narcissists,” Kaplan says. “And for people who can, the question is how to start setting boundaries so that you are not getting abused. Just take small, slow steps based on your circumstance.”