I’m a sucker for a rom-com. That moment when Randall Park asks to hold Ali Wong’s purse on the red carpet in Always Be My Maybe? Or in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before when Noah Centineo asks Lana Condor if she’s still in love with that Bon Iver wannabe? I live for that shit. IRL, not so much.
A month or so after I’d moved out and ended my two-year relationship, I came home to find an envelope slipped under my door. My ex-boyfriend had written me a love note and included a ticket for the observation deck at the top of the Empire State Building for 10 p.m. that Friday. Total Peter Kavinsky move, right? Yeah, no. It was more like a continuation of the manipulation Jack* had been deploying since the beginning of our relationship.
You know all the things you do when you first start dating someone? Multiply that by 1,587, give or take. I’m talking compliments, affection, attention, over-the-top dates, and expensive gifts.
He constantly told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world. He started calling in sick to work (regularly) in order to spend the whole day with me. He’d casually drop hundreds of dollars on dinners and drinks. For my birthday, just a couple of months in, he bought me a first edition of my favorite book as a child, The Secret Garden, and had it professionally restored—which he gave me while we were on an overseas vacation, after the private dinner on the beach flanked by rose petals. Very subtle stuff here.
Then, once I was hooked, he flipped. What was once a gift became leverage. “What have you ever given me, Kathleen?” he’d demand, comparing the amount he’d spent on me to what I, with my considerably smaller budget, had spent on him. If he thought I had taken too long to text him back, wasn’t giving him enough physical affection, or wasn’t in the mood for sex, he’d punish me by freezing me out. Once, he made me sleep on the couch for a week after I “participated in a group hug” at a New Year’s Eve party.
Over the next two years, a pattern emerged. One day, he would plan an elaborate date full of meaningful romantic moments. The next, he would go through my phone and accuse me of lying to him about everything from my sexual history to my anxiety disorder. One day, I was the love of his life; the next, he was threatening to kick me out of our apartment.
According to experts, Jack’s extravagant declarations and gifts at the start of our relationship is textbook “love bombing.” Ramani Durvasula, PhD, an expert on narcissism and relationships, says love bombing happens when everything happens too fast—like immediately spending every moment together, texting nonstop, or going on elaborate vacations way too soon.
A love bomber might say, “I’ve never felt a connection like this with anyone,” which is manipulative because it’s heavy-handed. Virginia Gilbert, a psychotherapist specializing in sex and love addiction, says love bombing is often accompanied by other manipulation techniques like gaslighting, where a person makes you doubt your own reality. Jack, for example, would sometimes insist I had been lying to him, offering up evidence that “proved” I was deceitful.
Eventually he would say, “Well, this is my perception of reality and it’s just as real as yours. How can you say your reality is right and mine is wrong?” Sometimes it was easier just to apologize so we could move on.
Other times, I really started to doubt my own memory. I never wanted to invalidate his feelings, so I always tried to see things from his perspective, which soon became the only perspective that mattered.
But I still loved him and truly believed he loved me. It’s hard to tell whether his Empire State Building move was just more manipulation or if it was a sincere gesture of love. I mean, if I were, I don’t know, Rachel McAdams, I would have gone to the Empire State Building to meet him and then we’d probably get engaged while tourists applauded.
“That’s so cute,” friends who didn’t know the details would say when I told them about the note. But it was not cute. My ex-boyfriend had taken an Uber to my apartment where I lived alone and slipped an emotional ultimatum under my door while I was inside.
I didn’t go to the Empire State Building, but he didn’t stop. He sent me texts, emails, Instagram DMs, wherever I hadn’t yet blocked him, calling me heartless and a slut and offering vague threats, including suicide. Eventually, about three weeks later, he showed up at my apartment, drunk at 4 a.m.
I let him in and, at one point, must have nodded off. I woke to find he went through my phone and saw I was dating someone new. He exploded and seized the pillow, which had, of course, come from the apartment we used to share. “A man slept on my pillow!” he shrieked, stealing the pillow and spitting his gum out onto my floor for emphasis before storming out.
A few days later, I came home to several boxes barricading my front door. They contained six pillows, sent by Jack in apology.
That’s when I called the police.
Two officers came and took down the details of what had happened and a report was filed. I was also given the number of a social worker who encouraged me to reach out with any questions or concerns and told me I could file for a restraining order at any time—even though he had not physically assaulted me—because he had been an intimate partner.
Jack never came back to my apartment, but I won’t lie and say he stopped trying to win me back. I can’t even tell you I wasn’t once or twice tempted to let him back into my life. Durvasula says for people burned out by potential romantic partners ghosting after a couple of dates or waiting weeks to text back, the promise of unlimited attention can be intoxicating.
The important thing is to recognize the manipulation for what it is. If the person you’re dating seems larger than life or if it feels like the relationship is moving at hyperspeed, those are troubling signs and could be a reason to step back, Gilbert notes.
For me, it took years after the breakup to fully understand what Jack was doing and to move on from the mind games. The best thing I did? I got a cat (yes, I know it’s another cliché). My cat is a huge source of comfort, of course, but Jack is also dangerously allergic—making my apartment, and my life, essentially Jack-proof.
Maybe Jack did believe he was being romantic and maybe he really did love me. But no matter what the movies say: This isn’t love.
*Name has been changed.