Gary Chapman’s 1992 book The Five Love Languages described the various ways that people display affection in romantic relationships. It became something of a cultural touchstone, putting in relatable terms how people use physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, and giving gifts to demonstrate admiration. But when do displays of love slide from a genuine gesture into something born of narcissism and emotional control?
It can feel like a nebulous line, but if you’ve ever been in a relationship where a partner would shower you with love in excess, perhaps with a deluge of gifts, praise, and affection only to later use it as an emotional cudgel, you may have been the victim of “lovebombing.”
Being lovebombed is a newer concept, so let’s unpack what it means to be with someone who subjects you to it, and how you might cope if lovebombing happens to be part of your relationship.
What is lovebombing?
Lovebombing is inundating someone with waves of affection, compliments, gifts, and the like in an effort to sweep them off their feet, usually in the early stages of a relationship. The darker side comes when the person doing the love bombing uses their effusiveness to hold control over their partner, possibly manipulating them into feeling bad or thinking that they’ve somehow failed to reciprocate the affection.
InStyle points to the recent lawsuit filed by the singer FKA Twigs against the actor Shia LaBeouf, whom she accuses of physical abuse, assault, and emotional distress. In the beginning of their relationship, LaBeouf allegedly sent Twigs (real name Tahliah Barnett) up to twenty bunches of roses a day in addition to hopping the fence of her London home to give her various love notes. The relationship turned dark when LaBeouf allegedly subjected the singer to various forms of abuse, she claims, such as threatening to crash their car unless she told him that she loved him, and physically assaulting her in a public gas station.
The polar extremes of such described behavior is classic lovebombing. Basically, it’s about reeling in another person in an effort to control them emotionally, and it’s usually a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder. As Ami Kaplan, a psychotherapist, told Cosmopolitan in 2019:
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.
Ultimately, lovebombing is a tool for manipulation, and a way for a narcissist to project the image of a perfect partner. As the psychologist Suzanne Degges-White wrote in Psychology Today in 2018:
Narcissists in particular are known for their skills at manipulation, as much as their penchant for self-love. They may use flattery and attention as tools to build themselves up as the perfect partner, the better to gain your trust, affection — and, ultimately, adoration.
This unblemished image, of course, will crater in time as the relationship turns for the worst.
How tell if it’s happening to you
A telltale sign might be extreme displays of affection early in a relationship. Usually, love takes time to develop, and while grand overtures are occasionally made when it’s still the early days, research has shown that men and women typically take a number of months before the L-word is uttered.
Lovebombers tend to demand your full attention and consideration, no matter the context. They might bombard you with texts and calls, or show up at your door unannounced with flowers. After showering you with affection and praise, the focus of your relationship turns to the lovebomber and it stays there, often to the detriment of the bond.
Instead of taking things slow, you might find that you’ve jumped head first into a serious dynamic with someone on a short timeline. As the therapist and relationship counselor Denise Dunne told InStyle, the adoring pile-on in the beginning of the relationship doesn’t last very long and quickly gives way to something more destructive:
The admiration is abruptly withdrawn, leaving the admired feeling worthless and confused, or forced to chased the admiration through submissive means.
What to do if it happens to you
The first step is to recognize lovebombing when you see it, and if you feel you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, begin taking steps to get out of the relationship. Research shows that people who exhibit narcissistic tendencies are far more likely to cheat on their partners, and that they tend to be far less effusive and caring throughout a longer relationship than other people.
As the family therapist Darlene Lancer wrote for Psychology Today in in 2017, these relationships are typically pretty unhappy:
Many partners of narcissists sadly pine away for years, longing to feel respected, important, appreciated, and cared about. Their self-esteem suffers over time. They risk turning into empty shells of their former selves.
Aside from leaving, there are a few things you can try before ultimately calling it quits, if really want to. The best general advice, however, is to get out before the relationship feels inescapable.