What is love bombing? Technically, it’s using “love” to manipulate or control someone. But talking about love bombing like that makes it seem distant: like it couldn’t possibly be happening to you.
I’m a fiction writer; if I want to dig into an idea I have to write it from the inside. I can’t really grasp things when they’re presented on an objective level. So that explanation never resonated with me, even though it was a technique that got used on me. I’m smart but I couldn’t see it.
So let’s take another stab at a definition.
Love bombing is when someone trains you to accept abuse by showering you with positive things, but only if you accept the price of their manipulation.
Please note that I’m not a therapist, just someone who’s been around this type of behavior more often than I’d like to admit.
How Love Bombing Works
First the love bomber watches you.
They stay just out of sight, almost offstage, watching you, stalking you, and above all collecting information on you. For something casual, this can happen super quickly. I’m convinced that people who do love bombing on a regular basis have multiple campaigns running at all times. Not just for romance, though. They also love bomb their bosses, co-workers, and friends.
They keep a running tab and on that tab is two columns: what can other people be bribed/controlled with? and where do they make mistakes, particularly mistakes about boundaries?
While they’re in this phase, they have no real personality, no presence as far as you’re concerned. If they happen to run into you, they downplay their interest. Any questions they ask that might get back to you are played as merely casual, or of a normal romantic/friend interest. Absolutely no conflicts whatsoever, no honest disagreements or differences of opinion. If they flirt at all, it’s the kind of flirting that’s really a deflection, the “I know you are but what am I” kind of thing.
They want to know what your interests are, you preferences are, who your friends are, what your family is like, all your favorite things. The really good ones stay away from that smacks of digging into your vulnerabilities at this point. They don’t need anyone to report on those; they’d rather tease those out themselves anyway. More fun.
They will 100% trade off victims with each other, too. “This one is just right for you.” I don’t think it’s even a malicious thought for them. Just a favor between peers. I’ve been collected by one love bomber and traded off to another, because the first guy already had a love interest and the second one didn’t have anyone on tap at the moment. They called it “playing matchmaker.”
Once a love bomber has a target, gathered information on them, confirmed they can be manipulated, and needs someone to fill a particular role in their lives, they move in.
Love bombing only happens if and only if the bomber is in control of the situation and has the resources to make themselves look like the biggest possible catch and that they understand you better than anyone else ever could.
Love bombing feels like it comes out of nowhere because the person has never really interacted with you before. “I admired you from afar.”
Even though the love bomber has a lot of information about you, they will get things wrong. On purpose. It’s a test. If you don’t like cut flowers–I generally don’t–they’ll get you flowers and try to make you accept them, using guilt tripping, “it’s the thought that counts,” and similar techniques to get you to comply. The point is to prove that you can be made to do things you feel uncomfortable with.
Once they know they can manipulate you, they get serious. Whatever is your favorite, it’s now theirs too. Whoever you are, they tell you that they secretly have been that all along. Whatever you believe, they believe it, too. They tell you that you are perfect and they are the flawed one–even though the version of themselves that they give you is just you, regurgitated.
I’m neurodivergent and I was hungry to feel like someone understood me. Someone copying my behavior and feeding it back to me felt like being understood.
It was. Just not the way I thought.
Love vs. Love Bombing
I don’t mean love in the romantic sense per se. Love has a lot of different forms, and love bombers can manipulate any of them: friendship, respect, romantic interest, loyalty, responsibility, leadership, kindness, generosity, admiration…
The awful thing here is that the best people and the worst people can look a lot like each other, because the worst people are always copying the best. I have blown off a ton of excellent people because I couldn’t tell the difference.
After experiencing a fair number of stalkers, love bombers, and other assholes, here’s my best guess at the differences between a love bomber and someone good:
- Good people try to put themselves forward and fail. They are awkward.
- Love bombers disappear until it’s convenient. They come across as cool and confident–except where it comes to you.
- Good people have a deer-in-the-headlights look most of the time but are warm when they feel safe.
- Love bombers are superficially charming, but distant with anyone who isn’t a target or an ally.
- Love bombers might look generous, but there’s always a reason. They brown-nose their bosses, are generous with their peers (but only if it makes them look good), ignore anyone who can’t do something for them, and select one or two people to bully. Obsessively.
- Good people stumble over their own feet to help other people. They’re generally exhausted because they just want to help someone. They’re really only fierce when it’s for someone else’s sake.
- Love bombers always have to be in control. They’re testing what price you’ll pay to collect your love treats.
- Good people worry about what boundaries they set, and usually won’t set enough boundaries. They’ll give you love treats until you beg them to staaaahp.
- A love bomber is never satisfied. They always know who owes who.
- Good people give, and give, and give, and go through almost physical pain if they need anything at all in return.
- Love bombers don’t say they’re sorry without putting a drop of poison in it.
- Good people might not say they’re sorry, but they fix things.
Turning Red Flags into Roses
Almost as soon as a love bomber starts overwhelming you with good things (whether you want them or not!), they also start dumping some kind of Tragic Backstory on you, testing the limits of your sympathy, and possibly even threatening to kill themselves to see how you respond.
This has happened to me multiple times and to pretty much everyone else I’ve talked to who’s gone through this.
You start associating their Tragic Backstory with your positive feelings
Every time they tell you about a little more of their Tragic Backstory, you get a little emotional treat for listening.
And then, whenever something happens that you don’t like–and it will happen–you’re told that it’s because of the Tragic Backstory, and it’ll never happen again, and then they give you more emotional treats.
Love bombing isn’t just about overwhelming someone with positive feelings to manipulate them in a relationship.
Love bombing is about brainwashing someone to see abuse (as justified continuously by the Tragic Backstory) as a precursor to being praised and rewarded.
For a while, red flags always lead to treats.
And your brain goes:
Red flags = treats.
Why Love Bomb?
Why love bomb anyone in the first place?
A love bomber could just tear you down and abuse you for the fun of it. But they don’t.
And, if the love bomber could bomb anyone (anyone who was vulnerable to being manipulated, that is), why pick you?
Because you have something they want to take advantage of or copy. Something about you is so strong that it’s worth investing a bunch of time and resources in order to get.
Once they have you, they need to be able to control you, both to preserve their egos. They want to copy you or take advantage of you…but they can’t admit that they need to in the first place.
Which means that whatever attracted them to you is the thing they must attack.
If you’re smart, they’re smarter.
If you’re perseverant, they’re more so–and you’re just stubborn.
If you’re witty, they’re wittier.
If you’re generous, they’re wisely generous, while you’re a sucker for sob stories.
If you’re good, no you’re not, you’re evil.
Whatever they don’t like about themselves gets put onto you.
Their trauma excuses their behavior. Your trauma just means that you’re crazy. And that nobody else would ever want you.
If they feel unattractive, they’ll make sure you feel more so.
If they’re worried about money, they’ll make yours disappear.
If their health goes downhill, so does yours.
If you try to resist being turned into less of a person, you won’t get praised and rewarded. More than that, you’ll get punished.
Love bombers have no flaws, but whenever you get in a fight, they accuse you of expecting them to be perfect.
They only have emotions other than impatience when they want something from you.
Weirdly, love bombers seem to consistently give awful gifts unless you tell them exactly what to get. Not just tone-deaf gift or gifts that are really things they themselves want or even gifts that reflect how the other person makes use of you, but actively insulting gifts.
The thing about the gifts, I think, is particularly telling. They brought you under their spell by showering you with emotional and material gifts.
How is it, then, that the gifts they give are so bad? Unless it’s deliberate?
How Can I Know if I'm a Love Bomber?
I don’t have all the answers, obviously, but I’d start with asking yourself:
- Am I present for the boring or uncomfortable parts of the conversation? Or only the exciting/dramatic/informative parts?
- Do I feel uncomfortable talking about myself in a situation with someone I’m not dating/friends with, or do I keep shifting the conversation over to the other person and asking them personal questions?
- When the other person does something and it’s not satisfying, do I push the other person to satisfy me somehow?
- Am I first upset at myself when miscommunication occurs? Or do I assign blame by pushing the other person to try to communicate better?
- Do I reward people for doing what I want, or do I engage with them openly in ways that reflect my honest thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs?
- If someone calls me out on this type of behavior, am I ashamed (an actively work not to do it again) or am I defensive (and make excuses for why my behavior wasn’t so bad)?
Is a given statement part of the love bombing process? If you’re more focused on getting the “correct” response out of someone, the answer is probably yes.
It’s not fun figuring out that you’ve been trying to manipulate someone else, but it’s possible to stop doing it and repair the relationship. When I catch myself, I usually have to spend time telling myself that I have “lost,” because I’ve been focused on trying to “win.”
A real relationship isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about working together and creating a safe space for good things to happen.
In my opinion, the best way to create a safe space is to create boundaries like, “I am not in charge of the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or reactions, but I am in charge of mine.”
In the end, owning your own emotions–especially the icky ones–is probably the best way to protect both yourself and other people from manipulation, including your own.