In a recent post, I told a very personal story about my one painful experience with polyamory and how I mistook “love bombing” for actual love in a narcissistic abuse situation. After writing it over the holiday weekend and reading it to my co-teacher in our Memoir As Medicine online class, Nancy Aronie, Nancy said, “Well, how do you tell the difference?” So I wrote a follow up about what I’ve learned since then about how to distinguish the difference between healthy, well boundaried, actual love and the red flags of narcissistic abuse that we sometimes get fooled by- including “love bombing,” which typically ends painfully.
What is love bombing? Cleveland Clinic defines it as aform of psychological and emotional abuse often disguised as excessive flattery that involves a person going above and beyond for you in an effort to manipulate you into a relationship with them. It looks different for every person, but it usually involves some form of excessive flattery and praise, over-communication of their feelings for you, showering you with unneeded/unwanted gifts, and premature and intense talks about your future together.
Love bombing tends to happen in three phases- the idealization phase when you’re swept off your feet by something that feels too good to be true, only to have it fade into the devaluation phase, when you let your guard down and start to relax into the relationship, only to have other red flags of narcissism and controlling behavior pop up, like limiting access to your friends and family, being abusive if you thwart their agenda or don’t do as they say, or cutting you down after building you up. If you try to set healthy boundaries or hold them to account for these behaviors, the love bomber may vanish, leaving you confused and abandoned. Or they’ll revert to the idealization phase and Hoover you back into more love bombing- until you relax again, when the cycle continues.
Once you know love bombing is a thing and once you’ve fallen for it at least once, it’s easier to spot it the next go around so you can name it for what it is- and refuse to bite the hook. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference.
- Real love develops over time. Love bombing is fast, furious, and pressured. It’s too much, too soon to be real love. Love at first sight isn’t love. It’s lust. It’s attraction. It’s chemistry. It’s hormones. It’s boundarylessness fusion and enmeshment. It’s spellbound intoxication. But it’s not love. Love is a long, slow, gradual process built upon a foundation of getting to know each other in an intimate, messy, sometimes awkward way. Love bombers overwhelm you with a firehose you can barely take in. Real love is delivered gently, patiently, with only as much as you can take in.
- Kind, cherishing words spoken from an open, loving heart are built upon actually knowing and appreciating someone’s unique gifts. Love bombing is just fluff and flattery. You have to know someone intimately to properly cherish them. Love bombing is much more superficial. The cherishing of love’s appreciation is a nourishing meal that deeply satisfies, whereas love bombing is the cotton candy of fluffing the ego. It feels good in the moment, but you wind up with a tummy ache.
- Love is resilient. Love bombing is fragile. Love is built one imperfection, one mistake, one rupture of the connection, and one healthy apology, repair, mending of the connection, and making of amends at a time. Love bombing typically stops the minute you make your first mistake.
- Love bombers have a covert agenda. People who love you are agendaless. Those who love bomb you will drop you like a hot potato the minute you quit cooperating with their agenda. People who love you for real are allies of your autonomy, your agency, your authenticity, your truth, your boundaries, your “NO,” your right to not accommodate someone else’s agenda, and your right to stand up for what’s good for you.
- Trust must be earned. In a truly loving relationship, trust is earned slowly, vulnerable risk by vulnerable risk. Love bombing expects you to grant full trust to someone who has not yet earned it.
- Love is a slow burn. Love bombing flames bright and burns out. Love grows a little bit at a time, the flame growing stronger with each intimate risk, each messy rupture and repair, each new part you get to know and love in someone else- and vice versa. Love bombing starts nuclear and then fizzles.
- Love is the nectar of a delicious fruit. Love bombing is the sickly sweet of saccharine. Once you can spot the difference, the sweetness of love tastes so much more authentic, and the fake flattery of love bombing can make you eye-rollingly nauseated by the inauthenticity and manipulative qualities of laying it on way too thick. Love bombers gush with icky, sticky, gooey sweetness. Real love is more measured, reserved, and boundaried- until it matures into something deeper. Love bombing is fast food. Real love is a healthy, nutritious meal.
- Love bombing is a pure ego hit. Real love both hurts and heals. Actual love both feeds the ego’s need to feel special and chosen but is also often an ego bruise tended to gently with the cashmere gloves of someone who helps you grow by mirroring back to you not only your most beautiful qualities, but also the parts that are hard to see. Love bombing anesthetizes your pain in the short run but sticks needles in your wounds in the long run. Love helps you actually heal your wounds over time as secure attachment grows and our parts get seen, witnessed, loved, accepted, and integrated back into the wholeness of our imperfect humanity.
- Love bombing is conditional; love is unconditional. Love bombing tends to focus on a very conditional kind of praise and approval. As long as you appease and accommodate the love bomber, you’re valued. The minute you thwart the love bomber’s agenda, you’re chopped liver. Real love values you and acknowledges your worth unconditionally, even when the person who loves you doesn’t always approve.
- Love bombers may try to buy you. Real love is never for sale and cannot be purchased. If someone is throwing overly generous gifts at someone they barely know- expensive dinners out, fancy bottles of wine, 5 star hotels, vacation destinations, jewelry, name brand clothes- you can be sure the love bomber believes they’re purchasing something you then owe them. Whether they’re seeking to control you, exploit you, leverage your connections, get a boost for their career, make money off you, or buy your loyalty, these gifts are not given with the generous heart of someone who really loves you and expects nothing in return. Real love is a reciprocal, fair, two-way street without meticulous score keeping where two people are naturally generous with each other in the ways they know how to be and can afford to be generous. Love bombers, on the other hand, tend to be generous coming right out of the gate but turn stingy and withholding with time- unless you try to walk away- when the love bombing gets used to “Hoover” you back.
- Love bombers research you and target you so they can manipulate you. People who really love you invest time in actually knowing you for all the right reasons. Love bombers prey upon and attempt to superficially satisfy your deepest vulnerabilities and longings. Real love never weaponizes your vulnerability or takes advantage of your longing.
- Love bombers ramp up the special. Real love is special enough. Love bombers may spiritualize your connection to make it seem more special. People who really love you don’t need to make you feel even more special by telling you you had a past life together, you’re twin flames, you’re soulmates, or you were destined to be together by God.
Once you start spotting the love bombing early on in a relationship, it’s hard to unsee it. Even when you spot it, it’s hard to resist biting the hook- because the love bombing feels so good — until it doesn’t. But once you realize how this form of manipulation and narcissistic abuse ends, you can learn to steer away from the fake flattery and wait for the real deal.