Being showered with affection might sound like a dream come true — until you realize it may be love bombing, a common tactic used by people with narcissism.
It’s natural to want your partner to demonstrate their affection. Small reminders that you’re appreciated and cared for can brighten the darkest days.
Displays of love can help you feel secure in your relationship and can stave off less desirable feelings, like resentment, mistrust, and self-doubt.
But when affection seems persistent and overwhelming in the beginning of a relationship — to the point that it makes you feel intuitively uneasy — it may not just be a display of emotion. You might be experiencing love bombing.
Love bombing isn’t a diagnostic term, though it is used by mental health professionals to describe a form of emotional abuse.
When someone love bombs you, they often shower you with excessive or overwhelming levels of affection and adoration.
While that might not necessarily sound like a negative thing, the goal behind love bombing isn’t always so innocent.
“Some common traits of love bombing include providing excessive amounts of attention, admiration, and affection,” explains Alexander Burgemeester, a clinical psychologist and author from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “The aim of this is to make the recipient feel dependent on and obligated to the individual.”
Love bombing and control
Love bombing can be a way of establishing control over another person.
It can make you feel guilty or ungrateful if you’re at odds with your partner. You might go against your initial instincts, for example, because you feel you owe it to them to do what they want.
The effect of love bombing
If someone is love bombing you, you may start doing things you wouldn’t normally do. Your reaction may become, “Well, I wouldn’t normally do that, but my partner spends so much money on me, it’s the least I can do, I guess.”
Not all great displays of love are love bombing.
Love bombing is often constant, intense, and may even make you feel uncomfortable.
Typically, it’s not the occasional romantic surprise from your partner. However, if the goal is to manipulate you, you may still be experiencing love bombing.
Love bombing is a form of emotional abuse. Like all forms of abuse, it’s about establishing control and power over someone else.
“It happens as part of what is called ‘the cycle of abuse,’ where the love bomber attempts to develop a false sense of connection and trust early into a relationship in an effort to later control or emotionally abuse,” says Emily Simonian, LMFT, head of learning at Thriveworks in Washington, D.C.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and love bombing
While anyone can display love bombing tendencies, this type of emotional tactic is often associated with narcissism, particularly narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
According to Simonian, it’s important to differentiate between narcissistic personality traits and NPD when it comes to love bombing.
“Many people can have one or maybe even a few narcissistic traits, like a constant need for praise or admiration, having a sense of entitlement, or a large sense of self-importance, but that doesn’t mean they are a narcissist,” she explains.
It’s when narcissistic traits merge with long-term patterns of relationship behaviors, like exploitation and manipulation, that narcissistic personality disorder becomes a factor.
“This is where love bombing potentially comes in, as those who engage in love bombing do so to create a false sense of intimacy for personal gain, which is consistent with narcissism,” Simonian says.
NPD is a diagnosable mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), meaning it causes significant impairment in areas of basic functioning.
According to Bergemeester, once your partner establishes control through narcissist love bombing, they’ll shift into a more manipulative role, often one that focuses on devaluing you. How long it takes for them to feel they’ve secured your loyalty in the relationship first can vary.
Love bombing typically takes place during a courtship phase that can last days or weeks. It may even last for months if you seem more resistant.
Ultimately, there’s no set timeline for love bombing. It can continue until your partner feels they’ve established the necessary level of control.
“Love bombing is typically an unconscious behavior,” says Bergemeester, “and the process is mostly about securing a relationship with another person. When this has been achieved, a narcissist will usually switch, turning into a manipulative and controlling partner instead.”
Narcissist love bombing can vary between partners and situations. Everyone is unique, and love bombing can mean something different from one relationship to the next.
In general, love bombing often follows what’s known as the narcissistic cycle of abuse, which tends to involve:
- “hoovering,” or renewed love bombing
When it comes to love bombing, Bergemeester indicates these stages typically blend together, progressing until you make the decision to leave. Then, the narcissist love bombing might begin again in an attempt to get you to stay.
“Love bombing often involves compliments, gifts, and lots of attention in the beginning stages. The person will want to be in contact with you all the time, which may seem flattering, but this is often not the case,” he says.
As the behavior evolves, Bergemeester explains that the partner who is love bombing may push for you to make early commitments, while at the same time becoming upset if you try to establish boundaries.
Once they feel the relationship is secure, they may gradually shift away from affection completely, becoming manipulative and critical instead.
“They would start to devalue the other person, making them feel as though they would not be wanted by anyone else,” he says.
In some narcissistic relationships, the partner with narcissistic traits might abruptly move on from the relationship. They may suddenly break up with you or even seem to replace you by immediately dating someone new.
This is often known as the discarding phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle.
If you reach a point where you’re ready to leave the relationship, your partner may renew the love bombing, insisting that they’ve “changed their ways” or are “making a sincere effort.”
This phase is often referred to as “hoovering” — a term inspired by the vacuum cleaner — because your partner may be trying to “suck you back in” using love bombing tactics again.
While this can often feel genuine, in narcissist love bombing, it’s often the start of a new cycle of abuse.
Here are some common red flags that may indicate love bombing:
- They buy over-the-top gifts gifts for you or spend excessively on you.
- They bombard you with compliments.
- They communicate with you relentlessly.
- They push for commitment early in the relationship.
- They make “soulmate” references or declarations about fate and destiny.
- The relationship feel unnervingly intense.
- They dislike it when you set boundaries.
- You feel uneasy about their level of affection or communication.
Example of love bombing
After two dates, they show up at your door and announce an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caribbean. They say, “You know, you could really be my soulmate. I’ve never met anyone like you. I feel so certain about us — let’s just get away together.”
“Pay attention to your sense of balance or feelings of overwhelm within the relationship, and pay attention to your partner’s reactions when you displease them,” cautions Simonian.
She explains that it’s natural for new partners to be enthusiastic in a relationship, but they should still be respectful of your boundaries and feedback.
How someone reacts to your input can often tell you whether their intent is innocent or manipulative, she says.
When you care about someone, it can mean a lot to that person for you to show your feelings.
Demonstrations of love that come with strings attached, however, may be more characteristic of love bombing.
Love bombing is a form of emotional abuse. While anyone can display love bombing tendencies, it’s a behavior often seen from people living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Being aware of narcissistic love bombing — and trusting your instincts when a relationship feels too intense — can help you avoid the cycle of abuse that can come in this type of partnership.
If you think you might be experiencing love bombing tactics, talking with a therapist can be helpful. To take the first step, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.