What is love bombing, and what does it look like?

Young woman feeding her boyfriend

Love bombing involves showering someone with flattery and attention so that they become deeply attached and want to stay in a relationship regardless of how they are treated.

A love bomber aims to isolate their partner from friends and family and become their whole world, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment. But, especially at first, it can feel good – sometimes addictively so – to be the person being love bombed.

“Especially if someone has had a chaotic life, or things haven’t gone well for them, this can feel very appealing, like, ‘Oh, I found my place. This is where I’m meant to be,’” says psychologist Sarah Fischer, PhD. “It’s this process of eroding boundaries and gaining control over someone using affection, gift giving and different ways of making someone feel special.”

The term love bombing was coined in the 1970s to describe a technique used by cult members to lure in recruits. Today, it is often used to describe a manipulative dating technique used by people who tend to be controlling or abusive.

What does love bombing look like?

Often, love bombing happens at the beginning of a relationship, when two people are getting to know each other. This might look like:

  • Over-the-top praise and flattery
  • Staying in constant contact through texts, calls or social media
  • Talking about your future together in the early stages of a relationship
  • Bombarding you with extravagant or unwanted gifts

While affection and attention from a charming partner may feel good and even take on an addictive quality, love bombing is a tool for manipulation. Once a partner has been “hooked,” the excessive kindness may quickly turn to cruelty.

“There’s a strategic component to it, where the idea is to get someone’s buy-in, to the point that they will lower the bar for how they expect to be treated,” Dr. Fischer says. “You’re communicating to this person that ‘We’re meant to be, I love you, I will never hurt you,’ so when they engage in behaviors that violate that expectation, it’s kind of explained away by the person being abused.”

Love bombing tends to fade after the new partner is “hooked,” giving way to abusive behaviors. However, if the love bomber senses their partner pulling away, they may ramp up their affection again to maintain control. If they abuse or lash out at their partner, they may apologize, shower them with affection and promise it won’t happen again. This cycle often becomes a repeating pattern in the relationship.

Healthy relationships vs. love bombing

The initial stages of relationships are often filled with excitement and romantic gestures. However, in a healthy relationship, both partners retain separate identities and feel special and acknowledged.

“When it’s love bombing, one person is receiving all the affection and attention until they lose their sense of self,” Dr. Fischer says. “It’s like they are enveloped into the love bomber, to the point where you don’t know who you are anymore outside the context of that relationship or group.”

In contrast, components of healthy relationships include:

  • Mutual love and respect
  • The space and support to maintain relationships with friends and family
  • The ability to ask to slow things down if they are moving too quickly or enact other healthy boundaries without fear of reprisal

How can I heal from love bombing?

If you realize you have been a victim of love bombing, a mental health professional can help you begin to heal and lay the groundwork for healthier future relationships. Debi Pittock, LICSW, says therapy or support groups can help us discover unconscious patterns driving our relationship behavior.

“A lot of our issues are personality-driven, learned over decades, and they don’t reverse very easily,” she says. “Really digging into that and processing can help you understand how you got here and how to break those cycles.”

Sometimes, people may blame themselves for falling for a partner whose love bombed them.  It is important to understand that anyone can become a victim of love bombing and to have self-compassion, Pittock says.

“Be gentle with yourself as you’re healing,” she says. “Allow this to be a learning opportunity to explore yourself and understand what you don’t want in a relationship.”

If you have allowed platonic relationships to fall away, reconnecting with friends, family and community can aid in your healing. The stronger your connection with others, the less vulnerable you may be to losing yourself in future relationships.

As you look to regain your sense of self, Dr. Fischer recommends exploring questions like:

  • What are my values?
  • What is important to me?
  • What do I want to put out into the world?
  • How can I be an equal partner in whatever relationships I have?

“For someone who has been in an abusive relationship where love bombing was a component, working on your sense of self, building self-compassion and engaging in good self-care will be helpful,” Dr. Fischer says. “That, combined with figuring out what you want in a partnership and what your ideal partnership looks like, will make it easier to discern those red flags, so to speak, earlier next time.