Love Bombing: Step #1 in Coercive Control

Love bombing is as far from love as you’re ever going to get. First comes the love. Then the bomb goes off. Every single abusive relationship I have ever heard of starts off this way. This is why survivors often darkly joke that “they must have a manual” of abuse because the stories are so eerily similar. Abusers hook their victims with the “love”–the lavish displays of affection, the grand gestures, the rapt attention, the little acts of service, the gifts, the constant texting and phone calls, the flowers, the romance, the amazing sex, the declarations of forever, soul mate, rest of our lives, etc etc. “He said all the right things.” “He treated me like a queen.” “I got swept off my feet.” “I’d never felt loved like that.” “We had so much in common.” “I wanted the fairy tale.” “I didn’t even like him/them at first but they were so persistent.”

Love bombing hijacks the brain.

Abusers need a shiny lure because who would accept: “So, how’d you like to get into a relationship in which you have no rights, do all the work, give me what I want when I want, shut up when I tell you to, can never solve problems in the relationship because you’re scared of my reaction, and are for all intents and purposes my indentured servant? Oh, and throw in random acts of aggression, tantrums, and whatever form of abuse I’m in the mood for.” Yeah, no one would go for that. But that’s exactly what these relationships eventually become.

But let’s get back to that beginning. Love bombing is so insidious because it mimics the fantasy we’ve all been fed about romance. It feeds you your own fantasy, and “mirrors” you so that you think you are alike, when really, that person is just an excellent mimic. In essence, you’re falling in love with yourself. Abusers are extremely adept at reading your longings, your deepest wishes, your vulnerabilities, your wounds, and your fantasies. And let’s face it, the attention feels good, especially when you haven’t gotten a lot of attention or appreciation in your life. It doesn’t just feel good, it feels great. Too great. It’s a high, and it’s hard to come down from, but eventually that’s exactly what happens, by the abuser’s design. When the “love” stops coming, the victim blames themselves. And so often, they come to my office asking, “How can I get back to how it was at the beginning?” The answer is never–aside from turning on the charm in the “honeymoon” phase of the cycle of violence, when they fear they’ve pushed you too far, and need to reel you back in–and who they are now is who they really are. The love bomber was a mask they wore. It’s very hard to accept, and the cognitive dissonance is intense. The fact that the abuser can flip on the charm switch at a moment’s notice makes it even more confusing. Now you see it. Now you don’t.

Laura Richards, an expert in domestic violence and coercive control from the UK, often says on the podcast “Real Crime Profile” that “charm is a choice, a strategy. It’s not an inherent quality.” And she’s exactly right. One isn’t born with charm. It’s a learned behavior, usually starting in early childhood (this is why it’s important to be able to set healthy limits and boundaries with your children). Abusers learn what sort of behaviors get them what they want from other people. What other people find pleasing. How to get vulnerable people to open up quickly to them. And so they deliver it. It’s a seduction, and they’re very practiced, and very, very good at it.

Sometimes, victims of love bombing get early twinges that something isn’t right. I myself remember thinking, this is a little much, and sometimes feeling embarrassed by my abuser’s declarations in those early days. But in the postmortem I did on that relationship, I discovered it wasn’t embarrassment I felt, it was a sense of incongruence. It wasn’t sincere; I was being charmed, and at some level, I knew it. Richards encourages women to listen to that inner knowing, and to commit to walking away from those relationships, even abruptly, when they feel it. However, we often override our intuition with a lot of overthinking, with what Dr. Ramani Durvasula, expert on narcissism, calls “excuse writing.” Oh, we say to ourselves, you just have never had real love. It’s because you don’t think you’re worth it. You’re afraid of love.

And of course, this is total bullshit. Real love first and foremost feels safe. While it’s true that some of us have relationship-interfering behaviors, what therapist Ken Page calls “byproducts of dis-integration,” the tendency to first blame ourselves and not question the other is something we should look at. It’s one of the qualities that keeps victims ensnared in abusive relationships. We must be wrong; after all, they loved us so much in the beginning.

So survivors, or anyone for that matter: if you’re out there dating, beware of love bombing. It is characterized by fast-tracking the relationship (saying I love you in the first few dates or weeks, proposing with a few months, or even marrying), constant contact with you before trust can be organically built, dramatic declarations, lots of sex and physical affection, over-the top gestures including extravagant gifts or vacations, and a sense of “romantic” possessiveness that is an early warn sign of a controlling personality. If they are honest with you about their romantic history, you will find that all their relationships progressed quickly and ended in flames. If they are not honest, you will hear the pity play–they were always the victim of cheating, dishonest, and unloving partners.

Real love builds steadily. It looks a lot like friendship in the beginning. It’s respectful. It isn’t about merging with the other, it’s about two individuals coming together by choice to share themselves. It’s about sharing and reciprocity. One person isn’t taking the upper hand and controlling the pace of the relationship. Both partners collaborate in setting the pace and sharing the time and work that goes into a relationship. It may not look like the fairy tale (I mean, those are pretty dark, anyway), but over time it just gets deeper, and better. In contrast to love bombing, which starts at a 10 on the intensity scale and goes down to a 2 overnight, seemingly with no provocation. Abusers weaponize love.

As much as our culture wants to condemn survivors for “not just leaving” and “you could have walked out any time,” consider this: Would you just abruptly leave your country? Your religion? Your family? Your profession? The truth is, human beings can be controlled by other human beings. We need to look no further than politicians, cults, and self-help gurus to see evidence of coercive control. People who abuse their partners use the strongest fuel and the most binding glue available to humankind–love. Their “love” is not love at all but coercive control; it’s an exploitative and mangled form of something all humans need to thrive. The way to break the chains of coercive control is to understand and clearly see the mechanisms by which it operates, and to recognize when someone is using a tactic on you. It takes practice, but I believe we can all get there, as long as our commitment to our own health and wellbeing comes first.

Sending love and healing to all my fellow survivors, and especially to those who are still being victimized. We see you, we understand you, and we’re waving to you from the other shore, where real love is possible.

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