The term “love bombing” seems to have come into the cultural consciousness in a big way in the past several years, perhaps because of the prevalence of toxic behavior in arenas like online dating. Culturally we’re at a point where the term gets tossed around quite casually. A quick Google search on the term brings up cautionary articles from sources as varied as Cosmopolitan to Business Insider and Psychology Today.
Many articles highlight the fact that love bombing is a control tactic, and go as far to say that it’s generally used by people on the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum, especially in dating. They point to signs like constant compliments, showers of gifts and things moving quickly in relationships as being potential red flags. But many of these articles seem to miss the mark in terms of diving into how sinister love bombing really is. They talk about how in online dating contexts, someone might ghost after love bombing someone, but they don’t get into the psychology of what happens if a love bomber is able to use the tactic to manipulate someone. Because the reality is that being ghosted is probably the best case scenario if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of love bombing.
So I want to explore exactly what this tactic is, the kinds of people who use it, why it is abusive, and how to identify the signs of love bombing so that we can protect ourselves from it.
According to the support group Betrayal Trauma Recovery, “Love Bombing is a distinct phase in the cycle of narcissistic abuse, and is present in every abusive relationship. It is also known as the ‘honeymoon phase’.”
Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D., describes love bombing as the practice of overwhelming someone with signs of adoration and attraction. She discusses it in the context of a romantic partner as acts like flattering comments, tokens of affection, or love notes placed everywhere. Other signs she says to watch out for are text messages that increase in frequency and romantic fervor, which can escalate into surprise appearances designed to manipulate you into spending more time with the love-bomber, less time with others, or on your own.
Marriage and Family Therapist Shirin Peykar, LMFT says that the motivation behind love bombing is often “to win over your trust and affection so that [the abuser] can meet a goal of theirs”, such as control, the feeling of power or superiority, or the boosting of the abuser’s ego.
Domesticshelters.org, a searchable directory of domestic violence programs and shelters in the U.S. and Canada, says that love bombing is particularly sinister because “abusers thrive off of building up your self-esteem before gradually tearing it down. By getting you to trust them and open yourself up, they end up learning your weaknesses and using them as bait to make you stay. It’s common for survivors to easily get gaslighted and feel controlled, even without noticing.”
Where did the term “love bombing” come from?
While, love-bombing doesn’t always take place within a romantic context, the intended outcome is always the same: to isolate and control the victim. That’s because it’s a technique that exists on the coercive control spectrum, and it’s used to seduce the victim and to get them to lower their defenses.
According to a number of psychiatrists, love bombing is a psychological weapon used to manipulate a victim in order to gain and then maintain power and control in a relationship. The relationship could be romantic, a friendship, or a business connection. Gang leaders and pimps use it as a a way of controlling their victims as outlined in the 2009 book Gangs and Girls: Understanding Juvenile Prostitution by Michel Dorais and Patrice Corriveau.
And, of course, cult leaders use love bombing to recruit followers.
The cultic origins of the term “love bombing”
According to Ronald N. Loomis, a cult awareness educator and the Director of Education for the American Family Foundation, the term “love bombing” originated with the Unification Church. He testified before the Maryland Cult Task Force in 1999 and said that love bombing was a technique that the Unification Church used in their recruitment on college campuses. He testified that love bombing is,
“a recruiter approaching the student and doing everything that the recruiter can to make the student feel special and unique. They’re quickly trying to convey the message that ‘I am your new best friend.’ And they will fake mutual interests in order to give the impression that they share many things in common.
And this process is done through typically several visits without it ever being identified that there is an agenda, that, in fact, the person is a recruiter, that they are representing a group, and that their real purpose is to get that student into the group.
And they usually try to find a student who shows the outward signs of being vulnerable, of being alone, of maybe looking like they’re kind of sad.”
In fact, Loomis went on to say that some cults like the Unification Church went so far as to recruit outside of the student counseling offices. He said,
“This group trained its members to stand outside the doors of your [counseling] center and study the faces of students that are leaving who are probably coming from an appointment. If they’re crying, if they’re avoiding eye contact, if they’re looking down and sad, then you walk along side that person and you strike up a conversation about the weather, about what’s going on campus, check out the books that they’re carrying and quickly pretend that you are also taking the same course or took it.
Do anything to make a connection because that person is going to respond to you more typically than a student who you might find sitting with six other people in the student union snack bar laughing and having a good time.”
Psychology professor, Dr. Margaret Singer, one of the leading researchers on thought reform, originally brought awareness to this concept through her writings on cult behaviors. In her 1996 book, Cults in Our Midst, she writes,
As soon as any interest is shown by the recruits, they may be love bombed by the recruiter or other cult members. This process of feigning friendship and interest in the recruit was originally associated with one of the early youth cults, but soon it was taken up by a number of groups as part of their program for luring people in.
Love bombing is a coordinated effort, usually under the direction of leadership, that involves long-term members’ flooding recruits and newer members with flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark. Love bombing — or the offer of instant companionship — is a deceptive ploy accounting for many successful recruitment drives.
In her 1977 article “Therapy with ex-cultists,” which appeared in the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals Journal, Singer also said that while love bombing might initially be interpreted as kindness, or a manifestation that the devotees has access to a spiritual truth enabling them to radiate love and win others to their truth, love bombing is actually interpreted as a sinister ‘coercive’ technique.
The idea behind love bombing is to get the potential victim to lower their defenses. Dennis Tourish, wrote an article Charismatic leadership and corporate cultism at Enron: The elimination of dissent, the promotion of conformity and organizational collapse for a 2005 issue of the journal Leadership, and in it he calls love bombing an recruitment strategy that is aimed at emotionally draining the victim and positively attaching them to the recruiter.
Now, growing up in the Unification Church, I didn’t necessarily experience the love bombing that a recruit would have. However, those techniques were still occasionally used on the second generation if leadership felt that someone needed to be coerced back into proper behavior. For example, being introverted or isolated in the Church was considered to be dangerous, because you would be “forming a common base with Satan.” But really, when someone is left to their own thoughts, divergent thinking can occur. So, if at a workshop, someone was having difficulty getting into the spirit of things, they might have been love bombed by other second generation. People of the same gender would have followed them around, constantly hugged or touched them, and invaded their physical and emotional space to get them to participate. If that didn’t work, then more shaming or abusive measures would have been used.
As a counselor for an outside camp when I was 18, I even used love bombing on a young camper when we were playing kickball, although I wasn’t aware that what it was at the time. This camper had slid into home base, and had gotten a scrape along her thigh in the process. Her immediate reaction was to cry from the pain, but I encouraged everyone around her to start cheering her on for having made it to home base. Before she had shed many tears, her eyes lit up and she was cheering as well.
And for a long time I thought I had done the right thing, redirecting her focus to the positive. But at the same time, she was six years old, likely in pain, and deserved someone to acknowledge her and make sure she got appropriate care. What I did was manipulate her emotions and redirected her focus, and while it might have been a small instance of love bombing, and didn’t include manipulative escalation, it was still toxic.
In an article for Psychology Today, psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer says that love bombing works because”humans have a natural need to feel good about who we are, and often we can’t fill this need on our own.” He says that there are times of high susceptibility to being love bombed, such as after losing a job or going through a divorce. If we think back to my article “ We are all vulnerable,” the susceptibilities that Archer highlights resonate perfectly with what other experts say are the times in our lives are when we are most at risk for cult recruitment.
However, Archer points out that no matter how, why or where one’s susceptibility has arisen, love bombers”are experts at detecting low self-esteem, and exploiting it.” This underscores exactly what Loomis said in his testimony to the Maryland Cult Task Force, and what Dr. Singer herself describes as a “coordinated effort.”
In fact, the Unification Church so indoctrinated their members to love bomb potential recruits that Rev. Moon, the leader of the church, told members in 1978 that they had to keep up the facade of happiness at all times:
Here the walls are tired of seeing your sullen faces. They are waiting for the time when they will see that Unification Church members are smiling all of the time, even at four in the morning. The man who is full of love must live that way. When you go out witnessing you can caress the wall and say that it can expect you to witness well and be smiling when you return. What face could better represent love than a smiling face? This is why we talk about love bomb; Moonies have that kind of happy problem. We are called by God to perfect ourselves in this love.
In the Unification Church, the importance of love bombing was reinforced with other thought control techniques like group chanting. In the memoir Crazy for God — The nightmare of cult life ex-Moon disciple Christopher Edwards describes how even something as seemingly innocuous as a game of ball was used to reinforce love bombing as a control technique:
Each group divided up into one of two teams. Each team was appointed a captain who suggested a cheer and team chant. During the entire game our team chanted loudly, “Bomb with Love,” “Blast with Love,” as the soft, round balls volleyed back and forth. Again I felt lost and confused, angry, remote and helpless, for the game had started without an explanation of the rules. The guests were being moved around the field like robots on roller skates. “Listen, Chris,” Jacob called from the sidelines. “If you don’t understand the rules, just chant or cheer as loudly as possible. The important thing is to do whatever a Family member tells you. Remember, unity is everything here.”
The movie Ticket to Heaven, which is based on the book Moonwebs: Journey Into the Mind of a Cult by journalist Josh Freed, has similar scenes at 0:25:00 and at 1:03:30, where members playing a kind of dodgeball chant, “bomb with love! bomb with love! bomb with love!”
Protecting Yourself from Love Bombing
Psychotherapist Ami Kaplan, LCSW, says that “anyone is capable of love bombing, but it’s most often a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder.” When referring to interpersonal relationship, and not cultic/gang/trafficking recruitment, she claims that love bombing is largely an unconscious behavior.
But once the abuser feels secure in the relationship, Kaplan says they typically switch and become very difficult, abusive, or manipulative and switch to devaluing their victim.
The support group Betrayal Trauma Recovery says that love bombing typically presents as:
- Putting the victim on a pedestal
- Constant communication (texting, phone calls, letters, dates, over-nights, trips together)
- Early, strong commitment (getting engaged, entering into a relationship, getting married, sleeping together soon after meeting or having reunited)
- Putting down previous partners (“my other girlfriends were never as beautiful as you,” “my ex-wife was psycho,” etc)
- Buying expensive gifts
- Entrusting victim with intimate knowledge and secrets
- Entrusting victim with personal belongings (car, apartment, credit card, etc)
- Constant, “ultimate” praise (“hottest in the world,” “perfect,” “best,” etc)
- Intense, passionate, and frequent sexual encounters
When removing the sexual or romantic connotations, many of these signs can be used for other relational dynamics as well.
For example, years ago I once had a former work colleague attempt to get close to me by telling me inappropriate levels of detail about his life and then express dismay when I wasn’t comfortable reciprocating. He would say things like I was undermining his sense of worth and self esteem because I was putting up inappropriate boundaries. Eventually he even tried to send me sexually inappropriate photos before I cut him out of my life.
In the same workplace, there was also a consultant that would call me on the evenings on weekends praising me by saying that I was the “only person in the company with executive leadership skills.” Then he eventually told me that he wanted to get the job of CEO in the company, and wanted to use me and my skill as leverage. When I pushed back on his overall behavior, he screamed at me in a conference room. His behavior, and the company’s overall support of his tactics, led me to resign.
Dr. Dale Archer suggests the following as a litmus test for judging a potential love bomber:
“Think of your best friend, how much you have in common, and how often the two of you agree (or disagree). Now consider how long it took to build that bond. Is it likely someone you’ve just met knows you as well as your best friend? If you find yourself saying, ‘Yes, they do!’ warning bells should be ringing.”
Archer also says to beware of those who:
- constantly seek to stroke your ego
- push a relationship to levels you’re not ready for
- are quick to show warmth and affection, but then lose their temper or find other ways to “punish” you when they don’t get their way
Remember, you have a right to set boundaries. If anyone is trying to get to move faster than you’re comfortable with, make a choice quickly, or tries to punish you for not going along with them, those are red flags. It’s better to give yourself time and space away from that relationship to get a clear head and make rational decisions. And if you’re afraid that you’re already involved in an unhealthy group, situation, or relationship, it’s ok to reach out to friends, family or professionals to get help.
And the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) provides SpiritualAbuseResources.com as a service to help people recover from coercive control in spiritual contexts. ICSA also has an extensive list of counseling resources here if you or a loved one is looking for a cult-aware therapist.
Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on April 30, 2021.