Vital information on domestic violence and healthy relationships has become more readily available thanks to platforms such as TikTok. One buzzy term you may have seen on social media is “love bombing,” but it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of this type of emotional abuse beyond a 30-second video.
“Love bombing is a form of manipulation in which a partner uses excessive displays of attention or affection, and it’s usually at the beginning of a relationship,” Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told HuffPost.
This often manifests with behaviours such as extravagant gift-giving, excessive complimenting and constant texting or calling.
Here’s how love bombing can feel and what you should do after experiencing it, according to experts.
At first, love bombing can boost your confidence and your willingness to be vulnerable
Jennifer Guttman, a cognitive behavioural therapist, said that someone who is love-bombing a new partner may introduce them to family members, friends and other important people early on, or move the relationship along at a much quicker pace than normally expected.
“This method disarms you because initially it gives you a boost in confidence,” Guttman said. “However, the seductive attention can quickly turn to devaluation.”
While this kind of romantic gesture can serve as a red flag, it also means love bombing may be difficult to identify as an early sign of emotional abuse.
“When we’re in the beginning of the dating phase of a relationship, our boundaries can already become blurred,” said Maria Bastardo, a therapist and the manager of mental health services at the California nonprofit Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse. In fact, love bombing often feels and looks like the honeymoon phase of a relationship.
Love bombing triggers feel-good hormones
There’s a reason why love bombing is so thrilling at first.
“Much like falling in love, [love bombing] has been shown to release happy hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and norepinephrine,” noted Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist and the director of the Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services practice.
“Being showered with love, attention and validation boosts those hormones, helping us feel good and signaling safety,” Hafeez said.
It prompts intimacy (and guilt if that intimacy isn’t reciprocated)
Alexa K., a 29-year-old woman working in the cannabis industry, was in an abusive relationship that lasted around a year.
“My partner began love-bombing me even before we became an official couple,” she said, noting that it made her feel closer to him emotionally as it continued.
While love bombing tends to elicit feelings of happiness and intimacy, it’s not all sunshine and roses (literal or otherwise). Bastardo said that the person being love-bombed may be flooded with feelings of discomfort, anxiety and guilt if they do not reciprocate excessive romantic gestures.
It can lead to anxiety, sleep issues and other mental and physical repercussions
Though the love bombing created a deeper sense of intimacy between Alexa and her then partner, the relationship also felt confusing because “the intensity of his feelings in the beginning didn’t seem to correlate with the length of time” they had been talking, she said. As the relationship progressed, and more confrontations occurred between episodes of love bombing, Alexa began to experience “constant anxiety over the emotional whiplash.”
According to Hafeez, this type of emotional abuse may trigger physical symptoms associated with anxiety and stress, such as “insomnia, appetitive loss and an inability to think clearly.”
It’s important to note that being love-bombed — just like experiencing any form of emotional abuse or intimate partner violence — can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental or physical health. Research has shown that many survivors of emotional abuse struggle with long-term self-worth and self-esteem issues. Data collected by the National Domestic Violence Hotline revealed that nearly 183,000 people who contacted the hotline reported experiencing some form of emotional abuse in 2020 alone.
“In my history of working with survivors, many would say: ‘The bruises healed, the cuts healed but I can still replay my partner’s voice in my head. And it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and it still makes my stomach hurt,’” Ray-Jones said.
Here’s how to deal if you’ve been love-bombed
Of course, not every situation in which a partner showers you with affection and gifts is a case of love bombing.
Ray-Jones said there needs to be more widespread education about what a healthy relationship looks like and how to set boundaries with your partner. For example, checking in on your partner when they’re at work is normal. Getting upset when they don’t answer excessive texts or calls ― even if the messages seem complimentary ― is not. Recognising the signs of love bombing, and the way it impacts your mind and body, can disrupt the cycle of abuse early on in a romantic relationship.
“If you suspect you’re being love-bombed, it’s essential to take a step back to gain an objective perspective,” Hafeez said. She recommended setting aside time to journal, talking with trusted friends or family, and seeking out a mental health professional to facilitate healing after emotional abuse.
After separating from her partner, Alexa learned how to better recognise red flags and establish boundaries, while also gaining a deeper awareness of how abuse can manifest as love bombing.
Though it may take time, moving forward after experiencing love bombing or other forms of emotional abuse is more than possible.
“I encourage my clients to be kind and forgiving toward themselves, not harsh or critical,” Guttman said. “Wanting to be loved is part of the human condition. Love bombers prey on that wish. I tell my clients, ‘Don’t let them take love out of your life.’”