Okay, let’s set the scene.
You’re in the initial stages of dating someone who makes you feel breathless and giddy. You think you might’ve met “the one”. All the romantic things you’ve ever seen in films are finally happening—you hold hands in the movies, they kiss you in the rain, they tell you that they’ve never felt so in love with a person before, in this urgent way that makes you not want to let go. You can’t believe that this incredible person is so into you.
Even your friends and family think they’re “the one”. On the outside, everything is going “right”. Their over-the-top affection looks and feels a lot like love. They want to spend every minute of the day with you. They meet your family, your friends, get on good terms with your dog. Everything is perfect.
Until it’s not.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, they’ll go cold. Their behaviour will do a 180—and you’ll barely recognise them, with their lack of affection and inability to give you eye contact. You’ll think: but weren’t we just lying in bed, staring into each other’s eyes/souls a week ago?
You’ll feel confused, isolated, heart-broken and sick to your stomach. Eventually you might feel angry, but at first you’ll probably feel afraid that you’ve done something wrong. That you scared them away somehow, that maybe you’re just not good enough—because it feels insane to believe that they’d just change for no reason.
But this is all them. This over-affectionate to super cold switch is called love-bombing, and it’s a form of emotional abuse.
“For many people, this switch happens usually around the time when you’ve committed to this person and when you feel as though you might be in love with them,” psychologist, Nancy Sokarno, tells POPSUGAR Australia.
“Suddenly you’re confused by how cold and distant they’ve become, but it feels like it’s too late to back out (or in some cases, you keep waiting for them to return to their original behaviour). It’s almost as if they’ve locked you into the relationship then it makes it harder for you to leave.”
Love-bombing doesn’t always happen in serious relationships, though. I can’t even count the times that I’ve been “seeing” someone from a dating app for a few months, who’ve shown me adoration, over-the-top affection and grand gestures, only to go cold a few months into the relationship.
As Sokarno says above, they usually go cold once you’re invested, and in my case this is definitely true. Even if the relationship was casual, when there was a sense of extra closeness, or feelings being developed, that would be when they’d go cold. Not only would the physical and verbal affection stop, but they’d barely reply to my messages. Then, when I’d ask them what was going on, they’d act like everything was totally fine.
At the time, it felt like heartbreak. In hindsight, and a better understanding of what love-bombing is, it was the repercussions of emotional abuse.
“Put simply, love-bombing is a form of emotional abuse so it can be detrimental to a person’s mental health,” says Sokarno.
“While a person on the receiving end of a love-bombing might confuse the behaviours and think that the love- bomber is in love with them, unfortunately it’s a method used to manipulate and ultimately gain power over them.
“It’s also a toxic scenario when we consider reciprocal behaviours, for example, if a love-bomber is giving you something, you feel as though you must give them something in return.”
But why do people love-bomb? To me, that’s the real mystery. When you’re in it, it’s so hard to wrap your head around the concept that someone who was so into you only a few weeks ago, aren’t anymore. Or, that they weren’t ever into you and just acting out romantic gestures to achieve personal gain.
“There are several reasons why a person might love-bomb but they’re generally all related back to some form of insecurity, ” Sokarno explains.
“A big reason someone might love-bomb is to make you feel indebted to them and therefore more willing to overlook any of their flaws or unfavourable personality traits.
“Many people also love bomb because they have a desire to manipulate in order to gain control in the relationship. They essentially use their behaviour as a manipulative tactic to get what they want. Someone who displays narcissistic traits will also often be inclined to show love-bombing techniques, often expecting a reciprocation of the supply of love, flattery and adoration in return (which essentially bolsters their ego).”
The expression, “love-bombing”, has actually been around since the 1970s, when it typically referred to a practise done by religious organisations or cults, to indoctrinate a new recruit. “According to sources, the term ‘love bombing’ was originally coined by the Unification Church of the United States and founded by Sun Myung Moon.”
I mean honestly, it makes sense. Love-bombing is used to trick someone into a relationship with you, showing them all the things that we’re taught to want out of a romantic love, only to take them away again, once you’re committed. This behaviour is not dissimilar to that of a religious cult, luring in members with exciting notions of becoming a better person and making the world a better place, only to mistreat and abuse their members.
Take the women who suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse via the cult NXVIM, led by Keith Raniere, who promised a “personal development program” but engaged in the sex trafficking, sexual assault, forced labour and the repeated abuse of young women. Obviously, it’s an extreme comparison—but the behavioural pattern is the same: the love-bomber (cult leader) provides something amazing, and then they take it away, creating desperation, ultimately giving the love-bomber control.
While it feels complicated and confusing—which is what it’s designed to do—it’s actually quite a basic manipulation tactic.
“It is essentially a manipulative tactic to gain control rather than just an expression of love,” says Sokarno.
“The important thing is to understand the difference between the two — you can feel an overwhelming amount of affection from a partner however this typically happens in the later stages of a relationship (not in the first few weeks or months)!”
It’s important that we recognise these manipulative and abusive behaviours in order to protect ourselves, but if you’ve been a victim of love-bombing, don’t be too hard on yourself. Myself, and most of my friends, have been love-bombed at some stage of our dating life. Unfortunately, it’s extremely common, especially in today’s climate of online dating, and the ability to hide behind a screen.
My advice: just be aware. If you’re in the first few weeks of dating someone, and they’re going over-the-top with affection and telling you they love you, this could be a red flag. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who fall in love super fast (which is totally okay), but just be mindful that their love and affection is genuine.
It’s always hard, when you’re in it, to look at the relationship objectively. All we can really do is follow our heart and our gut, and if either one is feeling a bit off—listen to it. By simply learning about “love-bombing”, we are better equipped to go out into the world with open hearts and steady minds.