What is Love Bombing? 11 Ways to Spot this Relationship Red Flag
Getting a lot of big gifts and declarations of undying love early in a relationship? This could be a dating red flag known as love bombing. Here's how to spot it and why it's a problem.
Love bombing in relationships
“Why did I stay in an abusive relationship for nearly 15 years? It’s because I kept hoping he would go back to (being) that incredible guy I first met, the one I’d still see glimpses of every once in a while,” says Corinna, 35, from a small town in California.
She’s talking about her marriage to Cody (not his real name), which ended in early 2020. (For another perspective, here’s why one woman stayed in an abusive relationship.)
Corinna says she fell head-over-heels in love with Cody after their first date. And it wasn’t just because he was charming and handsome. The thing that really got her was how interested he was in her.
“He listened so intently to everything I said, asked smart questions, offered so much sympathy, and said he wanted to take care of me,” she recalls. “I felt like the most interesting, beautiful woman in the world.”
Cody cemented their bond over the next month with a constant stream of gifts, dinners out, long walks, and talks late into the night. Some of the gifts were quite lavish and over-the-top—for instance, he got Corinna a new puppy that he called “our baby”—but she pushed any suspicious feelings aside.
“I definitely didn’t want a puppy, but I kept telling myself how blessed I was to have finally found someone so in love with me,” she says. “Plus, we were so much alike—I really thought I’d found my soul mate.”
After just a few weeks of dating, Cody asked her to move in together. For the first couple of months, things were amazing, the type of relationship she’d only dreamed of. But then things started to change, slowly and almost imperceptibly at first. She began to learn that the original Cody—the starry-eyed, doting man who wanted nothing more than to shower her with gifts and compliments—wasn’t who he seemed.
Corinna soon realized he was love bombing her.
What is love bombing?
What Cody did to Corinna is a classic example of “love bombing,” says Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author.
Loving bombing is a phrase that describes an intense period of attention and adoration early in a relationship, often characterized by declarations of love, rapid courtship, large gifts, and other grand gestures. (Watch this in-depth video of love bombing by Durvasula.)
“It is typically a time of idealization and seduction, where you are put on a pedestal,” says Durvasula. “But while it may sound like a dream the intent is actually to confuse and blind you, to put you in a position where you can be controlled.” (Make sure you know the signs of a toxic relationship.)
It’s a typical pattern seen in relationships with narcissists, but love bombing is a tactic used in many kinds of dysfunctional and abusive relationships. And while it’s most common in romantic pairings, it can be seen in relationships with family members, coworkers, and friends, says Darylevuanie Johnson, PhD, a psychologist and owner of In Session Counseling, in Washington DC. Note that people who love bomb are not always totally cognizant of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is not excusable, but remember that they are also battling their own demons.
Because it’s so intense and all-consuming, love bombing is exhausting and the “bomber” can only sustain it for about six to 12 weeks, Durvasula says. After that initial period, the gifts, compliments, and trips will dry up quickly. (Here’s how to tell if you’re in an unhealthy relationship.)
The two types of love bombing
Durvasula says there are two main types of love bombing: “grandiose” and “quiet.”
Grandiose love bombers—like Cory—use big gestures like expensive gifts, elaborate vacations, fast and intense declarations of love, and deep emotional conversations to draw you in quickly and keep you off balance.
Quiet love bombers are less common, though just as insidious and damaging,. “It’s where you become sucked entirely into the other person’s emotional world and you may feel an intense need to rescue or take care of them,” says Durvasula.
You talk constantly and they want to know every single thing about you. They may tell you that no one has understood them like you do or you may feel like no one has ever gotten you as well as they do. Quiet love bombers often have heart-breaking sob stories and share too much, too quickly.
(Be on the lookout for these five relationship deal-breakers.)
Who is most at risk for being love bombed?
Why is it that some people can see right through the love-bombing ruse while others fall for it hook, line, and 24-karat-gold sinker?
Anyone can fall for this trick, but some people are particularly vulnerable to love bombing. They include empaths, “people pleasers,” those who grew up in a narcissistic household, were abused previously, or are younger or new to relationships, Durvasula says.
People with these characteristics may be more likely to accept an unequal relationship, adds Johnson.
In love bombing, it may initially seem like the love bomber is doing all the giving. But the balance ultimately shifts, with you giving far more than you get. “In a healthy relationship there is a balance between each person’s needs,” says Johnson. “You shouldn’t be doing all the giving or all the receiving.”
(Here are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)
Another risk factor is our cultural brainwashing of what a real, loving relationship should look like, Durvasula explains. “Too many people have bought into the Hollywood fairytale style of romance and think that this is the ideal,” she says.
The truth, however, is that much of what passes for “romance” in romantic comedies is unrealistic, overbearing, abusive, and sometimes even illegal. A lot of what is called “true love” in pop culture is really love bombing, adds Durvasula.
“It triggers a childlike fantasy that turns off wisdom, not just in yourself but in those around you,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for people who are being love-bombed to be told by their friends and family that they are so lucky someone loves them that much and they shouldn’t question it.”
This is something Corinna admits she fell for. “All of my friends kept talking about how I was living a real-life episode of The Bachelorette and it did feel like that at first,” she says. “I felt really special.”
The dark side of love bombing
If too much adoration and too many presents were the only issues, then love bombing might not be a big deal. But the end goal is to make you feel confused, indebted, and so in love with the love bomber that they can control you, Durvasula says.
“Once you let down your defenses and decide, ‘Okay, I’m in this relationship 100 percent,’ that’s when the love bombing stops and they begin to lose interest,” she says. “It’s like trying to get a butterfly under a glass. The chase is fun but once they catch you, the game is over. They burn out on being nice and loving and romantic.”
From there, love bombing can lead to more severe types of domestic abuse, including physical violence.
(Worried you’re being strung along by your partner? Here are the signs of breadcrumbing.)
It becomes a destructive cycle
A couple of months after Cody moved in, Corinna says she started to notice changes. It happened very slowly but over time, he became much moodier, snapping at her over small things.
The gifts and adventures dried up. He still gave her compliments, but they always came with an edge—like a backhanded compliment about her outfit that was really just a way to criticize her weight.
He constantly questioned where she was going and who she was with. Sometimes when she did something he didn’t like, he’d give her the silent treatment. Other times he would fly into rages that left her terrified and confused.
“Everything had to be his way and it had to be perfect,” Corinna says. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells all the time, but I never knew exactly what it was that he wanted. I was confused and scared. I felt like I was going crazy.” (Note: This is textbook gaslighting. Make sure you know the gaslighting phrases.)
Still, six months after they met, she agreed to marry him. Not only did she keep hearkening back to the amazing guy she met, but she felt like she’d seen his vulnerabilities and could help him.
“I thought if I could show him how committed I was, he would see how much I really loved him and our relationship would be stronger,” she says. Things did improve for a little while after the wedding. Until they didn’t.
“For the next 15 years, it was a constant cycle of being demeaned and yelled at, followed by the silent treatment until I apologized, then ‘forgiveness’ and a period of being loving,” she says. “Lather, rinse, repeat—sometimes we’d go through the whole cycle in a day.”
(Learn what therapists have to say about trauma bonding.)
Idealize, devalue, and discard
Love bombing is often part of a larger pattern of abuse in which the abuser will idealize you, then devalue you, and discard you, Durvasula says. But they don’t want to lose control over you, so if you do try to leave, it may start the cycle over again.
“You can get ‘hoovered’ back in by another round of love bombing,” she says. “But it’s never as great as the first time and the good times will get farther and farther apart.”
Eventually, you’re living on “breadcrumbs” of hope and memories of the good times, she adds. Guilt and hope are the two main weapons abusers use and love bombing sets you up perfectly for both.
Good vs. bad love gestures: The difference
Is love bombing ever a positive thing? Or perhaps could it be a sign of a well-intentioned-yet-overzealous lover? The way to tell the difference between someone who’s just trying a bit too hard and a manipulative love bomber is what happens when you tell them it feels like too much, Johnson says.
If you ask someone to back off a little and slow the relationship down, and they listen and respect that, it’s a good sign. However, a love bomber will usually try to gaslight you into believing this is what you really want and may try to make you feel guilty for questioning their intent.
“True love bombing is a weapon abusers use and it’s always a red flag,” Durvasula adds.
(Here’s how to love yourself.)
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Signs of love bombing
Once you know the signs of love bombing, you can protect yourself and you’ll be far less vulnerable to manipulation, Johnson says. Read on to learn the red flags of love bombing:
Your gut tells you that something is off
Your number one defense against love bombing is to pay attention to your gut instinct. Because love bombing is so over-the-top, it often feels confusing and destabilizing, even as it feels fun and exciting.
“It’s very common for people who’ve experienced love bombing to say ‘I knew something didn’t feel right at the beginning, but I ignored that feeling because who gives up a fairytale romance?’ ” Durvasula says. (Here’s how to recognize the domestic violence signs in a relationship.)
They shower you with fancy gifts
Over-the-top gifts are a hallmark of grandiose love bombing so if someone is spending an immense amount of money on you, be very wary. “Normal people don’t go to the Maldives on their second date,” Durvasula says.
They demand lightning-fast responses
A love bomber knows their time is limited so they will often demand very fast responses from you, becoming upset if you don’t respond quickly, Johnson says.
For instance, if you don’t answer a text for several hours or if you want to wait a few days to see if you can get the days off work before booking a trip. “They don’t want you to take time to think about things because if you do, you may see through the ruse,” she says.
They promise you your dream life
Many love bombers use “future faking,” or promises of a grand future together and because they’re so good at figuring you out, it will be the exact future you’ve always dreamed of. Look at what they are doing now to build the foundation of a solid relationship, not what they’re promising for the future, Johnson suggests. And if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
They share their terrible childhood on the first date
Don’t underestimate the power of emotional love bombing. Quiet love bombers specialize in making you feel emotionally enmeshed with them. One way to do that is to share personal, private things very early in the relationship. You do want to learn about your partner’s past experiences, but real intimacy requires trust which requires time. (Make sure you know the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.)
Their acts of love are intrusive
A huge bouquet of flowers delivered to your job. Candy and teddy bears on your front porch. Loud declarations of love in a crowded restaurant. “A love bomber wants to be in every part of your life and a lot of their grand gestures will often intrude into your personal spaces,” Durvasula says.
They propose on the third date
Love bombers want to tie you to them in as many ways as possible (see Cody’s gifting Corinna a puppy “baby” to take care of together). “A rapid courtship—like pushing to move in or get married very quickly—is a classic sign of love bombing,” Johnson says. Note: This can also be a sign of borderline personality disorder.
They know everything about you, but you know little about them
One of the things many people say about being love-bombed is that they’ve never felt so truly seen or heard by another human being. “This is a very human need that abusers will use against you,” Durvasula says. “They may ask you a lot of very intense questions about yourself, but it’s so they can use that information to manipulate you.”
One sign of this is if you’ve told them everything about you, but you realize you know relatively little about them.
They are your perfect soul mate
Conversely, a love bomber may give you what feels like a lot of information about themselves, but it matches you perfectly. A little too perfectly. They have your same taste in movies, the same love of video games, the same fear of deep water, and the same dream of building a house out of cheese in rural Switzerland.
The truth is that they aren’t just like you, they’re just very good at mirroring you and pretending to be exactly the person you want, Johnson says. Once you’ve been hooked, you’ll begin to see their true colors.
You feel like you owe them
One reason love bombers make such grand gestures is to make you feel indebted to them. This may make you more willing to overlook inconsistencies, or excuse lies or bad behavior, Johnson says. It may make you feel like you have to match their level of “love” even if you’re not ready for that.
They’re always the victim
The love-bombing phase is when love bombers are their most charming. But there will likely be a few red flags that sneak through if you’re paying attention. For instance, pay close attention to how they talk about other people in their life, particularly their exes, Johnson says. If all of their exes are “crazy,” if all of their family members “hate” them, if they have no close friends—all of these are red flags you may be involved with a love bomber.
Next, learn how to move on from a relationship.