If you have spent some time on social media in the past several months, you probably have heard of West Elm Caleb and Tinder Swindler. West Elm Caleb is a real, live, New York-living furniture designer who was ousted on social media after aggressively wooing and then ghosting hundreds of young women. Tinder Swindler is a Netflix documentary about a man who conned women he met on Tinder by courting and then manipulating them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since these cultural touchstones, “love bombing” has risen to the top of public consciousness of 2020s, much like “ghosting” defined the 2010s.
At first, love bombing—lavishing affection on the victim to gain their trust and then withdrawing attention or abusing that trust—seemed like an extreme phenomenon that had nothing to do with me. But when I read that it is a favorite tactic of narcissists to aggrandize their own ego, something clicked. My most recent dating experience had effectively ended when the man screamed at me, “you are a f*cking narcissist!” The moment had truly shaken me: I had never been cursed at by a romantic partner, and no one had ever accused me of being a narcissist in my entire life. It immediately occurred to me that liars think everyone is a liar, snoops think everyone is a snoop, cheaters think everyone is a cheater—and that this man is likely projecting his own narcissism onto me. Then in a terrifying moment of epiphany, I realized that I had in fact been a victim of love bombing all my adult life. How?
It started when I was twenty-one, when a very handsome, charming, and accomplished older man saw me in a lecture hall. He approached me out of the blue, lavished compliments upon compliments, until I was more in love with him than he was with me. At this point, he withdrew his advances. I was devastated and humiliated, and in trying to stave off the humiliation and reassert control over my own life, I lost a lot of weight. Several years later, I had a similar experience happen with another charming man who approached me in the streets and told me I was beautiful and he had to get to know me. The heated pursuit changed to uncertain behaviors that made me feel desperate and crazy. Finally, the last man—another handsome charmer—saw me also randomly on the streets, wooed me with over-the-top gestures like cooking a beautiful meal for our second date and suggesting ways we could build a life together. Yes, he was saying how we would make great life partners pretty much on our first and second dates. It ended, as I mentioned above, with a rupture that destroyed my self-esteem and made me lose my mental and physical health.
It’s surprising, in retrospect, that I never saw the pattern of narcissism and abuse. These men were all charismatic, highly accomplished, and persuasive, as narcissists often are. While they validated me with premature statements of attraction and affection, they were really craving to be validated themselves, rather than truly loving and caring for a person. Deep inside, narcissists are aware that their cover may be blown at any point, so they try to be ahead of the game by withdrawing their attention, or getting angry and cruel. This way, they know they won’t be called out and rejected first. This whole process can be broken down to “idealization, devaluation, discard,” or IDD.
If I hadn’t encountered love bombing in pop culture, I would probably still be thinking that these abusive relationships are just how passionate love affairs work. My first pursuer came into my life in my early twenties, so that type of interaction was imprinted onto my consciousness—as my kind of “normal.” I couldn’t really know better because I was that young and inexperienced. (Plus, love bombing works so well that it’s a favorite technique of cults. Actual cults!!) I would even idealize them as my “love at first sight” experiences. But while I haven’t completely disavowed love at first sight, I am now aware that love doesn’t begin in incredulity and end in cruelty. Anyone who tries to win your heart just to break it, isn’t really in love with you.
It pained me that I had to go back and downgrade all my “passionate love affairs” to “love bombing by narcissists.” But all life is an experiment, and I can’t say that everything has gone to waste. I now know that a healthy love is one in which partners grow together. It feels safe, not sickening. Any time someone makes you feel whiplashed, it’s a sure sign to cut the cord. And not the least important, I learned how strong I really am, because every time a narcissist diminished my self-worth, I said “No thank you” pretty darn fast. Whether or not I had the concept of love bombing, I always knew I didn’t want any man who judged me less than how I judge myself. Knowing I don’t let anyone degrade me is a powerful thing.
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Photo: Joanna Nix-Walkup via Unsplash