Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of HarleyTherapy.com, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
My very good friend and flatmate is being love bombed and I don’t know what to do. To our friends it is very clear that her boyfriend’s behaviour is controlling and unacceptable. He is slowly separating her from her friends by refusing to attend events with us. He continually behaves in a way where she is repeatedly blamed for things going wrong, calls her until she picks up the phone, wants to know where she is at all times, threatens her with his mental health while bombarding her with gifts and telling her he loves her more than anyone else ever will. Her confidence is really struggling, which breaks all of our hearts. Yet she won’t break up with him and says she loves him and will never find anyone else. We are all struggling because we don’t know how to support her. We don’t want to push her away by being really honest but if this continues we all really worry it’s going to end horrifically. Any advice you have would be really appreciated. Thank you.
– Madeline, 31
Love bombing is a behavioural technique that involves surrounding people with intense displays of affection in order to adjust someone's behaviour or bring about change. My understanding is that the first sign of it being used was actually in a positive light – historically, I've seen it being used as positive displays of affection for a positive outcome, in particular when trying to get to the root of children's distress and behavioural difficulties. So love bombing in the sense of showering someone, in particular children, with affection in order to show that they are cared for is a positive and can be one of the ways of mitigating mental distress and feeling isolated.
Crucially, materialism and giving gifts and compliments wasn't really part of that definition of love bombing because that doesn't rise from genuine affection. Love bombing is more understood now in the context of the recent Tinder Swindler. It's a similar technique but it's used for the purpose of manipulation and is comprised of slightly different elements: the attention is not necessarily care-driven but is more compliments, flattery, gifts, interest in you and your movements. This, in my view, is just a name for a technique used in abusive relationships.
In these situations, the love bombing will stem from a mixture of genuine emotion as well as manipulation. You've got to remember that things are not black and white but, in the context of your question, love bombing seems to overlap with areas of manipulation. We see it more with people with more disturbed backgrounds or challenged backgrounds, who will often use this behaviour because that's the way that they know to love. Their best attempts to form relationships involve control and capturing someone's attention and affection through more manipulative means.
As you say, this is a difficult scenario so there are things to look out for to help identify it before you make moves to help your friend.
Love bombing in the positive sense is heartfelt, it is not done for your benefit but to help the other person, and it is consistent. So whether you are in a relationship or an outsider observing it, red flags for the coercive form are things like mood swings and behaviour changes. If someone is very complimentary one day and very derogatory towards you the next, that is a flag. I would also say that excessive gift giving and a highly material focus could be a red flag. Not always: sometimes people are of a certain income bracket and that's their normal way of spending time. But if it feels disproportionate to that person's earning capacity, that could be a sign that they're spending beyond their means and they're trying to achieve something by these material displays. Also, use your internal barometer or 'spidey sense' – if it pricks up, it's worth paying attention to that. Now, the thing is that outsiders are more likely to observe this than ourselves if we're in it because we are the subject of this affection and it's very easy to get wooed and under the influence of someone.
If you’re on the outside looking in and want to help, my caveat is that it's very, very difficult. Be prepared not to be successful in helping them in the way that you think would be beneficial to them. When a person is under the spell of love our hormones are activated and we aren't as logical as we could be. Our access to our prefrontal cortex, our rational functioning, is diminished, generally speaking, when we're in a state of rapture. And it could be ongoing. It's not only the honeymoon period, it could be a cycle: even after all the affection has died down and you get more negative behaviours than positive ones, you could still be attached to that person in the hope that they're going to return to how they were. So people can get very, very stuck.
So the premise here is to not expect to change the outcome necessarily but to at least speak your mind. Let them know in a gentle and loving way that you care about them, that you've noticed certain characteristics of their relationship and because you are so interested in their wellbeing you want them to know what you're observing. Then you can ask if they share any observations and how they feel. Avoid judgement as much as possible, start from a place of genuine affection and communicate what you've been noticing. Emphasise that it's your perspective and you're concerned for them but open it up as a dialogue rather than a plea, an instruction or a dictation.
They shouldn't react badly if you start very gently and stop early when there are signs of that person feeling encroached on. Often people will become defensive in this situation. If that's their main love interest, it's very hard to speak against a relationship that's serving them in some way. So the advice really is to go very tentatively and slowly.
On top of that I encourage you, if possible, to continue to support the friendship as you would if their romantic relationship didn't exist. If you tend to check on them regularly, continue to text regularly. You may not get the texts back, which does shift the dynamic of the friendship, but don't stop. They may need supportive friends a little bit more now than before.
There is of course an exception to this. I would escalate the concern if that person is at high risk and there are signs of that person being in a domestic violence situation. If someone's life is at risk I would fast-track the way that you communicate your concern. I'd be much more forceful and maybe also mention that you are interested in getting them help as well. Good luck.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.