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Wellness Wednesday

Love bombing: No, it's not a good thing

Romantic gestures are sweet, unless they turn manipulative.
Romantic gestures are sweet, unless they turn manipulative.Sherwood411 / CC BY-NC 2.0
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by Jill Riley

February 02, 2022

It's the month of February: Valentine's Day is on the way. Whether or not you think it's one of those Hallmark card holidays, it's a good opportunity to talk about love and healthy relationships. Have you heard the term “love bombing”?

Emily Jordan Jensen is a University of Minnesota lecturer in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies program in behavioral health and addictions counseling. She’s also a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in couples therapy.

Jill Riley: What does “love bombing” mean? It sounds cute and nice…but it is anything but?

Emily Jordan Jensen: Right? It sounds like it should be really fun. The idea of love bombing is that it's this behavioral pattern where you see a series of grand gestures - maybe gift giving, excessive focus, attention - kind of in one direction. So from one partner in a dating relationship to another…and in the beginning, it can feel really flattering. But in the love bombing situation there kind of tend to be some strings attached to that behavior. So the partner who is doting and providing all this additional attention may knowingly or unknowingly be sort of creating a power imbalance in the relationship. Attempting to be someone's world can really create the illusion that the other person doesn't need anyone else.

What the signs that you could be with a love bomb? What are the personality traits?

I don't want to create a sense of skepticism around every nice thing that someone does for you. I think many of us have trouble opening up at all in the beginning of a relationship and, and so some people would connect this pattern of love bombing with narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. So you know, it doesn't necessarily mean that trouble is afoot if there's grand gestures in your relationship, but one thing that you might want to start keying into is: are those gestures kind of creating an atmosphere in your relationship where you're feeling a little cut off from some of your other people and other things that bring you joy? Isolation is certainly a red flag, and something that we'd be more concerned about.

It really sounds like it could be dangerous to be in that kind of relationship.

The concern is that this pattern of imbalance and control can set the stage for intimate partner violence or emotional abuse in a relationship. That's the worst case scenario…but I think even in a less severe situation, if you're in a situation where you're being cut off from family, friends, social supports, it puts an immense amount of pressure on the relationship itself. It's a lot to be somebody’s everything, and quite frankly, I think relationships that don't have that outside support tend to collapse under the waiters themselves.

Yeah. And during a pandemic, during a time of such isolation, maybe it can be hard to to pick up on what actually is going on, since you're kind of used to being isolated with this person.

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think the conditions that we're in now can make it even harder to kind of make that distinction. And maybe you're in a bubble with this other person that you're dating, and they're like, the only person you see, because of safety concerns. I do think that's been a real challenge in light of what's been going on recently.

There's healthy love, and there's unhealthy love. What are some some signs that this is healthy, this is going in the right direction? The love bombing thing really sounds like it can spell disaster.

For sure. Yeah, you know, when you're just starting a relationship, I think one of the most important things you can tune into is looking at the other relationships in that person’s life. Psychologists love to say like that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you're hiring someone for a position, you're going to look at their references or ask for people to vouch for them. I think about dating as sort of an extended interview process: you know, if you are going to be the person who's most important In my life, I should do a pretty thorough job in vetting who you are. I think looking at other friendships that someone has in their life can be a great indicator of how they might be in relationship with you - and their family as well. If someone says “I'm cut off from my family” or “I don't have any friends”…you know, that is not necessarily a death knell for the relationship. But it's certainly something that I would want to be curious about and learn more about why that is.

Let's say you’re a family member or a friend of somebody who may be caught in a relationship with some some real red flags. How can somebody, as an outsider, approach that? Because there can be a lot of denial.

Definitely, definitely. There's all this brain chemistry when you're falling in love, right? That makes it really hard to be objective. And I think that's why it is so important to stay connected to your other people. But that doesn't always happen. And, right, how difficult when when you are that other person in someone's life? I think sometimes in Minnesota, we like to be conflict avoidant. We think, “Oh, I'm sure it's fine.” If you have a sense that there's something off, “I'm concerned about this person that I care about,” you know, I think a gentle approach is really helpful. “I'm just getting curious,” you know, ask them questions about how the relationship is going. If you lead with this kind of accusatory tone, they're going to be on the defensive about their relationship, of course; but if you can ask gently and kind of express that you care, that's important, too. I think that friend might be really leaning into their relationship, maybe they're not spending as much time with you as they once did. Some of that's kind of typical, but don't give up on them. Keep reaching out and keep asking them to do things with you too.

It's the dead of winter, and times are tough for people. Times are tough for relationships. What are some common problems that you're seeing as a professional as a couples therapist right now?

Right? We're all so tired, aren't we? Continuing on this theme of social support for relationships, I think a lot of what I've been seeing in practice is that many of our couples, they're cut off from those outside supports. You know, they're not seeing friends like they used to. Maybe their gym is closed and they're not able to work out like they used to. Maybe they would normally travel to see family this time of year, and they haven't been able to travel. I think all of that is it putting a lot of pressure on a primary relationship: it's like, “Okay, you have to be my everything.”

Some of that's just by default, because of the world that we're living in. That, again, is a lot of pressure and our stressors are up too, so it can be really easy to look to your partner and say, “Well, you're my only other person in this. If you're not holding up your end of the line, I think we're gonna collapse.” It really drives a lot more conflict than you might normally experience.

For anybody listening right now that maybe that's kind of clicking with them, what's a good way to approach that with your partner?

A lot of couples therapists feel like we get people when they're really far down the line. I think part of our cultural narrative around couples therapy is that it's a last-ditch effort; like, you only go there if your relationship feels like it's tanking. And honestly, you can do so much more work in a preventative place. So: “Hey, we're just not feeling exactly like we used to,” or, “I'm noticing a little more conflict, maybe we should reach out and get some more tools or, you know, just have a checkup on how we're doing because this is such a stressful time.” Searching online is a great way to look for providers. Psychology Today has a great website that you can go to: you can put in if your insurance provider if you have one, your location, a couple other search filters and try to find clinicians who might be open to taking you on as a client.

At the beginning of our conversation, we were talking about this term “love bombing.” If anyone is listening right now that's thinking, “You know, I'm feeling really cut off. What I thought were gestures of love may be something else.” I can understand and see how there may be some fear around ending the relationship or leaving. How about for someone like that? What kind of advice would you give?

Oh, sure. That's really tough to be, a tough place to begin. I think reaching out to whoever is in your network and getting honest about what you've been experiencing is a great first step. You know, we're stronger together, and if you're in a position like that, likely you've been made to feel like you don't have a lot of power or maybe you're feeling kind of small or frightened. Pulling other people who can who can be a support to you can be really important. It can provide perspective into your situation, it can embolden you to speak out for what you need. I think that's a great first step, and often when you're in a position like that you might feel a sense of shame or like, “I don't want to talk about this experience.” But as much as you can, to be really honest about what you've been experiencing with other people you trust, I think, is a really good move.

I was thinking as you were talking about, past behavior can predict future behavior…I've been married for so long that it just kind of sparked this thought. You know, if I was ever out there again, like, would I hesitate to ask for references? I wonder if anybody else is thinking that right now.

Yes. You don't need to call them references, necessarily, but it's, “You know, hey, let's, let's do something with your friends,” or “I would love to meet your friends,” you know, or, “We're gonna go out and is there anyone who could join us?” I think that's a really good thing. When I met my spouse, he was in his 30s, and he was still really good friends with these people from middle school. And they're just these goofy friends who had these memories of him, you know, for decades since he was this goofy teenager, and I just found that to be very attractive and reassuring. You know, “Okay. There's somebody who they can really vouch for this guy.” Like, they've seen him through life. I think that can be really something to look out for when you're dating.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Sherwood411 (CC BY-NC 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.