It started with a bouquet of flowers.
They were delivered to my desk on a dreary Wednesday afternoon. They were excessive, over-the-top, bright red roses and waxy lilies shedding petals all over my keyboard. I had to dig through thorny stems to locate the card, which was scrawled with a saccharine message.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was my birthday, or that this rom-com-esque gesture was the work of a long-time lover, but you’d be wrong.
Instead, my mid-week delivery was from someone I’d met a few years before, when backpacking around Thailand. Sharing Pad Thais and long and uncomfortable night buses had, at first, led to casual texts to check in on each other once we returned home. But a break-up on his part and a serious health issue on mine had brought him back into my life.
Along with the surprise delivery, I was bombarded with messages telling me how great I was; how smart; how sexy. Struggling with the aftermath of my medical problems and a rapid and related decline in my mental health, the attention lavished on me suddenly started to feel like the silver-lining in otherwise lousy days.
As I scheduled doctor appointments, he would slide into my inbox telling me how great we would be together. Sure, the frequency was a bit alarming, my phone lighting up every few minutes, regardless of whether I responded. But I’d had a bad run of dating, and too much attention was surely better than none at all at a time like this.
Looking back now, the warning signs were clear. Although I had never heard of the term back then, the idea of ‘love bombing‘ has recently entered public awareness and aligns almost perfectly with his behavior. Characterized by extravagant gestures and displays of affection, the practice of love bombing is now often pointed to as a sign of coercive control.
Love bombers tend to use an initial barrage of affection in order to later exert dominance over the object of their attentions. Once they’ve hooked romantic interest, they ramp up or withdraw their adoring behavior alternately, leaving their partner desperate for the addictive high of their approval.
In my case, the relationship came to a halt more quickly than my love bomber had hoped for. After a few months of sex that he insisted was the best that he’d ever had, being swept out of the city for weekends away, and endless expensive meals, I called things off. I was at a crossroads in my life and couldn’t see a future with him.
I knew that it was the right thing to do, but still felt terrible. After all, I told myself – regretfully remembering how he’d recently driven for three hours just to watch The Great British Bake Off with me—look how much he liked me! The fact that making a six-hour round trip for a few hours of television together was far from normal behavior barely even crossed my mind.
Yet if his actions while we were briefly together were disquieting, then his reaction to the break-up was much worse. The tirade of affectionate messages that I had grown used to receiving quickly transformed into streams of unwanted, and sometimes abusive, words.
Feeling guilty, I was at first apologetic, responding to and reasoning with him. But every time I begged to be left alone, the contact would step up. More flowers and gifts that I was forced to sheepishly collect from my office’s reception desk. Long emails sent to my work account. Books delivered to my front door with notes crammed inside. Abusive posts on my Facebook page, and late-night voicemails in which he would threaten to end his life unless I spoke to him.
I began to block him on social media, but new accounts would spring up to replace whichever latest one I had unfriended.
Although he lived hours away, there were clues that he had been in my local area. Even after I went to the police, the harassment continued, six months of dreading checking my phone.
And yet, in spite of the abuse that I was experiencing, I felt guilty. One of the problems with love bombing is that popular culture paints a bombardment of attention as the pinnacle of romance. There was a clear link between the obsessive behavior that he had initially exhibited and the controlling behavior that emerged later on, but rather than seeing the warning signs, I convinced myself that this meant that I somehow deserved this. After all, he must have really liked me. Perhaps his reaction was only reasonable considering that I had rejected him.
The dangers of love bombing are often overlooked because, really, who actually minds being showered with gifts, lavished with attention, and being assured of all your best qualities? But love bombing is a form of abuse – it forces you into a state of vulnerability that allows you to be easily manipulated, opening you up to much more sinister and harmful behavior.
Even after he finally left me alone, my experience of love bombing, and the harassment that it paved the way for, profoundly impacted me. I was wary of any overt display of affection and became convinced that the simplest kind gesture must signify some other ominous motive. I was afraid of allowing myself to open up to anyone, intensely aware of how easily your vulnerability can be turned against you.
I’m now in a new relationship with someone who took years getting to know me before he made the first move. This new love exists in stark relief to my previous relationship. It has made me realize that the social narratives that normalize love bombing are absurd. If someone who hardly knows you says that they can’t live without you, then that likely says more about them than it does about you.
Relationships are rewarding but complicated things. They require parity in how you feel about each other. They aren’t supposed to look like a rom-com. And they often start slowly, with a gradual fall rather than a dizzying plummet. And if they seem too good to be true at first, then perhaps they actually are.