“In his defense, he did warn me that he couldn’t really do monomoraic relationships,” Hagit (assumed name) tells us, doing her best to defend the guy she calls “the screw-up.” It’s still hard for her to utter his name. It’s been 15 years since she was with him in her early 30s. Although she’s now married with two daughters, if you get close, you can still hear the sounds of her heart shattering from that “screw-up.”
“I was 32. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I’d just come out of a long-term relationship that everyone thought would lead to marriage, but I wasn’t interested and the passion just wasn’t there. I wanted a relationship like in the movies, someone to live happily ever after with.“
And then she met the “screw-up.”
“He worked behind the bar at my regular nightspot. I didn’t take him seriously at first because he flirted with everything that moved. I then bumped into him outside a café one afternoon. We started talking and he soon started sharing personal stuff. He used to say: ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Maybe there’s something about you’. It made me feel that what we had was a special, cosmic, kind of connection and I wanted to save him from his misfortune.“
The connection grew stronger. We mustn’t forget that the screw-up had warned her about his commitment problems. “But he’d always say how different I was from any other woman he knew and how I’m so much better, that I get him without words, that we have a spiritual connection and that he’d never had sex like ours. Rather early on, he said to me: ‘That’s it. I’ve made up my mind. I want to have a child with you. I want you to be the mother of my children.’ I laughed, but I started thinking about it seriously.”
There was only one stain on this relationship: It wasn’t a proper relationship: “I’d go to the bar and he’d be hitting on other girls right in front of me. If we were out clubbing, he’d disappear on me and then tell me he was going home and that I should find my own way back. And I’d always pay for entrance fees and drinks because he was always in debt. When I mentioned it, he shouted at me about how obsessive I was, or that I was trying to buy his freedom with money.
"He convinced me that I had to learn how to control my jealousy - so I pretended I was cool with it. But it was eating me away inside. Whenever I’d tell him I wanted to break up, he’d convince me that he loved only me and that I was his savior, as he was mine, that no one understood him like I did and that I had no chance of finding anyone who’d understand me like he did. There was a paradox: He constantly brought down my self-esteem, and because my self-esteem was at rock bottom, I didn’t think I’d ever find anyone who’d love me more than he did.”
How did it end? “I’d love to say that I realized how bad he was for me and that I mustered up the courage to tell him what a jerk he was, but the truth is we had one of our regular arguments and he (once again) told me how bad I was for ruining everything. As usual, I waited a couple of days for him to call – but the call never came. A few days later, I saw him in the street with his arm around some other girl. That was the last time I saw him. It broke my heart, totally shattered it. Looking back, I know it's the best thing that could have happened.”
At the time, Hagit didn’t know that this behavior pattern had a name. “It’s now clear to me that this was classic love bombing.”
There’s no need to ask Hagit how she got there. It’s every girl’s dream to get a text message in the middle of a meeting that makes her blush, to have songs written about her and - at long last - feel there’s someone who really gets her and appreciates how special she is. Men and women alike are looking for a happy ever after. But there’s a (perhaps smudged) line between flowery early courtship and what’s known as love bombing – a tactic whereby the abuser (male or female) “bombs” extreme attention and affection for the purposes of manipulation.
Exaggerated displays of affection can take the form of gifts in the early stages of the relationship; disproportionate flattery; frequent and/or extreme declarations of love (saying things “you’re the one for me” on a first date); trying to stay in constant contact (text messages and non-stop phone calls); the desire for quick commitment like moving in together after only a few dates.
The love bombing stage is followed by far more aggressive and damaging tactics – including insults and outrage when the partner isn’t available at the very moment the abusive partner wants attention; attempts to control the partner’s appearance and daily routine; damaging the partner’s further friendships. Relationships and may even involve physical abuse.
Idit Gutman of the School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, explains that the term “love bombing” was originally coined while studying cults and was used to describe the recruitment process of new members by “bombing them” with attention.
“At the beginning, they’d get the feeling that the guru loved them unconditionally, that everyone loves them, everyone’s listening to them, everyone understands them and are providing them with all the love that could be. This creates a very strong psychological bond that’s hard to break off. The term has more recently been applied more to toxic relationships which are, in essence, a one-man cult whereby one person deliberately and systematically manipulates the other."
A study conducted by American college students suggests that love bombing correlates to narcissism and low self-esteem. Clinical psychologist Chani Lorenzi-Oren who, with Anav Youlevich, has founded Ogen (Anchor) - Psychologists for Victims of Narcissistic and Psychopathic Abuse, stresses that love bombing is part of a whole process of narcissistic or psychopathic relationships.
“It’s not about diagnosing the abuser, but rather the relationship. Yes, many abusers do have other personality disorders, and not all narcissists are abusers. It’s about relationships in which the former partner is the center of the relationship on an emotional level and the latter is emotionally dependent on the former who draws resources and from the latter and views them as inferior to themselves.”
Lorenzi-Oren describes such relationships as ugly. “In the first stage, also known as the honeymoon or idealization stage, the abuser will try to catch the person they want to bring into a relationship. This stage can be highly addictive because the abuser is successful. He identifies the victim’s innermost needs and fulfils them. You suddenly meet someone who likes the same things you like – the same pastimes, music, movies – he goes with your flow and it’s an amazing sensation. You’re on top of the world. You also hear a lot of superlatives – ‘I’ve never had love like this in my whole life’, ‘I’ve never felt like this.’ It grips you. It feels like a dream.“
Then comes the devaluation stage where we see a certain distancing. Without realizing it, the abuser begins viewing themselves as having very little value. When he tries to catch a woman he sees as “worth” catching, he feels good about himself, but if she’s with him and he’s not worth much, what does that say about her? She thus becomes the object of the consequences of the rejected parts of himself. She represents qualities within himself with which the abuser cannot be in contact. You then get stronger, more manipulative, behavior including a great deal of gaslighting.
The third stage is that of rejection, which can mean actual dumping, temporary separation, or maybe something symbolic like leaving the house for a few hours. During this “rejection” stage, the abuser once again, starts feeling that the victim is distancing herself, that she is no longer his. So he needs to bring her back into the relationship, repeating the love bombing stage.
The exact same thing? “As time goes by, the love bombing stage gets shorter as it’s easier for the abuser to know what the victim needs. Victims, usually women, describe it feeling like ‘crumbs.’ They get the morsel of love, warmth and affection they so craved, creating a cycle of addiction because at the low points, they recall that it had also been good and that that good could come back, albeit in limited dosages. “
“The mechanism is much like Skinner’s theory of learning” explains Dr. Gutman. “At the beginning, you’re told how fabulous and perfect you are and you’re constantly getting reinforcements. Then it suddenly stops and you’re occasionally thrown a few crumbs. It’s easy to get addicted. Lotteries employ this tactic –giving you another free ticket or a coupon for coffee. People are earning a pittance, but they just can’t stop because they’re always hoping that maybe this time, it’ll be the Big Prize. And sometimes it really does happen. Sometimes there is a prize, so it’s very hard to cut yourself off completely.
"The victim is constantly trapped because they’re always trying to get back into the garden, to get back the love and once again be the fabulous person they were told they were. It’s very powerful because it activates the need to be overwhelmingly loved.“
“The love bombing stage is a lot of fun and it’s enticing. Over time, however, it can become extremely draining,” Lorenzi-Oren tells us. “We often see that the victims are people with a great deal of strength. They can carry the world on their shoulders – but, over a protracted timespan, such a relationship takes a lot out of them and we identify and a kind of energy-draining and inner fatigue"
Dr. Gutman likens this tactic to that of the relationship between parents and infants. “New parents can gaze lovingly at their baby and feel wondrous about every little thing they do. They know what the child needs before the child does. This forms the first attachment, which is also the model for all the love attachments to follow. It also allows parents to gain immense control over their children, so that they can decide what they do, where they study, whether or not the child receives vaccinations.
"Usually, when parents are emotionally stable, they do this not only with the intention of controlling the child, but also to help the baby develop and become independent and ultimately fly the nest. In less healthy relationships, it can be abused to exploit someone else’s love.
The average parent cares about what the baby wants, and so it becomes obvious that in a good relationship, the other person cares about me, my needs and it may well come at their expense. Parents don’t wake up their baby for baby yoga to fulfill some fantasy of their own. The moment this message is internalized, this is how we can expect to be treated – that they’ll help us achieve our potential, that they’ll want what’s best for us. In narcissistic relationships, on the other hand, you’re constantly trying to please the other side.“
“The love bombing stage is a lot of fun and it’s enticing. Over time, however, it can become extremely draining,” Lorenzi-Oren tells us. “We often see that the victims are people with a great deal of strength. They can carry the world on their shoulders – but, over a protracted timespan, such a relationship takes a lot out of them and we identify and a kind of energy-draining and inner fatigue. This is invariably accompanied by very high functioning as they’ll often make up for their partner’s inactivity.
"The abuser finding them isn’t left to chance. They know they’ve found someone strong who can carry them. At this stage, the gaslighting tends to become the victim’s inner monologue. They’ll tell themselves: ‘It’s my fault’ and take on all the guilt and responsibility. This is often compounded by the shame of being in such a relationship.”
Can such relationships get violent? Firstly, it’s emotional violence. Definitely. It’s invisible violence as we don’t see bruises, but it’s violence in every sense. As the manipulation and gaslighting are so forceful, it can be hard for victims to identify the sexual and financial violence within the relationship. It can also reach physical violence which is much more obvious. Even then, the victim will often say that he didn’t really mean it.“
Would you advise getting out of these kinds of relationships, even without any kind of support? “Definitely. If there’s even the slightest suspicion of violence within the relationship, one should consult with organizations equipped to deal with domestic violence for help getting out of such relationships. It’s never advisable to conduct a break-up conversation alone as it increases the chances of danger. “
Like mother's love
If you find yourself in such a relationship, you’ll likely ask yourself why this has happened specifically to you. So relax, it’s your parents’ fault – at least in part. Dr. Gutman explains: “People who were raised like this - i.e. that their needs are identified but then ignored, will be more likely to find themselves in these kinds of relationships. They’ve actually been taught that the Garden of Eden is wonderful, but that they’re always expelled from it, so they are by nature more prone to abuse. Their mother tongue is this sort of relationship. Most of us would be suspicious on a first meeting if our date told us we were the very person he had been waiting for his whole life. Abusers know how to target people who are more likely to follow them.“
“I’m not trying to blame the victim – if it’s done in a sophisticated and systematic way, anyone could fall for it. Truth Default Theory (TDT) is the analysis of human communication as it is received as an incoming message. Most of us assume we’re not being lied to, so our suspicions aren’t raised. This has its plusses – as most people aren’t out to hurt us, but there is a minority that will abuse the trust, naiveté and expectation of fairness that most of us hold.
Relationships start out with mutual excitement. Even in established relationships, there are phases of renewed enthusiasm, mainly after low points. How can we differentiate between what’s normal and natural and what’s problematic? “True. It’s the same mechanism as at the outset of a regular relationship. The difference is in the extreme aspects. But even if we just think the guy is hearty, excitable and keen for commitment, problems will arise at the stage he turns his back, estranges, abandons or starts being very critical. He’ll use love to cause his partner to be starved of attention and let her understand that she’s lost him because she hasn’t made a great enough effort.
"The end game of relationships is to allow you to feel that you have some kind of base, that there’s someone there who’ll always love you, just as your mother will always love you. This is how we want our children to feel. This is how we want our partners to feel and it’s how we want our partners to want us to feel. Knowing that there are people like this around calms us. In narcissist relationships, however, the very opposite happens – you always feel you’re on probation, and in a great deal of distress.“
Lorenzi-Oren mentions reciprocity as a further difference: “In a healthy relationship, both sides take responsibly and both sides will try to solve problems that arise, employing a respectful, bilateral discourse that respects boundaries. If one side says they don’t want to talk for hours on the phone or meet up that evening, the other side will accept it.“
Can you work on a relationship that looks like a lost cause? “It very much depends on the level of the abuser’s disorder. The key is taking responsibility. Some are prepared to embark on some kind of process and undergo therapy that will help them see the other person within the relationship and become more self-aware. But very often, the abusers will only say they’re taking responsibility, and will only agree to go to couples’ counseling or they’ll start therapy, but stop because they think they’re just fine. They might say all sorts of things that constitute gaslighting – like ‘I’m sorry I hurt you, but you made me do it.‘“
“In these kinds of relationships, it’s the victim who usually takes responsibility and it’s the victim who goes to therapy. They’re the ones who seek out advice and try to cope with life’s burdens so as to reduce the abusers’ triggers. So yes, some situations are treatable, whereas others aren’t. At ‘Ogen’, we focus on working with victims to help them find the right way to be in this relationship - or not be in this relationship. “
Dr. Gutman agrees: “In principle, psychological treatment is supposed to provide a corrective experience. That said, it’s dangerous to feel you can save a psychopath. These are people without a lot of space for maneuvering. Their expressions of love are fake. It’s like a person who’s color-blind talking to you about what yellow is. He doesn’t really know. He’ll behave like someone who does know, but it won’t be real. People who weren’t taught in infancy what care is, cannot care. He doesn’t have this choice. You see the structural difference among children raised in Romanian orphanages. Areas in the brain related to compassion and empathy are inactive. Some things can’t be fixed. But it’s not like this in every case.“
Getting out of these relationships sounds hard. "Yes. You need to make a clean break – like giving up alcohol is difficult if you have a drink every now and then, or getting off drugs if you do a few lines here and there. And it’s hard because abusers won’t always disappear. They also isolate their victims from other people. The relationship is so much fun at the beginning that nothing is comparable. It allows nothing else to exist. Just like heroin addicts don’t want to give up their families, but nothing else provides them the simple joy the drug does. So, the most important thing when entering into a relationship is not giving up on your connections with friends and family – not giving up what you had before the relationship.“
As mentioned above, the term “love bombing” has recently come into use to refer to relationships. And partly due to dating apps. A survey conducted by Shane Co (jewelry company) found that 78% of app users had been love bombed, 60% felt they were being pressured into saying “I love you” too early in the relationship, and over half (52%) felt pressurized to sleep with the “love bomber.”
Dr. Gutman agrees that dating apps are fertile grounds for love bombing. “It's a bit like a computer game - enjoying the power you have over people and breaking hearts. We don’t have the buffers we used to. In the past, people would meet through mutual friends, so they had some initial information about the people they’re dating. There was also an awkwardness about it. If my brother-in-law set us up, I can’t really ghost her or do anything to hurt her."
So, let’s get back to shidduchim (arranged marriages). “Some research suggests that shidduchim lead to longer lasting happiness. When people aren’t always looking for the next thing, and they’re not constantly feeling they’re missing out - they can make the best of what they have. It’s like in an exam when you can select one answer out of a number of options.
"You spend half the exam trying to decide which to choose, and you just waste time. Research suggests that in our culture the idealization of choice – something we all want – is actually a lie. People want less, not more, choice. People want decisions to be made for them. People don’t want doctors to let them decide whether to undergo surgery or opt for more conservative treatment. People have no idea. It’s not in our nature. At the end of the day, when we’re spoilt for choice, we just don’t choose."