love bombing

love bombing and lies: the narcissist and the bachelorette

I watch “The Bachelorette.” I admit it. I do.

I mostly watch to make fun of it, but that hardly excuses my participation. I’m a huge fan of the HuffPost podcast “Here to Make Friends” covering “The Bachelor” franchise, and love the recaps so much, I started watching the shows so I could get even more enjoyment from each podcast episode.

My shame aside, it’s been both fascinating and horrifying this past season to watch bachelorette Hannah Brown be manipulated by a narcissist, namely Luke P. This week’s episode was the gratifying end to their relationship, when Luke told Hannah if she had slept with any of her other three finalists, he’d leave the show because of sin and things, and she kicked him off. ABC had been teasing it for weeks, ever since it became clear to viewers that Luke was beyond a mere “villain” of the show, a bully or poser or whatever, but was actually the toxic sociopath the other men claimed him to be. It was telling to us, if not to Hannah, that without exception the men he was living with despised him and considered him to be a dangerous and manipulative liar.

Having dated one of those myself, I totally agree.

I was telling a friend recently about the experience of watching this unfold, after having been through a similar relationship. Of course I was only dating one man, not dozens, but while it did help give Hannah some other people to focus on, what she went through in her dealings with Luke was pretty excruciating in its relateability.

That’s one of the craziest things about being involved with narcissists, though—how utterly, bizarrely similar their patterns are, even though they’re completely different people coming from totally different backgrounds. In all the self-help reading I did after that relationship, blessedly, ended, the patterns were obvious and validating. And though Hannah was on a dating show, protected by security and producers and involved with other guys, she went through all the same feelings, cycles, upsets and frustrations as I did, and so many others have.

Part 1: Love Bombing

It begins with love bombing, which is the perfect term for what they do. They blitz you, besiege you, blast you with explosions of love, devotion, never-felt-this-way-befores. It’s utterly overwhelming, making you incredibly uneasy even while you’re busy buying it. Luke told Hannah he was falling in love with her within days of meeting her. The first night of the show, while other guys were posturing or trying to get to know her, Luke stared intently into her eyes and said he saw her on “The Bachelor” and knew she was the one woman for him. Flattered and, yes, overwhelmed by this declaration of his feelings, she gave him the coveted first impression rose. The other men, watching this unfold, were quickly aware that something wasn’t right. Hannah even knew that something was off. But the love bombing had begun, seduction in its basest form, and it’s incredibly hard to resist.

Most of us struggle with feeling worthy of being loved, feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection. Especially when we’re somewhat emotionally vulnerable—like I was as my marriage broke up, like Hannah was as the bachelorette, like many of us are at different times in our life—and even if we’re not, it’s indescribably compelling to have someone tell us that we’re so amazing and special and unique that they’ve already lost their hearts to us, even though they just met us. They want to see us every day—they’re in touch constantly (this was a struggle for Luke, given the limitations of the show, but he did his best)—they don’t let us forget that they’re seriously into us.

Healthy relationships don’t work like that. You might immediately feel a strong connection to someone, and you might act on it without needing a lot of time. But there’s typically a mutual, and equitable, movement of attachment and intimacy. Love bombing is an all-out deliberate campaign to attach someone to you, an entirely different thing. It worked on me with my ex, and it worked on Hannah. Until you’ve been through it and can identify it for what it is, it’s a dangerously effective strategy.

Part 2: Manipulation and Gaslighting

Another brilliant application of a term is gaslighting, originally from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light” and made famous by the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. A supposedly devoted, adoring (read: love bombing) new husband uses subtle lies and tricks, including the flickering gaslights in their home, to convince his wife she’s going insane. Ultimately his motive is greed, he hopes to gain something valuable through this process, though he does seem to relish fucking with her head.

I would call Luke a master of this, except he isn’t quite smart enough. At one point in the season, he attempted to gaslight an entire roomful of men, who all stared at him in disbelief. He used it more effectively on Hannah, talking around the truth, lying about the other men and twisting words and situations to his advantage. When she began to push back at some of his behavior and language, he stated that he didn’t say what he said, a classic gambit, and that she misunderstood him. Gaslighting is about rewriting the story to fit your own narrative, getting creative with the truth, and convincing the people around you that they’re the ones in the wrong. That they are, in fact, crazy to think otherwise.

Watching Hannah go through this, especially with the omniscience of a viewer after the fact, was both frustrating and sad. The other men didn’t seem to know what to do with the situation, even as they challenged him. One of them said, “I can’t believe you outsmarted me,” when he realized that Hannah believed Luke’s version over the truth. It was shortly after this that ABC started heavily promoting Luke’s sendoff, as it became increasingly clear that if there was any chance that Hannah was going to pick this guy, it would look bad for her, and for the show. Exposing her to a personality like this wasn’t necessarily ABC’s fault, but they did cast him.

Other forms of manipulation are cold rages, which are really effective when it’s your partner and you don’t understand why they’re suddenly furious with you (on the show, Luke tried this on the other men, who weren’t impressed); defensiveness and over-explaining; guilt trips; throwing blame; abject apologies; sweeping promises; self-loathing and pity-mongering… the list goes on and on. The key is how quickly narcissists pivot if their technique isn’t working. Within minutes, they’ll go from love bombing to cold rage to abject apologies, depending on how their target is reacting.

Part 3: Confusion, Anxiety and Misery

I remember with intense clarity what it felt like to sit at my desk at work and get a text from my ex. My stomach would lurch—my body go into stress mode—my anxiety peak. Usually he would ask for something, usually money, and I didn’t know how to say no. When I did say no, he would push back—or be enraged, or both. He sucked the air out of everything, made everything about him.

I cried so much during the two-plus years we were together, once it was finally over (and the blinding relief began), I didn’t cry. Narcissists make you crazy, and miserable, and stress out your entire life. You lose yourself in the chaos, long for that hit of adoration, for the gooey sensation you got from the love bombing, willing to do just about anything to get it even while you know, deep down, and this is somehow Not Right. Hannah brought up red flags constantly. She spent an entire morning weeping on a dock in confusion about Luke. She talked at length, to Luke and to the producers, about how she knew there was a “good man” in him, how strong their connection is, how unwilling she is to let that go. When she met his family and friends on the hometown date, she was giddy with joy to learn he’s popular and liked in his deeply religious community.

Seeing Hannah talk herself into this guy over and over was all too familiar. The problem is, you’ve fallen for someone who doesn’t actually exist, but once you’re attached, it’s extremely hard to see that and to step away.

Part 4: They Won’t Go

My ex broke up with me in a fit of temper the first time, then came back the next day and begged for a second chance. He promised everything, love bombed me all over again, agreed to everything I said. Exhausted and uncertain, I gave in. Within three weeks, he’d broken every single agreement. I finally challenged him on money he owed me, we talked in circles, and he broke up with me again. Two days later he hadn’t yet moved out, and decided he didn’t want to go, after all. Unfortunately for him, it was my apartment, I was done, and he didn’t have a choice.

A few weeks before hometown dates, Hannah actually sent Luke home, but he decided he wouldn’t accept her decision. He stalked back into the room where they were having their date and told her all the things she wanted to hear… he was wrong… she was right… he just felt so much for her, he was trying too hard to be perfect for her… he’d be better from now on… She gave in, and he stayed.

This is how Luke made it to the second to last round, the fantasy suite dates, when Hannah had a chance to spend a private (not filmed) night with each man in Greece. She had lovely romantic dates on Crete with the first three men, and saved Luke the special Santorini date. They spent the day wandering around Oia, one of the most picturesque places on the planet, and it was the best day ever, full of delicious love bombing. Hannah went into the evening part of the date with the same giddy excitement she felt meeting his family. Finally she was justified in believing this guy was as amazing as she first thought, in spite of dozens of bright red flags and all the other men questioning her judgment for trusting him.

When, after perfunctory toasts, Luke informed her that the marriage bed should be “pure” and threatened to leave if she failed that particular test, the facade finally cracked. The perfect guy was revealed as a narcissistic toad who uses his religion as a seduction technique as well as a weapon and is prepared to judge her for not measuring up to the same “pure” values. Hannah was having none of that. She is also religious and rightfully resented this being used against her. It was beautifully entertaining to watch her take him down, watch him scramble to unsay his words (“I didn’t say that!” “You literally just said that.”) and walk back his do or die statements. It didn’t work. She told him to get up so she could walk him out (the way the leads kick people off the show), and he refused on the grounds that she owed him a chance to say his piece.

That did it. She was furious that he’d claim she owed him anything and firmly escorted him to the car, where he paused to ask if he could pray over her. She refused. His last bolt shot, he slowly, unwillingly got in, and she flipped him off as it drove away. After all the chances she gave him and times she defended him, she realized, he wasn’t worth any of it.

So it’s over, right? But no.

On the previews for next week, he’s back, crashing the rose ceremony and insisting that he’s there to propose to Hannah. He has a ring. He isn’t going to take “no, leave me alone” for an answer. Of course ABC and the show are highly complicit in this, they’re the ones driving him around and giving him the ring. It’s good TV, after all. In the teaser, we see Hannah telling Luke to leave, see him refusing, see the other finalists trying to intervene and Luke facing off with all of them. Great TV. And also all too real. Most of us don’t have three other people we’re dating to stand up for us. We’re on our own if, or when, they come back and insist that we give them another chance.

I’m not sorry I got involved with a narcissist. It left a lot of damaging scars on me, caused me to do a lot of things I regret. It took a long time to heal and restore my life. But it also was a massively transformative experience in terms of understanding what’s acceptable and unacceptable, that not everyone deserves a second chance, that my gut is actually an incredibly wise guide if I only listen to it and actually pay attention to red flags. When I started dating again more than a year after the breakup, I did it with my eyes wide open and my instincts on full alert. I cancelled one date on the day of because the guy started love bombing me before he’d even met me and my gut said “DO NOT GO NEAR THIS PERSON.” So I didn’t.

Whatever happens in Hannah’s future relationships, I hope she can get as much out of the surreal, stressful, upsetting experience of dating a toxic narcissist as I did, and find a more authentic connection because of it.

When it’s all over, if we’re open to the lessons, they give us much more than they realize.

 

“I can breathe again.”

-Me, the day after my ex moved out

 

 

six bright red and green flags of dating

Dating can be daunting and complicated.

It isn’t easy to find the balance between enjoying it and not letting it run our lives, between giving time to it and time to everything else that matters to us, between being open to possibilities and protecting ourselves, and between releasing our pasts and learning everything we can from our experiences. It requires time, attention and effort. There’s no one right way to do it, there’s no perfect recipe for a great social life. I found that what worked for me developed over time, with a lot of trial and error.

I think the hardest part for many of us, especially those of us who’ve made appalling mistakes in the past, is learning to trust our own judgment—again or for the first time. Every encounter and every person is different. How do we know for sure that we’re making the right decisions for ourselves?

Thinking about this recently, I decided to create a list of some of the red and green flags that I learned to watch for through the process of dating. These may or may not be helpful to anyone else, but they they gave me confidence and helped me keep my balance.

Red Flag #1: Love Bombing.
The other person overwhelms you with attention, compliments, praise and expressions of devotion. This is called “love bombing,” and anyone who’s experienced it knows how GOOD it feels. Suddenly you go from being alone to deeply attached, you belong to someone who adores you. All your free time is absorbed by them. They talk about the future—forever—love. They’ve never met anyone like you before, you’re The One. You’re breathless with excitement and giddy with romance, devouring every word. Before you know it, you’ve become dependent on the heady drug that is their affection, and find all your boundaries and values flying out the window in order to keep it coming.

The catch? It’s not real. No matter how quickly two people fall in love, if it’s a healthy and sustainable relationship, one person won’t overwhelm the other with attachment. Every relationship has its own pace, fast or slow, but the key is that both people are comfortable and clear-headed about what’s happening. If it feels like too much, too soon, then it is, and chances are this person wants something. To sleep with you, manipulate you, condition you, use you in some way to their advantage. No one ever needs to be love bombed in order to fall in love.

Green Flag #1: An authentic pace.
Sure, being swept up in romance is fun and exciting, it’s a natural high unlike just about any other. But what’s the hurry? This person is basically a stranger, no matter how great they seem. It’s a good sign if they make it clear that they’re in no rush. They show you that they want to get to know you better, but that’s it. They don’t have an agenda. This flag indicates maturity, integrity and respect, not a lack of desire or interest. You can let the relationship unfold as it will without stressing over it or feeling overwhelmed by it.

The flip side is someone who drags their feet, who does NOT show you that they’re interested, who leaves you guessing because they’re playing games or aren’t really sure what they want. Your best bet is to watch for the indications that they really do want to date you. They contact you and respond when you contact them. They follow up when they say they will. They end a date by talking about the next one. They don’t make big promises and don’t break the promises they make. Their actions speaking for their intentions. Beyond the almost unavoidable “how much does he/she like me?” question we all ask ourselves, you shouldn’t have to guess whether or not they’re interested in you.

For both of these flags, your own responses will tell you everything you need to know. Do you feel dismissed and confused? Valued and respected? Overwhelmed and anxious? Does this person frequently disappoint you, or consistently follow through? Are you deeply attached by week two, terrified that it will end? Are you willing to let the relationship unfold at its own pace, whatever that may mean?

Red Flag #2: Boundary Crossing.
You’ve just met a very attractive, charming man or woman who’s knocked you off your feet—maybe even love-bombed you, but it’s too late, you missed that red flag. Or maybe they didn’t love bomb, you watched for that, they courted you or responded to you in a mature, open way that clearly showed they like you. You’ve gone on one or three or five dates, and are starting to think that this could really have potential. And then something happens that makes you uncomfortable. They tease you—about something you’ve made clear is important, or belittle you in a teasing way. They make an unkind comment about your appearance, or job, or friends—as a joke, maybe, but it still hurts your feelings. They do something—flirt with a bartender, go a little too far physically, “accidentally” leave you with a big tab—that disturbs you and makes you uneasy and resentful. You may seem “over-sensitive” to someone who has different boundaries, but that doesn’t matter. You were made uncomfortable.

If you’ve already established for yourself what is and is not acceptable behavior and what they do falls squarely into the unacceptable category, now’s the time to cut your losses and walk away. There’s no value in rationalizing or making excuses—it’s appropriate to end it now, no matter how nice you thought they were. If their behavior is in the gray area for you, daunting as it may be, it’s probably best to address it head on. We have the right and responsibility to speak up for ourselves when our personal lines are crossed. Either it was an honest mistake and your budding relationship will be the stronger for the conversation, or it wasn’t. If the other person is defensive, plays the victim, blames you (or anyone else) or is in any way crazy-making, this is definitely not a good bet for a future partner. If speaking up scares them off, what are the chances you’d work through even bigger conflicts in the future?

Green Flag #2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Self-respect in dating matters. Coming from a strong place where you value yourself and believe that your wants, needs, opinions, feelings and ideas are important is the best guarantee that you’ll choose similarly strong people to date. One way to recognize this is that you feel utterly respected by the person you’re dating. You know they value who you are—not who you could be if you were more successful or skinnier, not you with less flaws. But YOU. They show respect for your time, your priorities, your family, your responsibilities, your choices. Making plans with them doesn’t require you to rearrange your life, and vice versa.

We all know when someone is disrespecting us. Crossing boundaries, consistently showing up late or cancelling plans at the last-minute, trying to negotiate when we say “no” or convince us that we’re in the wrong, playing any kind of mind game. No matter how attracted we might be to them, disrespect is disrespect. You deserve better than that—and someone who starts out disrespecting you probably won’t stop.

It’s on us to own our own boundaries and self-worth. We deserve to feel empowered to define our deal-breakers and enforce them, to recognize when someone has crossed a line and decide for ourselves what to do about it, and to only let people into our lives who show us unwavering respect, who we respect in return. Without a strong foundation, a relationship will crumble, causing far more heartbreak and stress than speaking out or ending it early on would.

Red Flag #3: Your Gut Says “No.”
Whether it’s the first date or the fiftieth, there’s one very simple and beautiful way to decide if someone is right for you—whatever “right” means at that moment in your life. Your gut will tell you. Even those of us who have made some truly horrible decisions when it comes to dating can trust our instincts—there was nothing wrong with what they told us, what was wrong was that we didn’t listen to them. Haven’t we all kicked ourselves, saying “I KNEW I shouldn’t have done that,” and we were proved right? Our instincts are our best friends, best guides and best allies. They only have our very best interest at heart. There’s nothing complicated about our instincts, they don’t have conflicting loyalties. They have one job: to lead us to make the choices that are aligned with who we really are. That’s it.

Maybe by the third date, you believe that the man or woman you’re dating is pretty awesome, but something inside you is saying “Nope. No. Not.” Instead of accepting this and open-mindedly investigating why, you argue with it—”But she’s fabulous!” “He’s such a nice man!” Say you’re successful (as so many of us have been) and manage to ignore and override your inner guide, pushing yourself forward into a relationship regardless. What good can come of it? You’re never going to change your instinct’s mind. Something is telling you not to be with this person. Maybe they’re actually a sociopath, or maybe they’re a fantastic person who just isn’t right for you. Either way, your gut will be your best resource for deciding whether or not to pursue a relationship.

Green Flag #3: Your Loved Ones Say “Yes.”
This is much less important than listening to your own instincts, but it’s still a good indication of relationship potential. Not everyone in your life has to love your significant other like you do, but it’s a big flashing green flag if those in your inner circle, the people who love and value you the most, like what they see when you’re with this person. They should see you being yourself, feeling comfortable and confident, remaining committed to your values and priorities. Sure, a relationship requires us to make some compromises, but a healthy relationship never requires us to compromise ourselves. Our partner should share our core values, not challenge or negate them.

Whether or not a relationship is meant to work out long-term, having the support and enthusiasm of both partners’ friends and families will only add to what you bring to each other. If your partner can be friends with your friends, and you with theirs, that’s an extremely positive sign—because if they can’t, or they aren’t interested in building those connections, what does that mean for their friendship with you?

There are a lot of forces pushing on us when we’re single. Society wants us to be paired up, as if we all have sell-by dates and will expire if we’re not happily partnered. The world at large favors couples, outside of our own desire for companionship. So we’re really good at talking ourselves into and out of things, often with the help of our advisers, often just in our own minds. We might pass up a potential date because she or he doesn’t fit our projected ideas about who our partner “should” be. We might get married against our instincts because we rationalize that it’s better to be with someone than to be alone, convincing ourselves that we’re in love. We might date the wrong person for years, just because we don’t have a logical reason not to.

The point is, this is your life, you live with the consequences of your dating decisions—not your family, not society at large. Whether or not you’ve made mistakes in the past, you get to learn the lessons offered and start again. In this complicated thing called dating, your instincts, your values and your awareness are the most dependable tools for finding the right balance, and right partner, for you.