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