February is the month of Valentine’s Day and love is in the air. It’s a time when partners often shower each other with gifts, special attention, romantic dates, and extra affection. Much of the time, these are positive things, helping healthy relationships grow and stay strong. But abusers can also use typically “positive” tactics as emotionally abusive techniques, manipulating their victims in ways that can seem like kindness, attentiveness, devotion, and signs of love. Two ways this commonly manifests are through the overlapping concepts of “grooming” and “love bombing”. Let’s explore these tactics, their effects, and how insidious and difficult to identify they can be.

Infographic with a smartphone and the words, "A survey of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 85% reported that a partner or ex-partner had called them crazy, 73% said that a partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel they were going crazy or losing their mind, 50% reported that a partner or ex-partner had threatened to report to the aurthorities that they were crazy as a way to keep them from getting certain important goals such as custody of the children, medication, or protective orders

What is Grooming?

Grooming is a form of emotional abuse that normally starts right at the beginning of a relationship, or even before. It is a predatory tactic intended to build a deep emotional connection between the abuser and the victim. With this connection in place, victims often feel overwhelmed by the romance and attention of this wonderful new partner and are unable to clearly comprehend the reality of the relationship. They are more likely to forgive or overlook abusive behaviors and less likely to leave the abusive partner. The goal of grooming is to “keep” the victim, both as a “possession” and to keep them “in line” with what the abuser wants.

Infographic with a smartphone and the words, "A survey of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 85% reported that a partner or ex-partner had called them crazy, 73% said that a partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel they were going crazy or losing their mind, 50% reported that a partner or ex-partner had threatened to report to the aurthorities that they were crazy as a way to keep them from getting certain important goals such as custody of the children, medication, or protective orders

The Grooming Process

Abusers who groom their victims know exactly what they are doing. The process starts by playing into the ideals of the “perfect romance”. They typically come on strong at the beginning of a relationship, moving fast and intensely. They are likely to monopolize the victim’s time, pushing them to neglect friends and family and skip events in order to “concentrate on each other” and “prioritize the relationship”. This is often in the form of romantic couple time or exciting alternative plans for just the two of them. It can make the victim feel incredibly loved and special but is actually isolating them from loved ones and making them increasingly reliant on the abuser for everyday tasks and emotional validation.

Groomers also frequently delve into intimate thoughts and feelings quickly and insinuate themselves into the victim’s personal life and private business. They want to know the victim’s deepest secrets and dreams, and persuade them to share keys and passwords so that they have easy access to their home, phone, social media accounts, finances, etc. These are supposedly “signs of trust”, proof of their intense connection. In reality, abusers simply want to gain power and control over their victims, emotionally, physically, financially, any way they can.

mature woman lying curled up on her side in bed, covering her face with her hands

Once groomers have overwhelmed their victims with romance and inveigled themselves into their lives, their loving attitude can abruptly switch to intimidation and devaluation. This may take the form of physical intimidation, threats, or emotional manipulation. They may act hostile when they don’t get their way, making victims feel unsure, uncomfortable, or unsafe, and gaslight their victims into thinking nothing is wrong with their behavior. Abusers may blame their victims for the change in their relationship, protesting that the victim’s reluctance to do what they want or attempts to preserve some privacy mean the victim does not love them. Victims then work extra hard to please their abusers, often sacrificing something else of importance to them, such as family and friends, hobbies, financial stability, or health. They want so much to get back to the potent, safe, loving feeling they were bombarded with earlier in the relationship that they would do anything to please the abuser. This attachment and intense desire to please is exactly what the abuser wants, what they groomed the victim for. They built up their victim’s self-esteem, only to turn around and tear it down.

mature woman lying curled up on her side in bed, covering her face with her hands

Sometimes, this devaluation can extend to the abuser breaking off the relationship, “discarding” the victim, causing them shock that the “soulmate” they made so many sacrifices for could actually leave them. This is part of the manipulation, breaking up with the full intent to renew the relationship after a period apart. They may stalk their victim while “broken up” and even use their access and knowledge to ensure the victim has a hard time without them. The abuser then returns to their victim after days, weeks, or months, and, often without any apology, renews their professions of love and devotion, and promises to change. This gives the victim new hope that the idealized initial romance will indeed return, when, actually, the abuser has merely been testing the extent of their power and control and is beginning the grooming cycle over again.

What is Love Bombing?

Love bombing is a tactic frequently employed by abusers to groom victims by using acts of “love”, such as over the top attention and affection, to influence them. When one partner is quick to profess strong emotions, confide deep feelings, or shower the other with presents and praise, it may be that they are attempting to make their partner feel important, special, and profoundly connected to them. This allows the abuser to swiftly gain power and control over their victim in the form of “love”. It can make the victim feel they must overlook other reservations, red flags, or abusive behavior in the name of true love or because the apparent positives in the relationship outweigh the negatives.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

According to psychologist Dale Archer, love bombing works because human beings have a natural need to feel good about who we are. Love bombers often target victims with low self-esteem because they can exploit that need. Archer points out a paradox of love bombing: that the bomber is also insecure and, to boost their ego, seeks out a partner who many would see as a “great catch”, who is good at hiding their self-doubts. They feel better about themselves because they landed this great partner, but also “keep” that partner by manipulating their low self-esteem with love bombing, filling a need their victim can’t fill on their own.

Signs of Love Bombing

Love bombing can take many forms. Here are some of the main indications to be aware of:

“Soulmate” Status

Many people may feel that they are looking for a “soulmate”, their “other half”, in a partner, someone who is their one and only perfect match. However, if one partner professes these feelings very early in the relationship, it can be a sign of love bombing. Being told “I love you”, “you’re the one”, or “we’re destined to be together” may seem like a nice, positive thing, but it can be discomforting and unsettling when these powerful sentiments are expressed early in the relationship.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively
Future Talk

When starting a new relationship, it’s natural to wonder what the future might be like with this partner. What are they looking for in life and would this be a mutually happy long-term pairing? But a love bomber may make statements about the future that are more of declarations or foregone conclusions, than questions or musings. “When I take you to Europe…”, “I can’t wait for my parents to meet you!”, or “We’re going to be so happy together!” can seem sweet and signs that they are serious about the relationship, when actually they are tricking the victim into believing the abuser is indispensable to the victim’s future happiness, to the life they’ve now envisioned.

Exaggerated Compliments

Compliments can be nice ways to show interest in a partner, pointing out things they do well or that one likes about them. However, over-the-top or wildly unwarranted compliments are often used in love bombing, building the victim up onto a pedestal that only the abuser can keep them on because nobody else finds them so “perfect”. These types of compliments can feel grandiose, overwhelming, and too-much-too-soon.

Gifts

Giving a partner gifts can be a way to show one is thinking about them and cares about them, strengthening a couple’s connection. But giving a lot of gifts, especially expensive or purely monetary ones (such as designer jewelry, international trips, or car payments) can be a way to set up obligation down the line. The victim may feel pampered and taken care of in the short term, but abusers can turn these gifts around and associate them with stipulations. For example, “Don’t talk to me like that, I paid your mortgage this month!” Even a seemingly small requirement such as “I bought you a drink, so you owe me a dance,” can make victims feel indebted and beholden to the abuser, constrained and compelled to do what they want and keep them happy because they already accepted a gift from them.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively
Communication Overload

Communication is very important in a healthy relationship, helping couples open up to each other and understand the other’s needs and wants. Good communication can veer into love bombing when it is too frequent, too demanding, or too deep too fast. Victims can feel overwhelmed and smothered by abusers who need to be in constant contact or don’t respect boundaries.

Grooming the Community

Sometimes, abusers will not only groom their partners, but their partners’ friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors as well. By being strategically charming and helpful to anyone their victim interacts with, an abuser can condition them to think well of them, overlook signs their loved one is being abused, and disbelieve the victim if they confide in them. Beyond increasing their own likeability in the community, abusers may also work to decrease their victim’s likeability, discredit them, and/or ruin their reputation. Whether overt or subtle, this has a similar effect of separating the victim from any support they may have and destroying their credibility. Victims feel increasingly isolated and dependent on the abuser.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Cultural Romanticization

Another reason grooming and love bombing can be so difficult to identify and may not be perceived as problematic, is because these tactics are often romanticized in popular culture. Books, TV shows, and movies frequently portray an uninterested character being pursued by an eager admirer. The admirer consistently violates their love interest’s boundaries and persists with “romantic” gestures until their target relents and they get together. This is glorified as passionate and dreamy, the ideal, steadfast love that we should all be looking for and be grateful to receive, when in reality, suitors utilizing these tactics may be more manipulative than model lovers.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Intense possessiveness and control are also often portrayed in pop culture as caring protectiveness. This is often true of alpha-male-type heroes or supernatural bad-boys who are “proving their love” by keeping their partner “safe”. While they may be shielding their partners from certain types of harm, particularly in violent and overly dramatic stories, they are also isolating them, depriving them of their autonomy, and creating a dependence solely on the abusive partner. They are literal or figurative vampires, draining the confidence and joy out of their partners. Because of cultural touchstones like these, abusers can more easily justify controlling behaviors as acts of devotion.

Effects of Grooming & Love Bombing

Because love bombing and grooming take advantage of the natural human need for self-worth, victims frequently feel shame, regret, and self-loathing after experiencing them. The abuser has worked hard to tie the victim’s self-esteem to the abuser’s good opinion, and the victim may have a hard time recovering a good opinion of themselves without their abuser’s validation. They frequently feel confused and betrayed. “You might feel embarrassed that you fell for this person, but it’s important to remember that it is not your fault,” reassures psychologist Alaina Tiani. The grooming process can leave victims extremely vulnerable, unable to trust their own feelings and instincts. Like with any form of emotional abuse, it can be challenging for victims to regain their confidence. It also makes it extremely difficult to leave the relationship, even when they know it is not a healthy one. As Dr. Tiani explains, “When it ends, you might have conflicting emotions because while you’ve had this attachment or love for the person who love bombed you, you also might feel anger or sadness about how things went down.” 

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Identifying Grooming/Love Bombing

The insidious nature of grooming can make it extremely difficult to tell if one partner is just going a little overboard with the romance or is trying to manipulate the other partner into a position where they have power over them. If the relationship feels intense all the time, it could be love bombing/grooming. Instincts are important. If things don’t feel right, if potential victims feel uncomfortable, or, at times, fearful, these can be signs that something is wrong in the relationship. “Good relationships feel good,” states Dr. Tiani, “If it feels too good to be true, that’s probably an indication that there’s something going on. It’s important that when those feelings surface, you tune into that instead of pushing it aside.”

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Pushing Back Against Grooming/Love Bombing

People who are worried they are being groomed or love bombed can try to gauge their partner’s motives in a few ways. In the early stages of grooming, abusers often ask victims to skip a social event, not answer a phone call, spend extra time with them, etc. rather than demand it. If potential victims say “no” to these “requests” and their partner becomes hostile, it may be a sign that the partner is attempting to control them. Establishing boundaries can be another way to help show whether a partner is seeking to groom them. Potential victims can refuse to share passwords or give their partner a key to their home. If their partner becomes aggressive and/or insistent about these things, it may be an indication of grooming.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Keeping a journal can help victims keep track of their partner’s actions and their feelings and spot patterns and changes, looking out for whether or not their partner’s actions match their words. Staying connected with friends and family can help minimize isolation and maintain a support system. Victims may want to educate themselves about grooming and love bombing and about coercive control in general. It may be beneficial to seek out assistance from a domestic violence advocate who can provide information and resources and help them to develop a safety plan. Survivors recovering from an abuser who groomed them may find therapy with a psychologist who understands the insidiousness of these tactics to be a good way to help navigate their emotions, validate their experience, and give them tools to restore their self-esteem and confidence.

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