Last fall, Ismo, a 23-year-old from Arizona, jokingly tweeted, “Not sure if this guy [I’m talking to] is just really boring and bad at texting or if I’m just too used to being love bombed by every guy that talks to me.”
Ismo, who asked to use just her first name (as did others interviewed for this story), was joking, but also calling out a hard truth about dating in the app age: Love bombing ― a form of manipulation in which someone showers a new romantic interest with intense displays of affection very early on ― is frustratingly common these days.
When Ismo tweeted, she was a few months out of an exclusively online relationship with a guy she’d met on Tinder at the end of February 2021.
The man told her that she was the “first trans girl he’d ever talked to” ― which is “another issue in itself,” Ismo added.
“I practically fell in love with this dude almost immediately,” she told HuffPost. “He was so sweet. Constantly assuring me of my beauty, expressing how grateful he was to have conversations with me everyday. I had never been treated like this.”
A few heady, compliment-filled months went by, with Ismo repeatedly asking the man when they could meet up. He found ways to stave off the requests and over time, his messages became less enthusiastic.
“He told me I was just overthinking it but I knew deep down, this was not the same person I was talking to months ago,” she said.
“Love bombing, unlike real love, is a self-centered, anxious pursuit, with the singular goal of acquiring someone because it boosts the bomber’s ego.”
– Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of “Rethinking Narcissism”
The everyday texts turned into every-couple-of-days texts, then trickled down to hardly any at all. Eventually, Ismo noticed the man had blocked her on Snapchat.
“I had messaged him and expressed how hurt I was that he tried to basically gaslight me into thinking that I was insecure rather than telling me the truth,” she said. “We never met, despite many attempts of me trying to set something up.”
Ismo had clearly, and rather painfully, been love bombed.
What is love bombing?
The term “love bombing” was reportedly coined in the 1970s by the controversial Unification Church of the United States (or “moonies,” as they were called). Cult leaders, like Jim Jones and David Koresh, used the tactic as way to control their followers. Psychologists eventually adopted the term to describe a kind of toxic, manipulative affection.
“Love bombing, unlike real love, is a self-centered, anxious pursuit, with the singular goal of acquiring someone because it boosts the bomber’s ego,” Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of “Rethinking Narcissism,” told HuffPost in 2018. (Love bombing is a common practice among narcissists.)
Offline, love bombing looks like over-the-top compliments and premature declarations of love, ostentatious displays of affection, and pricey gifts. You might think of Ye — who legally changed his name from Kanye West — replacing new girlfriends’ wardrobes with a closet full of couture picked by him.
Online, it’s even easier to love bomb. (It’s not like it costs anything to bombard a person with blocks of fawning text.)
“We know from research on online dating that prolonged interaction over text and email can build expectations, creating a potent recipe for a modern love spell, especially when all the ingredients are mixed together,” Malkin told HuffPost in an interview this week.
The “ingredients,” he said, include rapid fire text messaging; easy, shallow disclosures (“I’m shy” or “I was a bad kid”); and “rosy self-presentation, either through doctored photos or over polished and puffed up biographies.”
“Mix all those things together and the intensity builds quickly,” he said. “A false sense of intimacy emerges in no time.”
Emily Simonian, a marriage and family therapist and the head of learning at the therapy company Thriveworks, equates online love bombing with catfishing. Those who catfish ― that is, who use photos of someone else ― and those who love bomb have similar motives: They want to create a false sense of intimacy for personal gain.
“Love bombing via dating apps is used to coerce persons of interest into having premature romantic feelings and a false sense of trust in the love bomber, someone they barely even know,” she said.
As Simonian explained, love bombers usually do this to have an edge over other people on overly saturated dating apps since it can be difficult to create a connection or hold someone’s interest.
Why are we talking about it now?
Love bombing came up earlier this week when the story of West Elm Caleb went viral.
For those not in the know or not on TikTok (because if you were on the app, you couldn’t escape it), West Elm Caleb is a 25-year-old West Elm furniture designer who has seemingly matched with every other 20-something-year-old woman on Hinge in New York City.
The drama started when one women posted a TikTok about getting ghosted by a guy named Caleb who she’d met on Hinge. Things got weird when other women in the comments asked, “West Elm Caleb?,” as if he was some kind of household name.
It turns out, West Elm Caleb has quite the extensive sketchy portfolio: His M.O., at least according to the women on TikTok who said they had engaged with him, is to send the same texts to multiple women; overplay his interest; share the same romantic Spotify playlists; and sometimes send a dick pic. Then he unceremoniously ghosted them. (Some, but not all, of the women went on actual dates with Caleb.)
At the time of publication, there are a total of 29.2 million views on TikTok videos with the hashtag #WestElmCaleb.
Now, Caleb is the subject of heaps of criticism (and unfair doxxing), but the kind of behavior he is the new poster boy for is unnervingly common among daters ― especially love bombing via texts.
West Elm Caleb may or may not be a love bomber, but the story itself is “pretty indicative of the darker side” of online dating, according to Carla Marie Manly, a psychologist and author of “Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly.
“Love bombers these days have a greater number of possible connections in the online world ― a host of potential prey,” she told HuffPost. “Plus, there’s a lack of visibility and accountability for online love bombers.”
In person, you can suss out whether a person is worthy of your time. A first encounter is a full-on sensory experience: Is there a physical connection that gets your heart racing? Is the person kind to waiters? Do you feel genuinely safe in their company or are they giving off bad vibes?
Online, that first impression is almost entirely reliant on what the person tells you and what you can glean from their Instagram and other social media, which is no doubt highly curated.
People on Twitter and TikTok have become so invested in the West Elm Caleb story because Caleb actually got called out for his games — and because women banded together to share information about men in their community.
“The story of West Elm Caleb reflects what would generally happen in a close-knit social community,” Manly said. “The love bombers antics would be revealed and the inauthentic individual would be held accountable in the public forum.”
There’s a universality to the story, too. Many women on TikTok and Twitter shared their own experiences matching with similarly shady dudes, suggesting that every town has its own version of West Elm Caleb. (Crate And Barrel Andy, Restoration Hardware Luke, Living Spaces Kyle!)
Nicole, a 29-year-old from New York City, was struck by the similarities between the West Elm Caleb stories and her own experience with a love bomber.
In March 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, Nicole matched with Elliot, a British ad exec who had just moved from London to New York for a new job.
Then, the world shut down, and the two quarantined in different states.
Elliot was charming and quick-witted over the phone, and he and Nicole got to know each other fairly intimately and vulnerably over the months they were separated.
“We ended up talking every day, communicating via Instagram, Twitter, text, Words with Friends, doing The New York Times’ ‘The 36 Questions That Lead to Love’ ― all of that,” Nicole told HuffPost.
They finally met in-person in July 2020, taking weekend trips to Nicole’s family’s home in Connecticut and visiting her friend’s beach houses on the East Coast.
But in the fall, Nicole said she couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling that something was off: Elliot had recently started following a lot of young 20-somethings in the New York area on Instagram and these women would often comment on his Instagram posts.
“I’d see Snapchats pop up from women on his phone, and I had this sinking gut feeling that he was cheating on me,” she said. “I ended up DMing a woman I had seen in his comments and in Snap notifications, since we had some mutual friends. It turns out, in that exact moment, he was texting her asking her to come over, sexting her and sending her nudes. I was a bit too right!”
Like the women in the West Elm Caleb tale, Nicole connected with some of the women her boyfriend had been messaging and they commiserated over their shared experience with Ad Man Elliot.
“So many of them have sent me West Elm Caleb content and we’ve all been reminiscing on the experience of having been there, done that,” Nicole said.
Still, they’re all extra wary about online dating now.
“I think men have realized the mass scale at which they can love bomb women, curate a persona, and remain somewhat anonymous in doing so, while on dating apps,” Nicole said.
“Especially if you are new to a city, or don’t have large friend groups in a city,” she said. “If you’re perceptive, and in this case, a predator, it’s easy to get to know someone, their needs and wants and interests ― even their past relationship trauma and their attachment style ― and ultimately use those against someone. For a manipulator, those tidbits are gold.”
How to avoid getting love bombed online
Want to ensure you won’t fall for a love bomber over texts? There’s a few red flags to be wary of early on.
First, don’t buy into overly effusive compliments.
“My rule of thumb is, if they are complimenting before they have a real interaction with you, be wary,” said marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson.
If someone says, “I love your travel pictures” or “You have a great smile,” that’s fine.
“But if the compliments are over the top or when they say presumptuous things like, ‘I can tell you’re …,’ run, don’t walk, in the other direction,” Richardson warned.
Pay attention to how much they text, too, said Caroline Madden, a marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California.
“People in the beginning are busy with their real lives,” she said. “Anyone who has been on these dating apps for any length of time knows to not get too invested without actually meeting or FaceTiming someone.”
If the person is sending you daily “good morning, cutie” texts, that’s a big red flag, said Samantha Burns, a millennial dating coach and author of “Done with Dating” and “Breaking up and Bouncing Back.”
“When you’re single it can be nice to have someone to check in with or vent to about your day, but these everyday texts can lead you to thinking you’re more close and bonded than you actually are, especially when you’ve never even been on a first date,” she said. “You start falling for the idea of someone instead of the reality of them.”
Avoid texting back and forth for hours on end. Look for a healthy slow burn.
Most importantly, try to take the conversation off the apps and meet in person as soon as possible, Malkin said.
“The bottom line is, move quickly to meeting in person before expectations build or a love bombers blasts you off your feet,” he said.
And when you do meet in person, be on the lookout for premature promises then, too.
“If someone says ‘I took down my dating profile now that we’re meeting’ or ‘I’ll be thinking of you the entire week,’ those things may sound great, but statements like that only have meaning or even hold true as a connection builds over time,” Malkin said.
With any luck, your slow-and-steady approach to dating ― and your eye rolls over any talk of “our future together” ― will scare off any potential love bombers that come your way.
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