Have you ever met someone you found attractive and envisioned what the rest of your life with that person would look like? Did he, in turn, immediately shower you with attention, affection, and praise, making you feel like you were the most special person in the world to him? This dynamic is called love-bombing, and it entails a dance between two individuals: one with a desperate need to feel special, and the other with a desperate need for control.
Culturally, we have highly romanticized expectations of love, with some of us even believing in something called love-at-first-sight, the ideal of instantaneous love for a person you’ve just met. Movies and love-songs convince us that love isn’t real unless you’re swept off of your feet and fought for, as a dashing knight would fight to save a maiden from the grip of an evil sorcerer. And what does it mean to fight for someone? People with this conception of love want their romantic prospects to express unambiguous interest in them and only them, through constant reminders of their devotion. In the movies, the love-bomber goes to great lengths to prove his love, effectively stopping at nothing to win over the object of his affection (the key word here is object). And, this is what most of us think of when we consider romance or “true love.”
Unfortunately, this offers narcissists a script for gaining one’s affection and accompanying trust. We think it’s impossible for someone to spend this much time on us only to eventually stop caring or to do so in pretense. Like scenes out of Hollywood, narcissists play the role of the protagonist, picking up on their victim’s needs and adapting to their expectations. It doesn’t seem so awful on the surface of it, since it’s two people fulfilling each others’ needs. But, to give you an example: Someone I knew once told me that in order to become better at dating, I had to express greater interest. I responded that it was difficult for me to do so because I didn’t know the girl I was talking to well, so I didn’t have the feelings that matched that kind of affection. However, to him, it was simply part of the game. He’d win them over and then leave, or win them over and begin cheating, if he wasn’t already.
The problem with love-bombing is that it isn’t real. The bomber may even genuinely become obsessed with his target, but he never cares for her, not in the way we think about caring for another, by helping them grow and increase their emotional well-being. For him, the script exists to fulfill his own needs, whether sexual, emotional, or both. And once he does, it’s on to the next one. Sometimes, it’s sex that he’s after, and other times, it’s love. But the result is always the same.
We can’t completely blame our conception of romance, because it’s just a convenient tool for gratification. But, it would serve us to examine it, to see if it could ever exist, in its idealized form, between two healthy individuals. I argue that the answer is no. The victims, who struggle with their self-worth, love it because of its constant reassurance, which bolsters their self-esteem and alleviates their worry that their prospect will move on; the validation becomes intoxicating.
When we fall for our idealized visions, it takes us away from the reality we’re sure we know. These people make us feel a way about ourselves that we considered to be impossible; our sense of inferiority is overcompensated by one of majesty. But, we don’t need it and shouldn’t want it, because our self-aggrandizement is just as unrealistic as the source of our self-loathing; both are built on sand.
True love, if we can call it that, begins with a moderate level of attraction to an attractive person you just met. They make an effort and so do you, but it isn’t over-the-top since they don’t know you and can’t feel about you the way you want them to, at least not yet. The struggle, in that instance, is with one’s fear: “If they aren’t inundating me with attention, they’re probably not that into me.” True! But how can they be? They don’t actually know you, yet.
If you’re struggling with self-esteem and can’t tolerate the uncertainty of healthy love, then it’s best to seek counseling. You’ll keep falling for the predators if you don’t. And interestingly, what seems safe never really is. If the person whom you love is obsessed with you, he’ll eventually devalue you; if he isn’t, then you’ll realize that he never cared for you. Either way, the love-bomber, eventually, leaves. The only sense of safety exists in that insight.