In retrospect, it’s all so obvious. It began with a Valentine’s Day card, the outside of which was a heart surrounded by flowers; on the inside, written by hand, were the words “Won’t you be my Valentine again, after 35 years?” The man who sent it had been my boyfriend in college and it was with that card that he wormed his way back into my life.
That wasn’t all, of course; we spent hours on the phone over the course of the next four months, pouring out our hearts, catching up with each other’s lives. Throughout, he sent gifts, flowers, and notes, and I could not believe my good luck in finding (or, in this case, re-finding) such a thoughtful man.
On the July 4th weekend, I flew up to the state where he lived and, yes, it was an intensely romantic time. Moonlight walks under the stars, a motorcycle ride into the mountains, bouquets of flowers. I had dumped him all those years before so when he said, tears in his eyes, “I’m giving you my heart again; be tender with it,” I melted. I flew home and my phone rang as I walked through the door of my apartment; “I miss you already,” he said. “I’m buying you plane tickets so you can come up again on Friday.”
I was smitten. What I didn’t realize was that I’d been love bombed. I only saw that much much later.
Moving fast: a tip-off to love bombing and other manipulations
Our cultural tropes about love, romance, and being “swept off our feet” make us prime targets for love bombing and other tactics the narcissist employs, especially if we’re needy and insecure, or simply lonely.
Real emotional connections take time to develop. So while the guy who tells you that the two of you are soulmates on the second date may flatter you and make you feel great about yourself, it’s actually a red flag and a sign of a hidden agenda. Ditto the magic of those longed-for three words, I love you, when they’re said within days of meeting each other.
Keep in mind that those high in narcissistic traits deliberately home in on romantic partners they can use to meet their own needs, and their primary targets are going to be those who are anxious about love and connection. The rush of love bombing—gifts, flowers, surprises, texts, and messages—is calculated and, unless you recognize it for what it is, you are likely to fall for it, especially if you’re someone who’s been humming, “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Puts you on a pedestal
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin makes this one of the warning signs that should put you on high alert. Granted, someone who seems to idolize and adore you makes you feel wonderful in the moment; who doesn’t like hearing that she’s perfect, beautiful, smart, sexy, and oh-so-special? But the sad truth is that the words coming out of his mouth have nothing to do with you. The underlying logic is that he’s special and so therefore, you must be too. Another truth: you’re just a figment of his imagination, and not a real person with gifts and flaws whom he actually sees and knows.
It all gives new meaning to the expression arm candy.
Isolates you from your friends
It may seem romantic that he’s so crazy about you that he just can’t bear an evening away from you but the reality is that the narcissist wants to keep you in the bubble he’s created as a way of consolidating his control over you. This probably isn’t going to happen in an overt way—he’s not going to forbid you from seeing your friends outright—but he will accomplish the goal in more subtle ways. This is especially true if your friends aren’t so keen on him and have more than an inkling of what his real motivations are. Lisa, 31, told me her story.
My best friend couldn’t stand Steve. She hated how sure he was of being right about everything and how he dominated every conversation. I honestly thought she was jealous of how he took me on expensive vacations, bought me beautiful gifts, and seemed utterly devoted. My other friends also complained that I never made time for them anymore. I finally woke up when he balked at my going on a long-planned trip with her, and basically said, ‘it’s her or me.’
Exercises stealth control
This is another one of Dr. Malkin’s warning signs, and it’s really brilliant. The narcissist doesn’t come right out and say he’d rather do something else than what the two of planned; instead, he gets his way and asserts his wants and needs by stealth.
How does this work? By “surprising” you with something he says is better and which you deserve. So, instead of meeting up with a group of friends at your local Chinese restaurant, he books a romantic dinner for two at a posh and expensive restaurant. Or, if you’re already married, he uses the money you’ve agreed to set aside for a kitchen upgrade and books a Caribbean vacation.
It doesn’t take long for you to forget that, once upon a time, you had your own wants and needs.
Plays an all-or-nothing game
At some point, it’s going to dawn on you that talking to him is well-neigh impossible; that he stonewalls when you try to talk through an issue or something that’s bothering you. Dr. Malkin points out that playing what he calls emotional hot potato is also a sign that you’re dealing with a narcissist.
So, you begin the discussion and you see that he’s getting angrier and angrier—his fists are clenched, his jaw muscles are working, he’s looking flushed—but he’s not saying a word. This, in turn, makes you angry that he’s being so unresponsive and your voice gets louder as you point out how angry he seems.
It’s at that moment that he turns the tables and accuses you of being the angry one and tells you he’s sick and tired of your anger. This throws you off-balance—which is what he wants—and now you’re suddenly wondering whether he’s right and you start to apologize. Yes, you’ve been played once again.
Narcissists are obsessed with winning, which is what I learned when I divorced mine. I keep that Valentine’s Day Card as a reminder, by the way, of how it all played out.
Women whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood are more likely to find themselves in relationships with men high in narcissistic traits. For more on how that works, read my new book, Daughter Detox,
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by StarFlames. Copyright free. Pixabay.com