The Powerful Effect of Love Bombing and Intermittent Reinforcement on Children of Narcissists
What is love bombing?
Love bombing is a process of grooming in which a predator uses flattery, praise and the promise of a supreme alliance to fulfill their own agendas. By love bombing their victims, abusers are able to persuade their targets to fulfill their requests and desires. Love bombing is not only a tool used by covert manipulators to exploit their victims, it is also used in cults to ensure loyalty to the cult leader. In fact, there is much overlap between the behavior of cults and the abuse cycle of an abuser and his or her victim.
While anyone can be the victim of love bombing, it has an especially powerful effect on children of narcissistic parents, because they have already been subconsciously programmed to seek approval, engage in people-pleasing habits and look for external validation as a way to survive their psychologically turbulent childhoods.
When children of narcissists meet emotional predators in adulthood, they are especially susceptible to becoming ensnared in the web of a malignant narcissist.
Love Bombing and Intermittent Reinforcement Work Together to Create an Environment of Uncertainty, Coercion and Control
In a relationship with a pathological predator, love bombing is combined with intermittent reinforcement to create a sense of instability and longing in the victim. Intermittent reinforcement (in the context of psychological abuse) is a pattern of cruel, callous treatment mixed in with periodic affection. The abuser hands out “rewards” such as affection, a compliment, or gifts sporadically and unpredictably throughout the abuse cycle. This causes the victim to perpetually seek their approval while settling for the crumbs of their occasional positive behavior.
As author Adylen Birch writes, “Creating fear of losing the relationship – and then relieving it periodically with episodes of love and attention – is the perfect manipulation.” Much like the way a gambler at a slot machine becomes addicted to playing the game for a potential win despite the risk of major loss, a victim in the abuse cycle can become attached to the idea of getting a return on their “investment” in the relationship despite the toll it takes on their well-being.
Intermittent reinforcement also affects our feelings towards our perpetrators, paradoxically bonding us more deeply to them and causing us to perceive their rare positive behaviors in an amplified way. Dr. Carver describes this as the “small kindness perception.” As he notes in his article, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome”:
In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor…In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not “all bad” and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation.”
Targets of emotional and psychological violence seek the love bombing that was so nourishing in the idealization phase, even as they are now being devalued and discarded by their abusers. This is not surprising, since love bombing, intermittent reinforcement and the effects of trauma work together to strengthen an intense trauma bond between target and abuser.
There are three ways children of narcissists, who grow up scapegoated and diminished, are vulnerable to the tactics of love bombing. I discuss them below, as well as some “immunity methods” to resist these manipulation tactics.
1. While hypercriticism puts us on the defensive, love-bombing disarms us initially. It mirrors our deepest desires to be wanted, desired, loved, cared for, heard and seen for who we truly are, down to every little nuance and quirk.
When we are love bombed, there is an immediate sense of belonging and of kinship, something that is very attractive to children of narcissists, who feel very much like outcasts in their families as well as society.
Narcissists and sociopaths are very good at “hooking” us by pointing out our desirable physical attributes, personality traits, and/or accomplishments that deep down we want admired and recognized. At the same time, they fixate on those traits to further their own agenda, not because they actually care to know us deeply. They dig deep when they have to in order to get what they want (praise in return, sex, money, a place to live, etc.), but their affection for us is often short-lived and transient, escalating to contempt and envy should we ever threaten their sense of control over us. As Dr. Floyd (2013) writes:
“Love bombing is an extreme example of something that turns out to be relatively common—something I call “toxic affection.” If affection is the expression of love and fondness, then toxic affection is any such expression that has an ulterior motive. Perhaps I say I love you because I really do, and I want you to know that. Or, perhaps I say it only because I want to sleep with you, want to borrow money from you, or just want you to say it back to me. Using affection as a form of persuasion is often successful for the same reason that love bombing is: we want and need to be loved.”
Immunity method: Seek internal validation for those traits that you’ve been love bombed with in the past. It’s not that you don’t embody what the predator has flattered you with, but that you no longer need to depend on them for your sole source of self-esteem. Surround yourself with healthy people who recognize, rather than exploit, those qualities in you. Genuine compliments are given freely, without a need for you to do something in return or be a certain way for a person. Be alert to over the top flattery merged with a request and unwarranted praise. Even if the praise does seem warranted, just be aware that some (but certainly not all) praise has a hidden purpose.
2. Since children of narcissists are often triangulated by their parents, pitted against their own siblings, they fall for predators who make them feel special and unique.
This is the type of attention that children of narcissists always craved to receive in childhood and they get plenty of validation from an emotional predator that grooms them. Yet they later become retraumatized by these same manipulators when they are “triangulated” with former or new harem members and lovers. This causes targets of malignant narcissists to feel even more diminished and lacking, never feeling quite “enough” and feeling as if they have to compete with others in order to be seen as important.
Immunity method: Pinpoint what makes you irreplaceable and resist comparing yourself to others negatively. Remember that you may be seeing an abuser’s new shiny target or someone they triangulated you with fresh eyes, and you are unaware of what makes you truly beautiful and outstanding. Look at yourself with fresh eyes instead – if you were an outsider looking in, what amazing traits, talents and qualities would you notice about yourself? What makes you special and unique?
Cultivate an authentic relationship with what makes you stand out and embrace visibility in areas where you may have previously hidden yourself to avoid the spotlight for fear of punishment or reprisal. Bring in healthier social feedback when needed to brainstorm what those areas could be. When you have a deep inner knowing that no one could ever replace you, you don’t find it necessary for someone else to make you feel that way.
You can then become much more selective about who you let into your life. Manipulative, toxic people can no longer gain easy access by just being charming or sweet – they have to show up and be there for you in real ways in order for you to take them seriously.
3. We mistake superficial alliances for deep, meaningful and once-in-a-lifetime connections.
Children of narcissists are forced to navigate the world alone and become their own rugged heroes. We tend to our own wounds, our own scraped knees and emotional voids due to the necessity for survival. With no supportive caretakers to mend our aches in either childhood or adulthood, we find solace in even the most superficial of connections, holding onto them for indications that we have finally found a “home” for our tattered hearts and weary souls.
As author Peg Streep writes in “Why Unloved Daughters Fall for Narcissists,” we often don’t notice the red flags as much as we do the potential for connection:
“Because you’re so hungry for love and connection—and still trying to fill the hole in your heart left by an unloving mother—you’re likely not to notice how he amps the volume and drama. You stay focused on the make-up sex and the warm feelings of reassurance you feel when he tells you not to worry.”
Unfortunately, the fast-forwarding nature of the type of relationship that has love-bombing, mixed with the intense chemistry of finally being noticed and seen, makes for a rather addictive biochemical and psychological cocktail. We become addicted to the attention because we mistake it for authentic connection.
Immunity method: Differentiate between connection and flattery early on to avoid investing in people who may not have your best interests at heart. Assess which relationships and friendships in your life have the capacity to grow into deeper alliances and which ones fall short of authentic partnership and true compatibility. The former usually takes some time to build and is built over time with someone who is trustworthy, consistent, transparent and reliable. The latter is often a quick fix or sleight of hand, a magic show followed by a disappearing act.
Flattery, even if it is based on truly amazing qualities you might have, rarely lasts long-term. Connection, on the other hand, is built on a solid foundation – not just on empty compliments, but on genuine rapport, support, and intimacy. It involves two individuals who both share parts of themselves with vulnerability, along with a respect for personal boundaries and reciprocity. Connection, not crumbs, is what nourishes you long-term. Remember that you are truly worthy and deserving of nothing less.
Birch, A. (2016, December 18). The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet ~ Intermittent Reinforcement. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://psychopathsandlove.com/intermittent-reinforcement/
Carver, J. M. (2011). Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The mystery of loving an abuser. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://drjoecarver.makeswebsites.com/clients/49355/File/love_and_stockholm_syndrome.html
Floyd, K. (2013, October 14). Beware of toxic affection. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/affectionado/201310/beware-toxic-affection
Streep, P. (2016, September). Why unloved daughters fall for narcissists. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/knotted/2016/09/why-unloved-daughters-fall-for-narcissists/
Thompson, L. (2016, March). When family is a cult (Pt 1). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/narcissism/2016/03/when-family-is-a-cult-pt-1/
Arabi, S. (2017). The Powerful Effect of Love Bombing and Intermittent Reinforcement on Children of Narcissists. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/recovering-narcissist/2017/07/the-powerful-effect-of-love-bombing-and-intermittent-reinforcement-on-children-of-narcissists/