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25 April 2023

What does “love bombing” really mean?

On social media, terms coined to describe specific relationship dynamics are increasingly common – and increasingly misused.

By Sarah Manavis

“Abusive”. “Gaslighting”. “Traumatic”. “Narcissist”. These terms, coined to describe specific relationship dynamics or psychological phenomena, have become far more commonly used over the past decade – and their meanings have become diluted as a result. As these once-useful terms are bandied around on social media, their meanings are broadened to encompass a wide spectrum of behaviours that many of us would agree do not amount to abuse, even if unkind. Language always evolves but the misuse of such serious terms comes with real implications.

Enter “love bombing”. If you’re not aware of the phrase, it’s a psychological term used to describe a specific pattern of behaviour common in abusive relationships – a form of coercive control where an abuser attempts to influence the actions of a victim through excessive affection. By showering a person with gifts and attention – especially early on in a relationship – the abuser can establish trust and encourage dependency that can later be use to manipulate a their victim. (One popular example of this behaviour can be found in the Netflix docu-series The Tinder Swindler.)

Having grown in popularity in the last decade, use of the term has spiked online in the last three years. It has been wildly misused, the definition stretched to include anyone who is initially responsive but then ghosts the person they’re dating or even anyone who shows extreme enthusiasm soon after meeting someone new. “Love bombing” is regularly applied hyperbolically to any thoughtless or embarrassing grand gestures of romance or outpourings of affection, rather than being limited to a specific precursor to emotional abuse or coercive control. This has obscured what “love bombing” actually means.

But we may finally be getting some necessary clarity. As of Monday (24 April) the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) now includes love bombing – alongside other forms of coercive control – in its guidance on the prosecution of abusive partners, describing it as a “highly manipulative” tactic used in domestic abuse, where “the suspect will intermittently do what appears to be loving acts, seeking to present these as interrupting or negating the course of conduct rather than forming part of it”. Kate Brown, a chief crown prosecutor and national lead for domestic abuse at the CPS, said: “We do not underestimate the impact of stalking or controlling or coercive behaviour on victims, who can be forced to change their daily routines, left in fear of their life and totally consumed by this offending… These controlling offences can quickly escalate and that is why we’re absolutely committed to prosecuting wherever our legal test is met and will always seek out relevant orders to protect victims.”

[See also: How to build a language: inside the Oxford English Dictionary]

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This news will come as a relief to those who have spent years advocating for more modern forms of abuse to be formally recognised. But this official recognition and definition of the concept is long overdue. Just like other terms that become common parlance on social media well before institutions are aware of them, the internet has already attached a million meanings to the phrase. Buckling under so many (often conflicting) definitions, it now means little to most people.

This may partly be why terms like “love bombing” proliferate on social media in the first place. Unable to find widely-accepted terminology that describes the harm they experience, people seek out and popularise language missing from formal recognition, hoping to gain some kind of validation for their feelings. Without a widely accepted definition, such concepts are inevitably misused – formally recognising these terms sooner might both validate people’s experience, giving them the tools to better understand it, and prevent such extreme dilution of the concepts.

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Language inflation is a long-established linguistic trend that happens with or without social media’s help. Nothing will completely prevent people on the internet from jumping to extremes. But if sources other than social media clearly defined these terms, and what the behaviours they describe actually look like, this cycle of distortion and hyperbole might at least slow down. No one – not even those who feel validated by their misapplication – benefits from denying their real meaning.

[See also: The furore over Oxfam’s “woke” language guide misses the point]

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