In a recent interview with journalist Louis Theroux, musician FKA Twigs talked about her abusive past relationship with Shia LaBeouf. “Presumably there were aspects of the relationship at the beginning that made you want to pursue it and continue it?” Louis asks. “The first thing is an intense honeymoon period at the beginning,” says Twigs. “It is a signifier of how brilliant things can be. It sets the benchmark for if you behave well and meet the rules of the abuser… intense love bombing, big displays of affection, lots of love words and happy times — that’s very common in the beginning of an abusive relationship.”
Her story is raw and, worryingly, all too relatable. Although domestic violence is regularly mentioned in the news, it’s often reduced to abstract statistics, stock imagery and stereotypes — a world away from real young relationships. While modern definitions of abuse are broadening, there is still a way to go to reshape the law to acknowledge that isolating and controlling behaviours are criminally abusive in their own right.
The term “love bombing” was coined by cult leader Sun Myung Moon to describe a method of recruiting people into his church. Addressing his congregation (or “Moonies” as he called them), Moon said, “What face could better represent love than a smiling face? This is why we talk about the love bomb.”
David Koresh, Jim Jones and Charles Manson all used this method of indoctrination. During the process of recruitment, cult leaders would consciously shower their targets with attention and kindness; the potential member would be seduced by this intense feeling of being wanted, and through the feeling of being so desired they would become quickly enveloped into the cult community.
In the cult of Hollywood, love bombing appeared in many of the movies that informed our puberties and young adulthood. The Notebook, 10 Things I Hate About You and the Twilight series all depict heady, intense romances that follow a similar pattern: A young girl is plucked from obscurity by a handsome, mysterious guy who — often after some resistance — sweeps her away with attention, affection and intensity.
This bombardment of affection is overwhelming. It ignites a liminal experience — a feeling that this welcome rush of love and excitement will last forever. In the heightened rush of a new relationship, it can be difficult to see the trouble through the grandiose demonstrations of “love”. And this is exactly the point; by disarming their victims with such “positive” emotions, abusers make it difficult for their partners to recognise red flags.
“While receiving a lot of compliments or having a partner who wants to message you all night may appear romantic, the perpetrator is aiming to create a false sense of trust and intensity,” says Patty Kinnersly, CEO of Our Watch, an Australian organisation working to prevent abuse. “They are asserting one-way control over the relationship.”
Modern dating can make abusive behaviours harder to identify and challenge. In 2021, singles are not only navigating dating apps, ghosting and trolls — there’s also an augmented feeling of isolation brought on by an increasingly individualistic society and, now, a pandemic. Disappointing relationship experiences are common. Love, as so many of us have experienced, is hard to come by.
For someone who has just been ghosted or is trapped in a social media-fuelled cycle of feeling inadequate, a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance often satisfies a craving for validation. “Love bombing can occur in any kind of relationship, regardless of how or where a couple meets,” says Patty. While modern relationships have provided new spaces for abuse to occur, such as online or through apps, love bombing is not new. What is new is that we have become more aware of its harms and how it can be connected to violence against women.”
To identify love bombing, Patty suggests looking for inconsistencies in behaviour: “People who love bomb tend to follow a pattern of excessive attention one day to completely ignoring you the next.” Amid displays of affection, love bombers might begin to critique or belittle their partners, or attempt to control their movements. As with Twigs’ story, as the behaviour gets worse, victims often find themselves trying to comply with their abuser’s rules in the hope of returning to that loving place.
Question your feelings in new relationships and trust your gut. If a behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t romanticise it. “If a new partner’s expression or gestures of love feel overwhelming or too much, then it is. You have a right to have boundaries and feel safe within a new relationship,” says Patty. “We need to challenge those ideas of masculinity that assume men need to be in control in relationships, or that women should automatically be flattered by a man’s attention.”
If you are concerned by a partner’s behaviour or are worried about a friend, call 1800 RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au.