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Love bombing, gaslighting, and the problem with pathologising dating talk

Because even in a utopia, not everyone you want is going to want you back

Words have always changed meaning, and the internet has only accelerated this process. In the last few weeks, there have been some striking examples: we’ve seen the ungallant behaviour of West Elm Caleb, an alleged ‘serial dater’ on Hinge who ghosted the women he’d been out with, feverishly discussed in terms of sexual misconduct. We’ve also seen Kanye West accused of ‘love bombing’ actress Julia Fox by staging a photoshoot on their first date – a gesture which she herself immediately wrote about in Interview magazine. Before you get the idea that this is a uniquely American phenomenon, the tendency is just as apparent in the UK.

This change in the way we use language is known as ‘concept creep’. It basically means that terms linked to harm – like ‘trauma’ or ‘bullying’ – start getting watered down, and used to describe a wide variety of very different things. Concept creep is not always a bad thing, and there are examples that you’d struggle to argue with: the concept of ‘addiction’ expanding beyond substance abuse to include behaviours such as gambling; the concept of racism expanding to include subtler and more insidious behaviours; or the concept of child abuse expanding to include parental neglect. These developments, rather than being evidence of a society besotted with its own victimhood, indicate more nuanced understandings of harm and injustice. Concept creep can be a form of societal progress.

But often, it can obscure more than it illuminates. Take the concept of ‘trauma’, for instance, which has now expanded to include just about any negative experience you can have. Another example would be ‘love bombing’, a term used to describe the behaviour of lavishing a prospective partner with attention and grand gestures in order to manipulate them. This is a real pattern, which does often lead to an abusive or controlling dynamic further down the line – but someone being nice to you for a while and then ghosting you is different. It isn’t nice, but it’s painful because you’re mourning the loss of an affection given and then taken away. It’s not always a smokescreen for the scheming of a pathological narcissist. Love bombing often implies a kind of intentionality, an idea that someone is setting out to manipulate you with a tried-and-tested method. The more banal reality, at least sometimes, is that people are fickle. They like you to begin with, and mean all of the nice things they say, and then they change their minds. They begin to find you a little boring or annoying, you turn out to be not quite who they thought you were. Maybe they meet someone else and like them better, and mean all the nice things they say to them, too. Most of us, I imagine, will have been both people.

We should all be aiming for a more considerate way of dating, but if you really like someone, I’m not convinced that it’s much less painful to be rejected with kindness than with cruelty. When it comes to romance, it’s possible to inflict an almost unbearable level of emotional agony on another person without having done anything wrong. The concept creep around terms like love bombing points to a failure to reckon with the fact that other people have the power to hurt you, and there’s very little you can do about it. As Gillian Rose wrote in her philosophical memoir Love’s Work, “There is no democracy in any love relation; only mercy.” Even if we endeavour to act with mercy, letting someone down gently can hurt them just as badly. Sometimes, it’s even worse; after all, it’s easier to decide that someone is a sociopath and that their rejection of you represents a lucky escape. There are gendered dynamics at play here – misogyny, all of the complicating factors of the politics of desire – but even in a utopia, not everyone who you want is going to want you back.

Using this kind of language can also lead to ‘moral typecasting’: the idea that the world is split between moral agents (people who do either good or bad) and moral patients (people who have good or bad things done to them). What’s interesting is that studies show that we think of people as either one thing or the other, and very rarely a combination of the two. When people talk about those who have hurt them as if they are monsters (“narcissistic energy vampires”, for instance), this kind of moral typecasting comes into play; in effect, it becomes a way of absolving oneself of any agency. After all, it takes two to tango: I’ve experienced something approaching love bombing before (a man I’d been on two dates with asked me to move to Europe with him for a six-month writing retreat; I agreed that this was a fantastic idea), but I was complicit in this myself – it was a fantasy on which we collaborated, and while he eventually went on to hurt me, his crime was really just matching my own level of emotional derangement.

But if you think of yourself as a moral patient and anyone who hurts you as a moral agent, it means that anything you do to them becomes fair game, because you are constitutionally incapable of inflicting harm, and they are constitutionally incapable of experiencing it. I once read an account written by a woman who was essentially stalking her ex, while framing his refusal to see her as “a classic narcissistic trick.” Instigating a global vilification campaign becomes a legitimate response to someone sending you a playlist they made for someone else – because you are someone who bad things are done to, they are someone who does bad things, and these categories can’t change. I think that a lot of interpersonal cruelty stems from this inability to see oneself as anything other than the injured party. Abusive people are famously self-victimising (abusive husbands, according to Kristin Dombek’s book The Selfishness of Others, tend to interpret their wives as being more critical and rejecting than they actually are.)

Concept creep isn’t always a bad thing, but I also don’t believe that inflating harm to the level which our culture currently does is doing anyone any favours. By exaggerating in this way, people are making a claim to sympathy which they probably already deserve. Catching feelings for someone and being rejected, liking someone and finding out they’re sleeping with someone else – you don’t need to resort to the language of love bombing and pathological narcissism to convey that these are horrible experiences. I understand why people take refuge in hyperbole to make their pain legible. But you can’t trick yourself out of feeling that pain through terminology alone.