The actor Julia Fox met Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, on New Year’s Eve in Miami, and by the following week she was on the phone with Interview, providing behind-the-scenes commentary on all of the photos of them wearing dramatic outfits, going on expensive outings, and kissing on the floor.

The first flashy celebrity romance of 2022 was glamorous to some and unsettling to others. I thought it was fun until it got to the part where the girl’s friends were all posing on Instagram, holding the designer handbags the guy had given out at her birthday dinner—that kind of thing would make me feel pretty sad and scared, were it happening to me. But I wasn’t one of the people who immediately identified the excessive gifts and ludicrous nights on the town as love bombing, a term with a muddy history in pop psychology. Based on how the word is used on social media, it refers to the act of going over the top in a romantic context, for purposes that may not be totally clear but seem sinister. When you accuse someone of love bombing, you’re implying that the bombardment will eventually stop and be replaced by something horrible.

A random-seeming burst of conversation about this behavior, whatever it is, has transpired in the past couple of months. On Twitter, people joke about how you would be fundamentally unable to recognize love bombing if it happened to you, because you find yourself so amazing—who wouldn’t fall in love with you in a matter of hours and die to shower you with presents and affection? In The New York Times, love bombing has been solemnly defined by a psychology professor—to wit: “The person who is doing the love bombing is creating or manipulating the environment to look like he’s the perfect or she’s the perfect mate”—and our susceptibility to it has been pinned on “romantic media,” such as the Fifty Shades of Grey series. (The titular character gives a lot of compliments and fancy gifts; he is also controlling and weird.) In January, after TikTok turned a boy named Caleb into a generational villain—for the crimes of courting several women at the same time, sending them all a boring Spotify playlist, and then not texting some of them back—HuffPost clarified the event’s takeaway for those who weren’t directly involved: “If You’ve Online Dated, You’ve Probably Been Love Bombed.”

Meghan Wainwright, a 27-year-old TikTok creator who is best known for her videos about dating, found her niche offering #bigsisteradvice on “breakup TikTok,” where love bombing is now a regular topic of conversation. She has her own working definition of the word, and a sense of what a love bomber wants. The goal of a love bomber, she told me, is to trick someone else “into a relationship that is not authentic, and is different than what you see on the surface.” The love bomber might counter that this intention would be difficult to prove. It’s impossible to know what’s in someone else’s heart!

I first heard of love bombing in the context of cults. In the 1970s, members of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification church used the term to describe the process of recruiting people by making them feel “needed and cared for,” reportedly through constant affirmation, hand-holding, and prolonged eye contact. I’ve also come across the term in dumb blogs about relationships (“the trend that’s ruining dating for everyone,” according to a 2019 post for Men’s Health), and in serious online conversations about patterns of abuse. The singer FKA Twigs used the term when discussing her former romantic relationship with the actor Shia LaBeouf, whom she sued in December 2020. “I’d like to be able to raise awareness on the tactics that abusers use to control you and take away your agency,” she told The New York Times.

But in the year since then, the term has spread through social media, and its meaning has been twisted. Sometimes, it’s paired with accusations of narcissistic personality disorder, tying in to an older trend in online relationship discourse. Kristin Dombek described the cultural paranoia about narcissism in her 2016 book, The Selfishness of Others, and drew evidence in large part from advice forums where bad relationships were explained succinctly using clinical-sounding terms: “Rather than just getting upset because your boyfriend is not talking to you as much as he used to, you’ll recognize that he is ‘doing a discard’; it’s common for narcissists to do this to their generous, empathetic, naïve girlfriends.”

Today, whole YouTube channels are devoted to explaining the actions of love-bombing narcissists. Instagram graphics list behaviors that could count as love bombing, stylized in pretty colors and with cute cartoons. Others lean on the idea that it’s a recruitment tactic, and use love bombing to label the actions of QAnon devotees or multilevel-marketing leaders who spam potential newbies with compliments or Instagram likes. Lena Dunham recently explained love bombing on a podcast, saying, “Both sexes do it, but women talk a lot about having it done to them.” To her, the term refers to a deliberate tactic of abuse. A love bomber might “attack you” with praise and connection until you let your guard down, so that “by the time they start slipping in, like, dark, uncomfortable, and inappropriate behaviors, you’re already supple in their hands.”

[Read: Why we watch relationships fall apart]

With its spread, the term has also gotten more expansive and mundane. The love bomber can be charged with less diabolical intentions than control. Many of the TikTok videos tagged #lovebombing imply that the bomber in question merely intends to get away with some lies, or that he might be a bit of a phony (as was the case with West Elm Caleb). Sometimes the love bombers one hears about on TikTok seem to have done little other than give a person attention and then later withhold it, for whatever reason. It’s tempting to pose some snide rhetorical questions in response: Is this really love bombing, or did someone just express interest in you and then lose that interest? Have you been wronged, or are you just not enjoying a moment of your feelings being hurt by someone else’s free will? Have you heard of infatuation? Getting carried away?

The term has created confusion for maybe-bombers too. In relationship-advice forums on Reddit, people now wonder whether they might be harming those they love with an excess of affection. “Is this message love bombing?” one recent poster asked, sharing a note they’d just sent to their partner: “I cannot express the gratitude I have for you there are no words.” Such questions are tricky because, taken at face value, what’s really being asked is something like, “Am I about to abuse this person?” Or, at least, “Am I doing something that could later scan as manipulative, assuming any possible combination of subsequent events?” Responses in these forums tend to be equivocal.

Wainwright, the TikTok creator who also hosts a podcast called Main Character Moment (she is the main character; her exes are the “side characters”), has been an innovator in love-bombing content because she uses the term confidently but also acknowledges her own uncertainty about its relevance to her life. A recent video comprises two clips, the first of which was recorded months ago, after she’d received an elaborate floral arrangement from a new boyfriend. “I’m recording this and putting it immediately in the drafts,” Wainwright says. “Am I being love bombed? I don’t think I am, but like I said, time will tell.” She smiles and breathes in the smell of the flowers. Then the video cuts to the second clip, of Wainwright in a room with bleak lighting, looking dead in the eyes. “Well this aged extremely poorly because the answer was yes, I was being love bombed,” she says.

[Read: How did we get so cringe?]

She tells the rest of the story in a handful of subsequent videos, but to summarize: It was a fairy tale that came to a sudden, unhappy end. The guy had been perfect—some would say “too good to be true.” Then, someone who had seen him in Wainwright’s TikTok videos emailed out of the blue, attaching proof that the boyfriend had been messaging girls on Hinge as recently as that night. He denied it even when faced with photos and screen recordings, so Wainwright left his apartment and never went back. She was hurt, personally, but she was also vindicated, publicly. All along she had thought it was possible she was being love bombed—she’d created that “Am I being love bombed?” video as a prewritten obituary. “In the back of my head, I always thought it was possible,” she told me. “You kind of have to wait and see.”

Watching her videos in reverse chronological order, you can see her go from that moment of disillusionment back into infatuation with the “angel boyfriend.” And if you scroll back far enough, you’ll see her going through a different breakup, the one that first made her semi-famous. That one was only sad and unexpected. The guy wasn’t a love bomber. But he did change her life, she told me, because the breakup motivated her to move from Chicago to Toronto, and because it inspired her to start posting relationship content to TikTok. “I decided to start documenting that healing process on TikTok right away,” she said. “I started making videos the very next day.”

Wainwright emphasized that she would never call her most recent ex a narcissist—“from the research I’ve done, it’s really hard to, you know, just diagnose someone. And there aren’t a ton of documented cases of narcissism.” But no one would dispute her claim that he’s a love bomber, because the substantiation comes solely from her own experience. It’s a perfect word: simple, shocking, and above all, flexible. It can apply to almost anyone.

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