T S J D B C A, F L S 81
Love-bombing: a narcissistic
approach to relationship formation
Claire C. Strutzenberg*, Jacquelyn D. Wiersma-Mosley†,
Kristen N. Jozkowski§, and Jennifer N. Becnel‡
e current study examined the relationship between attachment style, self-esteem, and narcis-
sism as they pertain to behavioral tendencies, termed love-bombing behaviors, among a sample
of young adult millennials. Love-bombing was identied as the presence of excessive communi-
cation at the beginning of a romantic relationship in order to obtain power and control over an-
other’s life as a means of narcissistic self-enhancement. Millennials have shown a drastic increase
in narcissism compared to generations prior, and the need for psychological services on college
campuses has also increased. is study sought to establish empirical evidence for the presence
of love-bombing behaviors amongst millennials as a gateway for further research to address the
problem facing young adult relationships today. e sample consisted of 484 college students from
a large southern university who ranged in age from 18 to 30. Results indicated that love-bombing
was positively correlated with narcissistic tendencies and insecure attachment styles (lack of trust
or value in self and others), and negatively associated with self-esteem. Secure attachment was a
positive indicator of love-bombing behaviors. Lastly, love-bombing was also associated with more
text and media usage within romantic relationships. In conclusion, love-bombing was found to
be a logical and potentially necessary strategy for romantic relationships among individuals with
high displays of narcissism and low levels of self-esteem. is is the rst study to empirically
examine love-bombing behaviors; thus, future research should address the impact that these be-
haviors may have on young adult relationships. e potential for negative psychological impact
on both love-bombers and the subject of their attacks are discussed.
* Claire C. Strutzenberg is a December 2016 honors program graduate with a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences.
† Jacquelyn D. Wiersma-Mosley, the faculty mentor, is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Environmental Sciences.
§ Kristen N. Jozkowski is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator for the Department of Public Health and a Research
Fellow at e Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.
‡ Jennifer N. Becnel is an Assistant Professor in the School of Human Environmental Sciences.
82 DISCOVERY • V. , F
e rise in narcissism among millennial generation col-
lege students (i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000;
Twenge et al., 2008a; Twenge et al., 2008b), has resulted in
a trend that has been termed “love-bombing” by internet
users. Anecdotal bloggers have described love-bombing
as the tendency of narcissistic individuals to “bomb” their
signicant other with constant communication via texts,
emails, phone calls, and social media sites. e praise from
the narcissist to their relational partner may be attering at
rst, but over time, becomes overwhelming and sometimes
debilitating. It is assumed that whether consciously or not,
the narcissist is making an eort to secure their place as
the most important person in their signicant other’s life.
Narcissists ultimately praise themselves by way of prais-
ing their signicant other in hopes that their partner will
return the praise, but eventually the narcissist’s excessive
attery and need for armation will result in the end of a
relationship when it becomes apparent that the misplaced
aection reaches no further than the narcissist’s aection
for him/herself (Campbell and Foster, 2002).
Millennials have been described as optimistic, team-
oriented, and high-achieving rule followers in many of
the studies conducted by generational specialists (Broido,
2004); yet millennials simultaneously show a higher likeli-
hood of mental health problems compared to generations
prior (Watkins et al., 2012). When surveyed, more than one
in three undergraduate students reported experiencing
depressive symptomology and nearly one in ten students
expressed that they had contemplated suicide (American
College Health Association, 2008). Depression, coupled
with low self-esteem oen leads individuals to engage in
reassurance-seeking behaviors; a need for armation that
coincides with the denition of narcissism (Campbell et
al., 2002). A study that compared reports of college stu-
dents in the 1980s to similar data collected in 2008 found
a signicant gradual increase in narcissism (Twenge et al.,
2008a). is increase in narcissism, along with other men-
tal health disorders could, as Bennett (2006) suggests, be
the result of the inuence of attachment patterns on the in-
ternal working model of the individual, which could lead
to the display of more severe personality disorders later in
life. e current study examines the connection among
attachment styles, self-esteem, and narcissism with love-
Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1958) is a widely held view
in the eld of human development that suggests the secu-
rity of an individual throughout the lifespan stems from
the interactions between a child and their caregiver (Bowl-
by, 1980). e child’s expectations of others develop based
on their understanding of how the world operates, and
Meet the Student-Author
I am from Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated from Urbandale
High School in 2012. Aer graduation, I attended a gap year pro-
gram in Branson, Missouri for one year, and then participated in
an internship in Branson the following year. Aer having fallen in
love with the Ozarks, I applied to the University of Arkansas and
began my degree in Human Environmental Sciences in the fall of
2014. While pursuing a major in Lifespan Development and a minor
in Communications, I was given numerous opportunities to learn
from the excellent faculty of Bumpers College in a number of ways.
I am immeasurably grateful for those experiences, but especially to
Dr. Jacquelyn Wiersma-Mosley for the countless hours she put into
helping me with my honors thesis project. Her eort and passion for
research showed me a whole new side of academia, and allowed me
to learn about the process of conducting research studies that further
our understanding of the world around us and the people within it.
Additional thanks expressed to Dr. Kristen Jozkowski and Dr. Jenni-
fer Becnel for their direct contribution to this project. Aer graduat-
ing from Bumpers College in December of 2016, I began a graduate
program at the University of Arkansas in order to earn my Master of
Arts in Communication.
T S J D B C A, F L S 83
is the basis of an internal working model that will deter-
mine the individual’s view of self and of others in infancy,
adolescence, and adulthood (Bowlby, 1980; Lee and Han-
kin, 2009). ose with secure attachment feel protected,
and they know that they can depend on others, including
parents and romantic partners. Insecurely attached indi-
viduals develop an internal working model of themselves
as unworthy and of others as unreliable (ompson and
Zuro, 1999) and are subcategorized as being either avoid-
ant or anxious. Avoidant attachment is characterized by a
tendency to view others as unreliable and holding a high
resistance to emotional attachment (Bowlby, 1980). Alter-
natively, anxious attachment is characterized by a strong
desire for emotional attachment, while simultaneously
doubting the reliability of others to reciprocate this aec-
tion (Bowlby, 1980).
Roberts et al. (1996) found that individuals with inse-
cure attachment view their self-worth according to an “if…
then” contingency, basing self-esteem on accomplishment
or success/failure. For instance, an individual with inse-
cure attachment may think, “If my partner doesn’t respond
to my text message, they must not love me” or “If they
cared, then they would call.” When these contingencies af-
rm the insecurity the individual already feels, the result
is a signicant decline in self-esteem (Roberts et al., 1996).
Self-discrepancy theory, developed by Higgins (1987)
and expanded by Ogilvie (1987), suggests that there are
four domains of “self”: actual-self, ideal-self, should-self,
and undesired/feared-self. Self-discrepancy theory pos-
tulates that the “self” portrayed to others is based on not
only self-concept, but also the interpretation of what oth-
ers expect. e “actual” self represents the attributes one
actually possesses (Higgins, 1987). e discrepancy lies in
the dierences between the attributes we actually possess,
the attributes we wish we could display (ideal-self), the
things that we believe we ought to display (should-self),
and the attributes we fear displaying (feared-self; Carver et
al., 1999; Higgins, 1987). ese views of self are the stan-
dard to which we compare our actual-self, and represent
the valence, or the extent of positive or negative value, with
which we hold our view of self.
A study addressing the self-discrepancy theory con-
ducted by Barnett and Womack (2015) explored the as-
sociation between self-esteem and narcissism: “Pathologi-
cal narcissism is a duality; a deep insecurity shrouded by
grandiosity … Narcissism does not ow from excessive
self-love as much as it does from fear of being an undesired
self ”. is indicates that narcissism is more strongly corre-
lated with low self-esteem, or the fear of being undesired,
than self-condence. Out of the urgency to resist an un-
desirable representation of self, individuals with low self-
esteem will engage in reassurance-seeking behaviors (Hig-
gins, 1987). is reassurance may be sought in the form
of seeking excessive feedback that arms others’ care, or
by expressing high needs of dependency in relationships
(Katz et al., 1998), as in love-bombing behaviors.
Narcissism is dened by the American Psychiatric As-
sociation’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (5th ed., 2013) as holding beliefs about being
special or unique and the assumption of only being under-
stood by special or high-status people or institutions, as
well as requiring excessive admiration, experiencing fre-
quent envy, and displaying arrogant or haughty attitudes
and behaviors. Narcissism can present itself in multiple
dierent ways such as “one who aims to enhance ego, pur-
sues success, acts autonomously and chooses short-term
goals that will result in admiration from others” (Rogoza
et al., 2016). Narcissism has also been described as being
characterized by entitlement in relationships, self-indul-
gence, self-assuredness, and disrespect for the needs of
others, which leads to both aggressive behaviors and the
generalized devaluation of others (Brown et al., 2009;
Paulhus, 1998; Rogoza et al., 2016).
e narcissist’s ideal mate is someone who is highly
positive, admires them, and enhances their self-worth ei-
ther directly through praise, or indirectly by association as
in that of a “trophy spouse” (Campbell et al., 2002). Narcis-
sists oen see relationships as a “forum for self-enhance-
ment” (Buardi and Campbell, 2008). ere are attributes
of narcissists that make them attractive to those whom
they may seek out and ultimately victimize via love-bomb-
ing behaviors. Narcissists are generally perceived as excit-
ing (Foster et al., 2003), socially condent (Brunell et al.,
2004), and likeable in initial interactions (Oltmanns et al.,
2004). ough these attributes are attractive in the begin-
ning, they fade throughout the course of the relationship,
revealing the tendency of narcissists to use relationships as
a means of self-enhancement (Campbell, 1999). In turn, the
“victims” of relationships with these initially likable nar-
cissists nd themselves stuck with psychologically control-
ling, non-committal partners, oen characterized by “game-
playing” in relationships (Campbell and Foster, 2002).
Researchers have identied that narcissists consistently
use social relationships for three main purposes: to regu-
late their personal self-esteem, to create a positive self-con-
cept, and to produce a self-gratifying personal construct
(Buardi and Campbell, 2008; Campbell, 1999; Campbell
et al., 2006; Morf and Rhodewalt, 2001; Raskin et al., 1991).
Essentially, narcissists rely on their interactions with oth-
ers to determine how they feel about themselves. For that
reason, individuals with low-self-esteem will engage in
reassurance-seeking behaviors in romantic relationships,
84 DISCOVERY • V. , F
especially when they are depressed (Campbell et al., 2002).
is desire for reassurance sought through romantic rela-
tionships is more than likely to involve love-bombing be-
haviors, because of the narcissist’s desire for armation by
means of association.
It has been asserted by Buardi and Campbell (2008)
that social networking sites such as Facebook act as a low-
risk, high-reward resource for narcissists to self-regulate
through social connectivity. Social networking sites allow
individuals to feel connected by promoting high numbers
of “friendships,” while simultaneously protecting them-
selves from the necessity of emotional disclosure (Buardi
and Campbell, 2008). e current study is not assessing
romantic relationships through social networking sites, and
instead seeks to understand how narcissistic tendencies in
romantic relationships will reect a high usage of medi-
ated communication, primarily via text messaging, in or-
der to maintain the same level of self-presentation control.
Although there have been anecdotal assertions made
regarding the existence of “love-bombing” tendencies
among millennials, no empirical study has assessed this
form of narcissism within the context of romantic relation-
ships. e current study addresses this gap via three main
goals: 1) identify love-bombing behaviors among millen-
nial young adults; 2) correlate love-bombing behaviors
with other similar construct scales, such as attachment,
self-esteem, and narcissism; and 3) identify characteris-
tics of love-bombers in order to better understand their
behaviors within romantic relationships concerning tex-
ting and social media usage. e current study’s hypoth-
eses include: love-bombing behaviors would be positively
associated with insecure attachment styles (i.e., avoidant,
anxious) and narcissistic tendencies, while negatively as-
sociated with secure attachment styles and self-esteem;
and love-bombers would be more likely to use texting to
communicate with their romantic partners as compared
to non love-bombers.
Materials and Methods
Participants and Procedure
A survey was constructed to measure attachment, self-
esteem, narcissism, love-bombing, and text message use
in young adult romantic relationships. e survey was
distributed online to graduate and undergraduate stu-
dents recruited from predominately social science classes
at a large southern university. Participants were given the
chance to enter their name for a drawing for a $50 gi
card, and some participants were oered extra credit by
their professors for their participation. Of 499 total par-
ticipants, those who failed to complete the questionnaire,
or did not take adequate time to thoughtfully answer each
question (total duration 2 minutes or less) were dismissed
from the analysis (n = 15), resulting in a nal sample of
484. e nal sample had a mean age of 20.36 (SD = 1.38;
range 18–30; 86% female). In the sample, 84% of the par-
ticipants identied as Caucasian, 5% as Hispanic/Latino,
4% as African American, while 9% identied as other.
Attachment. Participants completed the Adult Attach-
ment Scale (AAS; Collins and Read, 1990). e AAS con-
tains 18 statements on a ve-point Likert-type scale (1 =
strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). Aer reverse coding
ve items, responses were summed and grouped accord-
ing to a subscale as secure (6 items, mean (M) = 17.95, SD
= 2.67), anxious (6 items, M = 17.98, SD = 5.06), or avoid-
ant (6 items, M = 17.20, SD = 4.18). Higher scores indicat-
ed higher secure, avoidant, and anxious attachment styles.
Self-Esteem. Participants completed the Rosenberg Self-
Esteem scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1965). Each of the ten
items were measured on a ve-item Likert-type scale (1
= strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). Aer recoding 5
items, all items were summed, and higher scores indicated
higher self-esteem (M = 36.93, SD = 6.56).
Narcissism. Participants completed the Hypersensi-
tive Narcissism Scale (HSNS; Hendin and Cheek, 2013).
e HSNS is a 10-item scale to measure an individual’s
tendency towards narcissism. Participants were asked to
answer to each item on a ve-point Likert-type scale (1 =
strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). Level of agreement
was summed, with higher scores indicating higher levels of
narcissism (M = 28.67, SD = 5.66).
Love-Bombing. A set of 8 items regarding specic love-
bombing behaviors was created for the current study, based
on previous literature regarding the tendencies of narcis-
sists in romantic relationships (Campbell, 1999; Campbell
et al., 2002; Campbell and Foster, 2002; Foster et al., 2006;
Oltmanns et al., 2004) as well as assertions made by an-
ecdotal accounts published to internet blogs. ese items
(shown in Table 1) were measured on a ve-point Likert-
type scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). Items
were summed, with higher scores indicating increased
display of love-bombing behaviors (M = 22.26, SD = 4.75,
Range: 8–37). e created items were reliable (α = 0.74).
Texting. An adapted 21-item scale was created to exam-
ine text message usage between romantic partners rather
than friendships (Hall and Baym, 2011). Participants were
asked to answer each item on a ve-point Likert-type scale
(1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). One item was
reverse coded, and items were summed with higher scores
indicating higher levels of text usage between romantic
partners (M = 66.17, SD = 11.41; α = 0.89; see Table 2 for
T S J D B C A, F L S 85
e current study sought to identify characteristics of
love-bombing behaviors in millennial college students.
First, correlations were run among love-bombing behav-
iors and measures of attachment, self-esteem, narcissism,
and millennials’ use of texting in romantic relationships.
Next, in order to examine group dierences among “love-
bombers” and “non love-bombers”, participants with
scores from the 8-item love-bombing scale greater than the
mean (22.26) were placed into the group “love-bombers”
(n = 230, 48%), and those participants with scores less than
the mean were placed in the group “Non love-bombers” (n
= 254, 52%). Finally, a t-test was conducted to compare the
two groups on text message usage.
Results and Discussion
ere were signicant correlations in most of the pre-
dicted directions (Table 3): love-bombing tendencies were
not only positively associated with insecure attachment
styles (i.e., avoid, anxious), but also positively (not nega-
tively, as predicted) associated with secure attachment style
(r = 0.17, P < 0.001). Self-esteem was negatively correlated
with love-bombing behaviors, and narcissistic tenden-
cies were positively associated with love-bombing behav-
iors. love-bombing items (higher scores indicating higher
love-bombing behaviors) were signicantly and positively
correlated (r = 0.32, P < 0.001) with the total summed
response of texting habits. is correlation supports the
hypothesis that love-bombing behaviors are correlated
with higher text message expectations within romantic
relationships. Next, a t-test was run to examine whether
the two groups (love-bombers and non love-bombers) dif-
fered signicantly on text message usage within romantic
partnerships, indicating a signicant group dierence (t
= 5.08, P < 0.001). Love-bombers reported signicantly
higher text usage within their romantic partnerships (M =
68.95, SD = 10.75) as compared to non love-bombers (M
= 63.69, SD = 11.43).
e current study demonstrated that love-bombing
behaviors are prevalent among young adult millennials.
By identifying items to describe love-bombing behaviors,
it was found that individuals who display love-bombing
behaviors are likely to act from an insecure attachment,
perhaps leading them to rely on the armation of another
person to determine their self-worth and value within so-
ciety. Contrary to the hypothesis, the current study also
found that love-bombing was positively correlated with
higher secure attachment. While attachment as a scale
may not be a clear indicator of love-bombing tendencies, it
is likely that further research would display categorical at-
tachment styles having a direct correlation to the presence
of love-bombing behaviors in romantic relationships. Fur-
ther research is needed to identify developmental process-
es that might lead individuals to engage in love-bombing
behaviors. Perhaps the use of qualitative methods could
provide further insight as to the establishment of attach-
ment, and disentangle the presence of secure attachment
in these individuals.
ere was also a signicant negative correlation be-
tween self-esteem and the display of love-bombing be-
haviors. e contingency of self-esteem placed on another
individual is inevitably going to cause one’s view of self
to waiver. When an individual’s self-esteem is high, there
is no need to look for armation in another individual.
However, when an individual’s self-esteem is low, it is like-
86 DISCOVERY • V. , F
T S J D B C A, F L S 87
ly, as suggested by the current study, that they will engage
in love-bombing behaviors in order to increase the feeling
of being valued in a relationship and reduce the potential
of becoming an undesired self. is fear of becoming an
undesired self is oen what pushes individuals to pursue
behaviors in which they are displayed as their ideal-self
(Barnett and Womack, 2015). So if it is assumed that in-
dividuals with low self-esteem partake in love-bombing
behaviors as a means of conrming the fact that they are
not, actually, undesirable, then it could be assumed that
they are simultaneously seeking to become the ideal form
of themselves by engaging in narcissistic behaviors which
aim to increase their self-esteem, thereby producing a
positive self-concept and a satisfactory personal construct
(Buardi and Campbell, 2008; Campbell, 1999; Camp-
bell et al., 2006; Morf and Rhodewalt, 2001; Raskin et al.,
1991). Narcissists of the millennial generation are facing
relational problems that are ultimately ultimately increas-
ing the number of romantic partners an individual may
have, while decreasing the level of signicance of these
relationships, and increasing the average age of rst mar-
riage compared to generations prior (Kaya, 2010; Twenge
et al., 2015). e current study supports these assumptions
by indicating a strong correlation between narcissism and
the likelihood that an individual would partake in love-
Love-bombing was also positively associated with ex-
cessive expectations for communication through texting
in romantic relationships. is correlation, though not
surprising, indicates a need for self-regulative protection
and a desire for control in a relationship. e root of this
need for security and power is not easily identiable to
those aected by the love-bomber’s attacks, but is an ob-
vious consequence of a psychological need for arma-
tion. It could be assumed that narcissistic individuals not
only require more control in a relationship, but simulta-
neously increased armation. Because there is a strong
correlation between self-esteem and narcissism (Barnett
and Womack, 2015), we see that narcissists, by engaging
in love-bombing behaviors, seek reassurance in their ro-
mantic relationships. is may involve a lack of trust in
their partner’s delity as expressed by the expectation that
they would want to know their partner’s whereabouts at
all times, as is implied by an insecure-anxious attachment
style. Additionally, narcissistic individuals with an inse-
cure-anxious attachment style may doubt that their part-
ner’s feelings for them are truly as strong as their own. In
the case of a narcissist with low self-esteem, love-bombing
is a potential means of survival for a romantic relation-
ship, especially within the early stages. ese feelings are
only increased when the individual holds an insecure at-
tachment. For that reason, love-bombing may continue to
present itself in romantic relationships of individuals who
display higher than average levels of narcissism, and low
levels of self-esteem.
Limitations and Implications
e sample was collected from mostly female college
students on one campus at a public university. us, it would
be fruitful to increase diversity in order to obtain a more
generalizable sample; data from additional college cam-
puses would also increase generalizability. Perhaps, with
an equal balance of participants identifying as women and
men, future analyses could identify whether love-bombing
behaviors dier by gender within romantic relationships.
Additionally, the range of ages sampled was between 18
and 30, however, the study aimed to look at the entire pop-
ulation of “millennials”; this group’s age ranges from 16 to
36 (Beaton, 2016). us, there is a substantial segment of
this demographic unaccounted for in the sample.
e current study identied that love-bombing is a
sometimes psychologically necessary means by which re-
lationships are formed for the narcissistic individual; how-
ever, there is no data regarding the characteristics of those
aected, or the long-term eect of love-bombers’ narcissis-
tic displays on their victims. Future research should exam-
ine the characteristics of those prone to experiencing love-
bombing attacks in romantic relationships, and the impact
of these failed relationships on the individual’s mental
health. Additionally, love-bombing behaviors could be a
88 DISCOVERY • V. , F
gateway into more serious behaviors such as psychologi-
cal abuse/control or intimate partner violence, which war-
rants further research.
In conclusion, the current study suggests that narcis-
sists, driven by their low self-esteem, are likely to engage in
love-bombing behaviors as well as excessive text messag-
ing in romantic relationships. For this reason, it is impor-
tant that researchers develop a means of recognizing these
maladaptive behaviors early, in order to prevent problems
from escalating into harmful interpersonal relationships.
Funding for this project was provided by the Dale
Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food, and Life Sciences
Undergraduate Research Grant. Support also provided by
the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
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