I wanted to write to you about your article “The Supernormal Stimulus.” In it, you talk about an approach to optimizing in relationships where you figure out what matters to your partner the most and then you do it. In it, you bring up ways that zoologists were able to trick birds: Geese who think humans are their mothers, fake large eggs stealing all the attention, and a painted knitting needle being mistaken by chicks for a parent.
Those are cute examples, but I can’t help but notice that they’re all acts of deception. Having read you for a while, I find it hard to believe that you’d advocate that trickery makes for a happy relationship.
This isn’t just a hypothetical either. I recently ended a relationship with someone who charmed their way into my life by figuring out what I liked and doing it. Meanwhile, they did a bunch of other shady things in the shadows that I didn’t see, because I was blinded by the proverbial painted knitting needle.
What are your thoughts? Thanks in advance.
You know, that’s a fair point. You have to be careful with it. After all, the supernormal stimulus approach is just a tool — and like most any other tool, it can be used as a weapon just as easily as it can be used for any constructive or healing purpose.
And while I’m not privy to the details of exactly what happened to you, now that you mention it, I could easily see someone using the supernormal stimulus as part of love bombing.
Love Bombing for Control
Love bombing is a form of emotional manipulation whereby you heap excessive praise, attention, affection, flattery, and gifts upon someone else in order to get in good with them and make them feel good about you. What differentiates this from normal courting is that everything moves terribly fast, and it all seems a little too good to be true. Because it is. These loving actions are extreme and inauthentic.
Sometimes love bombing is done out of a desire to manipulate or control the target. Not because you care about them or about having a relationship with them (or anyone, really) but because you’re looking for a puppet, to have power over someone else. And this purpose is evident when you look at the tactic’s history: Love bombing actually was reportedly used by cult leaders in the 1970s as a member recruitment tactic (e.g., Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church of the United States), whereby prospective candidates would be buttered up so much by members of the cult that they’d feel beholden to become involved with the group in a minor capacity, which would lead to more involvement, and so on.
It’s sadly not uncommon for past love bombers to become abusive partners, as those who use it simply for control will later branch out into other abusive behaviors once they’ve got their hooks into you.
Love Bombing Out of Desperation
But this isn’t the only reason a person can engage in those same love bombing behaviors. Sometimes love bombing is a simple act of desperation — the behavior of a person who really, really, really wants a relationship and is trying to force feelings, on both sides. Who is doing everything they can to make you fall in love with them and to make themselves fall in love with you. By romancing you AS HARD AS THEY POSSIBLY CAN. Even if it doesn’t quite match their internal feelings and it is super fast, even before they could really even know you.
While this desperation can be distressing (on both sides of it, really), it’s also rather understandable, given the rampant amatonormativity that we’re hit with by society relentlessly: “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types” (per Elizabeth Brake, who coined the term).
You’re nobody unless somebody loves you. We’re told it over and over again. And it isn’t exactly a new idea. The history of this likely goes back hundreds or thousands of years, but we have plenty of clear examples from the last hundred years. For example, Dean Martin was singing about it pretty explicitly in the 1960s, a famous performance that was a cover of a song that was actually written in 1944 and quite popular during the Big Band Era:
You’re nobody til somebody loves you
You’re nobody til somebody cares
You may be king, you may possess the world and its gold
But gold won’t bring you happiness when you’re growing old
The world still is the same, you never change it
As sure as the stars shine above
You’re nobody til somebody loves you
So find yourself somebody to love
No One to Dance With
I played this song many times myself in the bands I was part of (typically at anniversary parties for older customers). It was always particularly poignant for me, as I was normally the only single person among my friends. When I did have a partner, it was usually an “almost relationship,” where we did basically everything you would normally do in a relationship, but we weren’t “official.” Typically, this was because my partner was ashamed of me in some way. Most commonly this was because I was dating a woman who was closeted about her orientation (in the 90s, we were all a bunch of closet cases, it was astounding), but I did have one boyfriend who would have been promptly arrested for statutory rape had we gone public.
And most of the time, that was okay, being kept a secret. Or okay enough. I’d daydream about having someone of my own who would be my girlfriend or boyfriend in public, who would be proud to be with me. But I could deal with it, how reality was.
The hardest times were during my gigs. Especially the ones that were open to the public and when it seemed like everyone else in the band had someone there to clap for them and/or dance with them during the breaks (when we were briefly replaced by prerecorded music between sets). I spent a lot of time chatting up audience members while attacking a platter of crudités to distract myself. (I ate so much cauliflower dipped in that specific thin ranch dressing in high school, the kind they use on all the cheaper catering carts.)
Desperation Led Me to A Lot of Bad Choices, Including Love Bombing
Looking back, I can see that this desperation led me to make a lot of bad choices. It meant that I often dated people I really shouldn’t — either folks who didn’t really seem to care much about me at all (but didn’t tell me to leave) and/or ones I had little in common with (but again, didn’t tell me to leave). And when I finally did get a partner or two who wasn’t keeping me a secret, I was so impressed by this, what to most people would have been a basic requirement of having a relationship, that I definitely overlooked a bunch of stuff I shouldn’t have.
And I can also see looking back that when I was this desperate, this lonely, this depressed about my love life that I love bombed at default. I love bombed so hard.
It’s not fun to admit it, but yeah. I totally did.
For me, it was a compensatory tactic. I felt unworthy of love or attention, entirely undeserving. And I really did feel that when my partner really came to know me that they’d know they’d made a terrible mistake. That I wasn’t really worth dating on my own merits. So to preempt this, I strove to be an amazing partner. To be the best partner I could be. And in my case, that involved moving way too fast and heaping excessive flattery on the person I was dating.
I was used to being obsequious, having grown up catering to difficult people, especially my mother, who relentlessly mocked and bullied other people (even my child-age friends, when they were just out of earshot) but expected constant praise. It was an easy matter to carry over this unqualified sycophancy into romantic relationships.
Love Bombing Did Work in a Certain Sense, But That Wasn’t a Good Thing, So These Days I Move Slowly
It wasn’t right. But it happened. Especially in my earliest relationships. And I guess it did work, in a certain sense. After a rough start, I went on to have some relationships that lasted for a while. But in another sense, it didn’t work at all. I was rarely happy. The relationships lasted, but I was unhappy. I had forced something to work that really shouldn’t have. And knowing how inauthentic I had been to my partner messed with my head: I knew it was entirely possible that they were doing it back to me, that they had also been love bombing me out of desperation. Since I had done it to them. So I never really trusted that they meant what they said when they said they loved me.
These days I’m a slow mover in relationships, for a lot of reasons. Nine of them are outlined in that article I just linked, but as I write this essay in response to your letter, it occurs me that there’s a tenth: It helps ensure that I don’t love bomb someone and that they don’t love bomb me. Well, it at least helps ensure that it won’t work if either of us do (slowing down the timing mitigates its impact). I think that’s important. I actually think love bombing is a lot more common than people realize. The same factors that predisposed me to doing it are still around, predisposing other people to do it, too. And it’s not just the province of control freaks or narcissists. Not just something incredibly abusive partners do.
You can love bomb someone simply because you’re lonely and don’t know any better. (I sure didn’t.)
Make Love, Not War… and Be Yourself
Anyway, returning to your main point, no, I wouldn’t advocate for using the supernormal stimulus like a targeted laser scope on an attempted love bombing. It might work in one sense, but it’s not an effective way to build healthy relationships.
I think that’s what people mean when they give the advice “be yourself” in situations where you’re trying to impress someone else. Okay, maybe you aren’t the pantless, farting, burping version of yourself. Y’know, the one who may or may not pee in the shower.
But you’re some version of yourself, and most importantly, you’re being authentic with other people. Not just telling them what you think they want to hear, even if it’s a huge lie.
Because there’s no real victory gaining access to a social situation you aren’t going to be happy in. Landing a relationship that’ll make you feel miserable anyway.
The supernormal stimulus is intended as an effective happy relationship maintenance tactic, not as a way to blind you to the fact that what you have together isn’t working.
Unfortunately, Feeling Loved and Being Loved Are Different Things
Unfortunately, as I wrote before, feeling loved and being loved are different things. And this goes both ways:
- You don’t always feel loved when you are loved.
- You can feel loved when you aren’t.
I feel like people are more in touch with the first point than the second. Because of this, those situations where you’ve come to trust in someone and discover that they weren’t honest with you can be truly devastating.
I’m sorry that happened to you. It may take a while to get over it, and it might feel right now like ending up in a healthy relationship someday is a complete impossibility. But I’m here to tell you that it happened to me, too, and I went on to later have the real thing. Multiple times.
There are good people out there. And good partners for you. (Note: These aren’t always the same thing, although they can be.)
Learning to tell the difference is one of the most painful processes I ever personally experienced. The knowledge stings like a bitch, makes you feel utterly foolish. But staying open to the lesson is worth it.