During the initial romance stages of a toxic relationship, a person with manipulative tendencies will groom their target. In my March 2022 article, “Love-Bombing, Grooming, and Early Abuse Tactics,” I describe this technique:
When you first met him, you were completely sure that he was the one for you. He liked what you liked; he said he was bored with the same things that bored you. He was incredibly attentive, and wanted to spend every waking moment with you. When you had to be apart, he would text (or call) frequently, and leave heart-melting, romantic posts on your social media pages.
In my CatholicMatch article, “If it Seems Too Good to Be True, There’s a Good Chance it Is” I describe grooming in this way:
The connection was instant and intimate from the get-go, and he seemed to be everything you’d ever wanted—not merely on a physical level, but emotionally and spiritually as well. You had the same interests, musical preferences, enjoyed the same foods, and shared important moral and religious values. After a mere few weeks, it already felt as if you’d been best friends for a lifetime.
This is a typical aspect of the love bombing phase of an abusive relationship; it’s the “set up” for what’s to come. By learning all about you—including your most intimate depths—your new partner is feigning interest in his “soulmate,” while at the same time gaining crucial and vulnerable information—information he’ll use later to his advantage and your detriment.
However, he won’t exchange vulnerable intimacy for vulnerable intimacy. There’s no dance of mutual self-giving in an abusive relationship. He may share some things about himself, but when you really think about what he said, likely you’ll come to realize his words had no depth.
Even though he seemed to be sharing pieces of his soul, he wasn’t. He was sharing fluff, half-truths, and speaking words he knew you wanted to hear—all in an effort to draw you closer to him in an emotional bond.
One of my readers has offered to share her confusion about this topic. Sadly, her experience is all too common.
“Anna” told me that the relationship with her abuser progressed very quickly—which is a common tactic to reel targets in:
Get her hooked quickly, before she realizes what’s truly going on.
Yet she felt complicit, because she experienced such a deep connection from the beginning—and likely even needed that deep connection. The sense of shared love satiated her empty soul, and she felt she’d finally realized her dreams of love and fulfillment.
Anna and her soon-to-be abuser instantly “clicked.” He told her he’d never met anyone like her before, never felt this way about anyone, was awed by how amazing and beautiful she was, and how close he felt to her. He could let his vulnerable side be revealed, and he’d never been able to do that with anyone else. She was special, and wanted, and cherished.
Words she longed to hear, because they filled a void within her soul, a void she’d held since childhood—the need to be seen, and loved, and acknowledged.
Yet it was all a manufactured connection. She just didn’t realize it at the time.
Anna shared intimate details with her new boyfriend within weeks of meeting him, because he seemed to be so willing to be open and vulnerable about himself.
They were connected. Or so it seemed. After all, he said he’d never share such personal details about himself if he wasn’t completely certain she was someone special.
When Anna told me these things, I gently probed further. After checking in with her body to be sure she was in a safe space and not emotionally overwhelmed, I asked her a crucial yet simple question:
Anna was relieved to finally be asked that question—in fact, it had never even occurred to her to consider it, she admitted.
“He told me about his ex-girlfriends,” Anna said, her shoulders relaxed as relief to admit these things flooded through her. “He’d had two really horrible past girlfriends —they’d both been monsters, he said. One was verbally and emotionally abusive, and she’d even cheated on him. The other cheated as well. That left him totally devastated, and I felt so bad for him. He seemed so sweet, so honest in opening up to me, to revealing this vulnerability. How could I not fall in love with such an empathetic, loving man? And how could anyone hurt him so much? I believed his ex girlfriends must really have been the monsters he’d said they were. I loved him so much in that moment.”
In her article, “Gaslighting Phrases That Are Only Manipulative When Narcissists Say Them,” best-selling author Shahida Arabi lists manipulative phrase #2 as: “My ex was toxic.” She writes:
When empathic people say this phrase, they’re usually speaking to the reality of an ex-partner who was abusive or mistreated them in some way. When narcissists say this, they are often creating a false narrative about a partner they themselves mistreated and are now mischaracterizing in order to play the victim. The key to identifying the difference is in their patterns of behavior: if they claim their ex was toxic yet frequently engage in crazymaking and manufacture chaos, chances are they’re misrepresenting who was the true instigator of toxicity in their previous relationship.
Sadly, this is classic grooming. Anna, in the course of her own prayer and reflection, realized that her abusive partner hadn’t shared anything intimate about himself at all. He hadn’t shared hopes, dreams, goals, weaknesses, or even authentic interests. What he’d done was weave a story of victimization—a false story full of lies, as Anna later found out—to entice her to feel sorry for him. This was a form of empty intimacy at its most crafty.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
(Gen. 3:1, John 8:44)
Through much prayer and introspection, Anna came to realize that her abuser had revealed virtually nothing about himself during those early days, while she had revealed her innermost self. He hadn’t told her about his childhood trauma, his addictions, his feelings of anger and jealousy. He hadn’t told her about his spiritual life or innermost depths, his dreams and joys. He’d only revealed lies and half-truths—half-truths about someone else (his ex girlfriends) rather than about himself.
Abusers are adept at psychological manipulation. To be aware is to be armed.
We all deserve to maintain our personal worth and dignity. These are gifts from our loving God. To be made aware of coercive manipulations is the first step in cherishing ourselves as children of God—and spouses of our Divine Bridegroom. When we begin to cherish ourselves enough to set boundaries against toxic behaviors, we then open ourselves up to hearing our Bridegroom sing to us His healing hymn of healing love.
Come then, My love, my lovely one, come.
For see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth. The season of glad songs has come.”
(Song of Songs 2:11-12)