By Alexandria Roswick
Predators start working on their victims much sooner than you’d expect.
In the past, I’ve written about the concept of love-bombing with the aim to inform people about predatorial tactics commonly used in the dating world. Knowing how compelling these manipulators can be, my mission is to help prevent people from getting tangled in the web of narcissistic, emotional, or domestic abuse before they are too caught up to cut and run.
Love-bombing is just one aspect of a larger psychological technique referred to as grooming, which is a system of tactics used by many abusers to quickly lure someone in by gaining their trust and intensifying their emotional attachment.
While love-bombing behaviors are a part of the grooming process, there are many more subtle indicators to look out for ahead of overwhelming attention and affection. Here are six tactics that a manipulative predator will use to groom a potential victim prior to being swept away by the fabricated whirlwind romance.
Victim Selection Most of the time we associate grooming with underage victims because they are always vulnerable due to obvious power imbalances. But young people are not the only ones who are susceptible to grooming. Manipulators and narcissists will select specific people who are in a helpless position or circumstance.
For example, they are likely to prey on a person if they are struggling financially, or just got out of a traumatic relationship. Or maybe a person who is grieving the recent death of a friend or family member. An abuser will immediately gravitate toward a person once they’ve sniffed out their vulnerabilities.
How does it feel? We are much easier to charm when we are mentally not at our sharpest. Sadly, you may mistake the predator's “selection” of you as genuine interest and attraction because that is exactly what it feels like.
When you are going through a tough time, or if you are young and don’t know much about the dating world, feeling “chosen” by somebody so endearing is unbelievably euphoric, especially when they use vocabulary like “you’re not like the others” or “you’re so different from everybody else.”
These ideas are too powerful. Understandably so, since everybody wants to feel special. A predator will use this to their advantage in any situation. It will create an unbalanced dynamic right off the bat because you feel grateful to be seen by this person.
Mirroring In the beginning stages, a predator works very hard to lead their prey to believe that the two of them are overwhelmingly compatible. Anything their potential victim is interested in, they are as well. Anything the victim isn’t a fan of, they also dislike.
They have similar morals and values and political beliefs. They watch the same television shows, read the same books, and love the same music. The predator will echo their target’s relationship goals and pretend they want all of the same things in life.
While manipulators and narcissists lack authentic compassion, they depend on cognitive empathy to help them read their prey’s needs. They do this so that they can craft a false identity that fulfills the person’s innermost hopes and desires for a romantic companion. They also use it to mask their devious intentions by staging generosity and virtue signaling every chance they get.
Cognitive empathy is definitely utilized during the love-bombing stage, but it can often occur even before the connection becomes obviously romantic.
How does it feel? Every time you suggest an idea, it is met with positive reinforcement. Even when the two of you are found to have differences they are usually minimized or dismissed as unimportant.
Once the predator has acquired sufficient data from you, they aim to embody your fantasy partner by curating a false self. You will begin to feel like you may have finally found your soul mate even though it’s too early to gauge the mutual romantic interest.
You will feel as if you’ve never met anyone who’s understood you so well. The point of this act is that you couldn’t possibly deny how connected the two of you are.
In fact, you may feel silly about feeling this way for someone you just met. Usually, it’s right after you have this realization that love-bombing behaviors begin to reinforce your desires.
It’s an exciting feeling, but if something feels too good to be true, it usually is. Any doubts you previously had about this person — if you noticed any red flags — can be easily pushed aside because they are persistently providing you with “proof” of their empathetic nature.
You will be so used to them validating your opinions that you will become dependent on the feeling itself. This is the main leverage they use to wrap you around their finger and, like a puppet master, control future conversations.
Intermittent Reinforcement The narcissist will ever so subtly influence their prey’s behaviors by showing grandiose affection only when the person acts in a way that favors them. They will also make it clear if the person has acted in a way that is unacceptable to them. This tactic is a way for the predator to instill the fear of disappointment within their target.
How does it feel? In the beginning, examples include something as simple as agreeing with a point they make and they reward you with a highly validating comment such as “You get me like nobody ever has!”
As the relationship develops, it can escalate to something as harrowing as agreeing to a sexual act that they want because they offered irresistible statements like “you are the hottest I’ve ever been with” or “you’re the only one who can make me feel this way.”
If you are validated by their hyper-positive responses, not getting one in a moment when you thought you would be is going to sting. It will send you into a spiral of shame and self-doubt. Am I in the wrong? Should I be acting this way? Why aren’t they complimenting me like they usually do?
It is meant to feel like the most humiliating instance of your life. This not only intensifies your human fear of shame but allows them to weaponize it at every turn until they get what they want.
Enemies In a narcissist's mind, they are always in the right. This means that in any situation that was unfavorable to them, they were or are the victim. So, no matter what actually happened with their ex, virtually anyone who is not currently kissing up to them and feeding their supply is their enemy.
They will strategically go off about the people who “wronged” them in front of their potential victim(s). They speak negatively (oftentimes, viciously) about these people in order to get a glaring message through. They want their prey to know exactly what behaviors made these people deserving of such demonstrated cruelty. Through this, they aim to instinctively make a person afraid of ever being on the receiving end of their hateful diatribes.
How does it feel? They have already been slowly working to get you dependent on their validation using the previously mentioned tactics, so this negative talk is programming you to never behave in a way that is similar to the people they’ve demonized.
Being rejected by them is too horrifying to consider because you’ve already idealized the perfect relationship with them. Their presence in your life has become so significant to the point that you’d willingly adjust your own habits or attitudes according to what you’ve heard them deem unattractive.
The purpose of this tactic is to make you feel the need to do everything you can to set yourself apart from their exes. Not only to maintain that “unlike the others” status, but to avoid being shamed in the same horrible ways that the predator felt so comfortable doing to others.
Sleep Deprivation Throughout all of this, they have various ways of preventing their target from being at the top of their game. Although the victim is already most likely in a vulnerable or naive position, they want to ensure they stay this way. They need to keep them exhausted. We can’t think straight when we lack sleep.
How does it feel? In the beginning, they will most likely use fun activities or hour-long conversations to keep you up at night. Not only does it tire you, but the long conversations and quality time build on the illusion of intimacy. So although you may question this forming habit, you’ll likely end up minimizing it once you begin to use it as proof of chemistry.
A sleep-deprived brain is seldom strong enough to notice red flags or piece complex toxic behavioral patterns together. Later in the development of your relationship, this tactic will remain, but they will likely switch to arguing all night instead of flirting.
Victim Complex Abusers will exploit the empathy of their potential victims and filter in seemingly authentic disclosures about their past trauma(s). They are planting these seeds to justify future neurotic or abusive behaviors and keep the victim stuck in a relationship out of guilt.
How does it feel? Usually, a predator will draw out your vulnerable confessions so that it feels appropriate for them to dump all of their trauma (sometimes made-up events but not always) onto you. You will feel like a deep trust is forming between the two of you. This feeling leads you to believe that you are emotionally and psychologically safe in their presence.
However, even if the predator’s narrative is true, it is being used to make you sympathize with them to the point of excusing away any of their future actions. Anytime you get in an argument and they say something disrespectful, either they will bring up events from the past that haunt them and “caused” them to act this way, or they have already trained your brain to piece this association together yourself.
You will feel guilt, pity, or eventually, fear, anytime you want to call them out for something that bothers you — which is exactly what the tactic is designed to do. There will be no room for them to be held accountable. This is a setup that enables them to blame you for your reactions to their bad behavior.
When in doubt, cut them out. While grooming happens before you even dream of getting into an official relationship with a predator, manipulator, or narcissist, it continues as the love-bombing behaviors filter in and even beyond that for the rest of the cycle. With all of these tactics happening at the same time, it’s no wonder it feels impossible to escape from.
Remember that you are not stupid if you fall or have fallen for their tricks. These behaviors are so subtle and difficult to point to (especially when you’re being gaslit at every turn) which is why they almost always work. Even awareness of these tactics never guarantees your safety.
Unfortunately, the only way to avoid the inevitable cycle of toxic influence is to halt all contact upon the first sign of red flags. Do not leave the door open for a potential narcissist to come back in. Do not tell them you can still be friends.
They will continue their plot if given the smallest opportunity. You give them an inch and they will take a mile. Use this knowledge of their schemes to keep an eye out as you’re dating.
If anything you see causes you to trip, I recommend documenting it. Investigate the patterns and ultimately go with your gut. You are the expert on your own reality.
You are in the driver’s seat. Anybody who tries to dictate what you’re feeling or experiencing is attempting to take the wheel from you, and there is no reality in which that is in your best interest. Do not trust these people.