‘I feel like I was used’: The rise of ‘friend bombing’ and why we need to talk about it

·8-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When Lucy* met Abigail*, she thought she’d hit the friendship jackpot. “I’d never met someone who made me laugh so much,” she recalls. “Abi was hilarious, well-travelled, and we had so many common interests, from spirituality to theatre. She showered me with compliments; I was flattered by her attention.” Both women had just got out of long-term relationships, and also both worked in IT – though Lucy was significantly more senior than Abi. Within weeks there were joint parties, weekends away, even one Christmas together. For a while, things were great. But after a year of friendship, something changed.

“Abi started to slowly emotionally withdraw from me,” recalls Lucy. “We were in the back of a cab when she told me she wouldn’t be available for Christmas that year, which was odd since we’d been discussing it for months.”

Shortly after, Abi went away for three weeks; Lucy took care of her puppy. “I made a joke on Facebook that I wished I could keep the puppy,” she says. “I don’t think Abi realised it was a joke – she commented on the post: ‘Well, if it bothers you that much, you can have my dog.’ I emailed her and said it was just a joke but she reprimanded me for judging her as a pet parent. I knew that was the beginning of the end.”

Looking back on it all, Lucy feels like Abi was inauthentic from the beginning. “I think I was more of a valuable tool for her than a true friend,” she says, citing work scenarios where Lucy helped Abi to get ahead. “I feel like she used me – then when she had what she wanted, I was dumped.”

Experiences like Lucy’s are common. They are friendships that are, in many ways, an extension of those formed between women in nightclub bathrooms: intense, emotional, ephemeral. Take them out of the bathroom and into real life, though, and things become a little more complex. I call this “friend bombing”, a specific type of friendship that forms unusually fast and then – often out of nowhere – comes crashing to an end.

“It’s normal for some friendships to flourish in the beginning but become more distant through the course of our lives,” says Josh Smith, a counsellor at the charity Relate. “Often this is associated with life transitions: the friends we make at school or as a young parent might be less relevant to us when for example we leave school or our children grow up.”

The distinction between this typical process and a “friend bombing” relationship is that the patterns can mirror those in abusive romantic relationships. “Like with intimate relationships, there’s scope for friendships to become abusive,” explains Smith, making the comparison to “love bombing”, a form of manipulative behaviour where someone “bombs” their partner with extreme displays of affection and attention – only to later do a 180, becoming distant and possibly cruel, leaving the victim agonising over how they can get back to the “bombing” stage. “Psychiatrist Dr Dale Archer describes the love bombing pattern as IDD – intense idealisation, devaluation, followed by discard,” explains Smith.

Integrative psychotherapist Tasha Bailey explains that friendships such as these can go through a “honeymoon phase” similar to that which is experienced in romantic relationships. “This is an exciting and hopeful time,” says Bailey, “as we imagine what this friendship could become.” There might also be feelings of discomfort at the pace of the friendship. “An example of friend bombing might be when a new friend says ‘I love you’ or over-showers us with praise despite only knowing us for a short time. This can lead us to feel a pressure to return the favour, even if we don’t feel the same way.”

This happened to Michelle*, 42, who struck up an intense friendship with a fellow single mum, Rose*, outside the school gates in Aberdeen in 2018. “I’d gone to pick up my son, Andrew, who had fallen over badly that day. This woman I’d never met before started asking me about him and we totally hit it off from there.”

Some people may be more susceptible to friend bombing than others (Getty Images)
Some people may be more susceptible to friend bombing than others (Getty Images)

Over the course of the next 18 months, the two women became intensely close. “The connection was strong,” Michelle recalls. “Rose would regularly flatter me; she really made me feel good about myself. We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time and the kids loved each other in the classroom and out.”

Things started to change after Michelle went looking for a new home. “I felt a bit of jealousy,” she says. “I was moving to a bigger house because of success at work and Rose, I assume, started to feel resentful because she couldn’t afford to move despite wanting to.” Eventually, Michelle stopped hearing from Rose. “It was like she ghosted me,” she says.

Another woman, Ellie*, 34, recalls how she became fiercely close with Maggie*, who was dating her husband’s best friend. “After he broke up with her, she quickly became completely dependent on me,” Ellie recalls. “I struggled with my friendships as a child and I don’t have loads of friends. So, for me to have this sort of close friendship was a very big deal. I saw us as bosom buddies and imagined we would be friends when we were 80 years old.”

However, as soon as Maggie entered into a new relationship, she slowly stopped contacting Ellie. They had one blow-up argument in which Ellie said some unkind things she didn’t mean – and then that was that. “I was shocked and totally devastated,” recalls Ellie. “I messaged her and she ignored me. Aside from snapping that one time I had done nothing but look out for her.” It took Ellie a long time to heal from the dissolution of the friendship. “I would wake up in the night and struggle to sleep because I was so angry and upset,” she says.

There are a few reasons why psychologists advise against moving too quickly in friendships. “An instantly intense friendship can be a sign it is unbalanced and inauthentically developed,” says Bailey. “Since one person has more control over the intensity and intimacy of the friendship, the other is left dependent on their cue. In some ways, friend bombing can be emotionally abusive, as it can be a tool of control within that relationship. It is as though the friend-bomber has a remote control that determines the intensity of the friendship.”

An instantly intense friendship can be a sign it is unbalanced and inauthentically developed

Tasha Bailey, integrative psychotherapist

Dr Marisa G Franco, professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic: How Understanding Your Attachment Style Can Help You Make and Keep Friends, adds that by becoming friends with someone too quickly, you run the risk of making premature judgements and becoming too invested in them before you even know who they are. “Just as in romantic relationships, instant chemistry does not always mean someone is a good match for us as a friend,” she explains.

Among psychologists, love bombing is often linked to narcissism. Dr Franco suggests the same could be said for friend bombing. “When you become friends with a narcissist, they tend to be really charismatic and pull people in quickly,” she explains. “But as the friendship continues, they tend to turn people off a lot as their manipulative and egocentric behaviour emerges.”

This was something Lucy noticed with Abi, who she says made a habit of boasting about men being attracted to her, or flirting with her when she went out. “I dismissed it at first,” she says. “We all have our foibles.”

If you feel like you are being friend bombed, Dr Franco advises pulling back from the friendship and setting some clear boundaries. “Just be discerning and ask yourself if this is really someone you can rely on during your times of need,” she says. “Is this someone who you feel like you really know? Do they have other good relationships in their life? Slow down the friendship so that you can assess whether it is truly healthy. Just don’t reciprocate.”

There are a few reasons why psychologists advise against moving too quickly in friendships (Getty Images)
There are a few reasons why psychologists advise against moving too quickly in friendships (Getty Images)

Some people may be more susceptible to friend bombing than others, particularly those who, like Ellie, struggled with friendships as children and continue to do so as adults. For them, the appeal of a friend-bombing relationship is understandable. “It’s a way of experiencing the gains of intimacy while trying to skip over its liabilities; it’s like trying to have cake for your entire meal. But you can’t skip a step with friendship. You need time, consistency and varied circumstances to reveal whether or not this is a good friend.”

For those who have experienced it, Smith advises seeking support, either through friends or counselling. “This sort of behaviour can both exploit and be the cause of low self-esteem, which talking therapies can help to address,” he adds. Additionally, Bailey suggests looking at the friendship objectively, possibly writing down the things they have done that make you feel uncomfortable. You could also try confronting them.

“If they are able to take accountability and share why they have pulled away, you can thoughtfully set boundaries together to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” says Bailey. “If they refuse to acknowledge it or invalidate your experience, this is likely a sign that this is not a friend that you need in your life. It is important for us to have friendships that are mostly predictable and secure.”

*names have been changed