As I walked into Simon's flat a fortnight after our first date, his living room flickered with the light of dozens of candles. He had laid his table a
As I walked into Simon’s flat a fortnight after our first date, his living room flickered with the light of dozens of candles. He had laid his table and flowers were placed in a vase to one side.
Songs I had mentioned I liked played gently from his speaker and he had ordered herring from a specialist Nordic fishmonger for dinner because he knew I loved Scandinavian food. ‘It’s no less than you deserve,’ he said, as I gasped in disbelief. ‘You’re amazing.’
Exaggerated displays of affection had already become a hallmark of our brief relationship and would quickly become even more overt.
After a month, Simon had bought me a pair of emerald earrings and befriended my mother. Within two months he had declared his undying love. For our first Christmas he made baubles with pictures of our faces on to hang on my tree and ran me baths with my favourite Jo Malone bath oil without being asked.
Envious friends told me he was a ‘keeper’ and at first, flattered, I couldn’t believe my luck either. Fast forward six years, however, and memories of the flowers and chocolates he plied me with make me feel nauseous.
I know now that those wild romantic gestures weren’t the work of a thoughtful, besotted partner but a calculating man cruelly laying the framework for an abusive relationship that would eventually render me isolated (Stock Image)
I know now that those wild romantic gestures weren’t the work of a thoughtful, besotted partner but a calculating man cruelly laying the framework for an abusive relationship that would eventually render me isolated, sobbing in fear, second guessing myself and derided as a ‘useless piece of s***’.
Simon was doing something called ‘love bombing’ — showering me with displays of affection to confuse and control me as I submitted to his psychological abuse. The term might sound trivial, but it has potentially deadly consequences.
Last month the Crown Prosecution Service introduced the phenomenon into its guidance on how to prosecute abusive partners, warning that love bombing could minimise the likelihood of detection and weaken a prosecution case. I should know; so intense was the attention Simon lavished on me in between the psychological torture, it took almost three years to realise I was being abused rather than losing my mind.
When I reported him to the police after our three-year relationship ended in 2021, officers said they could consider pursuing a case of coercive control, an offence introduced in 2015 that constitutes a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation perpetrated by a partner, and carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment.
But without any witnesses to Simon’s abuse, it would be almost impossible to prove (which is why, for legal reasons, I’m telling my story anonymously here).
The crime’s complexity should not undermine its cruelty, however. Two years after our split, I’m still traumatised, having counselling, and unable to trust men.
It was in 2017 that I first encountered Simon, when he messaged me on a dating app. ‘Hi. You look lovely, I’d like to introduce myself.’ We met outside a large city train station, near both our homes, that same evening.
He was tall and skinny, in his late 30s like me. After we had embraced he looked me up and down and said: ‘Wow. You are so beautiful.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe at the OTT compliment. In a restaurant that evening, Simon told me I was gorgeous so often I started to feel self-conscious. But he was funny and easy to talk to, and when he messaged to say he would love to see me again I was pleased.
Looking back, I was vulnerable. Lonely after the end of a long relationship with an introvert, part of me relished the texts he started sending daily. After our second date, at a restaurant a week later, he began messaging even more. Most days I’d have three texts on my phone on waking. ‘Morning gorgeous!’ ‘I hope today is lovely.’ ‘The sun is shining xxx.’
In the office where I worked in the advertising industry, if I didn’t reply within ten minutes, he’d message again, asking what was wrong. His clinginess would have grated were it not offset by endearing justification.
Simon was doing something called ‘love bombing’ — showering me with displays of affection to confuse and control me as I submitted to his psychological abuse (Stock Image)
‘I need to snap you up, or someone else will,’ he’d say. Gestures such as that candlelit dinner made me feel his eagerness was all part of the draw. Most women my age were grateful if their husbands hung out the washing. Wasn’t I lucky to be swept off my feet?
Bowled over, I was blinded to other red flags. Five weeks into our relationship, after we first had sex and Simon had fallen asleep in my bed, I saw his phone buzzing, upturned, with a message on its screen: ‘Hey gorgeous. Thinking of you after last night.’
Furious, I woke him and threw him out. Yet he contacted me relentlessly, begging for forgiveness, insisting he had ‘only’ been sexting, and that sex with me had made him more committed than ever to our relationship.
I felt like a fool but, as my best friend pointed out, we’d hardly been together long. If I liked him, perhaps he was worth another chance.
When I relented after a fortnight, he bought me a gold bracelet. That was when he said he loved me. At the back of my mind I knew this wasn’t rational. ‘You barely know me,’ I thought. But although it would be several months before I said it back, I took it as a sign he was sorry.
In 2018, we were at a concert with my friends when one of them was chatted up by another concert-goer. After a few minutes, Simon walked off. When I found him, he accused me of humiliating him by talking to another man — despite the fact it was my friend who was the one being flirted with.
Confused, I ordered a taxi. On the journey home a switch seemed to flick and he turned into a completely different person, swearing at me for embarrassing him in public, calling me a ‘stupid bitch’ and a ‘slut’.
By the time the driver dropped him off at his house, I was so shocked I could barely speak. The next morning, Simon texted to say how sorry he was — he had just been terrified he was going to lose me. The implication, however subtle, was that I had done something to provoke him and, ridiculous as it sounds, I ended up saying sorry too.
I didn’t tell anyone about his outburst — he had been so kind to me the rest of the time I didn’t want friends to think badly of him.
After that, Simon started texting my friends without my knowledge — he got their numbers from my phone — quizzing them about how he could win me over.
‘I’m crazy about her,’ he told them. They interpreted his questions as I did — that he cared. There always seemed to be a reasonable excuse for his mad behaviour. He even called my mum — after only meeting her once — to ask for childhood photos of me, which he said he wanted for a surprise birthday gift. Mum thought he was charmingly lovestruck.
She had no idea he was trying to infiltrate every area of my life. And that included my finances. Once, when I mentioned being short of money until a client paid me, he instantly pulled £100 cash from his wallet and insisted I take it.
On a long planned holiday abroad with a friend that spring, she woke to find he had sent her ten texts at 3am because he couldn’t get hold of me. Exasperated, I told him for the first time that he had to calm down. He accused me of not loving him, and sounded so sad I immediately felt bad. ‘He’s just more into me than I am to him,’ I told my friend. We agreed it was better to be doted on than ignored.
I arrived home to find he’d taken a YouTube tutorial to learn how to re-create the flamingos folded out of towels that hotel maids had left on my bed, after spotting them on a picture I had messaged of my room. They were surrounded by scattered rose petals and new lingerie. ‘He must have really missed me,’ I thought. Every time I pulled away, he would reel me back with a grandiose gesture. Slowly, he convinced me his behaviour was normal.
But the more I came to rely on him emotionally, the more he degraded me and the lower my self-esteem plummeted. He found joy in belittling me in front of strangers. He would tell cashiers at the supermarket check-out, seemingly for no reason, to be wary of what they found on the internet, pointing at me, because ‘I got stuck with this’. I told him it was hurtful. He said it was a joke and I needed to lighten up.
In the gym he would become convinced other men were staring at me. ‘You’re parading yourself to make me look like an idiot,’ he said once, storming out. I started to question myself. Was I? Simon was ordinarily so loving, perhaps I had been at fault. Then he would send flowers and dwelling on it seemed churlish.
After a year, I fell pregnant — a shock because I had been told I was infertile. Simon hugged me, overjoyed. My happiness, however, was tinged with fear, a nagging voice telling me we were tied together for ever now.
Parenthood provoked his Jekyll and Hyde personality even further. During my pregnancy we moved in together and Simon doted on me, but he didn’t so much as hold my hand during my two-day labour.
One evening, when our daughter Leila was three months old, Simon suddenly announced, as I was trying to tidy the baby paraphernalia from our living room, that he was leaving. ‘I don’t want to be with you any more,’ he said.
I tearfully begged him not to go. I was awash with hormones, vulnerable, with a freelance career that meant for the moment I was reliant on his income. I was dependent on him, as he had planned. As he sauntered out with barely another word, he knew he was in a position to devalue me completely.
The following morning, I walked into the kitchen to find Simon cooking breakfast. ‘I thought you’d be hungry,’ he smiled.
When, stuttering, I pointed out that he had left me last night, he said: ‘Let’s not talk about it.’ I was so relieved our daughter wasn’t going to be raised in a broken home that I didn’t want to rock the boat by asking more. But I felt increasingly discombobulated. Had I imagined him leaving? Was I going mad?
After that, Simon shouted at me if I so much as left a used mug on the kitchen counter. He told me I was as much use as a piece of cardboard. I later found out he called my friends to say he loved me so much, but I was finding motherhood difficult and making his life impossible.
When I tried to see them, he called me selfish, so I stopped. When Leila was one, his ‘rules’ began. I was now working from home, and we were hardly destitute, but he said I was wasteful and told me not to put the heating on during the day, even in winter.
After a year, I fell pregnant — a shock because I had been told I was infertile. Simon hugged me, overjoyed. My happiness, however, was tinged with fear, a nagging voice telling me we were tied together for ever now (Stock Image)
When he got home he would touch the radiators to make sure I had obeyed him. If I popped out to the shops or for a run, I’d be ‘on the clock’, permitted only a one- or two-hour window before I had to be home. If I wasn’t, I’d be sent angry texts full of expletives.
If I ran a bath, he would insist on checking I hadn’t filled the water too high. He turned off lights as I did my make-up, saying I was wasting electricity. He only let me use the washing machine twice a week. He would move my houseplants and belongings, then insist he hadn’t, which I now know was gaslighting — manipulating me into questioning my sanity to make me increasingly fragile.
In the evening, as Leila slept, I’d lock myself in our bathroom sobbing, the music I listened to on my headphones unable to drown out the sound of him screaming at the door: ‘You’re a useless piece of s***. No wonder nobody wants to be around you.’
I didn’t dare tell family or friends. They knew Simon as a charming partner and doting father. Besides, what would my complaint sound like — that Simon was frugal, and we swapped the odd harsh word?
It was only when Simon’s abuse became physical in 2020 that I reached a tipping point. ‘Look what you’re making me do,’ he’d say, as he pushed me against a wall because he couldn’t find a clean shirt. His violence wasn’t enough to leave bruises, but it made me finally twig that our relationship was not normal.
I went to my local Refuge centre, worried that the charity would say I was stupid; that I wasn’t being punched. Instead, they explained that by plying me with affection, Simon had created what experts call a ‘trauma bond’ — a feeling of attachment victims feel towards abusers that has no place in a healthy relationship.
As one counsellor asked: ‘Would anyone who loves you scream at you as you cried?’
One evening, in June 2021, Simon lost his temper before dinner, pushing me away from the carrots I had just chopped because he wanted a takeaway. ‘Nobody loves you, not even your own family,’ he said, as he jabbed me in the face. ‘I’m only with you because I feel sorry for you.’
I felt hands on my leg, and looked down to see Leila hanging on to me. ‘Stop shouting, Daddy,’ she pleaded, crying. Nearly three, I realised she was old enough to be impacted too.
‘It’s time you moved out,’ I said. I invited my mum to stay, knowing he wouldn’t want a scene with her sleeping on the sofa.
I took over the tenancy of our home and we agreed Simon would see Leila twice a week, but breaking up wasn’t simple. For three months Simon refused to move his belongings out.
He kissed me on the cheek when he collected Leila and messaged me pictures of her playing — gestures that might seem innocuous to the outside world, but that I had learned, through counselling, were an attempt to manipulate me into wanting him back.
When he started sitting in his car outside the house for hours, I called the police, who took a statement about our entire relationship but said they were powerless to act. Would they have been more likely to try to prosecute had they been trained in ‘love bombing’?
Sadly, I doubt it. Like most abusers, Simon was clever enough to keep his sinister side secret.
To the outside world, he’s still Mr Charming. Only I see the sly smile of a man who tortured his partner into submission with affection — and knows he got away with it.
Names have been changed. Interview by Antonia Hoyle.