You and your fiancé just got in the car after (yet another) disastrous evening with friends. Like always, he had one too many to drink and made a fool of himself (and, by proxy, you). From his sexual innuendos about your BFF’s low-cut dress to telling everyone your mother’s a ‘piece of work,’ one thing’s clear: You deserve better. So, you finally say it: “I can’t do this anymore.” At first, your fiancé’s apologetic. He admits that he crossed the line and begs for a second chance. “I promise, next time will be different—just let me prove it to you,” he snivels. So, you decide to give him a second (or fifth…) chance. But then, three weeks later, you’re in the same position: Wanting out of the relationship and not knowing how to leave. This, friends, is an example of “Hoovering.”
Indeed, Hoovering is an emotional form of manipulation that ‘sucks’ someone back into a relationship. What’s more, it’s a behavior that’s specific to narcissistic personalities (as if dealing with a narcissist wasn’t hard enough). So, we called on the experts to help break down Hoovering—from signs to look out for and exactly how it differs from gaslighting—plus advice on where to go from there.
What is Hoovering?
Hoovering is a behavioral term used to describe a narcissist (or someone with narcissistic tendencies) who uses emotional manipulation to lure their partner back into a toxic relationship. “The term comes from the concept of a Hoover vacuum, [where a narcissist] will ‘suck up’ the happiness from their previous partner in order to get them to return to them,” Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed psychologist specializing in relationships and trauma, tells us. Usually, this behavior comes on the heels of a separation. One partner attempts to remove themselves from the relationship, while the other does everything in their power to regain control.
Why would someone Hoover?
The short answer? Control. “Hoovering behaviors are meant to pull their previous partner back in so they can go back to feeling a sense of control and boosted ego,” says Dr. Fedrick. In theory, Hoovering is a last-ditch effort for someone—with a distorted worldview, we might add—to regain control. In reality, it’s a masked manipulation tactic that, if successful, leaves the other person feeling trapped, confused and unable to see the situation clearly.
What types of people typically Hoover?
While anyone can technically engage in Hoovering behaviors, Dr. Fedrick says it’s generally more specific to narcissistic relationships. “What is important to note here, is that there are a very large number of individuals who display narcissistic tendencies, despite not fully falling into the diagnostic category of a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). So while it’s accurate to say that ‘anyone can engage in Hoovering,’ it’s generally individuals with multiple narcissistic tendencies who will be most likely to demonstrate this type of dysfunctional behavior.”
What does Hoovering look like when it’s happening?
Case Kenny, relationship expert and host of the New Mindset Who Dis podcast, tells us: “Someone who knows their partner is trying to leave (and knows how to manipulate them) will pull anything out of their toolbox that can tug at their partner’s heartstrings.” On one hand, this can involve elaborate gift giving or love bombing, where the person will make too-big-to-be-true promises to distract from the reality of the relationship. Yet, on the other, Hoovering can manifest in psychological forms of blackmail that sow doubt and insecurity. “If you're married or you've been dating for a long time, the longevity of your relationship is something that's going to be thrown around a lot. Plus, if there are kids involved, there’s another level of guilt associated with ‘breaking up the family’ that someone can throw on you,” Kenny adds.
10 Signs of Hoovering
Per Dr. Fedrick, here are ten specific signs to look out for when it comes to Hoovering.
1. Sending lovey-dovey texts after a breakup
Receiving text messages that say things like, “I am thinking about you” or “I miss you.”
2. Coming up with random reasons to see you
Reaching out for random reasons, such as needing help with something or ‘remembering’ that they left something at your house.
3. Threatening you with self-harm
Making threats of self-harming behaviors if they are unable to see you or talk to you.
4. Love-bombing you with over-the-top gestures
Over-complimenting or showering you with praise, sending elaborate gifts or other unnecessary surprises.
5. Giving long-overdue apologies
Apologizing for prior abusive behaviors and promising to be different and to make changes.
6. Making empty promises
Making promises that they have engaged in self-improvement attempts and are a ‘different’ person.
7. Offering to ‘keep things casual’
Pretending as though nothing has happened and attempting to re-engage in a casual manner.
8. Trying to reach you through your friends or family
Having friends or family members reach out to you on their behalf. This is a great way to not only muddle the situation, but frame you as ‘the bad guy’ to the people you care about most.
9. Reaching out on holidays or special occasions
Using special occasions (i.e., Christmas, New Years, birthdays, etc.) as a reason to text or call you.
10. ‘Accidentally’ contacting you to strike up a conversation
Sending ‘accidental’ calls or texts in order to get you to answer or return their attempt.
What should someone do if they’re being Hoovered?
According to Dr. Fedrick, “Awareness is key when it comes to preventing or stopping the cycles of a toxic relationship.” It’s kind of like AA: the first step to healing is recognizing—and admitting—that there’s a problem in the relationship. Kenny adds. “I know—especially as we get older—we have a real aversion to starting over and being single. But if you look in the grand scheme of things, the thing you’ll regret is most is sticking it out in a relationship that doesn't serve you.” It's OK to r equest, or even demand, for them to stop contacting you. And, most importantly, seek help from a professional mental health professional to learn more about coping and safely separating from this toxic relationship.