Every once in a while you’ll see a story on the news – a domestic abuse situation where the victim was assaulted but immediately returned to their abuser. When it happens, we ask why this person would ever go back to such a toxic situation. We judge them and wonder how they could have so little common sense.
We make these sanctimonious pronouncements because most of us have never been in a relationship with a narcissist and we don’t comprehend their ability to persuade their victims.
We’ve also never experienced their hoovering techniques – the ways they reframe their abuse and tell you it will never happen again. Until we’ve been through it, there’s no way to understand just how difficult it is to walk away.
What is Narcissistic Hoovering?
The name says it all – like a vacuum cleaner, the narcissist is sucking you back into the relationship after a period of abuse or narcissistic rage. They employ a variety of tactics ranging from gaslighting and misdirection to outpourings of love to straight-up threats. In any case, it’s about regaining control of the person and preventing them from leaving the relationship.
The classic cycle of a narcissistic relationship progresses from the narcissist idealizing their supply source, then devaluing them, before eventually discarding them.
Not all discards are final though, and hoovering is a way to tap back into that supply source. To paraphrase Al Pacino: “just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in”.
Why Does a Narcissist Hoover?
Narcissists are faced with a troubling dilemma: on one hand, they need supply – attention, compliments, and respect, but they also have a tendency to lash out at those providing the supply, especially when challenged.
It’s hard for them to maintain a source of it, so it pays to figure out who will stick around after a few bouts of narcissistic rage; that’s where hoovering comes in.
It’s much easier to tap a previous supply source than it is to find a new one. The narcissist already knows their victim’s quirks and weaknesses, which they can use to extract more supply from them.
15 Examples of Narcissistic Hoovering
Hoovering comes in so many different forms, which can make it incredibly difficult for those being targeted to know what’s happening in the moment. Often it’s only in hindsight that they see how the narcissist was manipulating them all along.
1. Making Threats
This might be the most straightforward hoovering tactic, and although it can be incredibly scary, it doesn’t leave any questions about the intentions of the narcissist. Most often they’ll use statements like:
- “I’ll destroy you”
- “I’m taking the kids”
- “Without me, you’ll have nothing”
Those words are designed to make you think that life without the narcissist will be worse, much much worse. Frightening scenarios like losing your home, children, or finances prevent you from thinking clearly about how destructive life with a narcissist has been and how much power they actually have to enact their revenge upon you.
Additionally, if you’re in danger physically, don’t assume that appeasing the narcissist will keep you safe. Extricating yourself from the toxic relationship is the only way to ensure that.
2. Using Children or Mutual Friends as a Foot in the Door
The simplest solution to dealing with a narcissist is to walk away and go no-contact. That’s easier said than done though; it’s near impossible if you share a close circle of friends and is unworkable if you share custody of a child with them.
The narcissist will invent problems for the person you care for and use them as an excuse to continue contact. The problem may be fictitious or exaggerated – anything to get your guard down so they can worm their way back into your life.
- “Our son is struggling in school, have you been going over his homework with him?”
- “I think (our friend) really needs someone with them right now. Do you want to come over with me?”
3. Faux Incidental Contact
Narcissists know that you want nothing to do with them after a discard. Many fabricate innocuous reasons for seeing or speaking to you, such as visiting places around town that you’re known to frequent or calling you by “accident”.
This form of hoovering feels very much like stalking, but it’s done in such a way that you can’t really prove the narcissist is intentionally contacting you. Once they’re in your presence or have you on the line, they’ll ask probing questions about how your life is going post-break-up. If they find a weakness, they’ll exploit it to keep you hooked and providing them with supply.
4. Holding on to Your Belongings
If you’ve ever been through a breakup where you had to move out, you know how awkward it can be to grab all of your stuff. You might send a friend over to do it or ask your former partner to not be around while you pack up, but those methods won’t fly with a narcissist. Not only will they remind you of everything you might have left at their house, they’ll make sure to note anything of theirs in your possession.
- “You left some books over here, do you want to come get them?”
- “You have one of my shirts, I need you to bring it back”
It’s never about the things though; they’re just an easy talking point that forces you to stay in contact with them. If you’ve recently broken up with a narcissist, make sure you sort out whatever property either of you might have so you can move on as quickly as possible.
5. Boosting Your Ego
The most common reason people fall in love with a narcissist is the intense flattery that occurs at the beginning of the relationship. Narcissists can be charming and during the idealization phase, their love for you seems to know no bounds.
Unfortunately, they only love how you make them feel through your supply, and that feeling is fleeting. When the feelings cool, devaluation, and discard occur. To pull you back into their circle, the narcissist reverts to that idealization phase, as they crave the initial supply you gave them and the feelings that came with it.
6. Reminiscing About the Past
Few of us would ever fall in love with an abuser – there’s usually at least a brief moment at the beginning of a relationship when everything is going well. When the narcissist wants to pull you back into their life, they’ll remind you of the good times, hoping you’ll forget everything that followed.
It helps to keep in mind that the narcissist’s more recent behavior is a better predictor of their future actions than those warm moments from the beginning of the relationship.
7. Promising a Better Future
What’s the one thing we always hear from domestic violence survivors about their abusers? When they lash out, they say they’ll never do it again, only to repeat the same cycle over and over again.
While people certainly can change, when the narcissist says that they will, it’s rarely a sincere commitment.
8. Calling on Memorable Dates
- “I just thought I’ll give you a call since it’s your birthday, I hope you’re having a wonderful time”
- “Today would have been our third anniversary and it got me thinking…”
On the surface this behavior actually actually seems kind of sweet – they’re thinking about you. Unfortunately, their concern for your well-being is just a veneer.
This is an opportunity for them to call you, look like a good person, and keep you on the line. While they’re at it, the narcissist might seek out information about how you’re doing/feeling, which they can use to manipulate you into further contact.
9. One Last Conversation
This is frequently used when you’ve gone no-contact after breaking up with the narcissist and they’ll use it to get their foot in the door.
- “I just have a couple things I’d like to say, then we can go our separate ways”
- “I really need to explain something”
The conversation that ensues doesn’t provide you with closure or help to clear up a misunderstanding. The narcissist is drawing you in with the possibility of some finality to their abuse – you just need to endure one last conversation.
But it’s not the final call, and the content of the conversation will veer wildly from what you assumed it would be. It’s all about pulling you back into the relationship. A similar tactic would be the narcissist saying they “need to see you one last time.”
10. Subtly Reaching Out
Have you ever had an ex that kept liking your Facebook or Instagram posts long after you broke up and stopped talking? Notifications keep popping up with their name in them, and you can’t help but think about them and what their intention is for these likes.
Narcissists are experts at this head game and they know the more time you spend wondering about them, the more likely you are to return to the relationship.
11. Appeals to Religious Beliefs
Narcissists frequently use their victim’s faith against them, twisting their beliefs to keep them in the relationship longer.
- “I’ve been praying, and God has told me we should be together”
- “Divorce is a mortal sin”
- “You’ve turned your back on Jesus, I can help you find him again”
Our religious faith contains some of our most deeply held beliefs. When a narcissist hijacks the authority of those beliefs, and forces us to choose between staying with them or ostensibly going against our faith, it can be devastating.
Fortunately, faith can also provide you with a community of people that care about you and provide much-needed perspective on your relationship with the narcissist.
12. Glossing Over Past Abuse
This is where the narcissist will pretend that nothing negative happened between the two of you or they’ll minimize it to the point of irrelevance. Their prior emotional abuse will be blown off as “a phase” or “minor argument”, when it was really a series of one-sided attacks.
The narcissist has created a new reality where both of you were at fault. Such tactics also make you question the severity of the abuse and whether you overreacted to it. As such, you’re more likely to accept it in the future.
13. Destroying Your Self Worth
By definition, narcissists are highly-skilled at promoting themselves and all of their positive qualities. Many are also quite good at finding faults within you, and pointing out how you’ll never find someone better. They’ll attack the most vulnerable elements of your personality and pounce on the qualities you hold dearest.
- “You’re a terrible mother, the kids would be better off without you”
- :Everyone at your job hates you and knows you’re the worst employee”
14. Bringing In a Third Party
Narcissists are masters of manipulation and recruiting an army of “flying monkeys” is one of their most favored tactics. The narcissist will seek out your mutual friends, family members, or even work acquaintances if they can, and use them to pressure you to return to the relationship.
The narcissist might mention how much they miss you, how good things had been, or even pin the blame for the break up on you. Using your unwitting contacts against you is particularly damaging as it starts to feel like you have no one who can empathize with your problems.
The narcissist’s hope is that you’ll eventually return to them rather than be ostracized by friends and family that believed the relationship was going swimmingly.
15. Threatening to Harm Themselves
One of the quickest ways for a narcissist to get your guard down is by threatening to hurt themselves. It places their victim into a position of responsibility, where walking away would feel immoral.
- “I’ll kill myself if you leave me”
- “I’ve been cutting ever since we broke up”
This tactic is particularly damaging because you can’t be sure if the narcissist is using these threats to control you or if there is a real possibility of self-harm. If suicide is mentioned, call the police.
Though you should never feel responsible for the actions of the narcissist, this is a good way to take the responsibility off of yourself, without feeling guilty about walking away.
How to Combat Hoovering?
There are so many forms of hoovering that there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution. The best thing you can do for yourself is simply recognizing that it’s happening.
If it feels like you’re being manipulated in some way, you almost certainly are and it’s best to break contact as quickly as possible.
You can read more about the narcissist and hoover, in our other article about this topic: Why the Hoovering Narcissist won’t leave you alone.