While you might associate the term “hoovering” with a Sunday morning cleaning frenzy, it has a more sinister meaning when it comes to relationships.
A manipulation technique most often used by narcissists, hoovering is used to suck a partner —or ex-partner — back into a situation, conversation, or even a relationship that is toxic or unsafe. “When people talk about hoovering, they’re generally referring to a person’s attempts to create or regain connection with someone through manipulation,” Kelly Scott, senior therapist, LMHC, at Tribeca Therapy tells Bustle. “Like a vacuum, people can feel sucked back in against their will or contrary to their best interest.”
Understanding the signs of hoovering can be the first step to putting an end to a partner’s control over someone. Below, Scott breaks down different techniques manipulators use to hoover and why narcissists do it in the first place.
Examples Of Hoovering In Relationships
According to Scott, hoovering is any attempt by a person to pull someone else back into their orbit and is often motivated by a fear of loss and a willingness to do almost anything to get the person back.
Hoovering in a relationship can include inventing a crisis to compel someone to respond — which could even be threats to oneself or their partner. Scott explains that suicide attempts, self-harm, and dangerous or impulsive behavior used to lure someone back into a conversation are all examples of this. Scott goes on to explain that phrases like, ‘Call me back or I’m going to take these pills,’ ‘I’m coming to your house if you don’t respond to my text’ and, ‘I’m so upset, I really need you,’ are all examples of hoovering, especially when the other person has made it clear they’re trying to disengage from further conversation.
“Hoovering can be quite dangerous because it can cause a person to lose sight of reality,” Scott explains. “Any kind of emotional manipulation can … cause a person to act against their own interests, doubt themselves, or even alienate other relationships in an effort to soothe and comfort the person doing the hoovering.”
Why Narcissists Hoover In Relationships
"Narcissism can be most easily defined as a need to feel special or important," clinical psychologist Dr. Leslie Carr previously told Bustle. It becomes a bigger issue when it starts to impact your life and relationships, she added. Narcissists in particular are known to hoover because, at a basic level, Scott explains, hoovering is their attempt to protect their fragile sense of self.
“In the service of protecting their ego and sense of identity, narcissists often use the people around them to make them feel valuable, powerful, and irreplaceable,” Scott says. “When one of those people ‘defects,’ a narcissist often can’t tolerate the rejection. Hoovering is the effort to bring that person back into the fold, allowing them to avoid the painful feelings of abandonment and criticism.”
But not all people “hoovering” are narcissists. Instead, hoovering is a behavior, not a personality trait. “[Hoovering] stems from deep insecurity and a feeling of smallness or fragility, and anyone could be in a situation where they are — knowingly or not — trying to exert influence on someone to keep them from leaving. Though there are degrees of manipulation that range from fairly benign to egregious and harmful.”
Basically, hoovering is about control and trying to regain this sense of power over a person or situation.
How To Respond To A Narcissist's Hoovering
While someone experiencing the effects of hoovering may think giving in is the best course of action, Scott explains that doing this won’t stop a narcissist from continuing to use this manipulation technique in the future. And it’s unlikely someone will stop hoovering just because they’re meeting resistance.
“Unfortunately, I’ve never seen narcissism resolve on its own without long-term, intensive therapy. It’s often born in trauma, reinforced by all sorts of societal and systemic experiences, and worst of all, sometimes leads to great professional success,” Scott says.
Instead, when dealing with hoovering, she suggests getting away as quickly as possible, especially if you have reason to believe safety is an issue. She stresses the importance of leaving completely, which might not be possible right away. “Sometimes [leaving is] a long game that requires strategy and some amount of ‘playing the game’ — specifically in situations of divorce that involve kids, abusive relationships, and any situation that involves physical safety.”
This long-term planning can look like opening a separate bank account, or even planning a getaway while the narcissist is away.
When possible, Scott suggests that the healthiest and most self-protective thing to do is “holding the line and removing yourself from a coercive dynamic.” She notes that a hoovering narcissist will try to convince you your only option is to stay and “fall in line” with them, but Scott emphasizes the importance of grounding yourself in the reality that you have a choice.
This will ultimately allow you to restore your options and, hopefully, break free from the narcissist’s control over you.
Kelly Scott, therapist, LMHC
Dr. Leslie Carr, psychologist