Picture this. You're doing your best to move on after a bad breakup, and one day, you get a notification on your phone. There's a sinking pit in your stomach when you see it's your ex. It could be deceptively innocuous like asking you for the name of that Indian restaurant you went to together, or requesting another conversation for closure so they can finally close the door.
No matter what it is, the message is clear: You're on their mind. They're thinking of you. They miss you in some capacity. You feel a cold wave of anxiety wash over you as your mind spins over what you should do next. You don't want to respond, but you still feel responsible for their emotions—plus, maybe they've changed, and the conversation might be different now.
Sound familiar? If you find yourself repeating another vicious cycle with your ex after they've reached out, you've just been hoovered.
What is hoovering?
Coined after the Hoover vacuum, hoovering is a calculating scheme commonly used by narcissists to "suck" you up into their orbit and get you back into their life. It's an energetically draining dynamic that perpetuates a toxic pattern of idealization, devaluation, and discardment.
According to psychotherapist Nicholas Moran, LMHC: "[Hoovering] is a key characteristic of toxic relationships and manifests in a variety of ways with the focus on attempting to draw a person back in and control them, kind of like a fisher who is fishing or a puppeteer with a puppet."
Hoovering is disruptive to your life because of how jarring it is. There's a cognitive shift in your being as you refocus on them and their internal world at the cost of your own healing. It's a subtle power play, but don't take it lightly. At its heart, hoovering is a manipulative technique designed to seduce you into contact with them and get you back on a dizzying relational ride marked with extreme highs and lows.
If your ex is affected by narcissism, it's unlikely in your time apart that they've been able to work on themselves in such a way that generates wholeness and emotional maturity. If you cut off contact with them, they should be able to respect set boundaries and not disregard what you need during your recovery in service of what they want from you.
Where the behavior comes from.
"Hoovering is a tactic used by individuals with narcissist, borderline, anti-social, or histrionic personality disorder. It is generally abusive in nature and done in order to lure the attention of their victim. If an unsuspecting individual cannot see the partner's motives, they may be taken in by their words or promises," couples' therapist Antonia Di Leo, LMFT, tells mbg.
When a relationship with a narcissist ends, it can bring uncomfortable feelings to the surface that the narcissistic partner may not have the emotional bandwidth to handle. To shortcut the discomfort, narcissists instinctively react by reaching out, aka hoovering, to their former partner—who often possesses empathy and high sensitivity—because they don't want to feel the pain and would rather target it on something else. Know they may care about you as a person, but they care more about what you can offer them to fill their emptiness because they can't give it to themselves.
Does that mean that every time an ex gets back in touch with you it's hoovering? Not necessarily. There's a key distinction between contacting an ex to reestablish healthy lines of communication and reaching out to someone with a lopsided agenda that benefits them only. The latter clearly centers one person over the other, which doesn't equate to a fair flow of genuine reciprocity.
Moran notes that hoovering exists on a spectrum of intentional to unintentional behaviors. However, "this is a common characteristic of people who exhibit narcissistic traits and is employed from a conscious or unconscious effort to obtain and maintain control over another person or persons," they say.
Common signs of hoovering.
Moran shares telltale signs that you should look out for if you think you're being hoovered:
Ghosting and then contacting you out of the blue.
You haven't heard from them for months, and then you get a random message. "Just thinking of you and the memories," or, "Hey, I'm back at our favorite dinner spot. Do you remember when we celebrated your birthday here?" If they aren't interested in being accountable for their past actions, it's not motivated by real care. It's lazy communication at best and used only to grab your attention, not make amends.
Being overly apologetic and attempting to convince you that they've changed.
The opposite could happen instead. They might come in strong and own up for everything that went wrong in the relationship. "I'm so sorry, and I want to do better. I'm getting professional help, and I'm ready to be the person you've always wanted me to be." It's tempting—but the best apology is changed behavior, which is demonstrated over time, not in verbosity. Think about what you want and the reaction that's appropriate for you as it stands in the moment.
Showering a person with gifts.
Your ex is treating you the way that you've always wanted to be treated. They are lavishing you with attention, presents, and little tokens of affection. It may feel great to be at the receiving end of such care, but this behavior—also known as love bombing—is unsustainable in the long run. Love isn't tit-for-tat, and it's not based on a scoring system. True connection is about a slow build of the quiet moments, not through grand gestures and big statements.
Needing to know where their partner is at all times.
They crave control and can project it onto you. They might show up at your favorite coffee shop for a casual walk by. They want to know if you're going to X event because they might be there. To stir up sympathy, they have your friends or family put in a good word on their behalf. Protect your time and space by not getting involved.
Spreading lies about a partner to instigate a response.
There's a rumor going around your mutual circle of friends that you callously broke their heart, you destroyed them, that you have a personality disorder, etc. Beware of any black-and-white stories that paint you as the villain and them as the victim. They're spinning stories and exposing your vulnerabilities to trigger you into defending yourself. But the more you try to correct what actually happened, the more convoluted it will be. Unfortunately, it's a pointless exercise that will lead you nowhere fast. You can't control what someone will say about you, but you can choose how you feel about it.
"I gave the relationship everything I had. You don't appreciate my effort, I can't believe you don't remember how hard I worked for us. You're too sensitive. I didn't treat you that badly. I did the best I could." Your ex may downplay their wrongdoings, which plants a seed of doubt in your mind. By gaslighting you to covertly twist the situation, they escape accountability, and your feelings are dismissed. Trust your gut instincts as you're parsing through the hidden nature behind their messages.
"If you don't respond back to me, I'm going to hurt myself." This is a major red flag that you are being hoovered. It is extremely manipulative for someone to place the burden of their harm onto you and how you may or may not respond to them. You are not responsible for their actions. If they keep telling you they will hurt themselves, immediately contact their family or emergency services so they can get the help they need.
Unkept and/or over-the-top promises.
Remember that vacation you always wanted to take? They want to finally take you there! You wanted to move somewhere warmer for the summer? Let's do it! If it sounds too good to be true—it is. When they use your aspirations to get something from you in the present, it's called future faking. Tread lightly.
Displaced pronouncements of undying love.
"You're my soul mate. I can't live without you. It's been you and always been you." It sounds like a picture-perfect fairy tale because it is. Don't get swept away in the romanticism of what used to be. Anchor yourself into the reality of the relationship and the experience you went through.
How to respond to hoovering.
"People with narcissistic traits have incredible ways of pulling folx back into their webs by instigating the victim's need to defend themself or an emotional response. If you find yourself compromising your personhood and values, chances are you're in a toxic relationship and will likely experience hoovering if and when you end the relationship," Moran notes.
The time after the breakup may be unpredictable and chaotic as you process the trauma of a narcissistic relationship and their attempts to ensnare you back into their life. Moran lays out a road map to navigate the twisty turns ahead, in their own words:
- Identify the pattern.
- Set clear boundaries.
- Prioritize your needs.
- Don't internalize hurtful comments.
- Ignore and avoid engaging if possible.
- Seek the support of trusted folks or a therapist.
"Watch out for patterns in their behaviors and be honest about the motives of their partner. Once [you] recognize the abusive patterns, you can safely find ways to break up the relationship," di Leo says. "Terminating contact could be in the form of blocking their calls, not responding to their promises, or meeting one last time."
The bottom line.
If you're evaluating whether you should get back in contact with your ex, slow down and consider whether having them back in your life will be soul-sustaining and positive. If not, it may serve you better in the long term to put it behind you and double down on your boundaries. "When dealing with hoovering, one must maintain a strong sense of self," Di Leo advises.
But knowing yourself and disengaging can only get you so far. If your ex is ignoring your boundaries and it's crossing over into harassment, it's not OK. "If any domestic violence has ensued and you're worried about your safety, you should call your local domestic violence agency for help to leave the relationship," Di Leo says. Seek help if it escalates into emotional abuse.
For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
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Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.