Don’t let your narcissist ex suck you back in
It was not until after I left my narcissist ex-husband that I became aware of one of the most dangerous parts of the abuse cycle. Looking back to when I was married to my ex-husband, I remember that each time I stood up to him or disagreed with him, he would follow a predictable cycle: he would berate me, withhold affection, gaslight and confuse me, and then sweetly win me back over.
I had no idea the last part—the sweet part—had a name.
After I ended the relationship, I found a trove of definitions that helped me make sense of what I had experienced. And in the narcissist dictionary, I found the word hoovering.
I’d never heard the word before, let alone been warned of its danger. To put it simply, hoovering is when the abuser attempts to suck you back in. Appropriately named after the Hoover vacuum cleaner brand, hoovering abusers do whatever they can to trick, cajole, demand, or guilt us into going back to them.
Abuse—whether physical or emotional—shows up in many different ways, and hoovering is no different. Below are some forms of hoovering.
Excessive gift giving or flattery
One typical way abusers try to reel you back in is with proclamations of love or excessive gift giving. After a fight, flowers and chocolates might show up on your doorstep, or you might find a love letter in your mailbox. The abuser might use this opportunity to purchase jewelry for you or something you’ve been wanting for the household. (Once, after one abuse cycle, my ex bought me a piece of furniture I’d been coveting.)
It’s important to remember that the gifts aren’t actually for you; they’re actually for the abuser. They’re simply tools disguised as gifts, and they’re entirely meant to manipulate you—and we would all be wise to remember that, even if the gifts and the love letters feel good. The abuser is counting on the fact that you’ll be grateful to be released from the bad-feeling part of the abuse cycle, that you will want desperately to believe that the dynamic has changed and be sucked back into the relationship.
Ignoring requests to end the relationship or suspend communications
If you try to break off a relationship but the other person refuses to acknowledge it, that is another form of hoovering and abuse. Recently, a man made newspaper headlines after vowing to play the piano until his ex of four months took him back. In some ways, it’s easy to understand why people would think actions such as this are romantic. Just about every Disney movie ever made shows the pining man going to great lengths to get the girl back—and she always comes back.
But this Disney-like portrayal of relationships and consent is completely off base; in fact, such actions are abusive and creepy, and show blatant disregard for the partner’s decisions. So yes, vowing to play the piano (or stand outside a window or recite Shakespeare or go on a juice fast) until your ex decides to not break up with you counts as hoovering.
Threatening suicide or self-harm
I’ve known many women who have tried to break off a relationship, only to have their partner threaten self-harm or suicide if the relationship ends. Situations such as this are volatile, with potentially huge consequences. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has good advice for this highly emotional and dangerous situation, and reminds us that when a partner threatens self-harm, he or she is not demonstrating love for you but a desire to control your actions. It is not fair, and you don’t have to stay. If you are concerned about someone’s well-being, call the police or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Sometimes abusers will use crocodile tears (aka, fake tears) and false promises of change to manipulate you into coming back. But remember that the true measure of change is in one’s behavior, not words. In abusive relationships, the abuser makes promises to change to keep his or her partner tethered to the relationship, and rarely do the promises result in actual change. Don’t be fooled into going back to a relationship wherein your ex/partner is not interested in doing the real work necessary for a healthy relationship.
Random excuses for contact
Sometimes it takes distance to gain perspective, and that was never truer than when I was attempting to extricate myself from the grips of a narcissist. One thing I didn’t realize was that my ex’s random excuses for contact with me were actually tools he was using to lure me back into the relationship. Implicit in this is the fact that my ex did not respect my decision to end our marriage or the boundaries I set postseparation. He would contact me with unnecessary questions or for information that could be answered via Google. Thus, the random requests for air-filter sizes or friends’ email addresses or the phone number for the insurance company may not be as benign as you might think—sometimes they’re hooklines manufactured to pull us back in. So beware the random and seemingly ridiculous excuses for contact.
Healthy human beings don’t manipulate or con their partners, which is why I believe strongly that signs of abuse, including hoovering, should be required teaching in all sex-education or relationship classes. Imagine if teenagers and adults were given the tools and definitions to spot abusive behavior before being harmed by it. Understanding hoovering—what it is and what it’s designed to do—helps us avoid being trampled and then lured back in, only to be trampled again by an abusive partner. Indeed, if you see signs of hoovering in your partner, it’s a giant red flag telling you to run—for good.
Have you experienced hoovering? Do you have any more words of wisdom?
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.