We’ve all done it before: Looked at an unhealthy relationship from the outside and wondered how it’s continued as long as it has, and why person X keeps going back, after everything person Y’s done to them.
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It’s easy to pass judgement if you’ve never experienced hoovering firsthand. And easier still if you’re unfamiliar with the concept.
Named for the vacuum brand, hoovering is all about sucking a person back into a destructive relationship. But don’t let the cutesy name fool you: Hoovering is a toxic behavior that can have serious consequences.
We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about hoovering: What it is, how to spot it and how to break free.
Hoovering isn’t a diagnosis or a recognized psychological occurrence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. “It’s not a clinical term, but hoovering is a really familiar dynamic,” Dr. Albers says. “It accurately describes a relationship phenomenon that happens every day.”
Hoovering, sometimes called “narcissistic hoovering,” is a manipulative tactic used to lure or suck a person back into a relationship they’re withdrawing or stepping away from. It’s a way of reasserting power and control and perpetuating a cycle of abuse. The person doing the hoovering gets satisfaction from knowing they have the power to make a person come back. If the cycle of abuse continues, hoovering can escalate to threats, stalking and even violence.
Dr. Albers explains that hoovering usually starts with flattery, love bombing, promises to change or doing something the other party has wanted for a long time. That could look like apologizing for past wrongs, making a new commitment or “changing” a behavior that’s been a source of conflict.
“It can be a roller coaster for the person being hoovered,” Dr. Albers notes, “because you go from being very disappointed to getting everything you want. That promise is exciting. And then, it quickly goes away. It can be confusing and leave you feeling manipulated, vulnerable and frustrated — maybe even angry.”
At first glance, hoovering and breadcrumbing look pretty similar. And in some ways, they are. But according to Dr. Albers, the differences in the relationship dynamic are important.
Breadcrumbing is best described as stringing someone along, while hoovering happens in established relationships (romantic or otherwise). Breadcrumbing can be intentional, but often isn’t. Hoovering is a deliberate act of manipulation. Breadcrumbing also doesn’t escalate like hoovering can. It’s frustrating and upsetting, but breadcrumbing isn’t dangerous — hoovering often is.
Dr. Albers says that hoovering is often associated with the following personality disorders:
Of course, a diagnosis isn’t a destiny: Plenty of people with personality disorders don’t engage in hoovering. And there are plenty of people who engage in hoovering behavior who aren’t diagnosed with a personality disorder or any other kind of mental health issue.
“It can also be a sign of a person’s attachment style,” Dr. Albers adds. “People who hoover may become anxious when someone pulls away.”
Anybody can find themselves in a toxic situation given the right set of circumstances, but there are some people who are more likely to respond to hoovering than others.
“It tends to be people who are warmer and more empathetic that are most vulnerable to hoovering,” Dr. Albers notes. “Having an anxious attachment style, a history of trauma or low self-esteem can also play a role because hoovering doesn’t tend to work on people with a strong sense of self-esteem and empowerment.”
What hoovering looks like can change based one where in the cycle of abuse a relationship is, but Dr. Albers recommends looking out for all of the following behaviors:
Part of what makes hoovering so insidious is that it’s often disguised as a sign of respect or commitment. “There’s often a lot of apologizing for past behavior, seemingly owning things that the individual did in the past,” Dr. Albers explains.
The “seemingly” is important. If you listen carefully, you’ll probably notice that the apology shifts blame for the conflict onto you. For example, “I’m sorry if you felt disrespected” and “I’m sorry I disrespected you” are two very different statements.
That apology is usually followed by a big promise — one that’s designed to appease the specific person being hoovered.
The big promises are often just one part of a larger campaign to suck an individual back into a destructive relationship. Love bombing is a common feature of hoovering. You love bomb a person by:
If a person is hoovering you, they’re going to try to force random interactions.
Maybe they texted you “by mistake,” but would love to reconnect now that you’re talking. Maybe they were listening to a song on the radio and it made them think of you. Maybe they send you a card or gift on the holidays or call to wish you a happy birthday.
They’ll do whatever they can to regain a foothold.
If the person hoovering you isn’t able to reestablish direct communication, they’ll try to do it indirectly. They may reach out to your family or friends, telling them that they miss you, that they care about you, they’re sorry or something to that effect.
A person who’s hoovering you is likely to gaslight you in the process. Gaslighting is a form of subtle manipulation designed to make you question your understanding of reality. They may try to cast their past behavior in a positive light or convince you that you somehow deserved poor treatment.
One of the biggest red flags to look out for when it comes to hoovering is crises coming up all of a sudden. The crisis may be real or it may be made up. What matters is how the person uses the crisis to manipulate you. The goal is to make you worry — and to create a situation in which continuing to stay away feels cruel.
Here are a few examples of situations (real or imagined), that people engaged in hoovering may use to exploit you:
Why are manufactured crises such a common feature of hoovering? “The person doing the hoovering knows that the crisis will bring you right back in because that’s a hard thing to not respond to,” Dr. Albers explains.
If you believe the person in question may actually harm themselves or others, contact authorities immediately. If you’re unsure how to respond, consider calling 988, the suicide prevention hotline.
If the approaches above aren’t working, a person who hoovers may escalate in extreme and dangerous ways. They may start a smear campaign against you, accuse you of things you didn’t do, threaten you or your loved ones, stalk you, vandalize your property or even cause you or your loved ones bodily harm. In the most severe cases, hoovering can have a tragic outcome.
One of the reasons Dr. Albers likes the term “hoovering” is that, while it isn’t a clinical term, it can help people understand what might overwise be a confusing pattern of behavior.
“Knowing that it’s happening and putting a label on it can be very helpful,” she says.
But knowing is only half the battle. How do you go about dealing with a hoovering situation without compromising your health and safety? Dr. Albers offers the following suggestions:
If you’ve concluded that somebody is hoovering you, the first step you take to address the situation may be the hardest: You need to cease all communication. Block them on social media. Block their cell phone. If they have a key to your home, get the locks changed.
“You have to cut off all communication,” Dr. Albers emphasizes, “because even a little bit can pull you right back into the relationship.”
Big statements, accusations or gestures are common in hoovering scenarios because they tend to get big reactions from the target. Dr. Albers says that, hard as it may be, it’s important not to respond emotionally to apologies, declarations of love, promises they’ll change, attempts to start an argument or insults.
The person doing the hoovering is trying to provoke you. Big responses send the signal (rightly or wrongly) that you’re still emotionally invested in the relationship. Staying detached sends the signal that the person doing the hoovering no longer has power over you.
If you recognize that you’re dealing with a hoovering situation, Dr. Albers recommends letting your friends and loved ones know. Especially if you’ve gone no-contact, it’s possible the person doing the hoovering will try to manipulate other people to get to you.
“Warn friends and family that this individual may try to contact them as a way to reconnect,” Dr. Albers advises. If the person hoovering you successfully establishes contact, it’s important that your loved ones should adopt the same neutral response to their provocations.
Are you unsure whether you’re in an abusive or unhealthy relationship? Do you still have feelings for a person that’s harming you? Are you not sure what to do? Have you had multiple relationships that involved hoovering?
If your answer to any of those questions is “yes,” Dr. Albers suggests meeting with a counselor. They can help you identify and respond to hoovering behavior. A good therapist can also help you un-learn these destructive patterns, heal from the abuse and seek out healthy relationships.
“If you’ve tried to cut someone off and are unable to do so, legal action may need to be taken,” Dr. Albers says.
If you’re being stalked or threatened, keeping meticulous records and saving relevant evidence is important. Depending on the country you live in, you may be able to file for a restraining order, or even have the individual charged with stalking or harassment.
If you’ve been assaulted or are in imminent danger, call the authorities immediately.
Hoovering is a deliberately manipulative behavior designed to pull a person back into a cycle of abuse. It can take a variety of forms, from apologies, promises and love bombing to stalking, threats of suicide and even violence.
If somebody is trying to coerce you into returning to a toxic relationship, it’s important to cut off all contact with them. Seek help from your friends, family, a therapist and — if things continue to escalate — the authorities.