“If you take me back, I promise I’ll change.”
Though some couples can reconcile in a healthy way, experts warn of a common tactic used by narcissistic and abusive partners: “hoovering.” Named after avacuum, it involves sucking someone back into a toxic or emotionally abusive relationship through manipulation and lies.
“Narcissists will hoover during different stages of the relationship. It’s a type of emotional blackmail,” says Manjit Ruprai, a narcissistic abuse recovery therapist. “You’ll initially get trapped into a cycle of love-bombing, meaning they’ll be especially nice when you take them back. But once they’ve got you, they’ll start devaluing and discarding, and keeping you in this cycle of love and abuse.”
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When someone hoovers, the intention is not to build a stable romance. According to Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and author of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, hoovering is an ego-fueling attempt to reclaim power and continue a cycle of emotional abuse.
“The way the hooverer will suck their victim back in can often be quite deceptive,” Durvasula says. “They might say something like, ‘baby, if you take me back, we’re going to buy that house’; or. ‘I won’t work at the bar anymore if we get back together.’ So the coming back becomes enticing because it offers things they know the person wants.”
This strategy is often successful. That’s because those on the receiving end may form “trauma bonds,” or become attached to intermittent rewards, like gifts or flattery, after episodes of emotional abuse.
“The kindness exists for the purpose of keeping power and control,” explains Lisa Sonni, a relationship coach specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery.
“Anyone who is abused 24 hours a day would leave. But when you mix it in with hoovering, or these fleeting moments of feeling amazing, you feel more bonded. You feel like you can’t leave, and sometimes you don’t want to.”
Ruprai adds that there are also neurological factors at play that make it more difficult to leave the relationship. Research has shown that one neurochemical responsible is oxytocin, the social bonding hormone that can rise under distressing conditions.
“On one hand, you’re being love-bombe,” Ruprai says. “But on the other hand, your stress levels are saying you need to get away from this person, but that becomes difficult because you’ve become so confused with the positive reinforcement and hoovering, and unfortunately, the bonding chemicals (oxytocin) are stronger.”
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Some signs of meaningful change include taking behavioral steps like therapy, or acknowledging the hurt they’ve caused. Someone who is truly well-intentioned and remorseful will also be calm and respectful when their romantic gestures are rejected.
“A truly repentant person can admit what they’ve done,” Ruprai says. “Someone who is hoovering will victimize themselves and shift blame. A genuine apology means that they’re sorry and can list out examples of their abusive behavior and take accountability … but narcissists usually don’t have empathy, compassion or remorse.”
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For many instances, experts say it’s unlikely that narcissistic or abusive behavior can change in a short period of time.
“Narcissism is a pattern that is very rigid and unlikely to change,” Durvasula says. “If you broke up a few weeks ago, there’s almost no likelihood that significant change has happened. I don’t think any of us could do that in a few months.”
The best way to respond to hoovering is to “block, delete, and ignore” in order to prevent it from escalating to stalking, harassment or verbal threats.
“Do not engage,” Sonni advises. “Do not respond. Even if it’s telling them ‘no’ a thousand times, a narcissist will perceive that as winning, as still maintaining control because they have the ability to upset you.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Hoovering’: The manipulation tactic used by narcissistic, toxic exes