By Dana Morningstar
A manipulative technique named after the Hoover vacuum, where the narcissist attempts to reopen communication with their target with the intention of either fully sucking them back into the relationship or sucking them back into their “supply pipeline” by keeping communication open, so the narcissist could re-enter their life down the road in order to use, abuse, or exploit them.
Hoovering consists of any attempt to reopen communication with the target, no matter how small and seemingly innocent. Hoovering is often done in the form of text messages, phone calls, liking comments or pictures on social media, emails, contact through mutual friends, family, children, neighbors, coworkers, or “accidentally” bumping into the target. Multiple forms of manipulative messages can be used, from seemingly kind, considerate, or harmless attempts at communication where they might claim to just want to say, “Hi,” “Happy Birthday,” or “I love you” to more aggressive or provoking messages such as claiming that they have cancer or some severe illness, or even making suicide threats in order to get the target to respond.
When most people get a seemingly innocent and friendly hoover, they are usually caught off guard…and knocked off balance. This is usually due to two main reasons. First, the narcissist seems friendly and nonchalant, as though the narcissist doesn’t realize that they aren’t on good terms. Second, if the message seems innocent and friendly, this can cause confusion, and the target has trouble with deciding how to respond. Or, if the message is telling the target that they ruined the abuser’s life or that the abuser will forgive the target for their mistreatment of them, the target may find themselves so upset that they fire back a message trying to set the record straight. They might feel incredibly angry that the narcissist is contacting them, or emotionally wounded because they are still trying to heal from the relationship. They may also feel guilty, rude, or over-reacting by ignoring the message, so they cave in and respond, thinking that responding once can’t do any harm. And that’s exactly how these hoovers are designed to make a target feel. After all, most people would feel panicked and saddened if someone texted them saying they were suicidal or had cancer. However, most of the time, when a narcissist says these things, they are nothing more than another lie in their long string of lies. You do not need to respond. Remember, they are abusive, they are not your friend, and they are trying to manipulate you. You don’t owe them anything. If they truly do need help or someone to talk to, they need to turn to someone else—and the reality is that they would…if they really needed help. If you are getting messages from them claiming to be suicidal, you don’t need to respond—you can call 911 (or whatever the number to emergency services is in your area) and have them respond. Frankly, this is the best way to handle suicidal messages for three reasons. First, because emergency responders are trained to handle suicidal people; second, because if they aren’t serious about being suicidal, they will quickly learn that you won’t be manipulated by messages like this; and third, because the narcissist may also be homicidal, and may have plans on taking you out, or taking you out with them if they really are suicidal as well.
Any response to a hoover reopens communication, which will inevitably start the cycle of abuse again. Hoovers often lead back to the “idealize” stage of a narcissistically abusive relationship, where the target finds themselves believing that perhaps this time the manipulator really has changed, or that things weren’t that bad, or that their issues really can be solved.
Some examples of a hoover:
“Hey there, Happy Birthday. Thinking of you.”
“I can’t take this anymore. You mean the world to me. I’m going to kill myself if you don’t answer this text.”
“My mother was just diagnosed with cancer, and I really need to talk to you.”
“I just realized that I left some stuff at the house. Can I come by and get it?”
“You ruined my life. All I ever wanted was to be with you. I hope seeing me suffer makes you happy.”
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out. You are really such an amazing person, and I’m tired of hurting you. You deserve better.”
“I know you may not ever want to talk to me again, but I really need your help.”
“I can’t feel my left arm. Is this what a heart attack feels like?”
“I miss you.”
“My new girlfriend (or boyfriend) is allergic to pets. Can you take the cat?”
“I’m sorry. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’ll do whatever it takes to earn your trust. Can we go to therapy?”
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”