According to therapist Andrea Schneider, LCSW, hoovering is “the state in which a psychological abuser returns to attempt to abuse a former source of narcissistic supply.”
This hoovering could come in the form of an “innocent” text checking up on you, a missed phone call, a pleading voicemail, e-mails, an “accidental” run-in at places you frequent or even via third party contact. It can even be orchestrated by provocation: sneakier narcissists can hoover indirectly by posting lies about you, anticipating that you’ll respond defensively or by manufacturing scenarios in which you’re likely to come into contact.
Rest assured, hoovering is a power play, not an indication that the narcissist actually values you. As one narcissism expert puts it:
“Narcissists hate to fail or lose, so they will do what they can to maintain some connection if they didn’t make the choice to end it…They can experience narcissistic injury when rejected by a partner and have difficulties letting it go or healing from it… they may stay connected [to exes in order to] have access to valuable resources. They also have inside information about their exes’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses that they can exploit and manipulate which gives them a sense of power and control.” – Dr. Tony Ferretti, Narcissists and Psychopaths Love to Stay Friends With Their Exes
Unfortunately, hoovering can be incredibly nefarious and insidious in its impact. Many survivors of narcissistic abuse can be left reeling as they are thrown back into self-doubt and the temptation to reengage in the cycle with their narcissistic partners.
This is due to what Dr. Patrick Carnes calls “trauma bonding,” the intense bonds we formed with our toxic partner in an attempt to survive our abusive experiences. Hoovering has the ability to trigger the trauma bond and unhealed wounds, bringing them to the surface and compelling us to go back to the source of the trauma as a form of comfort or survival.
Our Addiction to The Narcissist and Hoovering
Unhealthy relationships cause stronger trauma bonds. Research indicates that rejection by a romantic partner can create an unwavering biochemical attachment, affecting brain activity that is associated with addiction cravings, rewards and motivation; in fact, adversity-ridden relationships can also cause similar activity in the brain as cocaine (Fisher et. al, 2010; Earp et. al, 2017). When you feel drawn “towards” a toxic partner once more, it’s because your body has become addicted to the highs and lows you received from the relationship on a biochemical level through chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, cortisol and serotonin (Carnell 2012; Fisher, 2016).
If you’re being hoovered, it’s important to anchor yourself back into the reality of the abuse. Work with a professional to ground yourself into the truth of the abuse that occurred and to bring the character of your narcissistic partner into full clarity.