“Hoovering is a tactic used by individuals with narcissist, borderline, antisocial, or histrionic personality disorder. It is generally abusive in nature and done in order to lure the attention of their victim. If an unsuspecting individual cannot see the partner’s motives, they may be taken in by their words or promises,” couples therapist Antonia Di Leo, LMFT, tells mbg.
When a relationship with a narcissist ends, it can bring uncomfortable feelings to the surface that the narcissistic partner may not have the emotional bandwidth to handle. To shortcut the discomfort, narcissists instinctively react by reaching out, aka hoovering, to their former partner—who often possesses empathy and high sensitivity—because they don’t want to feel the pain and would rather target it on something else. Know they may care about you as a person, but they care more about what you can offer them to fill their emptiness, because they can’t give it to themselves.
Does that mean that every time an ex gets back in touch with you it’s hoovering? Not necessarily. There’s a key distinction between contacting an ex to re-establish healthy lines of communication and reaching out to someone with a lopsided agenda that benefits them only. The latter clearly centers one person over the other which doesn’t equal to a fair flow of genuine reciprocity.
Moran notes that hoovering exists on a spectrum of intentional to unintentional behaviors. However, “this is a common characteristic of people who exhibit narcissistic traits and is employed from a conscious or unconscious effort to obtain and maintain control over another person or persons,” they say.