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Narcissist Hoovering: Why They Do It

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Narcissist hoovering is an important topic because it is at the centerpiece of so many other confusing things that happen in a relationship with a narcissist. These issues include the narcissist’s mean and sweet cycle, the constant period of flux where we never know if we are actually in a relationship with them or not because we are constantly breaking up and making up with them, and not understanding ourselves and why we have so much trouble going no-contact with them.

When I think about all the times he and I stopped and then started talking again, my head starts to ache. This is how I  used to get lost trying to define a break-up with narcissists and the overall absurdity of relationships with them.

I’ve now written about this idea of breaking up with them many times.  Understanding how narcissists themselves think about breaking up has been a big contributor in moving the needle forward in my recovery.  I am starting to see the larger picture of what was happening.

So on break-ups:  narcissists don’t break up with you. They are always threatening to leave at the drop of a hat because it gives them so much control.  And then they do leave, and they incite you to leave.

Yet it’s never really about breaking up and all of these periods of separation were not “breakups” in the traditional sense.  They were disengagements that allowed him to do certain things in my absence.

And always, always he came back to hoover because that was the pattern.  Leave and reappear.  Leave and reappear.  Leave and reappear.

Hoovering is just what it sounds like. Named after a brand of vacuum cleaner, it’s a tactic meant to “suck” you back into the relationship.  It happens after a period of silence during which you are not in contact with each other.

Why not a healthy relationship?  Because you have to think like a narcissist.  Healthy relationships do not benefit them in the same way that this dysfunctional pattern of emotional abuse does.


Why Silence Occurs Before Narcissist Hoovering

Instead of asking why narcissists hoover, let’s flip the question and ask what they are doing in the gaps when we are not together, before the hoovers. This helps shed light not only on why narcissists hoover, but on the breakup/makeup cycle as well.  Examining all of these things together helps shed light on how a relationship functions for a narcissist.

What do narcissists do when they are not in contact with us at a moment in time, but come back later?


1. Narcissists spend their time shoring up supplies by talking to their other exes and looking for new men or women to add to their line-up. 

They aren’t sitting around heartbroken as you are.  They may miss the love and attention you were bringing them, but they will be vigorously trying to replace it.

If you were the one to cut it off, they will likely return to old stomping grounds because they may not have anyone else new of sufficient quality lined up yet.  Narcissists don’t just hoover “the one that got away” or the one with whom they really want to try to work something out.

They hoover everyone, which is one way you can tell how insincere their hoovers are.

What I didn’t realize was that my ex-boyfriend hoovers all of his exes.  He has married girlfriends with children he hasn’t seen since high school he keeps in the rotation to hit up when he’s bored or feeling a lack of attention.  This is just something they do.

Because narcissists do not ever think of themselves as having truly broken up with any of their exes, they may check in even after a very long time to reminisce about old times and talk about about how special those times were to try to get the other person to say something back that will provide them with an ego boost.

They keep all of their old flames in the rotation to hoover because they already know the strengths and weaknesses of each one.  This makes it so much easier to say the right thing and glean some quick narcissistic supply, rather than going out and starting from scratch with someone new.

It also feeds the narcissist’s ego to keep an ongoing harem to cycle through.  In their minds, all they have to do is say the right words and they can have any one of them at their beck and call again if they so choose.

If they cut it off with you, it’s likely because they want some intensive time to work on the new girl or guy without having to spend any time on you.

Yes, think about that for a minute.  They’ve got someone else in the pipeline they’re grooming intensively.

When my ex-boyfriend was love-bombing me heavily, he blocked and deleted from Facebook both the woman to whom he was engaged who was on the periphery for the time being and the ex with whom he was cheating on me who was in a different country.  He didn’t want me to know he was still interacting with them, and this enabled him to provide me with better stories about their “lack of importance” in his life.


2. They may also be using the time apart to tell their friends (or the new person they want to be with) things about you to gain their sympathy. 

Narcissists live for sympathy.  If you only examine their behavior and ignore what they say, it is easier to understand them.  You can tell that they do lack guilt or empathy because it would be impossible to for them to do the things they do and not learn from their mistakes if they did have remorse.

However, they also know that they can’t go around and act as if they don’t care.  They must feign normality to keep up the facade, which allows them to keep getting away with what they do.  They have to come up with some explanation that will make their abnormal behavior “fit” with the normal persona they are trying to present.

How can they be let off the hook for it?


In this case, if they are cheating and lying and acting controlling and saying hurtful things and getting into overlapping relationships, well, it’s because of something outside of themselves.  In the case of the disengagement, guess who they are using to gain sympathy?

Yes, the narcissist will start to plant these seeds with the smear campaign when you aren’t around that you aren’t the person they fell in love with.  The very things they are doing to you and the very behaviors they are inciting in you with their actions, they will use to make others feel sorry for them so they can look justified in your continued abuse.


3. They’re punishing you with silence and conditioning you about how little your concerns matter by letting you sit alone with your confusion over the relationship. 

You were the love of the narcissist’s life, now their silence says you mean absolutely nothing.

You want closure?  Too bad.

They flooded you with attention and made themselves the center of your world, isolating you from everyone else, and now they’ve disappeared and left you filled with doubts about whether they ever meant anything they ever said.

They refuse to take responsibility or talk about what went wrong or even stop and they insist it’s you that’s the source of the problems, that you are the source of your own pain because you just won’t let it go.

And we haven’t even talked about how all of the emotional ups and downs have actually caused a chemical dysregulation of the dopamine and oxytocin in your brain and you’re going through withdrawals when they aren’t around.

Finally, when they come swooping back in when they’re ready, you’re weakened and vulnerable to what they have to say.  The whole thing has the effect of making you dependent, but managing down your expectations so that you’ll let them get away with more and more.

*  *  *  *  *

So why do narcissists hoover?

Because they are finished doing whatever they were doing when they were not in contact with you or it is no longer serving their needs.

Once that happens, there is no shortage of things that narcissists will try to hoover you back.


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Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.


  1. Thanks Kristen. Finding your writings on Quora, and now your blog has been a Lifesaver for me. I’m post break-up but still sick with preoccupation for this guy.
    He’s giving me silent treatment currently so I expect hoovering to begin anytime. I particularly like how you coined ‘manege down (my) expectations’. Keep up the good work. Your writing is helping many I’m sure.

    1. Thank you, for your kind words Cynthia. I am humbled and honored that my words are so helpful to you. I can’t take credit for the phrase “manage down expectations,” but I do think it’s really applicable to narcissists. The preoccupation is a normal part of the process, as you probably know. My thoughts will be with you through this period of no-contact so that your strength can build and you can begin to heal from the relationship.

  2. I absolutely love reading your posts and have told you this before in a private message. I was hoping you would be addressing the hoover issue soon as I know I would find so much value in getting your perspective as you’ve provided so well. Your words and situation resonate SO much to what I have gone through that it gives me so much strength and comfort to pull myself together and start seeing things for what they really are instead of falling into the same cycle of despair and depression that I’ve been enduring for the last couple of years since the “first” discard. What makes me feel stronger and certain as that the stories are so incredibly similar in terms of pattern and how we are left feeling that I am better able to confirm it’s not just an isolated heart wrenching situation that I’m experiencing but one of predictability and something none of us have control over no matter what kind of pretzel we try to make of ourselves. That helps me to put the focus back on me and my life and what I need to do to move forward. It is therapy that can only really be provided by someone who has had the experience and can touch people with such eloquent writing such as yourself. Thank you for that Kristen.

    1. Thank you so much, Beth. And your echoing back your own stories and feelings also does the same for me and gives me strength as well. You are so right when you say that knowing it’s not isolated experiences helps move the healing process forward. There’s something about knowing that the narcissist’s behavior is following a pattern that makes it feel like the spell can be broken. They will always be stuck there, but we will not. Thank you for reading.

  3. Thank you once again for all your articles Kristen.
    It was also important to mention this chemical dysregulation in our brain; I can really feel it and also wonder if the majority of narcs victims are still able to be efficient at work, and also with family life as they used to (or tried to be) because I am not. Do most of them have to stop working?
    I feel I have a tornado in my head and heart on a daily basis… I sometimes feel I’m becoming insane. So scared to become really crazy.
    Next week I have an appointment with a psy. Hope this will help a little… but what truly helps are articles like yours because I know I’m not mad and feel understood 100%.

    Maybe one day I have the strenght to do a similiar work as yours in french and start a blog to help other victims. (there are so little articles in french talking seriously about relationships with narcs – so happy I found yours ^^)

    1. I think we all feel it. I know I was having trouble functioning in other areas of life and I do still sometimes because of PTSD. I recommend writing even if not on a blog yet, For me it helps get thoughts out of my head so they don’t feel so overwhelming anymore. I hope your appointments help. You may also want to try connecting with others online in survivor forums if you’re not already. Thank you for reading.

  4. Dear Kristen,

    I have just found your articles in my ongoing recovery and they are beautiful and helpful. I was wondering if I could have your thoughts on something I feel. I was in a bad relationship with a narcissist for 10 months and had to leave and go no contact because the inconsistency of their words and actions was destroying my mind. When I read about how narcissists leave their victims in silence, I feel very guilty that I seem to have done the same thing to her. How do I deal with that?

    Thank you very much for your site.

    1. Hi Cliff: You are so welcome. Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading what I have written. You have a great question and it’s something I have thought about a lot. Here’s what I have come up with and see if this helps.

      Narcissists like to compare our actions with theirs because of “acts” that we take, first, because they take them out of context and leave out everything that has happened around those acts, and secondly, because they project their own behaviors onto us, which includes things like the motives around what they did. Did your partner often tell you things like what they thought you must have been thinking or what they thought you would do next because “I know you.” Mine did– I would be baffled by what he thought about why I was doing or thinking.

      So, here is what I think the difference is. There are at least three things that comprise an “act” that both us and the narcissist in the relationship may commit, and only one of them may be the same:

      1. Motive
      2. The Act Itself
      3. Effects of the Act

      So let’s say the act itself, as you mention, is going no-contact. You’re blocking, not speaking to, ignoring, cutting off all lines of communication. If your partner did this in the past, we call it a silent treatment or a discard. You’re wondering how it’s different? The narcissist tries to convince us that our acts are the same as theirs by ONLY focusing on the behaviors themselves. This is how they get us to blame ourselves and pull us into their twisted realities.

      So let’s look at motives for a moment. Narcissists engage in the acts of blocking, cutting off contact, ignoring, etc. for the following purposes: intentionally hurting us, cheating and focusing on other people, punishing us and conditioning us not to question them on their bad behaviors. Our motives for engaging in cutting off contact are to stop being hurt by them, to set boundaries, to protect ourselves. Do you see the difference? It’s a power imbalance. They try to convince us we are in an equal relationship and we are engaging in acts that are equally damaging when really we are just taking our own power back by doing what we are doing.

      And the third aspect– the effects. When they engage in the actions, our suffering is traumatic. We are often trauma bonded and/or chemically addicted and the act is one of many that can trigger PTSD symptoms. It also ASSISTS the narcissist by giving them additional power if they return by conditioning us not to speak up about anything that upsets them so they don’t ignore us again. In contrast, when we go no-contact, the effects on them are to either remove a source of narcissistic supply and to make them feel powerless over us or to have very little effect because they move on to another source of supply. They are not traumatized by it. It is more of a blow to their ego.

      What the narcissist does, however, is fool us into thinking our actions in the relationship (this is one of many) are equivalent to theirs when they are NOT and then we feel guilty merely for standing up for ourselves or reacting to abusive behavior when we feel we have been left with no other options.

      Does this help at all?


  5. I am on the other side of this. Let me preface this by saying generally I know where and when I’m not wanted, so I detach easily and move on. I never realized my tendency to hoover until I started researching my behaviour after a friend of the opposite sex and I had a falling out. I don’t think what I was doing was a deliberate act, I was acting more from a subconscious level without thinking about consequences.

    She and I spent a summer working together. Messaged all day, talked and laughed all night. For me to talk on a phone for 4-6 hours is really something special. She and I grew very close, but she had to call it quits.

    My first mistake was to write a farewell letter thanking her for everything before I left and say no need to reply and then ask for an acknowledgement of said letter.

    I didn’t want to lose her, so I’d write a brief email every now and then saying how I miss the conversations we had or just “hi”. One day she wrote me and said we have to go our separate ways. It hurt so I tried to challenge her to not walk away because I valued her friendship. She got upset and told me not to contact her again. I sat down and handwrote a letter and apologized profusely and mailed it. Some weeks later she emailed me and forgave me. I should have left it there. Nope. I thought it would be smart to try to email something smart everyday. I stopped after a couple of weeks when she never replied.

    My continual pushing would help for her to pull away. Not even business or work related emails would get replies. It got me frustrated enough where I had to call her and remind her that she should have the courtesy to respond to work emails if not the personal ones.

    In hindsight I shouldn’t have sent a card for a milestone birthday of hers or a christmas greeting with best wishes and luck for her exam coming up.

    I had to be in her area again for summer. I got the cold shoulder in person and email.
    What I realized was that even if I wanted her to be happy, maybe she didn’t want that happiness from me.

    I was always nice to her while I was there and we ended up having a fair working relationship.
    I gave her advice and helped her on her future academics within the business being a recent graduate. The day I left she sent an email thanking me and wishing me luck in future endeavours. I saw it as another goodbye. Another ill tempered email from me and another apology soon followed.
    We met again at a conference some months later. As she hadn’t bothered to respond to a christmas greeting and best wishes I kept my silence and my distance, which wasn’t meant to punish. I got her silence message – “Don’t talk to me!”. We were left as two people who would exchange glances across a room.

    I felt bad for my behaviour and reached out to apologize. No response. I just don’t communicate with her anymore. No point. I sent her aunt a letter telling her how sorry I was because we were all friendly and she knew our situation. There was no intent to try to ask her to reach out to her niece, to make amends it was just an apology from me to her.

    I wanted to contact people I know in the area where she’s schooling to keep an eye out for her if she needs anything, but eventually decided against it, as she neither wants nor needs my help. As much as I’d like to ask others there how she’s doing, I refrain from even doing that. I have to remind myself “leave her alone”. I learned my lesson the hard way and lost a friend. I read the articles on hoovering recently and saw myself in them. I am mortified about my behaviour and the stupidity of it. Not that I don’t care for her and think about her, just that it is better to continue to keep my mouth shut and stay far.

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