Leaving an unhealthy relationship is hard for a lot of reasons. For many of us, deciding to leave and figuring out a plan takes time and (a lot of) affirmations that we’re doing the right thing. Maybe you still love your ex, are worried you won’t find someone else, or feel unlovable and unworthy of healthier love.
Unfortunately, staying out of that relationship can be difficult, too, especially if your ex starts “hoovering,” a tactic commonly used by abusers. But being aware of what hoovering is can help you spot it.
“Hoovering is a term used to describe the abuser’s attempt to bring their former partner back into the relationship by any means necessary, essentially [to] suck or vacuum them back into the relationship,” says Taylor Williams, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks in Cherry Hill, NJ, who has provided therapeutic care to clients experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, relationship issues, and more. She says the practice is also called “honeymooning,” and can help explain (in part) why it typically takes people seven times to leave an abusive relationship for good.
Other than bringing you back into the relationship, hoovering makes the abuser feel better. “Such tactics suck up the other person’s emotional resources and supply perpetrators with an ego boost and exercise of power,” says Venetia Leonidaki, PhD,a Doctify-reviewed consultant psychologist and the founder of Spiral Psychology.
Abusers get desperate when their partner leaves (or threatens to). “This is why the time of leaving an abusive relationship is more dangerous: The abuser feels they have lost control and will do whatever they can to regain it,” Williams adds.
Signs of hoovering and how it differs from typical breakup talk
What's so insidious about hoovering is that it can look like "normal" dating reconciliation behavior (like making apologies, etc.). But Williams and Dr. Leonidaki say that these are some potential signs of hoovering to watch out for:
- Guilt-tripping (“If you leave me, I have no one.”)
- Gift-giving and grand gestures
- Blaming (“You’re not giving us a chance to fix things” or “You’re selfish for leaving; what about what I want?”)
- Frequent declarations of love or simple “I miss you” messages that quickly turn into guilt-tripping, blaming, or even threats to harm themselves
- Apologizing for past mistakes
- Appearing overly caring and attentive
- Claiming they are “forever changed”
- Making you feel sorry for them by faking an illness or need
While some of these signs are pretty clear red flags, others might seem less obviously like harmful behaviors. For example, it’s important to apologize when you hurt someone, and it’s understandable that a person may reach out with a “miss you” text at a weak moment post-breakup. So at what point is your ex hoovering versus just expressing feelings?
“Hoovering is not a partner expressing a desire to resume the relationship, a promise to ‘do better,’ or a grand apology,” Williams clarifies. “A key component of hoovering and abuse as a whole is that it is a pattern of behaviors, not just a single isolated incident or a single act of your partner voicing their unhappiness with a decision.”
She adds hoovering often entails breaking boundaries (like your ex not leaving you alone when you ask them to) and transitioning to threats, blaming, and guilting. “Hoovering is a symptom of an already unhealthy relationship where manipulation and control already exist,” she says.
How to cope with the emotional toll of hoovering while standing your ground
Those actions can be very convincing and may bring up lots of emotions for you. Wanting to go back to that person in some form is understandable.
If you do go back, or have in the past, try to not beat yourself up. “It is incredibly common and normal to experience feelings of guilt, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety if you are leaving an abusive relationship and your partner is demonstrating hoovering behavior,” Williams affirms.
Regardless, coping with the emotions hoovering can dredge up is crucial. Here are some ways to do so:
Talk to friends and family (and yourself) about why you left
You left for a reason—remember that. “Additionally, evaluating if your partner’s behavior is, in fact, reaffirming those reasons why you made the decision to leave,” Williams says. “For example, is your partner proving to you that they cannot respect your ‘no’ or your boundaries?”
Remember that hoovering is never what it seems
Even though hoovering tactics can seem sincere and make you feel good for a moment, they're manipulative—not genuine.
“Don’t treat hoovering as a promise for a sustained improvement in the perpetrator’s behavior,” Dr. Leonidaki says. “Remember that the abuser’s attempts to win you over are short-lived and part of the cycle of abuse.”
She also encourages finding self-validation elsewhere, where it’s more sustainable, honest, and healthy. Talking to loved ones and engaging in hobbies can help.
Remind yourself that you’re not responsible for your ex
It’s hard to see someone you love or used to love feeling upset, but it’s not your job to “fix” them. “Often, individuals in abusive relationships feel a sense of obligation to care for their abusive partner, and the abuser manipulates these feelings,” Williams says.
To reduce your guilt, Williams suggests reminding yourself that you’re responsible for yourself only.
Focus on your needs and well-being
You are your number one priority. “Don’t allow any feelings of guilt or pity to drive your decisions,” Dr. Leonidaki says. (Easier said than done, but you can do it!)
Then bring in the self-care. Do you need to spend time with loved ones or on your own? Are you eating and sleeping enough? Could a support group be helpful? Can you take a day off work to just relax and get things done?
Talk to a professional
Working with a therapist regularly (or even calling a hotline) can definitely help you heal. “Whenever possible, engaging in therapy with a licensed clinician and/or intimate partner violence counselor can be crucial in managing feelings that arise during a separation and safety planning as needed,” Williams says.
As far as finding a therapist goes, start with Psychology Today's database, or try exploring some of these more affordable therapy options. (There are other options for finding specifically LGBTQ-friendly or gender-affirming practitioners as well.) Remember, you are worthy of support and love.
If you are currently experiencing or have previously experienced abuse, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), texting START to 88788, or chatting with them online.
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