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Narcissism

Who’s Most Likely to Hoover Their Partner?

New research on vulnerable narcissism in relationships.

Key points

  • "Hoovering" in a relationship means that a partner manipulates the other to stay when it would be healthier for them to leave.
  • New research on aggression and narcissism suggests that vulnerable narcissists will be more likely to react angrily when provoked.
  • Although hoovering hasn't been subjected to empirical study, these new findings could help someone avoid being one of its victims.
Just Life/Shutterstock
Source: Just Life/Shutterstock

If you’re familiar with the term “hoovering,” you are probably also aware that this is a tendency associated with narcissism. Specifically, the person who commits this behavior is someone whose rage, should their partner try to leave, leads them to use extreme manipulative and even deceptive tactics in order to convince their partner to stay.

If you've encountered hoovering in your own relationship, you know that this fury at your threat to extricate yourself often translates into attempts to guilt-trip you back into the relationship while preying on your emotional vulnerabilities. If your partner succeeded in winning you back, you also know that it’s only a matter of time before they revert back to the behaviors that made you want to leave in the first place.

The reason this manipulative behavior is labeled “hoovering,” or the “hoover maneuver” is that the individual acts like a vacuum cleaner, trying to suck you back into their sphere of influence over you while also draining your own emotional reserves and energy. Popular writing on hoovering suggests that it’s a tendency closely associated with high levels of narcissism, proposing that people who engage in it enjoy manipulating their partners while also feeding their needs for admiration and loyalty.

Despite popular interest in the topic of hoovering, there is little scientific evidence available for understanding the phenomenon. To gain greater insight, therefore, it may be necessary to turn to related work in the area of personality and aggression. Because hoovering is ultimately a hostile form of relationship behavior, it may be thought of as part of a pattern of general aggressive tendencies in the perpetrator.

Narcissism and the Need to Control

A new study by Deakin University’s Colby Bryce and colleagues (2021) comes the closest of recent work in the area of relationships and personality to the concept of hoovering. As the authors note based on earlier research, “Narcissists have been traditionally characterised as having volatile self-esteem that alternates between feelings of superiority and inferiority, and a sensitivity to criticisms or slights that might trigger such changes” (p. 2). When this happens, and they’ve been “set off,” in the words of the authors, they are likely to react with outward aggression, particularly if they’re high in the form of narcissism known as “vulnerable."

It might surprise you to learn that it’s this vulnerable, insecure, narcissist who becomes most enraged after a perceived put-down or sign that their partner is thinking of leaving. Wouldn’t the grandiose narcissist, whose sense of self-importance demands complete and utter loyalty, be most likely to fire back at someone who tries to break away? As the Australian authors point out, though, previous research shows that it’s the weak self-esteem and “ego sensitivity” that leads the vulnerable narcissist to engage in violence or verbal abuse when their partners seek to get away.

In previous research, though, there are complications that don’t necessarily fit into this straightforward interpretation. These prior studies vary in the nature of the samples (clinical or non-clinical), but also, importantly, in control for other compounding factors. Bryce et al. believe it’s necessary to take into account the “disinhibitory” effect of alcohol use as one such control. Moreover, prior studies haven’t examined the effect of age and gender on the relationships among narcissism, alcohol use, and aggression.

Testing the Narcissism-Aggression Relationship

Using an adult community sample of 1883 adults surveyed over a 2-year period (average age 33 years old, 67 percent females), Bryce and his fellow researchers administered previously-established measures to test whether they could predict aggressive behaviors from both narcissism and alcohol use. Age and gender were also factored into the prediction equation.

The 12-item aggression questionnaire used in the study (Diamond & Magaletta, 2006) tapped into four underlying “phenotypes,” or categories: physical, verbal, anger, and hostile. Examples of each are as follows:

  • Physical: Given enough provocation, I may hit another person.
  • Verbal: I can’t help getting into arguments when people don’t agree with me.
  • Hostile: At times I feel that I’ve gotten a raw deal out of life.
  • Anger: I sometimes feel like a powder keg ready to explode.

To measure narcissism, Bryce et al. used a short form of a standard questionnaire with items such as “I can usually talk my way out of anything,” and “I find it easy to manipulate people.”

Although the method used by the Australian authors was correlational, the sample size was large enough to permit them to “draw arrows” in a statistical pathway leading from narcissism to aggression. The findings showed that, controlling for age and gender, those high in grandiose narcissism were also high in physical aggression, all other factors being equal, suggesting that when a relationship partner provokes them, they would be more likely to engage in outright punitive acts. These are clearly undesirable behaviors, but not necessarily ones that would fall into the category of hoovering.

For participants high in vulnerable narcissism, however, the findings paint a different picture. These individuals were also likely to be higher in the hostility and anger components of aggression, suggesting an underlying layer of fury to their personalities that is always ready to spew forth venom. As the authors conclude, these reactions are tied to neuroticism and hypersensitivity in the vulnerable narcissist. Neuroticism is associated with “increased feelings of fear, anger, and frustration.” Hypersensitivity leads the vulnerable narcissist to respond to criticism with “a greater susceptibility to emotional reaction and outbursts of anger” (p. 6). Alcohol use had no influence on the relationship between narcissism and aggression.

The vulnerable narcissist, then, seems to be the one to be wary of in order to prevent being “hoovered.” This is the person who will not exhibit as much outward aggression, and, as a result, you may be more easily brought back into their sphere when you’re tempted to leave. In the words of the authors, the “subtle phenotype” of the “vulnerable narcissist represents a greater threat [than the grandiose] in terms of aggression” (p. 6).

How to Avoid Being Hoovered

Because it’s the vulnerable narcissist who appears to harbor more aggressive tendencies that may not be outwardly expressed, you could be more easily “guilt-tripped” into staying when you should leave. This individual’s neediness will make it hard for you to walk away completely, particularly when it seems that they’ll fall apart if you do.

If you need to bolster your resolve to leave such a partner, observe how your partner responds to other real or imagined snubs or rejections. How much are they ready to explode when someone turns away from them? Are even innocent situations, such as someone failing to respond to an email, enough to infuriate and enrage your partner? When this happens, how much pressure do they place on the "offending" party in order to get the answers they demand? Do you really want to be subjected to similar treatment for your whole life?

To sum up, empirical studies of actual hoovering behavior may not be available at present. However, using the results of the Australian study can help you predict, and resist, the vulnerable narcissists in your life who don’t seem to want to let you go.

Facebook image: Just Life/Shutterstock

References

Bryce, C. J. C., Skvarc, D. R., King, R. M., & Hyder, S. (2021). Don’t set me off—grandiose and vulnerable dimensions of narcissism are associated with different forms of aggression: A multivariate regression analysis. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. https://doi-org/https://doi-org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1007/s12144-0…

Diamond, P. M., & Magaletta, P. R. (2006). The Short-Form Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ-SF): A validation study with federal offenders. Assessment, 13(3), 227–240. https://doi-org./10.1177/1073191106287666

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