I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
There are three main phases or stages in a relationship with a narcissistic person. These stages usually rotate in a cycle, though this cycle can repeat itself in different variations and can last for varying lengths of time, depending on the specific situation. Any of the phases could be as short as a few hours or stretch on for years. These stages are:
Idealization Occurs When the Narcissist First Meets Someone
The idealization phase often happens when the narcissistic person first meets somebody. If the narcissist is a parent, this can happen when the child is first born or until they reach an age where they begin to challenge or resist the narcissist. It is characterized by love-bombing, idealizing both the relationship and the other person, and putting the love object—you—on a pedestal. The person they see in this phase is the person many victims believe is the "real self" of the narcissist, and it is the phase most people spend their time trying to get back to. This is also, of course, the person the narcissist would like the victim to believe they really are, and so it is not difficult to get the victim to agree to give them another chance. This is very important to the hoovering process.
Devaluation Is When They Realize That the Victim Is Not Perfect
The devaluation stage happens when the narcissist has realized that the victim is not perfect. More importantly, they realize the victim does not see them as perfect, either. The narcissistic person's idealistic fantasy of the relationship, they themselves and their partner have been punctured by the victim's unexpected mediocrity or unforgivable human flaws and keen perception. You were supposed to believe they are perfect. They are devastated that the victim no longer sees them as flawless, and to the narcissist, imperfection is intolerable. If you are not perfect, you are not worthy of anything. The narcissistic person often feels betrayed, hurt and embarrassed by this; they are afraid they will be rejected and they take it out on the victim, endeavoring to reject their partner before they themselves can be rejected.
In a very real sense, narcissists feel there has been an injustice done to them. You were supposed to believe that they hung the moon, that they were always right, always strong, always correct. Now, look. Here you are pointing out their mistakes. Accentuating their flaws. Exposing their weaknesses. Probably laughing at them and thinking how much better you are. How can you do that to someone you love? The conclusion is that you wouldn't, therefore you don't love them. If you loved them, you would play along. Since you are not doing that, it's obvious that you don't really care. And you will be punished for that - whether you are actually doing it or not.
Discard Is When the Narcissist Drops the Victim
The discard phase or stage of the relationship happens when the narcissist has either damaged the relationship to the point that they can no longer get anything useful out of it or when they have been exposed so blatantly that they can no longer continue. For example, a narcissist that has exhausted the victim to the point that they are completely drained may simply drop the victim and move on to someone else. Or the victim may regard the narcissist with such overt hostility because they have been abused so long that there is no real interaction anymore, even though the relationship is not technically over. In these situations, the narcissist cannot get what they need from the relationship and will look elsewhere. This often results in discarding the victim. Narcissists cannot maintain the false image they need to believe in when they are around people who know who they really are. Many times, they will just leave the situation altogether.
Hoovering Occurs After Separation
Hoovering occurs when a separation has taken place, either because the narcissistic person has discarded the victim or the victim is trying to end the relationship. It is a return to the love-bombing phase of the relationship for the purpose of regaining control of the situation. Pathologically narcissistic people attempt to hoover a victim back in when they are feeling vulnerable and needy for some reason. For example, if a new relationship did not work out and they now feel rejected. Or if their partner ended the relationship and they are not ready to move on because they do not have anyone or anything new to cling on to. It's called 'hoovering' because of the Hoover vacuum cleaner. That is what they are trying to do, essentially: suck the victim back into the situation. There may be apologies, tears, threats of suicide or self-harm, epiphanies and come-to-Jesus moments where they claim they've seen the light and now understand what the problem is, promises to change, declarations of undying love or any other manner of behavior designed to convince the victim into doing what the narcissist wants.
Many times, the things the narcissist says or does are the things the victim has been waiting for. They may admit fault, take responsibility, start going to counseling or therapy, get on medication, stop having inappropriate interactions with the opposite sex or whatever it is that the victim wanted them to do. It can seem like a miracle. Suddenly, this person realizes everything that you've been trying to tell them for months. Years, even. They finally get it. Things can finally change.
To a Narcissistic Person, Feelings Are Facts
Most people believe that the narcissist's motives are insincere when hoovering, that they are just saying what they need to say to get what they want. That's very possible. It's also possible they really do mean it at the time. To a pathologically narcissistic person, feelings are facts. Therefore, the truth and the facts are dictated solely by how they are feeling at that exact moment. If their feelings change - and they will - the truth is going to change. The facts are going to change. This is why you are a good person when they are happy and a bad person when they are upset.
The real truth is, it doesn't matter whether they mean it at the time or not because either way, it won't last. Regardless of the reason, as soon as they are not feeling vulnerable and scared anymore, they will go right back to how they always behaved because this is how they operate. It is their coping strategy, their mode of operation and unless they are dedicated to learning entirely new ways to get their needs met, it's not going to change.
No Contact Can Help You Resist a Hoover
Resisting a hoover is very difficult. It's one of the reasons relationships with pathologically narcissistic people are so hard to walk away from. Suddenly, your mom is the mother you always wished for, or your partner is the spouse you always dreamed of. It may even last for a period of time, which makes it even easier to believe and even more crushing when the inevitable let down comes. There is no easy trick or life hack to resist hoovering. It takes willpower and an absolute dedication to the truth. If you let the narcissistic person talk you out of what you know to be the truth because you want to believe them more than you want to believe the facts, you're likely in for a disappointment. You have to be strong enough to resist the desire to believe if the facts up until this point have shown you that it's not likely to be true. It's up to you to address your own fantasies about the situation. The narcissistic person is only going to use them against you, either consciously or because this is all they know how to do.
This is one of the reasons NO CONTACT is usually recommended. It is usually not realistic to expect that a pathologically narcissistic person will respect your boundaries, stop trying to manipulate you and leave you alone. It would be nice, and it would be fair but it would not be very likely. It's up to you to control your level of contact with this person and your reaction to them. If you are being hoovered, it can be very easy to slip back into fantasy mode and the promises of "One day, I will, we will, I won't, I'll stop, I'll try, I'll go, I could..." It's easy to believe in those promises and those hopes for a not-too-distant future. But just remember something: Where you are right now at this very minute is the future. You are standing in the future that you were hoping for six months ago, a year ago, 10 years ago. Does it look like you thought it would?
If not, what makes you think it ever will?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.