Hoovering or Genuine Change? 7 Ways to Test it Out After an Abusive Relationship with a Narcissist

Feb 26, 2024

The end of a relationship with a narcissist is rarely ever clean. Sooner or later, the narcissist may try to re-enter your life, and present themselves as a transformed person. They may look different, sound different, and act differently. It may seem like they embody the qualities you have been praying for. They are patient, attentive, and showering you with gifts. Yet, the memory of past empty promises still lingers. Are they hoovering (trying to suck you back into the relationship), or have they really changed?

The pervasiveness of manipulation throughout your previous relationship makes it hard to discern whether their claims to have changed are real, or yet another attempt to hoover you back into the relationship. You want to believe that God has healed them, that the narcissist has come to their senses and changed their ways. Maybe they did learn from the end of the relationship. You don’t want to discredit God’s power to change people, and yet you aren’t sure if you can trust the narcissist.

In this blog, I’m going to share with you seven ways that you can test it out to see whether the narcissist has truly changed.

How Narcissists Reinvent Themselves without Deep Change

First of all, it is genuinely difficult to discern whether or not a narcissist has changed. This is because narcissists are master actors and can fake change very well: 

Repentance and apologies can be present during hoovering and also when there is genuine change; the appearance of being a new person can also be present both in hoovering and genuine change; also, sorrow, grief, tears can also be present during hoovering and genuine change. In other words, hoovering and genuine change can look almost the same.

How are narcissists able to fake change so well?

Narcissists can reinvent themselves overnight because they don’t have a core sense of self. This lack of a secure self means they can shift and change according to their environment–like chameleons. Their changes can be so radical, it can be unnerving. They can mirror people like no one’s business. They can abandon an old persona and put on a new one at the drop of a hat. Narcissists are extremely double-minded, with unstable personalities. 

In addition to the lack of a core sense of self, narcissists can disassociate very effectively. This makes it possible for them to exist with all kinds of internal contradictions. They can disassociate from an old self that experienced rejection or abandonment, or that committed serious sins such as adultery or abuse. Instead of owning up to what they have done, they discard that version of themselves and reinvent themselves into a different person. This way they put as much distance as possible between themselves and their sin, avoiding the deep inner work they need.

The combination of these characteristics means that you don’t know what you are going to get at any given time. A narcissist’s ability to reinvent themselves, and to convince themselves of their own transformation is their strategy to convince you that they have changed. The problem is that they still are the same person. They still haven’t dealt with their habitual sin and the wrongs they committed. This isn’t a change, it is a pathological form of denial.

Reinvention as Hoovering

When a crisis hits, such as a break-up or abandonment, the narcissist may reinvent themselves with a new persona to win you over. They can factor into this new persona all the desires you have expressed to them and wanted them to do in the past. Because the narcissist believes in their new persona, it seems very real. They see themselves as a changed and repentant person who is nothing like their old self.

The unsettling part is that the narcissist can carry out this facade of change, complete with love bombing and exhibits of good behavior for months, even years, without having done the deep work on the inside. They can keep this up until they attain their goal of winning you back.

That being said, it takes effort to keep up the act. All that hoovering and love-bombing isn’t sustainable. These tactics require showing love, care, and attention, which is a monumental effort for a narcissist as it goes against their nature. A deeply narcissistic individual may eventually harbor rage and resentment, feeling you forced them to expend excessive energy on winning you back instead of more worthwhile pursuits. Believing this, they might punish you upon reconciliation. Hence, it's crucial not to hastily return to a toxic relationship until you have thoroughly examined the fruit of the person. The examination of a narcissist’s fruit may take some extra work and some sharper discernment, but with God’s help, it is possible.

Why Real Change Is Rare

There is no known cure for narcissistic personality disorder, and while narcissists can learn to manage their condition, this kind of change is statistically next to impossible. I share this not to discourage you but because we have to be sober-minded about the severity and deep-seatedness of the issue you are dealing with. This isn’t a quick-fix kind of problem—it needs authentic sustainable change over the long haul. 

Jesus made a comment in Matthew 19:24 about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, as difficult as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. In this comment, Jesus is emphasizing how difficult it is for people to turn away from things that they have committed themselves to by habit. It’s impossible unless God intervenes supernaturally. In the same way that a rich man entering the kingdom is like a camel going through the eye of a needle, a narcissist is like a hippopotamus going through the eye of a needle. They need God’s intervention.  

Narcissists often get many benefits from their self-centered behavior and abuse. These benefits are like the luxuries of wealth to the rich man. They remove incentives for change and at best slow them down. When Jesus went about healing the sick, he recognized this dynamic. In John 5 Jesus asked a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years, “Do you want to get well?” Jesus was asking if this man was ready to give up the life he had settled into as a paralytic. There are benefits to being sick, staying sick, being dysfunctional, unhealthy, or toxic, and not pursuing healing. Some people find that the benefits they get through sickness, toxicity, or dysfunctionality outweigh the benefits of changing to live a better life. Many narcissists fall into this trap. Their narcissism works for them. 

Lundy Bancroft, who is an expert in working with abusive men has consolidated his years of firsthand experience in a deeply insightful book called Why Does He Do That? This book is a must-read to understand the mindset that drives abuse. In his work and research, Bancroft finds that abusers are quick to patch over their behavior but slow to change the toxic beliefs they have that drive abuse. Because of this deep worldview problem and how difficult it is to change habits, Bancroft finds that verbal abusers need a minimum of two years to show elementary changes.

What Bancroft found in his years of experience, the Bible already instructs us. Romans 12:2 calls every follower of Jesus to “be transformed by the renewing of the mind.” Renewal of the mind doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is a slow and laborious process of taking every single thought captive and making it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). The level of renewal an abuser or narcissist needs, even with the grace and healing of God, can be safely estimated to take two years if not more. A narcissist needs to go through layers of beliefs and behavior to change their paradigm. 

In fact, the author of Romans, Paul, could speak from personal experience. Before being known as Paul the Apostle, Paul was called Saul. He was a zealous religious leader who was persecuting Christians and probably had narcissistic traits before his conversion. He needed many years for God to rewire his thinking and change his paradigm before he even began his ministry. Galatians 1:15-18 says, “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.” Even Paul, who had an in-body encounter with Jesus and who wrote a huge fraction of the New Testament, needed years for God to heal his heart and ways. You don’t need to be pressured to believe that healing happens overnight.  

What Genuine Change Looks Like

Let’s shift gears. We’ve explored the ways and reasons that narcissists fake change, as well as the Biblical blueprint for true transformation. Now, I am going to share with you seven ways that you can tell whether a narcissist’s change is genuine or whether they are trying to hoover you back into the relationship.

#1 Is It Still All About Them?

Are the narcissist’s good deeds all about themselves or all about you? Narcissists by nature are controlling and make everything about them. Even the way they hoover may still be about them. They may try to entice you with exciting plans for the future, or reconnecting. Oftentimes, as they try to insert themselves back into your life and reconnect, it is their need to have you back that trumps your need to have space from them. They fail to acknowledge your need for space from them to heal and figure out who you are, what you want, and where God is leading you. Or they pressure you to pursue healing on their terms. When a narcissist hoovers, they are not factoring in your need for space or to be your own agent of healing with God’s grace. It is still about their need to have you back, and to control the process.

Test the narcissist. See what happens when you tell them that the best way they can make it up to you and demonstrate their apology is to give you space and refrain from contacting you, giving you gifts, or hinting at future plans. If they truly want you to be happy and doing well, then they would accept that your happiness may not include them. They need to be able to trust God with a future for them that doesn’t include you in it. Their response to this kind of idea is revealing. A person who is not a narcissist would probably still be brokenhearted if they wanted to salvage the relationship, but they would not force it upon you. Instead, they would try to find other support to help themselves, meanwhile respecting your need for space and time.

Another way to test whether a narcissist is hoovering you or has changed is to pay attention to how they talk about God in this process. Do they see that God has a long way to take them? Do they recognize that you have your own independent relationship with God (separate from theirs) and the ability to discern His wisdom? Or do they portray God as the urging force for boundless forgiveness, rapid reconciliation, and an instantaneous transformation? Is God a source of personal conviction in their life, or merely a convenient tool to pressure your return? Paying attention to these aspects can provide valuable insights.

#2 Listen Closely to Apologies.

Pay attention to how they apologize. General, vague apologies reveal that they don’t get it. They don’t understand what they did wrong or the level of trauma they caused you. Ask what they are sorry for and what they believe they did wrong. This will be telling. The key here is not to tell them what they did wrong, but to see if they are able to put themselves into your shoes and if they have the self-awareness to reflect on their own behavior.  General apologies reveal that they have not put themselves in your shoes nor gone deep in themselves. That is a red flag. 

#3 What Narrative Are They Building?

How does the narcissist explain their behavior? How are they framing things? Where do they attribute the cause of their behavior? I was blind or “I was demonized”, or “I was under spiritual attack”, or “I was traumatized and wounded”. Sandwiched between some general apologies, these explanations might sound like they are taking responsibility, but actually they are positioning themselves to be a victim. They are once again externalizing responsibility, suggesting that they were overtaken by something outside their control that caused them to behave abusively.  

Does the narcissist confess that they were the abuser, the perpetrator, and the traumatizer or do they continually claim to have been a victim of some outside force beyond their control? If they continue to play victim, they are painting themselves as powerless in order to absolve themselves of ownership of their sin and escape the responsibility to change. 

#4 Do They Understand the Trauma They Caused?

Do they have insight into the trauma they caused you? Have they truly internalized and acknowledged how traumatized you were by their behavior, the damage they caused, and your need for space from them to heal? Even if there are a lot of tears and remorse, it doesn’t mean they have gained self-awareness and empathy. These displays are often in response to their own feelings of failure and shame, but it has nothing to do with them having entered into your emotional world and recognizing the wrong they did to you. 

#5 Are They Looking for Narcissistic Supply?

Narcissists are dependent on other people for narcissistic supply (admiration, honor, and other positive feedback) to regulate their emotions. If you were a close partner, and have ended your relationship with the narcissist, they have likely lost one of their main sources of narcissistic supply. If so, they are going through a low point. Observe how they deal with this low point. Do they muster up the courage to God, instead of to narcissistic supply? Are they willing to partner with God to face the issues that drive the need for narcissistic supply? Or, are they shifting strategies to get their supply in other ways (from other people, new relationships, or projects)?

#6 What Story Are They Telling People?

What story are they telling people? Are they painting themselves as the victim or abuser? If they position themselves as victim to people such as counselors or ministers, emphasizing their feelings of depression, of being lost in life without you but cannot present themselves to others as the abuser, perpetrator, and traumatizer that they have been, this is a red flag. They are not seeking to examine the lies, attitudes, and beliefs that are causing their abusive behavior. Instead, they are trying to evoke the sympathy and compassion of others for narcissistic supply.

#7 Are They Making Themselves Accountable

Are they making themselves accountable? If yes, to whom? Are these people able to identify and understand the effects of verbal, psychological, and narcissistic abuse? Do they have an understanding of or experience with narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder? Most pastors do not understand narcissism, and not all counselors do either. Simple “accountability” to people who do not understand the manipulation that narcissists use is pointless. What ends up happening is that the narcissist spins a story to win other people’s pity, sympathy, and support. Eventually, these accountability partners can end up becoming the flying monkeys who do the narcissist’s bidding. They may fail to keep the narcissist accountable for change and instead act on behalf of the narcissist, repeating (instead of testing) their claims of transformation. If these people do not understand high-conflict, manipulative people—they could be used and exploited by the narcissist to hoover you by proxy. 

What Should You Do?

Narcissists have bought into the lie that there is nothing wrong with them and they see their current mode of operandi as working quite well for them. Unless that lie is broken, a narcissist will not feel the need to change and will not ask God to change them. Remember that true transformation takes renewal of the mind, a paradigm shift that requires time, consistency and effort. God’s grace to work in the life of a narcissist who wants to change does not guarantee an overnight change.

If you are not seeing any fruit of deep change reflecting on the 7 things I mentioned, the narcissist has likely not changed. Instead, they may be reinventing themselves and using their grief to gather narcissistic supply from people. All these things reveal they have not internalized the wrongs they have committed or taken ownership of their part of the problems. If that is the case, these things will surely repeat themselves in the future–weeks, months, or even years later as long as those lies remain.

Unless you have clear compelling guidance from God, the default should be to not return to these relationships. For example, when Joseph in the New Testament found out that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was pregnant before they got married, he thought she had been unfaithful to him. So Joseph decided in his heart to divorce her quietly. However, God knew otherwise and intervened. He sent an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary to be his wife. Joseph listened. In this case, Joseph had a supernatural intervention by God to tell him to take Mary as his wife. If you have been with an abusive, unfaithful person, and that person has had a history of being abusive, your default after leaving should be to stay away unless you have some kind of powerful supernatural intervention like Joseph from God to tell you to go back.

Surround yourself with some wise counselors who can help you discern and who are adept at dealing with manipulative people. Do not surround yourself with counselors who have no understanding of domestic abuse or narcissistic personality disorder, or who may also be religious narcissists or religious abusers themselves, otherwise they can end up influencing you to return to the lion’s den. Seek out various voices who have wisdom. There is safety in the presence of counselors (Proverbs 11:14). 

Only God knows the human heart and whether a person has changed. It was probably a massive undertaking for you to leave in the first place. If you don’t have clarity about whether God wants you to return to that relationship, trust the wisdom of those who have already been in your shoes. The Bible says that people perish for a lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). Understand that the Bible is not a manual about how to deal with personality disorders or the people who suffer from them. It gives us principles and insights, but to know how to apply them you will need to tap into other resources to get knowledge. The Bible encourages us to seek truth, wisdom, and understanding, and to do so from the many sources God has given us. For example, If you want to understand how to perform surgery while being a doctor, that information is not in the Bible. You will not learn how to be a surgeon by just reading the Bible. You have to go to medical school and study the textbooks on human anatomy. If you want to become a chef, you will not learn how to do it by just reading the Bible. You will have to be trained in a cooking school. The same applies to every discipline in life. Get knowledge to understand how these personalities operate so that you can handle them. In the absence of God’s divine guidance or revelation, go with the knowledge that is out there. 

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here.

  • If you are thinking of leaving, or have left a toxic environment and are in a season of transition, check out my free training on 3 three keys to navigate difficult transitions successfully. Each of these things brought so much breakthrough in my life.
  • Can Narcissists Genuinely Repent? What the Bible Says about a Narcissist’s Transformation [Read] [Watch]
  • When a Narcissist Loses Control Over You - 10 Unique Things They Will Do. [Watch] [Read]
  • When You Leave Them, 10 Ways They Will Gaslight You [Watch]
  • How to Discern and Resist this Diabolical Manipulation [Watch]
  • Dishonest Remorse: 5 Crafty Ways that Narcissists Try to Make You Think They're Sorry [Read] [Watch]
  • Can A Narcissist Change? 10 Ways to Tell if Their Repentance is Real. [Watch]

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