This is a scenario I have seen played out many times, sometimes with the protagonist being a woman, and sometimes a man.
"Carol" [all names have been changed here] was in a romantic relationship with John that lasted for a few months. At first, they saw each other frequently. Then came a time when they professed love for each other, and there were hints of marriage—at least, Carol thought there were. She was so caught up in this romance that she neglected her friends. Her family thought she had become distant.
There were occasional small arguments between them, but nothing serious and nothing that struck either of them as unusual. Carol complained about John being messy. He complained about her being too tidy—“compulsive,” he would call her.
But then a more important argument developed.
John complained about Carol’s tendency to become possessive, even jealous. She called him when he was out with his friends. She once annoyed him by checking the messages on his phone. Carol understood that there was no particular reason to think that John was cheating on her but the thought came to mind nevertheless. She tried not to seem jealous, but would still question him about old girlfriends—“for no particular reason,” she told him. It seemed to John that she was checking up on him. He complained about her being “controlling.” He hesitated to talk to old friends because she might get annoyed.
Partly to make the point that she could be without him sometimes, Carol made occasional plans with friends but was troubled by wondering what John was doing during that time. She would call him at those moments, sometimes repeatedly if he did not immediately pick up.
More arguments ensued.
On one occasion John stormed out of her apartment. She came after him, driving from one place to another until she found him. John appeared to Carol to be falling out of love. And she felt there was nothing she could do about it.
Finally, John suggested that they “take a break” and not see each other for a while. Carol protested, “How can we work out our problems if we don’t see each other?” But he was insistent. During the next week Carol behaved in a way that she herself admits was self-destructive. She called John over and over again, and when he stopped answering her calls and texts, she came to his apartment. Sometimes she would park across the street and when he drove away, she would follow. She went out of her way to go to the bars she knew he was likely to go. On occasion, she accosted him despite his talking with another woman.
John went from being patient and soft-spoken to being angry. He was polite with her at this time, but never friendly. He began to complain to his friends about her pestering him. He seemed to Carol to be further and further away. On the increasingly rare occasions when John did stop to talk to her, Carol found that she had nothing to say. Nevertheless, she was tormented by the urge to call him. When she was alone, she pictured him with other women. Things continued in that way for months.
What distinguishes Carol—and other men and women who act similarly—from unequivocal stalkers is their drawing back at the last moment from any violence or the threat of violence. They recognize that they should not and cannot go further than they have already gone. In the end they let their lover say goodbye.
I have seen this strangely stereotyped drama play out repeatedly with different actors: One man, a police officer, pursued the woman who was breaking up with him into another area of town and was arrested. Other men and women engaged in behavior not overtly violent but illegal nonetheless—throwing coffee over the clothes of the absent lover; keying or otherwise defacing his or her car; even writing graffiti on his or her garage door. When such incidents occur, it seems possible that they could worsen into overtly violent acts. An order of protection may be sought. But while semi-stalking may turn into violence, it usually does not. Sometimes there are public scenes. Sometimes the police are called—but usually not.
In the end, there is resignation and a calm after the storm.
Typically, a number of months later, the affair is remembered with some misgivings, but no remaining terrible feelings. Sometimes those bad feelings go away only when a new lover appears. It is not unusual for semi-stalkers to have trouble remembering just what it was that attracted them to their ex-lovers in the first place.
There seems to be a common denominator to these stories: The person destined to become a “semi-stalker” is not only jealous, but has a history of being jealous in previous relationships. He or she is also impulsive. Although many, even most, jilted lovers have from time to time felt an urge to call an absent lover, that urge can usually be successfully resisted. It is as if most people have a sense of pride that does not permit them to behave in ways that make them seem desperate, so they at least pretend to a nonchalance they may not feel. These semi-stalkers, however, seem not to get embarrassed; or if they do, they cannot stop embarrassing themselves. They end up destroying any chance of reconciliation. They assume an identity which is unattractive to any friends who have been watching; and they become repugnant to themselves.
Recently, someone like Carol asked me why she could not stop calling her boyfriend when she knew very well she was annoying him. It is a hard question to answer. Over the years, I have not noticed much similarity in the way semi-stalkers have grown up. Beyond the fact that they have been jealous in the past, I have not noticed any particular experience which they have in common and which would seem to predict this painful behavior. The result is clear, however: They cannot see themselves apart from their relationship with their lover. They are so identified with their role in the relationship that they have nothing to fall back on if that relationship breaks apart. And so they hold on long past the point when there is nothing to hold on to.
But there is something else—jealousy.
Often, the relationship has gone bad in the first place because of an uncontrollable, unjustifiable, and implacable jealousy. Jealousy is never a sign of love. It is a sign of a feeling of possession. Jealous people feel that the man or woman who belongs to them is doing something behind their back. They feel that they are being made small by a lover laughing at them and making fools of them. This sense of ownership makes the eventual break-up still less tolerable. Carol sees another woman in a bar holding onto John’s arm—onto her boyfriend’s arm—even though she knows he is no longer her boyfriend.
It is not easy for a psychotherapist to prevent this behavior, or for friends or anyone else to stop it. The semi-stalker is in a headlong race to make something that is intolerable not happen—even after it has already happened. Such a person seems clinging and demanding and even childish. And may seem to others to be dangerous.
When I am caught up in the middle of this misadventure, I do what I can to persuade the jilted lover to refrain from making matters worse. It may be that John, or whoever the absent lover is, does not want to see her now—clearly does not want to see her—but neither she nor he knows how he will feel months later. The possibility of his coming back to her is made more likely by not behaving in a controlling, jealous way. Time does many things. It allows people to remember what they loved about an ex. And it will, inevitably, change the ex feels too, so that the situation surely becomes less painful.
But I am also concerned about pointing out the destructive nature of jealousy. Carol will have other relationships. There will be other times when she will be tempted to check up on a new boyfriend. This sort of checking cannot prevent an infidelity; but it can undermine the new relationship as surely as it did the old.
Because jealousy is such a stubborn and unsought feeling, I tell jealous men and women that I do not think they can blot out the feeling by an effort of will. But they can—by an effort of will—not express those feelings. As is the case for other sorts of obsessions—about illness, or germs, or whatever—constant checking makes the underlying fear worse.
(c) Fredric Neuman, author of Rising Above Fear. Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column