Obsessed

The lovesick who cannot eat or sleep are legion. Many go so far as to harass and stalk the lover who spurned them. And more often than one might realize, the stalkers are women.

By Lisa A. Phillips, published on January 6, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Man being stalked by woman while walking dog

Patricia*, a graphic designer and visual artist, was married and had a 9-year-old son when she began an affair with a man whom she refers to as Wolf. Lone-spirited and rugged, Wolf lived in a converted tack house on a ranch outside of San Francisco and seemed to be everything her corporate husband was not.

The affair lasted over a year. Wolf pressured her to leave her husband, but she refused. Yet when Wolf told Patricia he didn't want to see her anymore, she wouldn't accept it. She would go to the marina where his sailboat was docked and wait for him. She wrote fragments of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems in nail polish on the boat's beautiful wood: I know what my heart is like / Since your love died. She also stole things from the boat, including a sail. "I became a predator," she says. "I wanted to catch his scent so I could feel near him."

When Wolf began seeing someone else, Patricia was consumed with jealousy. At night, after her husband fell asleep, she snorted cocaine, got into her Jaguar, and sped 80 miles to confront Wolf. She parked out of earshot, tiptoed to his house, and urinated near his front door, "to make my mark," she says.

She repeatedly begged him to come back to her; from time to time he would spend a night or weekend with her. She rented a studio on an estuary for the two of them to escape to, but he never showed up. When she discovered that he had gone to Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend for her family reunion, the news sent her into what she called "attack mode." "You're going to find him and confront him," she recalls telling herself. "Nothing else matters."

She found out where he was staying by calling resorts in Tahoe and claiming to be part of the family reunion. She went out to Wolf's cabin there and began throwing rocks at it. She ran in circles, beating on the doors and walls. "I know you're in there," she yelled. "You think you can do this to me? We had plans!"

A friend of Wolf's girlfriend came out and got into his car to fetch the police. Patricia threw her body on the car hood to keep him from moving and broke the windshield with a stick. Later, after she returned home, a police officer arrived with a summons to appear in court. She was ordered to pay damages for the smashed car and slapped with a restraining order forbidding her from contacting Wolf.

Nevertheless, she remained fixated, her rage at his abandonment still vivid. She turned to her art to help herself cope. She created a sculpture for a show put on by a feminist art collective. She called it "The Legend of the Lost Cause." It included a copy of Dante's Inferno, her police report, a photographic image of Wolf superimposed with a hyena face, and a railroad spike going through a flaccid cloth penis. She took her husband and son to the show's opening. "I was so self-absorbed," she recalls. "I failed to realize anyone else's feelings."

Most people suffer romantic obsession at some point, although usually to a lesser degree—When is he going to call? The sculpture and Patricia's pride in it underscore the obliviousness that can come over men or women who go too far, becoming stalkers. "These people appear to give little thought to their impact on the other," says forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy. "You can see the narcissism. They are dismissive or surprised when they're asked if they thought about the other person. In the most extreme cases, I hear these people say: 'I don't care what he thinks! I'm going to have a relationship with him anyway.'"

One reason it's hard for the romantically obsessed to recognize that they've crossed a line is that romantic pursuit lies on a continuum. At one end are courtship initiatives, with the risks, pleasures, and privileges of being the aspiring lover who takes the lead. At the other end is criminal stalking, which can ruin lives.

H. Colleen Sinclair, a psychology professor at Mississippi State University, has researched this continuum. For her, the move from courtship to stalking is clear, no matter who the perpetrator. There are the everyday efforts—flirting, attentive emails and texts, phone calls—to form a relationship or reconcile one. Then there are surveillance and monitoring behaviors, when pursuers' motivations are a blend of love and anger. All along the way, frequency and degree matter: Is it one text a day or a hundred? A dozen roses or a roomful? Then there are the most extreme behaviors: trespassing, threats, harassment, coercion, and violence. At this point, "there's no romance," Sinclair says. "They are doing this to hurt. Once they move from surveillance to aggression, the line isn't blurry."

Pursuers may tell themselves that their stalking is a form of love or courtship, Sinclair allows, but that's "just like how we once talked about a rapist as the guy who is overwhelmed with passion." Today we have a similar myth about stalking. "People think it's about being so in love, you're not able to control yourself," she explains. "But you're driven by retaliation and obsession rather than love and idealization. Once you're aggressive, you're not idealizing, you're not in love. All that's left is the obsession."

Stalking is mostly seen as a crime against women, and for good reason. According to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey, three times more women than men have been stalked. That still means there are plenty of male stalking victims. In fact, one in 19 men have been stalked, and about half reported that their stalkers were female. The definition of criminal stalking varies from state to state, but the three main criteria for the crime are repeated, unwanted, and intrusive behaviors; implicit or explicit threats; and causing fear. The study surveyed self-identified victims and was based on a definition of stalking as behavior that led them to feel very fearful.

Yet when researchers survey men and women about the different kinds of unwanted pursuit tactics they used, without taking into account the level of fear experienced by their targets, the gender breakdown looks very different. Women are just as likely as men to engage in a number of common stalking behaviors—and even more likely to resort to certain kinds. In one study, about one-third of women reported using “mild aggression”—threats, verbal abuse, and physical abuse—after a breakup, compared to about a quarter of men. In another set of findings on obsessive and intrusive behavior, the rate of women who stole or damaged property was twice the rate of men—and the rate of women who caused physical harm was almost three times higher. 

Angela*, a translator in her mid-40s, met Heinrich at a run-down hostel in Augsburg while she was spending a year teaching in Germany. She was 25, and he was 29. “He had piercing blue eyes,” she says. “I remember not being able to look at him because his gaze was so bright.” He gave her his address in former East Berlin and encouraged her to visit. A couple of months later, she traveled to the city with a friend. They bought a bottle of wine and stopped by Heinrich’s apartment unannounced. The three spent the evening together. He invited Angela to return.

It was a time in her life when she felt unmoored. Her adolescence and early 20s had been consumed by a relationship with a much older man. Her job in Germany was giving her some badly needed confidence, but she also felt alone. The next time she was in Berlin, she met up with Heinrich and he kissed her. His assertiveness “marked him as a good beacon” for her, she remembered; he was what she thought she needed to feel more settled. And then she was smitten.

Heinrich visited her in Stuttgart, where she was teaching. They fell into bed—the beginning of an affair that would last just a few weeks. When she came to see him, he would greet her at the train with two bicycles. “East Berlin was all about bicycling, so I was riding around on my perfect Eastern European bicycle,” she says. “I dreamed what was happening into this fantasy, and he was providing the props for me to live it out.”

She arrived one weekend on the eve of his 30th birthday. They planned to celebrate the next day with his friends. Soon after she got to his apartment, he excused himself to make a phone call. There was no private telephone service in his neighborhood, so she knew he went to the corner pay phone and stood in line. She waited patiently. When he came back, he said, “I have something to tell you. I’m not really in love with you.”

Whom did he call? Did the conversation change his mind, or was it irrelevant? She went back to Stuttgart in disbelief. She could barely get out of bed each morning to drag herself to her office. “It was paralyzing,” she says. All she could think was that she needed to talk to him. She sent letter after letter asking him to call her. Though the mail service was reliable throughout Germany, he didn’t answer her letters, nor did he call. Two weeks later, his silence became so oppressive that Angela impulsively rushed to the train station and boarded the train to Berlin.

She showed up at Heinrich’s door at midnight. She was terrified that he wouldn’t be home or that he would be with someone else. He answered the door alone. He set up a pallet on the floor and asked her to go to sleep. “I made a point of sobbing so long and so loudly that he eventually came in to comfort me by having sex with me,” she says. “Then he sent me away the next morning.”

Why did Angela chase so hard? Why, for that matter, do we tend to get so obsessed with people who’ve rejected us, or were never interested in the first place? From an evolutionary perspective, Angela’s dramatic journey was a demonstration of commitment, of the time and attention she was willing to devote to him: See how much you mean to me? See what I can give you? Rejection goads us to action, despite the possibility of failure and stigma, because “being cut out of mating is an evolutionary dead end,” says Glenn Geher, a psychologist at the State University of New York in New Paltz. “That’s why we see a lot of things in the mating domain that make people uncomfortable, that people see as difficult or strange. At the end of the day, mating is Darwin’s bottom line.”

Intense pursuit and expressions of need can force the target to heed his pursuer, shifting his attention and energy away from his own competing interests, sexual and otherwise. The pursuer’s demanding presence may cause the target’s other mating prospects to decide they’d rather not go through the trouble of dealing with an insistent rival. For these reasons, pursuit can sometimes succeed in winning back an estranged partner. Angela’s chase, however, worked only as what is called a short-term mating strategy: consolation sex with Heinrich.

Adding salt to the wound of rejection is the fact that the beloved’s ability to turn you down in itself makes him more appealing; it’s a sign of high mate value. As Geher explains: “It’s an ironic and not pleasant fact of human social life that not everyone is in a position to engage in social rejection, but when someone does, it’s immediately attractive. That person sees himself as having options.”

Evolutionary psychology theorizes that, in the mating game, men are the “chasers” and women are the discriminating “choosers,” evaluating suitors for qualities and resources that would help potential offspring survive. Yet once she’s chosen, she may very well chase.

J.D. Duntley, a professor of criminal justice and psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, have theorized that women engage in stalking primarily to prevent a partner from leaving or to get him back if he does go. Men, they hypothesize, stalk for those reasons as well, but they are more likely than women to engage in “pre-relationship” stalking as a strategy to win a mate in the first place.

The very neurochemistry of passionate love may also make women more inclined to the pursuer role. Research indicates that men and women experience similar neurochemical and hormonal changes when they fall in love, with one interesting distinction: Testosterone, the hormone associated with sex drive and aggression, goes up in women and decreases in men, according to studies by University of Pisa psychiatry researcher Donatella Marazziti. How this testosterone fluctuation affects our behavior hasn’t been fully determined, but Marazziti surmises that the changes in female and male body chemistry may be meant to bring the sexes closer together in love—“as if nature wants to eliminate what can be different in men and women.”

Women do, then, become hormonally more “masculine” when they’re love-struck, and vice versa. The testosterone increase is accompanied by a rise in cortisol (in both sexes), a hormone associated with stress and physiological arousal—our fight-or-flight response. The more thinking you tend to do about a relationship, one study found, the more cortisol levels increase. In a reciprocated relationship, the cortisol rise happens along with stress-reducing responses: an increase in positive emotions and the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. The unrequited lover, in contrast, is stuck in thought, with fewer—if any—of these calming forces, her body hormonally primed to take action.

Yet even though both sexes grapple with the urge to pursue, we are reluctant to take female stalking seriously. Research shows we’d rather give female stalkers a “gender pass,” perceiving what they do as less serious than if they were male. In fact, they are often fodder for mockery. Consider one of the most infamous cases: astronaut Lisa Nowak. She had a three-year extramarital affair with a colleague, William Oefelein. The romance ended when he fell in love with another woman. Three weeks later, in February 2007, Nowak drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, wearing an adult diaper so she wouldn’t have to stop to urinate. Then she donned a dark wig and a trench coat and followed Oefelein’s new girlfriend, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, through a parking garage. When Shipman refused to talk to her, Nowak attacked her with pepper spray.

Nowak, according to police reports, had packed a loaded BB gun, a four-inch buck knife, and a steel mallet. She was charged with attempted kidnapping and murder. Yet the severity of what happened was lost to the tabloid novelty of the diapered “astro-nut” driven crazy by “lust in space.” The laughs drowned out the larger question of how an American hero, on a space mission just the year before, could become so emotionally unstable over a lost love.

Before the breakup with Oefelein, Nowak showed little indication of being out of control. She had spent most of her career proving herself worthy of being chosen for a space mission, juggling long days and rigorous training regimens while raising three children. When Nowak flew on the 2006 Discovery mission, her role required the utmost in focus. She was one of two “robo-chicks” assigned to operate the controls of the robotic arm that would allow the crew to examine the underside of the spacecraft for damage. One moment of inattention and the arm could have swung wildly in the weightlessness of space, endangering the shuttle and its crew. She did her job well, and Discovery’s successful mission provided the world with proof that NASA had bounced back from the Columbia disaster of 2003. (Her friend Laurel Clark was the flight surgeon on that ill-fated mission.) After the Discovery landed, Nowak toured elementary schools; made a triumphant appearance at her alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy; and was slated to be on the cover of the May 2007 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, celebrating motherhood.

After Nowak’s February arrest, several of her NASA colleagues felt, along with shock at what she’d done, the loss of a valued colleague. Laurel Clark’s widower, Jon Clark, himself a former flight surgeon, described Nowak as “wonderful” and “nurturing” in his family’s time of grief. In a letter to the Florida judge deciding her case, Clark wrote that astronauts could be vulnerable to depression from a “let-down period after the tremendous high of flying in space.” Nowak ended up agreeing to a plea bargain with a sentence of a year’s probation and two days of jail time she had already served. But her career was over. She was kicked out of NASA and discharged from the Navy, her service deemed “other than honorable.”

Louann Brizendine, the director of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, has commented that while it’s normal to have rageful, jealous fantasies of hurting a rival, Nowak took the additional step of acting on them. Brizendine saw in Nowak’s behavior signs that she was in a fixed delusional state—in which a clearly false belief (If I attack my rival, I will get my lover back) seems indisputably true. Nowak was functioning normally in every other area of her life yet lost her grip on reality—and self-control—when it came to coping with Oefelein’s rejection. Other psychologists have speculated that Nowak had a personality disorder, which means that even though she functioned normally in everyday life, jealousy may have exposed disturbed patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving beneath her hyper-achieving surface.

Nowak was a woman of accomplishment who gave up everything to pursue a man. But what really is the nature of this kind of sacrifice “for a man,” when the man no longer wanted her back? The martyred unrequited lover essentially sacrifices herself to herself—the self she believes will emerge from her beloved’s attention. The normal sort of narcissism that can emerge in passionate new love becomes entrenched and “highly emotionally charged,” says forensic psychologist Meloy. “You feel that you have a right to pursue this person, and you see yourself as different from other people. The greater your self-absorption, the less empathy you feel for others.” The obsessed person feels better when focused on the fantasy rather than stepping back and seeing the reality of a blighted life. He adds, “The hard work of mourning is avoided through obsessive thinking.”

Most obsessive love stories, of course, aren’t as dramatic or destructive. But they can be marked by moments when we careen out of control, acting in ways we regret. One woman, based in Chicago, recalls a one-time confrontation with her ex so heated he called the police. “I became that crazy psycho bitch that every man imagines lives inside of every woman.”

The specter of the “crazy psycho bitch” haunts many women as they contend with rejection. The primal frustration they may feel gives them little real power to get love back or to get a satisfying explanation of what went wrong. When people realize that a reward—love, sex, drugs—isn’t delivered, the brain’s network for rage, which is closely connected to areas in the prefrontal cortex that assess and expect rewards, is triggered. Unfulfilled expectations can make us furious and aggressive; animals denied an expected pleasure will bite or attack. Mark Ettensohn, a Sacramento-based psychologist, says that overwhelming stress and anger can cause otherwise stable people to temporarily lose control. “You can fall back into a more primal way of dealing with the world.” 

Chasing a love interest may be an unconscious urge inherent to the perpetuation of the species, but we also have to acknowledge what happens when that pursuit goes awry and becomes intrusive. The urge to protest rejection and run after love may be just as innate to women as it is to men. But that means that women have to contend with the implications of chasing too hard. 

*Name has been changed

oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

How to End a Romantic Obsession

End All Contact: Every conversation, friendly gesture, sexual encounter, Facebook status update, text message, or glance that connects you to him has the potential to keep hope alive, amplifying the obsession. If he won’t cut off contact with you, you will have to do it yourself. 

Dismantle the Fantasy: Unrequited love is powerful because the beloved comes to represent something much larger than himself. Winning him becomes tied up with other, more important life goals—one of the most common being the goal of having a committed, loving partner. You don’t have to abandon valid life goals. You just have to reckon with the fact that the object of your obsession won’t help you reach them.

Live With Your Feelings: Romantic obsession can make you feel you must do everything in your power to pursue the object of your love. But it’s often much healthier not to act. Holding back helps you learn to tolerate your distress instead of doing something you’ll regret. 

Get Help: If your obsession is limiting your ability to function or spurring you to destructive behavior, don’t go it alone. Look for therapeutic approaches rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people identify and change the beliefs that direct self-destructive thoughts and actions, or in dialectical behavior therapy, which emphasizes self-acceptance along with mindfulness and other coping skills. 

Mourn: Being rejected by a beloved, or never having his love in the first place, is a loss. Give yourself time to grieve.

Lisa A. Phillips , an assistant professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz,  is a journalist and the author of Public Radio: Behind the Voices and Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession.

Adapted from Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession by
Lisa A. Phillips, to be published by HarperCollins January 27, 2015 Copyright © 2015, Lisa A Phillips