Stalking is a pattern of unwanted contact or behavior that leads someone to feel upset, anxious, or scared for his or her safety.
Stalking is a consistent and intentional pattern of behavior as opposed to one or two isolated incidents. It persists after the individual has asked the stalker to stop contacting them.
The legal definition of stalking varies by state, but the United States Department of Justice defines the term as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”
In addition to instilling deep distress, stalking can also escalate to a physical attack, sexual assault, or murder. It’s difficult for a target to determine a stalker’s trajectory or identify if and how stalking behavior will intensify.
Stalking behavior can include the following:
• Knowing the person’s schedule, tracking their whereabouts, or physically following them
• Repeatedly sending texts, calls, or emails
• Unexpectedly showing up at the person’s home, workplace, or school
• Delivering unwanted gifts
• Stealing the person’s possessions
• Threatening the person or their friends and family
• Other behaviors that lead to feeling unsafe, harassed, or monitored
About 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the U.S. have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing 18.3 million women and 6.5 million men. When stalking occurs, it’s frequently in the context of a breakup.
Cyberstalking refers to any form of stalking that relies on technology. It is a consistent pattern of behavior and the content is typically threatening, disturbing, or dangerous. Examples of cyberstalking include the following:
• Repeatedly sending unwanted messages via email or a social media platform
• Tracking someone via GPS without their consent
• Monitoring online activity without consent
• Releasing sensitive or personal information about a person online
• Impersonating the individual in chatrooms or online platforms
• Installing a camera on the person’s computer to view or record them without consent
Although victims or loved ones sometimes minimize a stalker’s behavior, it can often lead to violence: About one-third of stalking victims were eventually physically or sexually assaulted in one study. Potential indicators of violence include previous instances of violence, destruction of property, loitering around the victim’s home or workplace, and whether the victim feels intense fear.
However, there’s no way to reliably identify if a stalker will turn violent, so it’s important to take concerns seriously, by documenting the stalker’s activities and considering legal action.
Now that relationships are often built on near-constant communication—through calls, texts, and social media—it can be difficult to identify if someone is communicating too much. What matters is how an individual perceives the relationship. If the pattern of communication is completely imbalanced, or if it instills significant distress or fear for either person’s safety, that would be an indicator of stalking.
Has the person you're communicating with asked you to stop contacting them? Is she or he fearful around you? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you may have crossed the line from communication to stalking. Mental health professionals can help; visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory to find a therapist.
Stalking encompasses a desire to exert control over a victim. That drive could emerge from a romantic relationship, for instance warding off suitors or trying to win over a new partner. It could arise from the fantasy of a relationship formed entirely in the person’s mind, such as in the case of celebrity stalking. Or it could have its roots in a mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder.
Perpetrators are often motivated to control, humiliate, frighten, manipulate, embarrass, or take revenge on the victim. Romantic motivations are also at play, such as wooing a new mate or scaring away other potential suitors.
Mental health conditions often appear in those who become stalkers—research suggests that half of one sample of stalkers had a disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Borderline is particularly prominent in women stalkers.
As researchers continue to study the topic, they’ve put forth different categories of stalking such as romantic (stalking a former partner), lust (a serial predator), love-scorned (rebuffed after expressing interest in someone), celebrity (stalking a famous figure), political (motivated by ideological agreement or disagreement), revenge (fueled by anger or resentment), and cases of murder for hire.
Ex-partners who engage in stalking tend to be those who were emotionally or verbally abusive, research suggests. Post-breakup pursuit is also linked to a form of dependency called relationship contingent self-esteem, in which people define their worth through their relationship. If people are high in relationship-contingent self-esteem and react poorly to a breakup—with intense anger or jealousy—they may be spurred to obsessively pursue their partner.
A variety of factors can motivate celebrity stalkers. They may seek attention from the celebrity and become resentful when they don’t receive it. They may attempt to genuinely court the target, be a predator trying to gather information and eventually assault the celebrity, or have a delusion that they truly formed a relationship with the person.
The rise of social media and influencer culture has made it easier for people to feel attached to celebrities. Famous figures can regularly communicate directly—and intimately, seemingly—to their followers via YouTube or Instagram Live. They can respond to comments or messages. This can create the illusion of having a close, real relationship with celebrities, when the reality is that the relationship is completely one-sided.
People with borderline personality disorder often feel intense anxiety about being separated or abandoned from the people they care about. They may prefer not to be alone and come across as “needy” or demanding in the time, communication, and attention they seek from their spouse, family, or friends. They might go to extreme lengths, such as stalking a person by tracking their phone or following them. Indeed, research suggests that 45 percent of people who engage in stalking behavior may have borderline personality disorder.
Stalking is often perceived as a crime committed only against women. Although three times more women than men are victims of stalking, women are also perpetrators of such behavior. About half of male victims of stalking report having female stalkers.
“Even though both sexes grapple with the urge to pursue, we are reluctant to take female stalking seriously,” writes Lisa Philips, the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. “Research shows we’d rather give female stalkers a 'gender pass,' perceiving what they do as less serious than if they were male.”
The drive to pursue may differ by gender. Women may be motivated by the desire to prevent a partner from leaving, to win the person back, or to scare away perceived rivals. Men may be more motivated by the desire to win over a potential new mate.
Both genders deploy the same tactics, but women may do so more frequently than men. Research indicates that female stalkers commit threats, verbal abuse, property damage, theft, and physical harm more often than males do.
Stalking victims often struggle to understand and report the offense. They may believe that such behavior “isn’t that big a deal” or that “it’ll stop eventually.”
If stalking occurs after a breakup, it can be difficult to determine whether the person is struggling to move on or developing threatening tendencies. Society has also tended to romanticize the idea of a dramatic, relentless pursuit of love, which may contribute to the confusion.
Stalking ultimately crosses the line when the victim feels in danger or threatened. If they feel that their life is in jeopardy, they should call 911. Otherwise, they should report it to their local police department.
In addition to to reporting a stalker, victims can take the following steps:
• Avoid the stalker as much as possible.
• Explicitly state that communication should end; do not respond to further communication.
• Maintain a log of the stalker’s actions, including communication, unwanted visits, and police reports filed
• Become educated about technology-related security measures.
• Find a local organization for support, information, and safety planning.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish when normal communication after a breakup verges on stalking—especially when television shows and movies romanticize the chase for a love interest. But when communication after a split becomes frightening and leads the victim to alter aspects of daily life, the line has been crossed. Likewise, criminal stalking often does not represent frequent messaging or harassment but fear for the person’s safety.
In addition to a typical safety plan, victims of cyberstalking may want to investigate technology-oriented security measures, such as changing passwords and PINs, setting up a new email address, purchasing a more secure phone or computer, and turning off GPS tracking on all devices.
A restraining order or protection order legally forces the offender to stop contacting you—in person, by email, text or social media, and through another person. It can also involve domestic circumstances such as child support or mortgage payments. Victims can apply for restraining orders at the courthouse as well as some advocacy organizations, legal offices, and police stations. The process varies by state, and WomensLaw.org has a tool to identify the procedures in your state.
Victims contending with a stalker may not understand the severity of the situation, or they may be hesitant to report it. Encourage your loved one to report the crime and offer to go with them to do so. Explain the importance of asking the stalker to cease contact, logging their communication attempts for legal purposes, and connecting with a local shelter or organization to create a safety plan immediately.
Stalkers seek to wield power and gain control over their victims. Persistent communication, tracking, and threats lead the target to feel unsettled and on edge.
Stalking can lead victims to feel nervous, stressed, and anxious. They may have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. They may lose their appetite. And they may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression.
Research suggests that many women who have been stalked experienced symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and avoidance. The unwanted behaviors most associated with those symptoms are receiving threatening calls and texts.
Victims may also take measures to protect themselves that fundamentally alter or interfere with the way they would otherwise live their lives, such as taking time away from work or school, changing jobs, or moving away.
The mental health conditions that result from stalking tend to be depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and avoiding certain locations. The two factors that seem to exact the greatest psychological toll on women facing a stalker are whether the pursuit is active—if the stalker follows the person or shows up unexpectedly—and aggression—if the stalker threatens or commits violence toward the victim, her property, or her loved ones.
Cyberstalking can be equally or more distressing than other forms of stalking, even though the perpetrator is not physically present and may even be far away. With the victim unable to see or identify the stalker, or know when they will next act, the unpredictability of cyberstalking can be deeply disturbing. It can lead to anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms of depression or trauma.
Therapy can help victims of stalking with pragmatics and safety, such as creating a safety plan or reaching out to a lawyer, as well as addressing the psychological symptoms such as trauma, depression, anxiety, humiliation, guilt, or helplessness. A therapist can help a victim build self-esteem and agency to be assertive and fight the abuse as much as possible.
Legal protections for stalking often become available only after the victim is already facing severe distress or violence. Therefore it’s critical to identify and help stalking victims early on. One avenue is to develop safe spaces in settings such as college campuses for individuals to disclose when they feel uncomfortable or at risk, such as after a breakup. Providing screening instruments for intimate partner violence, stalking, depression, and PTSD could help as well.