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Why People Stalk

What is stalking? What makes people stalk? What to do if you are being stalked.

Key points

  • Most stalking is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, often a former intimate partner.
  • Stalking does not always involve violence, but involves a range of repeated and unwanted intrusions into a person's life.
  • There are a range of ways we can manage stalking behaviours directed at us.
J Walters/Shutterstock
Source: J Walters/Shutterstock

Simon* was a 40-year-old man. He was referred to our service** to be assessed for stalking related risk. He had been stalking a prominent doctor in his local community, for over 15 years. He first started seeing this doctor at a time when an intimate relationship was deteriorating and he was under significant stress. He was very isolated and had few supports to lean on. When the doctor was kind to him, he started to wonder if she was in love with him. Over time, he developed a fixation on this belief that she was in love with him and started becoming more intrusive with his approaches to her, eventually following her home. An intervention order was taken out to protect the doctor, but he continued to breach it —usually, at times of high stress, a corresponding relapse into a fixed delusion that she loved him, and worsening psychiatric illness.

When people think of stalkers, they typically think of a stranger lurking in the bushes and looking into their homes, with ill-intentions. However, in reality, the majority of us who encounter stalking behaviour will be stalked by someone we know, often a former partner, and will typically be stalked because someone wants to maintain/build a relationship or seek contact, not because violence is intended.

Stalking is described in the Victorian legislation, as a series of repeated, unwanted intrusions, that may be reasonably expected to cause a person fear.

These behaviours could take the form of repeated text messages or emails (I think the best attempt I have seen was about 5000 messages and calls over the course of two weeks), approaches to someone’s house or work, sending someone flowers or presents/writing, contacting other people to seek information/talk about the victim, posting about someone on social media, keeping the victim under some form of surveillance, or using social media to establish contact with the victim. While many of these behaviours may appear relatively innocuous on the surface, the point that stalking behaviours hinge on is the unwanted and repetitive nature of the act. None of us is ever entitled to contact someone else once they let us know that they don’t want contact, and this is what people who stalk, often forget—or ignore.

Hollywood culture, with its emphasis on closure and obsession with romantic love, has a lot to answer for. Most of the former intimate-partner stalkers (the majority of stalkers fall into this category) I assess state that they “just wanted closure” or “just wanted to know why [a relationship ended]”. Most often, this is a justification that people fall into and explanations by the victim are then met with arguments and rationalisations about why the relationship should not have ended, as a way of continuing contact. The other motivations for stalking often involve clumsy attempts to court someone, a delusional fixation on someone as a fated love object —as described in the case study above, as a response to a grievance, or far more rarely, with predatory sexual intent.

Why people stalk

I have heard a range of relatively glib responses to this question, ranging from “people stalk because they are narcissists/psychopaths” to “they must have low self-esteem” or “we formed a trauma bond”.

Leaving aside cases where predatory intent or clear psychiatric illness (such as delusions) drive stalking, we typically see a range of reasons for stalking. Most often, people who stalk have a range of distorted beliefs about relationships (“I need to pursue someone for them to love me”, “I am entitled to a relationship”, “chasing him is romantic”), entitlement to contact with someone to pursue them or to resolve a grievance (we are never entitled to contact someone if they do not want us to), high levels of hostility, difficulties with attachment (i.e., high levels of anxiety about relationships and a worry about rejection), problems with assertive communication, difficulties accepting negative emotion (“if I just win her/him back, I won’t have to feel this pain”), a ruminative cognitive style (i.e., thinking about something repeatedly), poor social supports and over-reliance on a relationship, difficulties with problem-solving or inhibiting action (I often see this in cases where barrages of text messages have been sent), difficulties with managing strong emotion and anger, and substance use (though the latter is a facilitator, not a cause).

Sometimes people engage in stalking behaviours because of the context of the relationship they are in. I typically see this when working with people within high-conflict relationships characterised by mutual jealousy and substance use, where one or both partners will end the relationship at various points and where text messaging can unexpectedly escalate and become more threatening or intrusive.

Most stalkers are not psychopaths, because stalking most often hinges on wanting to form a relationship with someone, which is incongruent with the callousness and lack of emotionality that characterises psychopathy. Some stalkers demonstrate narcissistic traits, such as entitlement. There is no single reason why someone stalks, and when conducting a stalking assessment, I look at all the factors noted above and the context, to try and develop a full formulation of the behaviour.

What to do if you are being stalked

Stalking can feel terrifying. Regardless of the behaviour involved, it can feel intrusive, violating, threatening and anxiety-provoking.

Most victims of stalking are very scared of the stalker becoming violent. I want to reassure people that this is relatively rare, but to listen to your gut and if you feel scared of the stalker, or if you see signs of escalating behaviour, to immediately contact your local police or emergency services. While I cannot provide a comprehensive list of signs of escalation— as each case is unique— the general red flags I look for might include: escalating or overly persistent patterns of behaviour (e.g., progressing from text messages to attending your house), expressed suicidal ideation or an intention to harm you, statements like “if I can’t have you, no one else can”, prior physical violence, or threats to harm you.

When working with victims of stalking around safety, I provide a few simple guidelines, these include:

Name the behaviour for yourself

This is the first step because until we notice that someone is being intrusive and persistent and recognise it as a problem/frame it as stalking, we do not even know that we need to take action. People often excuse away bad behaviours or rationalise these behaviours in various ways, this is not helpful when trying to reduce the occurrence of problematic behaviours. Give yourself permission to say no.

Ask the person to stop the behaviours

This is key because the person engaging in the behaviours needs to know that the behaviours are unwanted and intrusive. It may not be helpful to name the behaviour as stalking because this can sometimes lead to a strong reaction. A standard script I suggest is, “I want to end our contact here and do not want you to contact me by phone or social media again.” It may sometimes be helpful to say “I am finding your behaviours threatening” —though I would use this with caution because some people may find reinforcement in this.

Stop all contact and log all unwanted intrusions

Sometimes, people will not stop engaging in behaviours just because you ask them to do so. This may actually escalate their behaviours. It is important that you do not have any contact with the stalker again once you have made one request that they stop, as contact in any form (even to ask them to stop again) will likely reinforce their attempts to contact you. Sometimes any attention, even negative attention, is seen as positive. Instead, block them if you need to and start logging all unwanted intrusions. Screenshots, message logs—all of these are essential for the next step.

Seek support, and be prepared to follow up on any breaches

If someone does not stop their behaviours after you make one request, this is the point at which seeking support is important. Most jurisdictions have a range of stalking related laws (and it is a criminal offence in most places)—use these. Make a report to the police, with the support of your local family violence agency (if the stalker is a former partner) and provide them with any logs of intrusions. The police will possibly issue an intervention order (an order prohibiting contact) and any breaches will likely be prosecuted as criminal charges. You may need to remain alert to any intrusions and make statements to the police as needed. Depending on the stalker’s behaviour, it may also be helpful to engage in some safety planning with a trusted professional, such as a family violence service, your general practitioner or psychologist.

*All names have been changed, and case studies are amalgams of real cases.
** I work for a specialist public forensic mental health service in Melbourne, Australia that focuses on assessing and treating people with a range of problem behaviours (i.e., behaviours that cause harm to other people) including stalking.

References

MacKenzie, R., McEwan, T. E., Pathe, M., James, D. V., Ogloff, J. R., & Mullen, P. E. (2009). Stalking risk profile: Guidelines for the assessment and management of stalkers.

Mullen, P. E., Mackenzie, R., Ogloff, J. R., Pathé, M., McEwan, T., & Purcell, R. (2006). Assessing and managing the risks in the stalking situation. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 34(4), 439-450.

McEwan, T. E., Daffern, M., MacKenzie, R. D., & Ogloff, J. R. (2017). Risk factors for stalking violence, persistence, and recurrence. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 28(1), 38-56.

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