Stalking is in the news: An ex-cop from Ohio was recently sentenced to 33 months in prison for stalking his former girlfriend; a Texas man charged with stalking Taylor Swift was arrested; and an Ohio man stands accused of stalking his ex multiple times even after she obtained a restraining order against him. A campus magazine article bemoans the rise in stalking on college campuses. Reports estimate that victims know their stalker about 75 percent of the time, and almost 25 percent of victims are stalked by an ex.
This is not a post about the safety measures every stalking victim should take: There are better sources to help you understand those. I want to talk about the mental mistakes that can blind a stalking victim to the true danger of her situation or can lead her to do the wrong thing—even after it’s clear that her boyfriend is no longer her best friend and, in fact, may be her mortal enemy. Understanding these three mistakes might save your life.
1. Minimizing or rationalizing a stalker's behavior. Some stalkers give warning signals in the early throes of romance—bombarding you with texts and emails or jealously attempting to control your time, energy, and attention—but other signals don’t surface until the relationship is over.
Let's talk about the latter first. After a breakup, you suddenly find yourself bumping into your ex at unexpected places; your ex just happens to drive by when you discover a flat tire after leaving work and stops to help; or during the past week, you’ve spotted him twice in your favorite restaurant and found out he’s joined the gym you belong to. Yes, it seems odd that your ex is turning up so often, but you shrug it off. Perhaps you’re imagining things. It was nice to have help with your car. And, hey, it’s a free country—he can go wherever he likes.
Even when we have a bumpy track record with someone, it can be easy to downplay the potential risk. Because some intimate stalkers stalk their partners before the breakup, it can be dismissed as more of the same behavior—annoying but not a cause for alarm. Mutual friends who know your ex may be unintentional conspirators in minimizing the behavior by saying something such as, "Sure, John has a bad temper, but he's basically harmless." (This is especially true if your friends were unaware of your ex's controlling or aggressive behavior in the relationship). However, even when the stalking behavior is the same, the situation has changed: A stalker is much more likely to escalate when he thinks he has nothing to lose.
Psychological safety tip: Deep down, we all know when something is not right. However, when things occur that are outside of our normal frame of reference—such as when an ex continues to do "nice" things after a breakup—it’s easy to ignore what our gut tells us. It's also easy to lose sight of our inner voice when someone else has been telling us how to run our lives. If you are the victim of a persistent ex, you need to tune into your internal radar and trust your gut. Start by keeping a journal of all the “odd” things that happen, including dates, times, and circumstances. Not only can this help validate that you’re not being overly dramatic or imagining things, it starts a paper trail that will be useful in the event that you need to get legal assistance. It can also help you identify common patterns in your ex's behavior; this will come in handy when developing a safety plan.
2. Playing the psychologist instead of protecting yourself. Perhaps your ex did have a rough childhood. Maybe he is hurt and angry over the breakup. Perhaps he doesn't have the closure he says he needs to move on. These are all fine topics for a therapist’s office but they are not your problems to solve. Getting sucked into playing the psychologist instead of protecting yourself will ultimately make the situation worse.
Psychological safety tip: Let go of any thoughts about helping your ex. Stalking cannot be solved by reasoning or bargaining. He will not be at peace if you meet with him “one last time.” You will not help him move on by promising to “remain friends.” You cannot save him if he threatens to hurt himself. Giving in to these threats only puts you in danger. A former lover knows every button to push to get you back in his life; know what those buttons are yourself so you can protect yourself. And remember that the best help you can give your ex is a one-time, clear “it’s over,” followed by absolute silence. Anything else gives him a chance to hear what he wants to rather than deal with the truth.
3. Believing that being a stalking victim says something bad about you. I don’t think most stalking victims believe they are responsible for what their perpetrator does. However, there are other versions of the blame game that often rings true: “I should have known he was a weirdo.” Or, “How could I have gotten involved with someone like that?” The truth is that none of us can know what our lover will do once the relationship ends; millions of nasty divorce survivors can certainly attest to that.
This unnecessary guilt and embarrassment can lead victims to suffer in silence. In fact, according to the first nationwide look at stalking by the U.S. Department of Justice, only about one in three stalking cases are reported to authorities. Many stalking victims avoid telling anyone about it. They don’t tell friends and family members who could be their first line of defense, and, out of a misguided fear that it will hurt their job, they don't tell their employer.
Psychological safety tip: Get over it. One out of four women will be a victim of stalking in her lifetime; it can happen to anyone. If it happens to you, surround yourself with a support team that can help you get through it. This team should include friends, family, and co-workers who can be on the lookout, experts who can help you sort through your options and help you figure out the best plan of attack, people who have been in the same situation, and people who make you feel strong.
The Bottom Line
Stalking by a former lover can be an escalation of domestic abuse or start as an extreme reaction to rejection. Regardless, it is the most potentially lethal form of obsessive pursuit. It is also the most complicated: The history between the two individuals can tempt the victim to make mental mistakes that unwittingly increase her risk. Until we live in a world where we can all feel safe and secure after a relationship ends, we have to be vigilant at every stage of a romantic relationship, especially the end. Part of that vigilance includes recognizing—and avoiding—psychological blind spots that put us at risk.