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Fear

Why Certain People Stalk Their Exes

When obsession, passion, and fear of abandonment collide.

Key points

  • An “obsessive passion,” unlike a “harmonious passion,” is uncontrollable and has contingencies (e.g., self-worth) attached to it.
  • Obsessively passionate individuals, as opposed to those with harmonious passions, are more likely to stalk their former romantic partners.
  • New research suggests that one reason obsessively passionate partners stalk their ex is their intense fear of abandonment.
pixel2013/Pixabay
Source: pixel2013/Pixabay

A recent paper by Bélanger and collaborators, published in the December 2021 issue of Journal of Personality, examines the causes of stalking, including obsessive passion and fear of abandonment.

What is stalking?

Stalking, also called obsessive relational intrusion, refers to “a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.” Most often, stalking involves a former romantic partner (e.g., ex-husband, ex-girlfriend).

Obsessive relational intrusion, or stalking, has eight components:

  1. Hyper-intimacy: Excessive courtship behavior.
  2. Interactional contact: Repeated attempts to have face-to-face contact with the victim.
  3. Mediated contact: Using different media to make contact (e.g., cyberstalking).
  4. Surveillance: Learning details about the target without his or her knowledge.
  5. Invasion: Violation of physical or symbolic boundaries (e.g., trespassing, stealing information).
  6. Harassment and intimidation: Aggressive behaviors aimed at frightening the victim of stalking into compliance.
  7. Coercive threats: Covert or overt threats toward the victim of stalking.
  8. Coercive violence: Physical or sexual violence.

Two types of passion

According to the Dualistic Model of Passion, there are two types of romantic passion—harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

  • Harmonious passion: The romantic behaviors of a harmoniously passionate individual are freely chosen; furthermore, the romantic relationship is in harmony with other aspects of their life (e.g., work, school).
  • Obsessive passion: For the obsessively passionate individual, self-worth is dependent on the relationship, so the romantic relationship dominates their life, resulting in the neglect of other important areas.

To examine the link between the type of passion and stalking, four studies were conducted, as detailed below.

Investigating harmonious and obsessive passion and stalking

Study 1: 223 participants (114 men); average age of 35 years old; 85 percent heterosexual; average length of relationship with the former spouse or romantic partner (e.g., ex-husband or ex-wife, ex-lover), 4.4 years.

Measures

  • Romantic passion: Participants were instructed to complete the passion scale from the perspective of their ex. Two sample items from the harmonious and obsessive passion subscales are, respectively, “My relationship with my partner allows me to live a variety of experiences,” and “I have almost an obsessive feeling for my partner.”
  • Experience of abuse: Participants were asked, “Did you ever feel that your ex was psychologically abusive toward you?” and “Did you ever feel that your ex was physically abusive toward you?”
  • Obsessive relational intrusion: The obsessive relational intrusion scale was used. The scale includes “pursuit tactics,” such as excessive communication attempts (e.g., texting too much) and face-to-face encounters; and “aggressive tactics,” such as surveillance, trespassing, harassment, making threats, and actual violence.

Results

Harmonious passion was negatively linked with the use of aggressive tactics and abuse. Obsessive passion was positively linked with abuse, pursuit tactics, and aggressive tactics.

Study 2: 232 participants (101 men); average age of 38 years old; 85 percent heterosexual; 50 percent married, 22 percent cohabiting, and 21 percent seriously dating; 4.8 years, the average length of current romantic relationship.

Measures

  • Romantic passion: Assessed as in the previous investigation.
  • Commitment to the relationship: Eight items; for example, “I am committed to maintaining my relationship with my partner.”
  • Satisfaction in the relationship: Six items (e.g., “I feel satisfied with our relationship").
  • Investment in the relationship: Nine items, such as “Many aspects of my life have become linked to my partner.”
  • Quality of alternatives: Six items. Sample: “My needs for intimacy‚ companionship, etc.‚ could easily be fulfilled by another partner.”
  • Fear of abandonment: Five items. For instance, “I often worry that my partner will leave me.”
  • Obsessive relational intrusion: Assessed as in the previous investigation.

Results

Fear of abandonment was negatively associated with harmonious passion. Furthermore, fear of abandonment mediated the relationship between obsessive passion and the desire to engage in stalking.

Study 3: 423 participants (225 men); average age of 39 years old; 89 percent heterosexual; 54 percent married, 19 percent cohabiting, and 23 percent seriously dating; five years, the average length of current romantic relationship.

Measures

Participants were randomly assigned to tasks intended to produce either harmonious passions or obsessive passions. They were told, “Write about a time when your relationship with your partner was in harmony with other activities in your life and your relationship allowed you to live a variety of experiences.” Or, “Write about a time when you had an obsessive feeling for your partner and you had difficulties controlling your urge to see your partner.”

Subsequently, obsessive passion, harmonious passion, fear of abandonment, willingness to use pursuit tactics, and the importance of the romantic partner to the person were assessed.

Results

Those with an obsessive passion mindset experienced more fear of abandonment, which was linked with pursuit tactics and aggressive tactics.

Study 4: 379 participants (203 men); average age of 39 years old; 91 percent heterosexual; 59 percent married, 17 percent cohabiting, and 21 percent seriously dating; 5.1 years, the average duration of current romantic relationship.

Measures

Participants were assigned to two conditions: “fear of abandonment” and “no fear of abandonment.” They were instructed to write “about a time when you were [not] afraid to lose your partner’s love and when your partner was out of sight, you [were not] worried that he or she might become interested in someone else.”

Results

Compared to the “no fear of abandonment” condition, individuals in the “fear of abandonment” condition were more willing to use aggressive tactics.

Takeaway

Stalking is a widespread problem. And being a victim of stalking can have serious consequences, such as poor health, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.

The findings reviewed today suggest that one reason people with an obsessive passion for a romantic partner engage in stalking is an intense fear of abandonment.

Many obsessively passionate people do not experience fulfillment from other aspects of their lives, so they may become preoccupied with their romantic relationships. Given how invested they become in the relationship, a breakup could be a major threat to their self-worth. This might explain why they become extremely afraid of their romantic partner leaving them; and why, as a way to maintain the relationship, they would be willing to engage in abuse, aggressive tactics, and criminal behavior toward their romantic partner.

Facebook image: J Walters/Shutterstock

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