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What Leads to Stalking After a Breakup?

Stalking is a problematic response to a surprisingly common problem.

Nearly 20% of women and 6% of men in the U.S. are estimated to be victims of stalking at some point in their lifetime (SPARC, 2019). Yet we have much to learn about the social-cognitive processes underlying stalking. Could stalking be a maladaptive response to a very common problem?

What is stalking?

Stalking describes unwanted persistent pursuit, either virtually or in person, in which perpetrators engage in obsessive thinking about their victims. Stalking can be considered a form of intimate terrorism that drains victims of mental and emotional resources, making victims fear for their safety, and sometimes their life. Usually victims know their stalkers.

Ex-partners account for a specific sub-category of stalkers (Sheridan, Blaauw, & Davies, 2003). Some evidence suggests that ex-partners who engage in more frequent stalking behaviors tend to be those who emotionally or verbally abused their partners, or otherwise engaged in psychological maltreatment of their partners, prior to breaking up (Davis et al., 2000).

Post-breakup obsessive pursuit is linked also to a form of dependency called relationship contingent self esteem (Park, Sanchez, & Brynildsen, 2011). People with relationship contingent self esteem define their self worth through their relationship, and then, when the relationship ends, they are more prone to experience intense obsessions about their ex-partners. If people have high levels of relationship-contingent self esteem and they react poorly to a breakup (with high levels of anger, jealousy, and emotional distress), this can prompt obsessive pursuit of former partners. Stalking in these contexts thus reflects a serious glitch in an otherwise typical experience — a break up and post-break up distress. Unable to recalibrate their sense of self, stalkers begin obsessing with potentially dangerous outcomes.

Why do stalkers stalk?

To understand stalking behavior, we need to dig deeper into the underlying social-cognitive experiences of stalkers. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? How does it come to pass that, after a break-up, some people start the harassing behavior of stalking partners?

Stalking behavior seems to emerge from obsessive thinking, and new research (Valshtein et al., 2020) suggests relatedness concerns may be a key trigger in transforming obsessions into stalking.

Why do stalkers get obsessed?

Are you familiar with relatedness as a fundamental psychological need? Relatedness is a feeling of connection and belonging. People are inherently driven towards relatedness, making it possible that thwarted relatedness goals might evoke intense behavior. This is a question explored in recent research out of New York University (Valshtein et al., 2020): if you combine thwarted relatedness with negative fantasies (e.g., imagining your partner will leave you, imagining that you'll never be with the person you love again), does it encourage the possibility of stalking?

Thwarted relatedness needs and negative fantasies increase obsessive thought

The researchers used experimental methods to manipulate feelings of relatedness and fantasies (negative, neutral, or positive). They first found that feeling unloved and then thinking about an imaginary unexpected negative encounter with a romantic partner led to stronger subsequent reports of obsessive thinking. Study 2 included a measure of proximity-seeking behaviors and emphasized the role of negative fantasies in driving obsessive thinking; in this study, they manipulated fantasies by having participants imagine a worst (or best) possible relationship outcome, which affected participants' obsessive thoughts.

Study 3 rounded out their research by using a well-established computer game to manipulate relatedness (cyberball) and by measuring obsessive thinking and proximity-seeking behaviors. Results showed that lower relatedness increased obsessive thinking, as did negative fantasies, and that obsessive thinking predicted proximity seeking, an effect that was suggested in Study 2 but evident in the data in Study 3.

Taken together, the findings suggest that both thwarted relatedness needs and negative fantasies are distinct predictors of obsessive thoughts, the kind that underlie stalking behaviors. Indeed, they provide preliminary evidence that people who feel disconnected are more likely to engage in proximity-seeking behaviors — a link to stalking — than those who have their relational needs met.

Relational needs are often met by romantic partners so when a relationship ends (especially not by one's own choice), feelings of connection can be dramatically severed. This is no excuse for stalking behavior. It is, however, a reminder to all of us of the expansive role of belonging and connection in psychological health. Certainly this research has limits — studying stalking in laboratory settings for instance cannot fully generalize to the real world — but it allows for a window into the precursors for stalking, an important step forward for programs designed to help people cope with and emotional distress following romantic breakups.

If you are a victim of stalking, you can and should seek help. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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Davis, K. E., Ace, A., & Andra, M. (2000). Stalking perpetrators and psychological maltreatment of partners: Anger-jealousy, attachment insecurity, need for control, and break-up context. Violence and Victims, 15(4), 407-425.

Park, L. E., Sanchez, D. T., & Brynildsen, K. (2011). Maladaptive responses to relationship dissolution: The role of relationship contingent self‐worth. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41, 1749-1773.

Sheridan, L. P., Blaauw, E., & Davies, G. M. (2003). Stalking: Knowns and unknowns. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4(2), 148-162.

SPARC (2019, July). Stalking Fact Sheet.…

Valshtein, T.J., Mutter, E.R., Oettingen, G. et al. Relatedness needs and negative fantasies as the origins of obsessive thinking in romantic relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 44, 226–243 (2020).