How to Spot the Stalker: When Casual Dating is Dangerous

Overestimating relationship significance can cause an obsessive fixation.

Posted Nov 18, 2017

Akhenaton Images/Shutterstock
Source: Akhenaton Images/Shutterstock

"I'd like you to meet my girlfriend..." 

These words might send a chill up your spine if used to introduce you by someone you barely know and have only been out with once or twice. (The same holds true if the gender roles are reversed, of course.) Should you be worried? This arguably inappropriate introduction might just signal harmless wishful thinking. But it might also indicate a state of mind that is delusional and dangerous. 

For Stalkers, Relationships Are in the Eye of the Beholder

How many dates make a relationship? Some people say 20 or more. Yet for a delusional individual looking for love, the answer might be one . . . or none. We live in an era where, thanks to online dating sites and social media platforms, social attachments, real or not, can form in a short period of time — and well before prospective partners ever meet in person.

Healthy unions require a meeting of the minds. Regardless of how many dates you have had, both parties must agree on the type of relationship they have — if they have one at all. Sometimes this includes having some version of “the talk” to prevent false expectations. 

Stalkers often overestimate the significance of a relationship and, as a result, have an unrealistic expectation of intimacy and expected fidelity. To the people who prosecute stalkers for a living, as I have done for years, red flags of relational overestimation typically include the stalker's own description of the union — which tends to differ dramatically from his or her victim's. 

In addition to the way a prospective partner introduces you to other people, also pay attention to the way a suitor labels you online. When posting photos of the two of you on Facebook, do they use your name or a term of endearment? Do they describe or engage in long-range planning, exhibiting an unrealistic expectation of a joint future?

Some stalkers misunderstand the path toward intimacy, failing to appreciate the need for a gradual progression of trust, transparency, and chemistry in the formation of a healthy relationship. For stalking victims, this misunderstanding can be deadly. In November 2017, Elizabeth Lee Herman, 56, was killed by Vincent Verdi, 62, in Manhattan.[i] The pair had met less than a year prior on a dating website and had what was characterized as a “brief” relationship.  

After the “breakup,” if you can even call it that, Verdi started calling, emailing, and sending Herman chocolates and flowers. He started following her to appointments, to and from work, and even showed up while Herman was on a date with another man.

This bold behavior was particularly troubling considering the short-lived romance. Herman actually obtained a restraining order against her murderer, which illustrates the reality that they do not always work. Her case demonstrates that it does not take a long period of time for stalkers to fixate on their victims, and that they will often refuse to accept that their "relationship," however short, is over. 

When Rejected Suitors Become Stalkers

Laurence Miller, in “Stalking: Patterns, motives, and intervention strategies,” (2012) discusses a variety of typologies of stalkers,[ii] including several that arguably describe the type of stalking that can result from relational overestimation.  

He identifies the simple obsessional stalker as the most common type — typically a male suffering from substance abuse or a personality disorder who relentlessly pursues a former paramour. 

Miller also discusses the rejected stalker, who is unable to let go of a relationship that has been ended. He explains that for some rejected suitors, stalking behavior represents both a desire for reconciliation and revenge. This type of stalker wants to remind the victim that the relationship cannot really be over. 

Regardless of the terminology used to classify the stalking behavior, one of the best ways for victims to protect themselves is to remain attuned to early warning signs that a prospective partner has an overinflated view of a casual relationship. 

Safety in Numbers

Stalking victims should not suffer in silence. The more people who are aware of a stalker's identity and behavior, the safer the victim will be. Restraining orders are useful as well, although as the Herman case illustrates, they are not a perfect solution in all cases. When victims report stalking behavior to friends, co-workers, and loved ones, they create an atmosphere of collective awareness that can enhance the victim's ability to stay safe.

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor and behavioral expert, and the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press). The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5042983/Woman-killed-ex-boyfriend-stalked-months.html

[ii] Laurence Miller, “Stalking: Patterns, motives, and intervention strategies,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 17, iss. 6 (2012): 495-506.