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When Post-Breakup Pursuit Becomes Stalking

The danger of downplaying attention that changes from flattering to frightening.

Source: shurkin_son/Shutterstock

You probably have a friend who has shared some version of the story: After extinguishing a former flame, the jilted ex continues to pursue love lost, sending repeated text messages, posting on Facebook, or sending flowers and cards to the victim's place of work.

Then the inevitable happens: When the continued attention remains unreciprocated, communication turns from amorous to ominous. Now, your normally carefree, happy-go-lucky friend is a bundle of nerves. She (or he) is varying her route of travel, screening messages, and walking on pins and needles.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, let me ask you this: Did your friend report the behavior? Chances are, the answer is no. She might have told you not to worry — her ex is just blowing off steam but is really “harmless.” Really? You would not have guessed it by observing her behavior.

Unfortunately, your friend is in good company. To those of us who prosecute stalkers for a living, delayed reporting by victims is not a surprise. A victim's reluctance to expose a stalker's behavior is often fueled by both personal and legal concerns, as well as confusion over "normal" post-breakup behavior.

Criminal Stalking Law

Criminal stalking requires more than messaging, harassing, or following online. In most states, it requires a credible threat of harm intended to put the victim in reasonable fear for his or her safety — or for the safety of immediate family members. Research by Jennifer Gatewood Owens (2017) found that women are much more likely than men to report that they are frightened by stalking behavior, [i] which could account for more women coming forward to report the crime.

Yet for both men and women, when the stalker is an ex-partner, there is widespread reluctance to report. Some victims do not want to create drama. Others believe they can stop the behavior on their own. Still others suffer silently, because they do not believe they have any evidence to show law enforcement.

This reluctance is unfortunate, because victims cannot talk a stalker out of continuing the behavior — any communication is often a stalker's goal. And stalking does not require visible injuries; it can be proven through the perpetrator's words and actions, combined with their impact on the victim. Documentation of stalking behavior is critical, because for some perpetrators, stalking is only the beginning. Stalking can lead to other crimes, from property damage to sexual assault to homicide.

Another reason your friend might have been reluctant to report her ex's concerning conduct might be due in part to perceived normalization of inappropriate post-breakup behavior.

Romanticizing Relational Pursuit

Smoker and March (2017) note that prior research portrays “unrelenting affectionate attention” as an acceptable and even desirable component of romantic courtship. [ii] They note that gifts and other pursuit behaviors can enhance a romantic relationship. They also, however, recognize that there can be too much of a good thing, and that unwelcome, intrusive, or overly persistent overtures approach the realm of stalking.

Logan and Walker, in “Stalking: A Multidimensional Framework for Assessment and Safety Planning,” (2017) recognize that novels and movies often romanticize courtship pursuit behavior, explaining that standing alone, being pursued is not always a negative experience. [iii] They point out that after a breakup, continued attempts at communication by one of the former partners might be “normal” post-breakup pursuit behavior.

Logan and Walker also recognize that unwanted communication can become intrusive, becoming obsessive relational pursuit. They advise that when such pursuit becomes frightening and causes the victim to begin to change his or her life, the behavior has crossed into the dimension of stalking.

When Romantic Attention Is Frightening, Not Flattering

One common denominator, per both research and practical experience, is that romantic communication should be flattering, not frightening. When an email from an ex in your inbox causes the hair to go up on the back of your neck even before you open it, his or her behavior may have already crossed the line.

Stalking victims should not suffer in silence; they should take all necessary steps to stay safe. Working knowledge of the elements of criminal stalking will enable you to separate suitors from stalkers and help detect when old flames have become flammable.


[i] Jennifer Gatewood Owens, ”A Gender-Biased Definition: Unintended Impacts of the Fear Requirement in Stalking Victimization,” Crime & Delinquency 63, no. 11 (2017): 1339-1362. Owens argues the fear requirement in stalking law is gender-based and should be removed, as emotional response is not a part of other crime definitions.

[ii] Melissa Smoker and Evita March, ”Predicting perpetration of intimate partner cyberstalking: Gender and the Dark Tetrad,” Computers in Human Behavior 72 (2017): 390-396.

[iii] TK Logan and Robert Walker, “Stalking: A Multidimensional Framework for Assessment and Safety Planning” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 18, no. 2 (2017): 200-222.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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