Illustration by Michelle Thompson. 

The Psychology Behind Stalking

It’s comforting to believe that we can easily spot a stalker. But people who engage in stalking actually vary far more widely that you'd expect.

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Dec 13 2018, 8:44pm

Illustration by Michelle Thompson. 

Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse, and amplifying the voices of victims and survivors. In the UK, we have partnered with anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register. Follow all of our coverage here.

It’s comforting to believe that we can easily spot a stalker. They’re the skeezy, crazed strangers in trench coats who do obviously disturbing things like follow women home and track down their personal details. Right?

Actually, people who exhibit the obsessive behavior associated with stalking—including following someone, sending unwanted gifts or communication, and staking out at someone’s home or work—vary much more widely than cultural tropes portray.

Partially because of misleading stereotypes, Gary Walker (whose name has been changed) didn’t admit to himself that he was a stalker until an ex-girlfriend used that word about him. Only then did the 25-year-old realize that the things he’d done in their relationship and others—like calling excessively when it was clearly unwanted and contacting his girlfriend’s family—were obsessive.

“The thing about this obsessive behavior is it's equivalent to a panic attack. It’s an existential crisis,” Walker says of moments when he’s fixating on someone who isn’t reciprocating. “It feels like someone you love just died.”

According to Michele Galietta, a clinician and psychology professor at City University of New York who focuses on therapeutic treatments for stalkers and other groups, “There’s no such thing as the typical stalker.” Galietta has worked with people ranging from a high-functioning judge with borderline personality disorder to a person who silently stalked his victim for two years before attempting to kill her.

Rather than a disorder in itself, stalking is a behavior that falls under the umbrella of symptoms for various disorders. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior, “Motivations for stalking include a delusional belief in romantic destiny, a desire to reclaim a prior relationship, a sadistic urge to torment the victim, or a psychotic over-identification with the victim and the desire to replace him or her.” And stalkers can fall under a variety of diagnoses, including psychotic disorders; personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder; and delusional disorders, such as erotomania—a belief that another person, often a prestigious person, is in love with you. (Walker believes he has borderline personality disorder in addition to ADHD, although these haven’t been diagnosed. He also considers himself to be narcissistic.)

According to Galietta’s research, people with substance use disorders are also often prone to stalking. One study that Galietta co-authored, which used a pool of 137 stalking offenders on probation in New York City, found that about half had a substance use disorder, and half had a personality disorder. Over a quarter, however, didn’t have any sort of personality, substance use, or other mental disorder.

Despite this variance, there are certain characteristics that pop up again and again among stalkers, according to research. For instance, in a 2014 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of stalking survivors reported that they knew their stalker in some way. There’s also some evidence that stalkers are often men in their 30s, and their targets are frequently women in their late teens and early 20s—although not always. Other studies have found that anger and insecurity, often stemming from childhood, are also common among stalkers, as is impulsiveness.

Galietta says she’s also observed that stalkers generally have “very narrow interests, very little leisure activity, variable other social interactions; so these tend to be their primary relationships.”

This has been true for Walker. “Me, I had no idea what I was doing with my life,” he says. “Socially and intellectually inept. No life experience, no guidance other than my critical mother. I had nothing going on and no friends. What was left to do but obsess over this?”

Even someone with all of these predispositions, however, may never engage in stalking. Rather, stalking behavior is often triggered by a life event that’s difficult to cope with, such as a breakup, firing, arrest, or rejection.

“During one of the breakups I remember—it’s painful to think about this—knocking on her dorm room door for at least... too long,” Walker recalls about an ex-partner. “I felt creepy then, too.”

What’s the difference between being stalked by an ex-partner versus by a stranger?

Representations of unhealthy relationship dynamics in pop culture can blur our understanding of the difference between romantic persistence and threatening obsession. Rom-coms teach us that it’s desirable for guys to, say, hire a private investigator to track us down (There’s Something about Mary), blare music late at night outside our windows (Say Anything), and generally follow women until we finally agree to date (Saawariya and other Bollywood films). As the stalker at the centre of Caroline Kepnes’ bestseller, You, says to justify himself: “I have seen enough romantic comedies to know that romantic guys like me are always getting into jams.”

But in reality, stalking is a form of abuse. And current or former intimate partners are both the most common type of stalker and often the most dangerous. An estimated 60.8% of women who responded to the 2014 CDC survey reported that they were currently or previously in a romantic relationship with their stalker. And research shows that up to 80 percent of people in abusive relationships have been stalked within that relationship.

Stalking of a former partner also tends to be more persistent: Most stalking stops after two–four weeks, but ex-partner stalking commonly lasts longer. Detective Inspector Lee Barnard, who runs the UK's Stalking Threat Assessment Centre told Broadly earlier this year that ex-partner stalkers are "potentially the most dangerous." One stalking study describes ex-partner stalkers as having “easily bruised egos, flimsy interpersonal boundaries, smoldering rage and jealousy, and relentless tenacity.” They also typically have intimate knowledge and, often, access to their victims’ lives.

Walker has only stalked partners and former partners. For him, these impulses—which might start with obsessive text messages, then grow—have been connected with anxiety and jealousy during, or just after the end of, a relationship. He also struggles with beliefs he admits might be considered misogynistic—such as that women are inherently liars who can’t be trusted— and he often believes that his former partners have been sending him mixed messages. For instance, when one ex didn’t ask him to delete nude photos of her, he interpreted it as a sign that she didn’t consider him dangerous, rather than a sign that she was avoiding further contact. “She called me a stalker then didn't treat me like one,” he says.

Troy McEwan, a clinical and forensic psychologist at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, strikes a note of caution when considering the prevalence of ex-partner stalking, however. He tells Broadly: “While ex-partner stalkers are responsible for more violence during stalking, and form the single largest stalker group, they are not the majority of stalkers out there in the community, and stranger and acquaintance stalkers’ behavior can be just as, if not more, persistent and damaging as that of former partners, even if it does not involve physical violence in as many cases.”

The other types of stalkers that McEwan is referring to include psychotic stalkers—like David Letterman’s stalker, Margaret Mary Ray, who told people she was Letterman’s wife and the mother of his child.

Psychotic stalkers are disconnected from reality and can have detailed delusions about being in relationships with specific celebrities, strangers, colleagues, or acquaintances. Galietta gave the example of a man she treated who met a woman in a coffee shop, where they exchanged just a few words. “The delusional thinking was, ‘I knew that she wanted to talk to me even though she acted like she didn’t,” Galietta explains. “I saw her car parked on the left side of the street instead of the right side of the street. That’s a special message to me.’”

Galietta explains that these delusional stalkers often don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong, as they might be convinced that others are just failing to understand them. While their actions can be severely damaging and traumatic, they’re less likely to be physically violent than other kinds of stalkers. For one thing, they’re typically easier to spot than more insidious kinds of stalkers, as psychosis involves a break from reality and, often, unconventional behavior.

What does therapy for a stalker look like?

As most stalkers have limited interests, one therapeutic option “is just to build resilience, connection to other things [such as] hobbies,” says Galietta. “We often see that there’s this urge to contact someone—whether that is because of a psychotic belief or because of loneliness in someone, or something like that. And then, once they make contact, that feeling goes away for a little while, and so that’s a mechanism that reinforces it. So we want to break that—we want to teach them to recognize that, whatever that urge was earlier on—and get a commitment for them to try something different.”

This aspect of trying something different can be very hard for stalking perpetrators. McEwan’s clients tend to be in intense emotional states, whether negative or positive, when they engage in individual acts of stalking. But the relief or high that they get from stalking dissipates quickly. “For some reason, and we’re only starting to work out why, someone who stalks returns to that same emotional state rather than being able to move on,” McEwan explains. “This means they need to keep managing their emotional state, and they keep choosing socially inappropriate and potentially criminal strategies that involve intruding on the victim.”

Stalking treatment can be effective if very targeted, but generic treatment isn’t likely to accomplish much, given the diversity of stalking behaviors, says Galietta. There’s also limited understanding among psychologists, however, about how to make this treatment specific, she says. “Very few therapists are going to think to put stalking as the treatment target. They’re going to be like, ‘How’s things going? How are your relationships?’ They’re not going to be, ‘Do you have an urge to call the person? What do you do when you have the urge? What skill do you use?’” In her view, getting into the details of stalking behaviors and compulsions is more useful to rehabilitation than general supportive treatment.

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This treatment also needs to be accessible and affordable, however. Walker says he finds himself tormented by his own urge to connect. He’s diagnosed himself with personality and other disorders, without getting professional help. He says, “I have no one. And no, I’m not really getting help. I couldn’t afford that, and finding alternatives just leads me to get frustrated about how convoluted I feel life is. And for all the shit I need to do, like start exercising and actively improving my attitude, I still need people.”

If you are being stalked, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime at 855-484-2846.