Stalking is a problematic response to a surprisingly common problem.
Nearly 20% of women and 6% of men the U.S. are 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 obsessing 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 break 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 re-calibrate 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 you’re partner will leave you, imagining that you’ll never be with the person you love again), does it encourage the possibility of stalking?