Who do you picture when you think of a stalker? Is it the fanatical fan who delusionally believes a young, rich and beautiful celebrity is secretly in love with her? How about a crazed, trench-coat wearing stranger who lurks in the shadows and stealthily follows an innocent woman home? These are rarely accurate images of most stalkers but they’re comforting; after all, we’re not celebrities and, surely, we’d spot a skulking stranger.   

Here’s what stalking really looks like. In May, the Supreme Court of Georgia on Monday terminated the law license of Richard S. Thompson, a former U.S. attorney of the Southern District of Georgia, following two felony convictions for aggravated stalking in January 2019, resulting in 3 years imprisonment, 17 years on probation, and banishment from the legal circuit where his ex-girlfriend lives. Thompson has a long and well-documented history of harassment (repeatedly parking outside his ex-girlfriend’s house, following her in his car, pounding on her door, and sending disparaging and threatening emails to her, her friends and her family) as well as continued violation of multiple protective orders warning him to stay away from the woman and her family. Here is someone who clearly knows better – and stalks anyway.

The Psyche of the Stalker

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—are much more diverse than you might think. I’ve evaluated teenagers who didn’t consider what they were doing as stalking in spite of the fact that their ongoing pursuit was clearly unwelcome and obsessive. In their minds, they were so fixated on their own emotional pain, so panicked at the thought of losing someone they thought they couldn’t live without, that they couldn’t begin to see what it might be like for the other person. In their minds, the behaviors seemed perfectly justified. 

I’ve also evaluated seriously scary individuals, particularly when it comes to stalkers who were once sweethearts. Current or former intimate partners are both the most common type of stalker and often the most dangerous; 2/3rds of stalking victims had been in a romantic relationship with their stalker and up to 80% of people in an abusive relationship have been stalked by their abuser during the relationship.   

Unfortunately, just as stalkers who were once lovers often find it easier to justify their behaviors, there are mental mistakes that can blind a stalking victim to the true danger of her situation or tempt her to do the wrong thing—even after it’s clear that her boyfriend is no longer her best friend and, in fact, may be her mortal enemy. Understanding these mistakes can save a life.

1 | Minimizing or rationalizing a stalker’s behavior: After a breakup, you suddenly find yourself bumping into your ex at unexpected places; s/he just happens to drive by when you discover a flat tire after leaving work and stops to help; or during the past week, you’ve spotted him twice in your favorite restaurant and found out he’s joined the gym you belong to. Yes, it seems odd that your ex is turning up so often, but you shrug it off. Perhaps you’re imagining things. It was nice to have help with your car. And, hey, it’s a free country—he can go wherever he likes.

Even when we have a bumpy track record with someone, it can be easy to downplay the potential risk. Because some intimate stalkers stalk their partners before the breakup, it can be dismissed as more of the same behavior—annoying but not a cause for alarm. However, even when the stalking behavior is the same, the situation has changed: A stalker is much more likely to escalate when he thinks he has nothing to lose. If this is new behavior, it’s even easier to rationalize – he’s just getting over it, she’s having a hard time letting go, he’s not himself, etc. Maybe this is true, but it’s not something to ignore. Twenty percent of people who murder an ex were not abusive while the relationship was intact.   

Psychological safety tip: If you are the victim of a persistent ex, you need to tune into your internal radar and trust your gut. Start by keeping a journal of all the “odd” things that happen, including dates, times, and circumstances. Not only can this help validate that you’re not being overly dramatic or imagining things, it starts a paper trail that will be useful in the event that you need to get legal assistance. It can also help you identify common patterns in your ex’s behavior; this will come in handy when developing a safety plan.

2 | Playing the psychologist instead of protecting yourself: Perhaps your ex did have a rough childhood. Maybe he is hurt and angry over the breakup. Perhaps he doesn’t have the closure he says he needs to move on. These are all fine topics for a therapist’s office but they are not your problems to solve. Getting sucked into playing the psychologist instead of protecting yourself will ultimately make the situation worse. 

Psychological safety tip: Stalking cannot be solved by reasoning or bargaining. He will not be at peace if you meet with him “one last time.” You will not help him move on by promising to “remain friends.” You cannot save him if he threatens to hurt himself. Giving in to these threats only puts you in danger. A former lover knows every button to push to get you back in his life; know what those buttons are yourself so you can protect yourself. And remember that the best help you can give your ex is a one-time, clear “it’s over,” followed by absolute silence. Anything else gives him a chance to hear what he wants to rather than deal with the truth. 

3 | Blindly trusting authority:  I often work with law enforcement and have tremendous respect for the complicated and difficult jobs they do. At the same time, I don’t think many police officers are trained to deal with stalkers or their victims; it can be too easy to focus on, and dismiss, each stalking behavior as a separate incident without seeing the potentially lethal pattern emerging. There have been a few tragic – and potentially avoidable – murders recently in which a stalking victim reported stalking over and over and was not taken seriously until it was too late.     

Psychological Safety tip:  Law enforcement is often your best ally, but they are not your only one. There is never a better time for thinking outside the box than when you believe your life is in danger. Here are some of the strategies stalking victims have used to build up their sense of security – keep a record of what happened, background check the suspect, hire a private investigator, install a security system, get a dog, ask to speak to the investigating officer’s supervisor, take your evidence to the district attorney’s office. When it comes to saving lives, be open to any – and all – legal ideas. And never trust anyone more than you trust yourself.

The Bottom Line

Stalking by a former lover can be an escalation of abuse or start as an extreme reaction to rejection. Regardless, it is the most potentially lethal form of obsessive pursuit. It is also the most complicated: The history between the two individuals can tempt the victim to make mental mistakes that unwittingly increase her risk. Until we live in a world where we can all feel safe and secure after a relationship ends, we have to be vigilant at every stage of a romantic relationship, especially when it ends, and that includes recognizing—and avoiding—psychological blind spots that put us at risk.