A figure in the shadows. Anonymous calls and texts. Someone following or watching from afar. An unfamiliar car parked outside. These are all images that we have learned to associate with stalking and although these behaviors are among the most common, they are most often committed not by a stranger but by one of the closest people to us.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 57 percent of stalking is committed by a current or former intimate partner. In comparison, only 15 percent of such cases involve someone the victim didn’t know1. This means that stalking behaviors are nearly 4x more likely to be committed by a partner in a relationship than a stranger off the streets.
So what is it that leads to so many people stalking someone they were – or in many cases still are – in a relationship with? We explore the issue by reviewing what stalking looks like in a relationship, why people do it and the importance of establishing and respecting healthy boundaries.
Stalking Behaviors in a Relationship
Stalking involves repeatedly watching, following or harassing someone to keep tabs on them in such a way that instills fear. In the context of relationship violence, it is another tactic that can be utilized to maintain power and control over someone in an abusive and controlling relationship.
Many of the behaviors are what we typically associate with those committed by a stranger – following or tracking someone, spying on them, showing up uninvited, sending unwanted messages, repeatedly calling and hanging up, sneaking into their home or vehicle, giving unwanted gifts or damaging personal property. Due to the nature of a relationship, however, these behaviors can look slightly different and can be harder to identify due to seemingly logical excuses that can be provided.
For example – as illustrated in the podcast and hit show Dirty John – hidden cameras installed under the guise of home security can be used for spying on the person they’re meant to protect. Location sharing provides another seemingly innocent avenue to track a person’s movements and whereabouts. A person may even reach out to their partner’s friends or family expressing worry for them with the ulterior motive of locating them.
As is the case with relationship violence, stalking is rarely a one-time incident and is part of a larger pattern. A comprehensive North American study published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that more than 3 in 4 people that exhibit this behavior utilize multiple stalking tactics2.
The Purpose of Stalking
Though it may seem obvious that all of these behaviors would be classified as stalking, that is not how they are typically perceived in a relationship – especially by the person using them.
“They don’t understand it’s stalking,” said Caledonia Counseling’s Duane Barone who has spent 15 years working with people who use abusive behaviors. “They think they’re in love and ‘need to know the truth’ when they suspect infidelity.”
Although you probably get goosebumps just thinking of these behaviors from a third-person perspective, they are often seen in a different light by those involved in a relationship.
“I can imagine that it’s always framed as romantic,” Barone said. “It’s connected to the distortion that jealousy equals love and not insecurity.”
Due in part to social norms, modeled behaviors and messages propagated traditionally by media, this distortion can even take hold of the person experiencing the stalking.
Importance of Healthy Boundaries
Although the use of any stalking behavior in a relationship can seem like – and sometimes is – an innocent action making life more convenient or safe, it can’t be underestimated. Not only is stalking a major red flag for relationship violence, it is often a predictor of dangerous and life-threatening abuse.
An analysis of women murdered by intimate partners found stalking present in 76 percent of cases, making it an even greater risk factor for homicide than physical abuse which was present in just 67 percent. Among those who were physically abused, 89 percent had also experienced stalking behaviors in the 12 months prior to their murder3.
These statistics underscore the importance of healthy boundaries in a relationship. Both people should feel free to spend time with friends, family and participating in activities they enjoy without the fear of being watched or monitored. These boundaries should not only be respected but encouraged by each other.
Stalking is not OK, but it is OK to ask for help. Everyone has the ability to respect their partner’s boundaries in a relationship and there are treatment providers across the state that can help tap into that ability. If you or someone you know is using stalking behaviors in a current or former relationship, help is available through the Stand Up Colorado Helpline. Call or text 855-9-StandUp (855-978-2638) to speak with a trained professional today or visit standupcolorado.org to find a treatment provider in your area.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report (2017).
2Journal of Forensic Sciences. The RECON Typology of Stalking: Reliability and Validity Based upon a Large Sample of North American Stalkers (2006).
3Homicide Studies. Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide (1999).
The Stand Up Colorado Campaign is paused for 2023. To get help to change your behaviors, call the A Call For Change Helpline at 877-898-3411 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. MT. Friends, family, and professionals who want to help someone stop harming their partner are also encouraged to call.