The Blog

Knowing the Difference Between Love and Stalking Could Save Your Life

Today, around half of all stalkers are ex-partners, and up to one in four of the population have suffered from being stalked. So many people start relationships not realising that the particular kind of possessive love exhibited by obsessional lovers, could turn romance into a nightmare.

Glen Skoler, a Forensic Psychologist based in Washington DC, has posed the question of whether the most famous love obsession in western literature - Shakespeare's sonnets for his 'dark lady' - reveal that the writer at the center of the Western canon of literature, was in fact an obsessed stalker.

Published in a book entitled 'The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives', Dr Skoler points out that Shakespeare's sonnets, just like obsessed stalkers, reveals him trying to control the object of his love with threats, blackmail and forebodings of the unpredictable nature of his anger at rejection, if pushed too far.

Skoler argues that Shakespeare's choice of weapon are words, so, for example, in Sonnet 140 he targets slander - accusing an Elizabethan woman of adultery - in an angry threat - to try and pressure and control her.

Skoler contends that these famous love sonnets should really be better termed 'hate sonnets', as Shakespeare's spurned affirmations of love become increasingly vicious, threatening, obscene, paranoid, irrational and desperate.

Today, around half of all stalkers are ex-partners, and up to one in four of the population have suffered from being stalked. So many people start relationships not realising that the particular kind of possessive love exhibited by obsessional lovers, could turn romance into a nightmare, and even lead to murder.

For example, a man accused of stalking his estranged wife was wearing body-armour and carrying weapons, when Pennsylvania police pulled him over, as he was following her to work last week.

Flint Staton had a loaded .40 caliber handgun, a stun baton, a machete, a variety of knives, a baseball bat, brass knuckles and other weapons in his car, as well as 39 pieces of paper depicting various forms of violence and killing, handcuffs, a black stiletto-heeled shoe, duct tape, several boxes of gloves, a ski mask and a Valentine's Day card bearing the message "A Promise for My Wife," according to official reports.

The case is a reminder of the sobering, ground-breaking research published by lead author Judith MacFarlane from Texas Woman's University in 1999, finding that 76 per cent of intimate partner female murder is preceded by stalking. Stalking was revealed to be associated with lethal and near lethal violence against women.

Spotting the difference between a stalker and a lover could save your life.

Given this fact, many Valentine's cards boast extraordinary inappropriate use of stalking motifs in Valentine's greetings. For example, the 'Valentine's t-shirt' "Some call it stalking, I call it love", is still available on the internet, despite a campaign to have it withdrawn.

A variety of stalker-themed Valentine's cards are to be found for sale, including last year's special, which on the outside read: 'Stalker is a harsh word' and on the inside 'I prefer Valentine'. The one which comes closest to the real meaning of stalking is a card which reads "Love me - or else".

New anti-stalking provisions were introduced in the UK under amendments in the Protection from Freedoms Act 2012, these coming into force last November. The UK already had the Protection from Harassment Act to deal with stalking behaviours since 1997. But it was patchily applied and, in general ineffective.

What was missing - and what is present in the new Act - is the word 'stalking'.

For, despite the poor taste of card makers, the term stalking is finally achieving, not only legal, but also general recognition for what it is - a form of psychological torture. Sometimes referred to as emotional rape, in a tragic minority of cases, it's a prelude to murder.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of stalking, Rosemary Purcell, Michele Pathé and Paul Mullen from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health and Monash University, in Australia, surveyed 3700 adult men and women and found almost one in four had been stalked.

The study was published in the 'Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry'

and found women were twice as likely as men to report having been stalked at some time in their lives. As younger people were significantly more likely than older to report having been stalked, the authors wondered if this was evidence that stalking was significantly increasing in modern times.

The study entitled 'The prevalence and nature of stalking in the Australian community', reports domestic pets were killed or injured in 3 instances, one victim found obscene messages scrawled in wet concrete outside her home, while another returned to find her house flooded, after her stalker had threaded a garden hose through a window.

Assaults were reported by 18% of those stalked, but most people in the UK will probably remember the murders by stalking ex-partners of Clare Bernal, gunned down in Harvey Nichols in 2006, Rana Faruqui who was stabbed to death in 2003 and Tania Moore, shot in 2004. All, incidentally, cases previously and repeatedly brought to the attention of the police.

About half of stalkers are ex-partners, and ex-partners have been found to be the most dangerous pursuers.

What is particularly ominous about this finding, and the theory that stalking is increasing, is the possibility that Facebook and Twitter could encourage obsession, not least by preventing 'closure' at the end of a relationship. Social media allows you to continue surveillance of an ex after a rejection, no matter where you or they are, which wasn't so possible in the pre-internet era.

Tara Marshall from the University of Brunel recently published a study showing that continuing online contact with an ex-partner through remaining Facebook friends, or surveillance of the ex-partner's Facebook page, inhibits adjustment after the break-up.

The study was published in the academic journal 'Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking' and involved analysis of 464 participants, revealing Facebook surveillance was associated with greater current distress over the breakup, more negative feelings, sexual desire, and longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth.

The author concludes exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may obstruct the process of healing and moving on from a past relationship.

This is particularly ominous because it may be many more are on the cusp of becoming stalkers than is realised, and perhaps could now be pushed over the edge by the surveillance offered by the internet. Brain scanning studies of the recently jilted find their brains are most active in areas associated with anxiety, pain, anger, addiction, risk taking, obsessions and compulsions.

But there are other types of stalkers besides exes.

According to Professor Paul Mullen from Melbourne many are people resentful at some form of sleight or grievance, and three other types of stalker in the realm of 'love' or sex include; incompetent suitors who do not understand how properly to ask for a date and pester to the point of harassment; people seeking intimate relationships with people they don't know or hardly know - sometimes with the delusional belief that a relationship already exists; and the sexually predatory who stalk as the prelude to rape.

So what is the key difference between stalking of a partner and love? Where does one end and the other begin? Does the difference reveal something of the essence of love, as opposed to obsessive desire?

The real difference is that love is selfless, whereas a stalker's 'affections' are demanding, and based on the belief that the stalker has an entitlement to the other person's affections - and indeed to their lives.

Of course, many will be devastated and upset when rejected by a partner and may plead to be taken back. These feelings will be exacerbated on Valentines' Day, but is that stalking?

The research by Rosemary Purcell, Michele Pathé and Paul Mullen found that many who have been dumped may engage in intrusive behaviours, but it seems to be that when these continue for more than two weeks, that then they are most likely to become abnormal, and then go on and on.

And what of Flint Staton, the man recently arrested in Pennsylvania? In a cruelly ironical turn of events, the first hearing in his case is set for February 14th.