January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and a time for highlighting a pattern of behavior that often gets portrayed in extremes with little detail on where it might originate, and how it builds over time. In general, when asking people to think about stalking, these extreme examples portrayed by entertainment media and focused on by news sources are the commonly discussed and explored aspects.
Sadly, such a focus leaves little room or opportunity for intervention - it leaves us picking up the pieces and wondering what went wrong rather than actively seeking methods of noticing and stopping patterns of behavior as they build and develop. In this article, I'm going to be breaking down some different categories
of hurtful behavior and addressing ways irritating and alienating
behavior in relationships might build to stalking behavior. So I hope you take some time this month to use this to reflect on opportunities for intervention, both to honor the purpose of the awareness month, but also for your own ability to adequately and appropriately respond to danger signs.
Broadly defined, emotional harms entail patterns of behavior which create distress in others. This is a huge category of ways abusers might commit acts we commonly define as domestic violence, and as such, it is useful to be as specific as possible when considering emotional harms. I find in my BIP/DVIP groups, a part of the classes involve creating clarity for terms and concepts that are often poorly understood or identified. Emotions are some of the most common terms and concepts that people may feel instinctively, but can be unable to adequately express or discuss due to lack of concrete definitions.
A big part of this confusion is due to the fact that as children, some of the first words we learn are emotions. Parents identify behavior patterns and name them as emotions, such as "Johnny, you're angry right now" or "aren't you happy your friend is visiting?" So we associate those sensations with words, rather than being able to break down why we feel them, or what to do about them.
Stalking is a heavily emotional-based pattern of behavior. Abusers stalk their victims/partners/survivors due to justifications of jealousy, anger, desire for revenge, suspicion, or even projecting their own lack of fidelity onto others.
I enjoy doing an exercise of attempting to define emotions using two criteria - do not use another emotional word within the definition, and do not use an example of the emotion itself. When people go to define emotions, that is the default method of describing what something feels like rather than identifying what it actually is.
An example of this in action is considering the emotion of jealousy. When I define it, I talk about jealousy being an emotion that gives you signals that someone is doing something you would like to be a part of, and gives you energy to do something about it. When defined like this, it is simple to understand that jealousy is not a "negative" emotion, but the actions that come out of it might be.
Abusers who choose to stalk their partners find various things they want to know about or be involved with in that person's life. Over time, this desire grows and an abuser may want to know all details and be present at all times. Emotionally, abusers can create distress in their partners/victims by increasingly pushing boundaries and denying personal space. It starts small, however, and often for many it can seem endearing.
After all, "he wants to spend all his time with her! Isn't that sweet? I wish MY partner wanted to spend more time with me! Honey, you should just appreciate him for the attention he gives to you because it won't last forever!" This is an example of how we readily place our sense of safety onto someone who may not have safety in their life or relationship. It is also an example of how common these warning signs present themselves to family, friends, coworkers, and others - and how often they are ignored or pushed away because considering the danger, or the unhealthy display of control is frightening to others who want to believe the patterns fit into healthy pro-social patterns.
While it is not practical to associate all desires to be together in a relationship as a warning sign for stalking, considering an overall pattern, and listening/noticing discomfort or distress in the person who is the object of these "affections" is critical to prevention and providing support and opportunities for reflection - both for victims/survivors, but also for perpetrators who may be clueless for how their patterns violate boundaries and are problematic due to their justifications and thinking they are just attempting to be loving.
It behooves BIP/DVIP to discuss spirituality and culture directly during groups. That is, what provides value and meaning to each participant's life, how do they understand their cultural background and conflicts in culture between them and their partners, and how any religious beliefs fit into both areas in their relationship with themselves and others.
Stalking behavior is in part based in a foundation where the stalker values a sense of omnipresence and omnipotence - seeing/hearing all, and knowing all. This can overlap in values and beliefs on several levels. Men who believe in patriarchy and control of women by men can easily have a value in questioning and finding information and desperately seeking discrepancies to justify those behavior. And part of the charm behind initial buildup of stalking is that victims/survivors often feel a sense of protection and care by the behavior (abusers may think they do it in their partner's "best interests"). The abuser might try to limit contact with friends and family, but says the only reason given is due to the expense of the visits, or that they should spend more time together, or that certain family are mean or abusive or have bad history. All of these justifications sound, on surface level, like caring gestures - but under that surface is the potential to build patterns of isolation, monitoring, and stalking.
This pattern may build up through the use of technology and social media, scouring of mail and records, seemingly innocent questions to friends and family. Asking a partner to use Foursquare/Swarm/Facebook to check-in wherever they go might be a simple way of playing a game together, or might be a way of knowing where a partner is, and questioning when a check-in does not occur. Going through mail and internally keeping track of various correspondence until there is an inconsistency or material that is not mentioned might be an organizational method, or might be a way of pressuring someone to divulge random information that appears unimportant. Inquiring about a partner's childhood or prior relationships with friends and family could be small talk, or could be information to use later.
Some of these examples appear on surface level to be a more "simple" form of control, and not stalking, but that is in part what makes these methods so effective. Stalking is often not obvious at its start, or as it builds, but only makes sense in hindsight. This is a major challenge of intervention, is being open to the idea that side comments and random patterns might be a small piece of a bigger, dangerous attack against a partner's agency. The goal of stalking in these cases is more about creating dependence and removing a partner's ability to think or make decisions. These values and meaning behind the control suffuse a person's life until their values become their abuser's values. Their beliefs mirror their stalker's beliefs because disagreeing is not allowed.
This form of stalking is often not addressed, or is addressed in indirect ways because it can be so hard to put a finger on. As mentioned at the start of this section, including extensive reflection on culture, beliefs, values, and meaning in life can help ferret out patterns and discover patterns that are otherwise easily obscured.
BIP/DVIP can easily skirt around discussions of sex outside of rape or other forms of assault. Talking about sexual health and respect can be awkward for facilitators and participants if they are uncomfortable with the topic, or do not fully understand how pervasive human sexuality is as a part of relationships.
The layers of harm in sexual behavior are also often missed. How frequently have BIP/DVIP groups discussed "selfish sex," non-sexual flirting with others, how they talk about their sexual desires or dislikes in their relationships, or discontent with frequency and how to communicate this?
Stalking behavior pushes boundaries. Stalking behavior seeks domination, omnipotence, and omnipresence - and sexual behavior can provide illusions or reality for those things. Extreme behavior that is often mentioned with stalking involve things such as the stalker smelling/investigating a partner's panties or genitals as a method of determining sexual behavior outside of the relationship. This is, of course, a humiliating and horrible experience for victims/survivors, but that extreme does not start at that level.
A stalker who suspects a partner of cheating may do these investigations without that partner knowing. That stalker may ask probing questions about contact with friends, or even discuss his/her own sexual past in attempts to gain info from their partner. If the information does not come up during that discussion - that is fodder for tactical attacks about personal vulnerability and the partner not reciprocating. If the information does come up from the stalker's partner, that sexual past can be used to compare, judge, and save for later control.
Even if a victim/survivor is cheating, how does the abuser/stalker handle this information? Some stalkers are actually seemingly happier with this information, because it is an instant trump card to be used during arguments, and justify any controlling behavior from that point forward. When abusers discuss their partner cheating on them, and their desire to continue their relationship despite this, interventionists need to ask probing questions about reasons for this decision as well as gain more details about their relationship's sexual history.
Sadly, with the proliferation of men's rights groups and their large overlap with the "art of seduction" hawkers, there are several techniques taught in these groups to have sex with women. Often these lend themselves to stalking behavior. The concept of "negging" is one which undermines someone's confidence in theory that they will be easier to seduce. Talking to / flirting with another woman who is friends with the "target" in attempts to create interest. That level of manipulation sounds a lot like the interviewing friends and family technique above, doesn't it? Consider how these tactics fit into an overall strategy to remove agency and create dependence.
Manipulative Use of Children:
Children can be excellent tools for parents to use against each other. Even in the healthiest of relationships, there are going to be arguments about parental decisions and care, but in relationships that are respectful, there will be negotiations, compromises, listening and caring during discussions, and consideration of personal desire vs. what the needs/wants are of the children will all be a part of managing parenting styles and decisions.
For an abuser who is out of the familial home, it can be a simple thing to drop by uninvited to "check on the kids," or to drop off things for them. When doing so, adding in comments about new purchases, suspicions of guests the abuser does not approve of, asking probing questions to the children to monitor behavior, or outright sabotaging the household to try and force a situation where the family needs to be reunited (such as leaving water running or turning up heat to make a higher utility bill, refusing to contribute to finances if not living at home, questioning any contributions and where the money is going when they are made).
In BIP/DVIP, these behavior are often separated out from stalking behavior and labeled as "using children" - however, as a pattern these sorts of manipulations feed into methods of gaining that sense of omnipotence and omnipresence. It is no small thing that abusers often fight for full custody during a separation or divorce - having the children is a huge source of control that can be exploited in many ways. It also makes sense why victims/survivors often make clauses in protective orders that allow for visits with children. There is a lot of guilt put forward both by abusers, and by society, for blocking contact with a parent.
Even if an abuser is required to stay away from his/her partner, if there is a clause allowing contact/visitations with children, there are ways to casually ask questions to children to gain information that can make it seem like a stalker is using technological tracking devices. "Does mommy/daddy have any new friends?" "What do you do after school?" "Is there anything new going on around the house?" "Where do you go grocery shopping now?" In these examples, an abuser might learn potential new dating partners, patterns of activity and places a victim/survivor might go after picking up the children from school, different activities that may lead to more intimate knowledge of changes in routine, and even specific locations the children and the other parent go to.
Child visitation centers have workers who are trained to notice these and other questions asked by a visiting parent mainly due to these manipulations. These traps are smooth and work well because they sound so casual, like small talk, and make it seem caring and interested. And since children can often feel saddened by parental separation, they may choose the abusive parent and want to divulge information that they believe will bring their parents back together.
Money and finances are an ongoing stressor for most relationships. Negotiation regarding budgeting, individual spending vs. family/couple spending, ideas about "needed" purchases, and financial mistakes are all contributors to this stress. Finances can also be a concrete and "safer" method of stalking a partner/victim.
If a couple shares finances, there are several methods people use to pay bills and separate out responsibilities. Some relationships create a shared pool and pay everything from that pool. Some create a pool based on the percentage earning of each individual, and have independent spending money separate from the pool. Some relationships have one person who pays bills and monitors budgeting. The most focused on economic strategy used by stalkers is the final example, however all the others also can be places where a stalker can build a pattern of monitoring and domination.
Stalking is separate from economic equality. A couple can seem economically partnered and seem independent while behind the scenes, an abuser can make sidelong comments about spending to make a victim/partner question themselves. A stalker can make a majority of the money and assure a partner that he/she doesn't need to worry about finances and then create various checks and balances on that partner's spending. Someone who chooses to be abusive can even buy gifts that seem nice, but have controls connected to them (of course that might include technology with installed tracking and spyware, but it could even be expensive gifts that once accepted are a leveraging point from then on).
Marriage proposals and pregnancy/reproductive coercion can also fit into economic controls. Does the person being abusive choose to make these proposals of having children or entering into marriage when things seem to be falling apart? Does the partner/victim have the option to decline or to wait when considering the request? Is there pressure to make decisions quickly in other aspects of their relationship?
Stalkers commonly press for immediate answers, and hesitation is grounds for suspicion and justifies patterns of monitoring, following, and tracking. Another pattern that is subtle and potentially non-abusive is long term planning for a relationship. The hidden factor may be if the individual's partner has been informed of this plan, had input into this plan, and has had concerns addressed/incorporated into this plan.
There is a fantasy and comfort for stalkers in a world completely planned out, and with technology granting illusions of divinity (virtual omipotence and omipresence) it is a simple thing for any abuser to develop these methods of dominating their partner. The challenge for interventionists is to find the profound in the subtle, the danger in the seemingly innocent, and the intentional in behavior that seems coincidental. It's not just about finding inconsistencies, however, it has a lot to do about caring enough to get to know each abuser as an individual, complicated human being and in doing so begin to put the pieces together of the puzzle of their pattern of hurtful, controlling, abusive, and violent behavior.