Female Stalkers, Part 4: Attachment Style as a Predictor of Who is More Likely to Stalk and Abuse and Who is More Likely to Be Stalked and Abused
This is the fourth article in the Shrink4Men series on female stalkers. It answers the question, which personality types are more likely to engage in stalking and which personality types are more likely to be stalked? Female Stalkers, Part 1: What is Stalking and Can Men Be Stalked by Women? is an introduction to stalking and current statistics on the phenomenon. Female Stalkers, Part 2: Checklist of Stalking and Harassment Behaviors provides a list of common stalking behaviors. Female Stalkers, Part 3: The Case of the Ex-Girlfriend Who Won’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer shares a real life story about a young man who’s currently being stalked by his ex-girlfriend.
Stalking is . . .
Let’s consider what we know about stalking and stalkers thus far. Stalking acts are engaged in by a perpetrator for different reasons: to initiate a relationship (i.e., Some call it stalking; she calls it courtship); to persuade/coerce a former partner to reconcile; to punish, frighten or control the victim; to feel a sense of personal power; to feel a “connection” to the victim; or some combination of all of the above. Stalking is a form of abuse and most abusers ultimately want control over their victims. Therefore, stalking is about controlling a love object, a hate object or a love/hate object. Both love and hate can inspire obsession.
Abusive personalities and stalkers often lack or have selective empathy for their victims. In fact, a characteristic of stalking is that the stalker objectifies her victim. If you don’t see your victim as another human being with feelings, needs and rights, it becomes very easy to perpetrate any number of cruel, crazy, malicious, spiteful and sick behaviors upon him or her. What about stalkers who believe they’re in love with their victims? Again, this is about possession and control; not love. They want to possess and control you regardless of what you want.
What does a stalker look like?
No surprises here. Research shows that the typical post-break-up/divorce stalker shares many characteristics with high-conflict people (HCPs) and/or abusive personality-disordered individuals (APDIs). Many stalking behaviors have their origins in the unhealthy aspects of the former relationship; namely, the need to control or manipulate one’s partner (Cupach & Spitzberg, 1998). There’s also a correlation between a history of verbal abuse and violence and stalking (Burgess et al, 1997; Coleman, 1997). As I warn many of my clients: If your wife was cruel, vindictive, abusive and controlling during your relationship, expect these behaviors to escalate and become even worse during and after the break-up/divorce as she fights to retain control over you, your assets, the children and her former life.
There are three factors that predict which individuals are more likely to stalk (Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al, 2000):
- Attachment style
- Jealousy and abuse
- Love style
In a nutshell, the kind of attachment we have with our caregivers as children determines the kind of attachments we form in our adult relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987, 1988; Shaver, Hazan & Bradshaw, 1988). Therefore, if you felt safe, loved and cared for as a child; you’re likely to have secure attachments in your adult love relationships. Parents who are intrusive, overly protective and inconsistent in their relationships with their children (i.e., have insecure-anxious-preoccupied or avoidant-dismissing attachment styles), tend to have kids who develop similar attachment styles and unhealthy love relationships as adults. Children learn about love relationships by watching their parents and by how their parents interact with them.
Secure attachment style. Adults who form secure attachments are comfortable depending upon others and having others depend upon them. They can tolerate both intimacy and distance in a relationship and tend to have longer lasting and more satisfying relationships (Feeney & Noller, 1990). Secure individuals also tend to be more open, understanding, honest, trusting and are more capable of compromise and productive problem solving in their relationships. They’re not prone to jealousy and can tolerate separations with their loved ones.
Insecure attachment style. An adult with an insecure-anxious-preoccupied attachment style tends to be overly needy, clingy, becomes anxious when you’re not in their presence and constantly seeks reassurance about the relationship. They tend to experience emotionally intense highs and lows, are difficult to satisfy, and are more likely to lie to their partners to avoid being abandoned or rejected. You can’t love them enough or be close enough and they constantly monitor you and the relationship for any signs that you might leave them.
An insecure type obsesses about being abandoned or rejected. They desperately want intimacy, but often drive their partner away by constantly questioning their love, monitoring and trying to control their partner. Insecure types obsessively seek contact and express anger and resentment when faced with a separation–even a short, temporary one. Insecure attachment style is also related to “the perpetration of violence, jealousy, negative affect during conflict, following, surveillance, and separation behaviors” (Dutton, Saunders, Starzomski, & Bartholomew, 1994; Guerrero, 1998; Holtzworth-Munroe, Stuart, & Hutchinson, 1997). The only positive relationship characteristic some insecure-anxious types score high on is passion (Shaver & Hazan, 1997). However, this probably translates into a frenetic use of sex to secure, hold onto and/or control the relationship. Many individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder have insecure attachment styles.
Avoidant attachment style. Adults with an avoidant attachment style are uncomfortable with and/or fear intimacy, tend not to idealize their love attachments, refuse to acknowledge a love object after separation and have less satisfying and intimate relationships. They dislike closeness with others. They fear dependency upon others and having others depend upon them. Avoidant individuals tend to be cynical, independent, self-contained, have issues trusting others, and are more apt to lie to partners in an effort to avoid intimacy. They tend to become easily irritated with their partners and display anger, contempt and hostility toward their loved ones when they attempt to be close or intimate.
Jealousy and abuse.
The degree of jealousy, abuse and violence that exists in a relationship is another predictor of who is likely to stalk. Proximity maintenance is about the desire to be close to one’s partner and is an aspect of attachment theory. Insecure types require more proximity; avoidants are uncomfortable with too much proximity. Jealousy causes people to engage in proximity-seeking with their partners and extreme jealousy fosters extreme proximity-seeking (Sharpsteen, 1995; Dutton, van Ginkel, & Landolt, 1996). Some of these individuals would try to merge into your person if they could.
Relationships in which control, violence, and abuse exist are often the most difficult and potentially risky to end (Palarea, Zona, Lane, & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 1999). Some research suggests a domestic violence subtype of stalker who seeks to continue a connection in order to “maintain their control over their victim and as a continued expression of their ambivalent, jealous, love-hate relationship” (Burgess et al., 1997; Dziegielewski & Roberts, 1995). I frequently see this in my work with men whose ex-wives needlessly drag out and delay the divorce process at their own expense and their children’s expense. These are also the exes who tend to stalk their exes new love interest and/or new family.
In addition to different attachment styles, there are also different love styles. I find much overlap between the two variables. Love styles implicated in stalking behavior include dependent (insecure-anxious), possessive (jealousy), erotic and game-playing love. A lack of friendship love is also a predictor of stalking behavior post break-up (Hendrick, Hendrick, & Dicke, 1998).
Who is more likely to stalk and who is more likely to be stalked?
An individual with an avoidant attachment style is more likely to become the victim of stalking if they’re coupled with an insecure type, which makes perfect sense (Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al, 2000). Avoidant-dismissing types run away while insecure-anxious types pursue.
Secure individuals are also more likely to become victims of stalking, but for different reasons. An avoidant will try to ignore a former partner altogether. A secure individual will try to resolve the conflict, thereby giving attention to the insecure partner that she/he so desperately craves, which rewards her/his stalking behavior and encourages her/him to persist.
Attachment style is only one-third of the perfect storm. When it’s combined with a high degree of jealousy, emotional/physical/psychological abuse and a dependent, game-playing and/or possessive love style, the likelihood of a “stage 5 clinger” is high. In my estimation, an unhealthy attachment style is the main problem because an unhealthy attachment breeds dependency, jealousy, abuse and violence in an effort to calm one’s anxiety by controlling one’s partner. Alternatively, an avoidant style breeds more anxiety in an insecure type, which then fosters more jealousy, abuse and other controlling behaviors.
Can an individual’s attachment style change?
In other words, is there hope that your insecure-anxious or avoidant-dismissive style wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or ex will change? Attachment styles are considered to be relatively stable and enduring across a lifetime, as are most core personality traits such as temperament, introversion, extroversion, etc. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that unhealthy individuals will be able to change their attachment style. I believe this is because an unhealthy attachment style is part of an overall disordered personality. Disordered personalities are typically rigid, unadaptive and very resistant to change.
Alternatively, attachment styles can be relationship-specific in healthy, secure individuals (Berscheid, 1994; Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al, 2000). Healthy personalities are generally stable and flexible. They can modify their behaviors in different situations and change beliefs when faced with new information. When confronted with an unhealthy personality, a healthy, secure individual may “catch their fleas” (i.e., Lie down with dogs; wake up with fleas) and defensively mirror back the unhealthy behaviors.
Let’s use “Josh,” the young man who’s being stalked by his ex-girlfriend, from Female Stalkers, Part 3, as an example. Let’s say his parents helped foster a healthy, secure attachment style in Josh by being present, consistent, loving and “good enough” (Winnicott, 1953). Josh grows up, goes to school and becomes involved with a young woman who has an insecure-anxious style (and Borderline Personality Disorder). To cope with her abusive, intrusive and stalking behaviors, Josh engages in avoidant-dismissing behaviors (e.g., leaving town, adhering to a No Contact policy).
A healthy, secure and otherwise honest individual will lie to an insecure or avoidant partner in an effort to avoid their negative relationship behaviors. For example, Josh feels forced to lie to his ex in order to avoid dealing with her—he says he rejects her dinner invitations and tells her he has to work when the reality is he just doesn’t want to see her and she won’t take no for an answer.
Stalking behavior is another puzzle piece to understanding the abusive personality. Not all abusers stalk, but many do, which is why I’m writing this series. I’m also writing this series to help men understand that stalking behavior (or whatever term they use to describe it) is serious and indicative of much bigger problems with their partner/ex. The next article in this series will focus on cyberstalking and cyber-harassment as it seems to be a common issue that many of my clients and Shrink4Men community members experience.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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