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Leave Actually

Stalking is a confusing term because the behavior involved isn't always considered criminal

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Leave Actually

I broke up with a guy I dated very briefly and said it'd be best for me if we didn't maintain contact. He respected this for a while, but he's suddenly all over my social media, not just "liking" but often "loving" my posts. I hate being led to think about him. Is there a kind way to ask him to stop?

GERALT / PIXABAY
  • geralt / Pixabay

—Creeped Out

Sometimes a person fails to grasp that "It's best we don't maintain contact" means "Go away forever, human stain."

You're being "orbited," culture reporter Anna Iovine's word for when an ex lurks on your social media posts: showing up as one of your "story viewers" on Instagram or liking your tweets or Facebook posts. This sounds benign, but orbiting is a form of stalking.

Stalking is a confusing term because the behavior involved isn't always considered criminal. The U.S. Department of Justice defines stalking as "engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress." Laws against stalking vary across states, but causing fear in the victim is typically essential for stalking to be a crime. Outside the criminal sphere, stalking is sometimes referred to by researchers as "unwanted persistent pursuit": repeated behavior that bothers or distresses the victim, often sucking their time and attention and creeping them out.

Noncriminal stalking like this can escalate to the criminal kind—and can turn deadly, reports evolutionary psychologist David Buss in his new book, "When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault." Though stalkers are usually male, Buss acknowledges that women become stalkers, too. An infamous female stalker is former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak—a case you might remember not so much for the crime but for the diapers.

In 2007, Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando wearing an adult diaper to avoid being slowed down by bathroom stops. She was off to confront (and possibly kidnap and harm) Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the slim, pretty blonde 10 years her junior whom NASA astronaut Bill Oefelein had dumped her for a few weeks prior. Gwendolyn Knapp, in Houstonia magazine, reports that Nowak was seen in surveillance video disguised in a black wig and hat following Shipman around the Orlando airport for three hours—before attacking her with pepper spray in the parking lot.

Shipman told "Inside Edition" in 2017, "I... still have anxiety," and media reports often claim stalking is motivated by a desire to cause fear. However, making a victim afraid as the ultimate motivation for romantic stalking makes little sense (save for the few sadists in the population who get off on causing pain). Research by evolutionary psychologist Joshua Duntley and Buss suggests romantic stalking is a form of "mate guarding": evolved tactics—from coercion to showering affection to gift-giving—used to keep one's romantic partner from bolting or being poached.

Understanding, as Buss explains, that a "key goal" of romantic stalkers is to "reunite with the (former) partner" sheds light on your situation. You might be tempted to minimize the guy's behavior because it's happening in the virtual world. However, stalkers aren't just exes hiding in your bushes with binoculars. It's stalking just the same when somebody's sitting in the bushes on social media, watching your life and signaling their unwillingness to accept your "no contact" terms by posting "likes" they know you'll see. The message: "Here I am, refusing to leave you, but in a way you'd probably feel dumb complaining about!"

Sure, you could politely but firmly tell him to stop—"I'd prefer that you not post anything on my social media"—and explain why you need this. However, Buss writes that one of the strategies stalking experts most frequently recommend is "ceasing all contact with the stalker." Because you're being cyber-stalked, the ideal way to do this is blocking him on all your social media. Say nothing. Just block. Buss also advises you consider taking your accounts private for a while or "staying off social media as much as possible." If contact escalates, shore up security in your home with locks, motion sensor lights, and video surveillance; document all contact; and notify the police.

Blocking without explanation might seem unkind and perhaps a little paranoid. However, Buss explains that "stalkers often construe any interaction" with the person they're pursuing "as rewarding," even if it's negative. "Reasoning and logic rarely work. They give the stalker hope that the romantic relationship can be renewed." And this could lead to situations you'd surely like to avoid. As the romantic cliche goes, "You'll find love when you're not looking for it"—like when it breaks in and stands over your bed, watching you sleep.

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