Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stalking and the Pitfalls of Meeting Online

Stalking is a practice that has been around for a very long time but only recently has become a criminal offence. There are many varieties and reasons for stalking and many ways of meeting a potential partner and engaging in relationship.

The intent of this article is to identify the internet as a means of introduction, not only to a new partner but a potential nightmare when the relationship comes to an end. Because of the anonymity that the internet provides, there is far more potential for deception and misrepresentation than when an introduction occurs naturally face to face. The dangers of forming relationships online have been well documented elsewhere. The focus here will be on stalking behavior resulting from feelings of rejection encountered by one party when the other wants out of a relationship that simply isn't healthy. The internet just happens to provide the perfect environment for a stalker to identify a partner who is less likely to be rejecting because of their own vulnerability.

When an unsuspecting lonely heart logs on to an online dating service, the last thing on their mind is the possibility that they may be inviting a potential stalker (or predator) into their life.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics it is mainly women who are exposed to this type of activity and the major research in this area appears to concentrate on the female population. To be classified as stalking, "more than one type of stalking behavior had to occur, or the same type of behavior had to occur on more than one occasion" (Australian Women's Safety Survey 1996, p82.)

Usually curiosity and hopeful anticipation inspires someone looking for companionship and/or love to submit their profile online and spend hours scanning through the many candidates offering themselves as potential partners.

It is very difficult to ascertain from the inviting smiles and "come hither" poses whether or not potential pitfalls are hidden beneath an enticing facade.

Profiles are often very artful works of fiction hiding the truth of a sometimes very disturbed personality.

This may seem a somewhat dramatic claim to some. To others, it is merely a reminder to be very careful next time - if they are willing to brave a next time.

Depending on the severity of the stalking experience, it is possible to suffer long term or permanent consequences in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For an elaboration of the potential psychological impact of stalking behavior on victims please refer to the following paper presented at a conference convened by the Australian Institute of Criminology in Sydney, December 7-8 2000.
The Toll of Stalking:
The Relationship Between Features of Stalking and Psychopathology of Victims.

E Blaauw, FW Winkel -- Department of Clinical Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
E Arensman -- Department of Clinical & Health Psychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands

It is for the reasons outlined in the paper cited above, that I feel compelled to issue a warning regarding the dangers of online dating to both men and women. Although in the majority of cases stalkers are male, there are women who occasionally fit this profile. The psychological damage sustained by such behavior is similar for both genders, however females are potentially more at risk physically.

Stalking behavior has been around since time immemorial, going back to the caveman's MO of seeking out his victim and then rendering her unconscious with his club. This was handy as the method produced few objections!

Then of course there are the modern day dangers of leaving a disco or bar alone and having to face a range of intrusions from following to other more vicious crimes of assault, rape, or in extreme cases, murder.

The Australian Institute of Criminology, provides information on stalking trends in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Stalking behavior is classified according to the relationship of the stalker to the victim and whether or not mental illness is present.

The focus of this article is on stalking behavior within the context of an existing relationship or after it's demise. An insidious form of stalking occurs when the victim is enticed into a relationship which they later wish to leave. The stalker is usually emotionally disturbed and may suffer from a personality disorder. Fear of rejection is often present and the discomfort and insecurity of this affliction could lead to bizarre behavior patterns.

Signs to watch for include impatience or anxiety when:

* phone calls (or emails/ instant messages) are not returned quickly enough
* they don't know where you are or you are late
* a gift or favor is not acknowledged immediately
* attention is given to your other friends
* they are not the centre of attention
* attending a crowded social function
* they feel left out or not included

While relationships of this nature can begin after meeting at all the usual places, including a trusted friend's introduction, online dating presents a different problem.

A computer screen affords the perfect hiding place for a person plagued with emotional insecurities. They are able to surf the net in the comfort of knowing they are anonymous. Often they are hidden while they wait for someone else to initiate contact. Profiles of potential partners are carefully scrutinized and usually someone who gives the impression of a caring and nurturing nature is the chosen one. They are also chosen due to vulnerability due to disappointments in other relationships and loneliness. The perfect choice.

The stalker personality type can present as highly intelligent and very charming. They can be very alluring, persuasive and appear to be very interested in you once you have shown enough interest to gain their trust. Their attention appears to be fully focused on you. The attention feels wonderful and you are told you are very special in their life. Before you know it, you are in a relationship even though you may not be too sure if you actually want to be there!

Your every word is taken in and stored in their memory. They listen attentively to what it is you are seeking in a partner because they want to deliver the goods that will keep you glued to their side. Before long, talk of long-term commitment is setting off alarm bells in your head and even the big M may have already been mentioned. Have you been going out together for 6 months to 1 year yet? Probably not!

Whatever it is you want in a partner however, they assure will be provided! Problems only start when you begin to feel that contact with this person is becoming very "sticky". It feels draining to be with them rather than energizing. With time you may even dread spending prolonged time together. Thoughts of extricating yourself from this relationship occupy your mind and you may try to initiate separation.

This is easier said than done. When you are no longer the compliant, loving and nurturing partner, what does that make you! Public enemy number one, of course!

Loving words are now exchanged for abusive character assassinations coming at you from unwanted phone calls, SMS, instant messages and emails. (a smear campaign to everyone around them and around you) Whatever may have been revealed of your own insecurities often come hurtling back at you in an attempt to break down your resolve for freedom. They may even show up on your doorstep or place of work wanting an explanation for what they have done wrong.

This is usually followed with apologies and self-blame and expressions of desire to make things right again. The anxiety is rising and their fear of rejection escalates.

Their behavior will depend on what you do at this point. If you succumb, meet and make up, then their anxiety will be appeased and you are off the hook for the time being. If however, you refuse to engage in conversation and reconciliation, it could get nasty. How nasty it gets depends on how it is handled and the severity of the stalker's affliction.

In any event, it is imperative that you realize that you are not dealing with a rational person and so any attempt to disengage from relationship with rational conversation will not work. This person needs help and this is not your responsibility. Usually psychological help is appropriate. Sometimes however, a psychiatrist will need to make an assessment and perhaps prescribe medication.

Your responsibility is to look after yourself and take all the precautions necessary for your safety. If you have had at least two instances of stalking behavior it is important to lodge a complaint at your local police station. They will then advise whether taking out an AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) (in the U.S. an RO - Restraining Order) is appropriate. Stalking is now an illegal offence in NSW (Australia) and includes the following behaviors:

* Following by any means, car or on foot
* Lurking in the vicinity of your home or office
* Sending unwanted mail, cards or gifts
* Sending unwanted emails, SMS
* Unwanted phone calls
* Spreading malicious gossip about you to your friends, acquaintances or work colleagues, etc
* Damaging or interfering with your property or vehicle (including leaving notes on the windscreen)
* Giving, sending or leaving offensive material

It is also important to alert trusted friends, neighbours, work colleagues and anyone else who may be able to offer support. Support is needed not only for your physical safety, but your psychological safety as well. Being followed and being subjected to the invasion of privacy that constitutes stalking behavior can leave long-term scars. Seek the help of a suitably qualified therapist if you feel traumatized by your experience. This will help in preventing any long term damage and provide helpful coping strategies.

Keeping your home secure and being careful in car parks is important. If necessary, change your telephone number or use an answering service to screen your calls. Block unwanted emails and be aware of your surroundings when away from your home or office. Initially it may help to stay with friends or go away on holiday where you are removed from your known routines.

It is imperative that the stalker is given absolutely NO ATTENTION from you. Even negative attention is food for the stalker's hunger and will only prolong the situation. Do not answer their phone calls, emails, SMS, instant messages (Block what you can) or satisfy any attempt of contact by any means. Ultimately they will lose interest and seek satisfaction from another source. Have an authority figure such as a police officer or lawyer contact the stalker to make it very clear that their conduct is illegal and must stop immediately.

Just be careful and remember the warning signs listed above. If it feels better when you are alone than when you are with your newly acquired partner, have a real good ponder on whether your own fears of being alone are justification for staying in a relationship that just doesn't feel right.


No comments: