Like many others, I found Baby Reindeer fascinating. Here’s my insight on why stalkers like Martha behave the way they do

I enjoyed watching Baby Reindeer and thought it was a good depiction of a particular type of stalker. My primary area of research is stalking and I mostly work with perpetrators, to help them understand the motivations behind their behaviour and find effective ways of making them stop. Baby Reindeer accurately portrays the relentless intrusion into another person’s life and the damage that causes to the victims and the people around them.

There are five typologies of stalker: the rejected stalker, the resentful stalker, the intimacy-seeking stalker, the incompetent suitor and the predator. In the show, it’s hard to tell exactly what type Martha falls under; she shows characteristics of both an intimacy seeker and incompetent suitor. Broadly, these two types are grouped as “relationship seekers”.

An intimacy seeker is someone who is driven to form a connection with someone else but often doesn’t have the social skills to do so. In some cases, they believe they are already in a relationship with someone despite all evidence to the contrary. They will often target people in the public eye. It is usually driven by a delusional disorder, which means in these cases we seek to get them into hospital treatment because their behaviour is rooted in a mental illness.

The incompetent suitor type tends to be younger – their behaviour emerges in their early 20s, as they’re leaving home and trying to develop relationship skills. Their conduct is characterised by a lack of social skills and understanding of appropriate social behaviour. They won’t pick up on signs of disinterest and often engage in stuff that is socially unacceptable and can terrify people. Often, they have some sort of autism spectrum disorder and will go from one victim to another, engaging in the same behaviour, failing to recognise that it always ends badly. Whatever the type of stalker, there are common factors that drive and motivate their behaviour.

All stalkers are seeking meaning. They want to form a relationship, they lack the conventional skills to do it and so they act in a way that they think will help them to manage their feelings and control the responses of others. It is often about relieving distress, helping them feel closer to another person, helping them maintain a sense of self esteem, a sense of autonomy or a feeling of control over the world that they’re living in.

They feel that they are able to change the behaviour of others through their own actions. A classic thing for them to say to a victim might be: “If you’d been in a relationship with me, then I wouldn’t have to do this”, or “I wouldn’t have to get angry if you didn’t say these things to me”.

Most stalkers are less interested in the negative impact their behaviour is having on someone else and more interested in the function it is performing for them personally. The people I have worked with often don’t stop to consider how they are making their victim feel, it’s just about managing their own feelings. Their sense of loneliness might be so acute that hearing someone tell them “No, I’m not interested” doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they have answered their call and engaged in some sort of conversation, however negative.

They might almost reinterpret the victim’s behaviour and tell themselves: “Well, you care enough to tell me to go away, maybe that’s a sign you’re still interested?” They are in such a state of emotional distress that they will do anything to relieve it: they are using the victim as an external coping mechanism. It is rigid, unhelpful and damaging to themselves as well as the victim, but they see it as a way of relieving their pain.

Of the people I’ve worked with, some have come to understand the pain and damage their behaviour caused and really regret it. But it varies across the different types. People who have suffered from delusional disorders often come out of the acute stage and are able to say: “I realise now I wasn’t thinking about the impact it was having on the other person, it was all about me and my own internal problems.” Others, such as the resentful type, might never get to that stage and always remain convinced they were in the right.

But either way, developing feelings of remorse is not really an effective way of stopping their behaviour. In treatment, we are not looking for signs of regret, we are only looking for evidence that they have stopped acting in a damaging way. That comes from them developing new, more positive tools with which to cope with their distress and manage their feelings.

Often, people who engage in stalking behaviour have lacked secure attachment in their lives. It’s a secure attachment which allows you to manage your emotional state, manage the ways you interact with the world and to develop a stable sense of self. That could stem back to early life experience, their schooling, their parents and all of the other factors that help people to develop into who they are. We work with individuals who have had significant attachment difficulties in early life, such as parental abandonment or living in care.

But others have been in rigid family backgrounds where performance standards are set high and certain behaviours considered unacceptable. They have expectations of themselves, the world and others that are perhaps unbalanced. It takes a certain amount of stress in someone’s life to tip them over into a state where they can’t cope. That’s when they start to engage in intrusive behaviours on others, in order to help themselves cope better.

Often, the person will struggle to recognise or understand their own emotional state. They can’t see the feelings that are driving their behaviour. So, in treatment, we try to help them understand themselves more clearly. Once we have done that we try to teach them ways of sitting with their emotions and processing them in a healthy and constructive way. We ask: “How do you increase that buffer, to tolerate stress, so you can make decisions that are not impulsive and not harmful to others?” By doing this, we can help them to get closer to where they want to be in life.

We will help them to think about the cost of their behavior on themselves by saying: “You want to form a relationship but every time you try to do that, you end up in court, and now you’re going to custody. So your behaviour is actually stopping you being able to do the things in life that you want to do. Let’s try to change that.” It can take a long time but we can often help people change their behaviour by encouraging them to be more flexible in their thinking.

Dr Alan Underwood is a clinical psychologist at Queen Mary University Of London and the co-author of Treating Stalking. A Practical Guide for Clinicians.

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