When a crush turns to obsession

A CRUSH on a singer or movie star is considered a normal part of growing up, a teenager’s practice run for adult relationships. Almost everyone experiences distress over unrequited love at some stage. But how do you tell when normal desire begins to verge on dangerous obsession? Potential stalkers can be picked by the intensity of their feelings, and the degree to which those feelings are removed from reality.

Forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen says stalkers tend to be socially isolated and often have no relationships outside their families, sometimes not even that. They are touchy and suspicious, generally attributing malevolence and ill intent to others, but making an exception of their “beloved”, whose every word and action is interpreted as good and affectionate.

Criminologist Dr Patricia Easteal warns that an early marker of trouble in a relationship is “emotional violence”, where one party’s intense possessiveness and jealousy leads to them monitoring or trying to control the other’s movements and social contacts. This can be mistaken for flattering attention at first. “It’s a fine line between feeling loved and feeling totally suffocated,” says Dr Easteal.

An article on stalking in the `American Journal of Criminal Law’ reports that those who work in the field take very seriously those who write hundreds of letters, especially ones containing “semen, urine, body parts, dead animals, locks of hair and blood”. They also warn that those who are love-obsessive, and who write or talk about having a shared destiny, can be more dangerous than those who hate their quarry. “A person who writes: `I am going to kill you on Tuesday’ is less likely to be harmful than one who writes: `You and I must be united on Tuesday’.”
Victims of harassment are advised to tell the police, take out intervention orders if possible, and get silent telephone numbers.

They should keep addresses and schedules private, take property out of their names and ensure that others know where they are at all times.

Acting Senior Sergeant Sharon Hunter, of the community policing squad, advises any victims who speak to their harassers to be clear and firm about how unwanted the attention is. “Unfortunately, females tend to be a bit passive, and might try to pacify the person, if they know them, by asking them in for a cup of coffee or something similar. The person can read that as a mixed message: `She’s being kind to me, so maybe it’s worth pursuing.”‘ The best solution is for the stalker to seek treatment, which Professor Mullen says, is usually successful. However, he says that this is unlikely because the offender does not perceive that there is a problem. “It’s a case of `Why treat me? I’m just in love. Why don’t you treat this woman who won’t respond to my passion?”

Also see: Fatal Attraction

First published in The Age.