Twenty percent of undergraduates experience intrusive behavior by their former partners after their romantic relationships have ended, according to the results of a survey conducted by Prof. Jeffrey Haugaard, human development, and Lisa Seri '00. In the study, about 20 percent of the participants said they felt their physical safety was at risk when their former partners exhibited such behavior.
The survey involved nearly 700 undergraduates of Cornell University and the University of Virginia, asking participants to describe themselves, their relationships, the power balance in the relationship, the kinds of intrusive experiences they had and how they dealt with the intrusive behavior.
While conducting the survey, however, Haugaard realized that the term stalking was not clearly defined; he found little to no literature on the subject of stalking after the end of adolescent relationships.
The study stated, "A generally accepted definition of stalking and the behaviors comprising stalking remains elusive at this early point in the social science research." As a result, Haugaard defined intrusive behavior as occurring for at least two continuous weeks after a dating relationship that lasted at least a month.
The researchers found that, on average, intrusive contact continued for eight weeks, while on the extreme end, some participants experienced such behavior for over two years. They could not, however, find conclusive relevance between the tendency to stalk or be stalked and such factors as family life, income, religious involvement and others.
When asked to speculate what might cause people to stalk others, Haugaard said, "I don't know. Some people are more sensitive and have a harder time adjusting."
He added that the person being stalked "often doesn't make the point that they don't want contact clearly enough, and the stalker thinks it's okay. He or she needs to decide on clear and reasonable limits and needs to tell these limits to [the stalker], and must be willing to enforce these expectations."
In the survey, the researchers noted a slight discrepancy between males and females who say they were targeted by stalkers: more females said they were targeted than males did. The number of females who said they exhibited intrusive behavior, however, was roughly the same as the number of males who claimed to do so.
"Part of it is the cultural stereotype that men are supposed to love the fact that women are chasing after them," Haugaard said. "They're less likely to see it as intrusive or unsafe." "Ultimately, it just proves what happens when you sequester a whole lot of hormonal neophytes to relationships into a place without real guidance and watch them go at it," said Jonathan Murphy '06, a student who was informed of the results of this survey.
The researchers were prompted to conduct this survey after one of Haugaard's students noticed a former high school boyfriend was stalking her by showing up at restaurants where she ate and buildings she had classes in.
"This is an issue that many people find to be annoying, but that some find frightening. They can do something about it; it's not something they're supposed to put with. [It's] not their fault, and they should take steps -- that's the right thing to do," Haugaard said.
He continued to advise that certain limits must be set and made clear to the stalker. If, however, he or she ignores these limits, one should look to the police or a school counselor for help.
"At that point, it may be enough of a realization ... on the person and then he or she may stop," Haugaard said. Haugaard and Seri published the survey on intrusive contact in a recent issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior. It followed an earlier study, also by Haugaard on stalking after the breakup of romantic relationships among college and high school students.
Haugaard is currently conducting another survey that asks more specific questions, in particular looking for personality characteristics that might make a person more likely to stalk others.