Attachment Theory for Stalking Behaviours

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This essay will critically discuss how attachment theory can provide an explanation for stalking behaviour.

Two specific criminal offences of stalking were introduced in the UK in November 2012, previously people accused of stalking were prosecuted under harassment laws but only when their actions were seen to cause a fear of violence. The new offences meant a charge could be brought when an alleged stalker’s behaviour caused serious alarm or distress. “Stalking is not legally defined but section 2A (3) of the PHA 1997 lists a number of examples of behaviours associated with stalking. The list is not an exhaustive one but gives an indication of the types of behaviour that may be displayed in a stalking offence” (The Crown Prosecution Service. Para 138, 2018).

There were 7,706 cases of stalking recorded between 1 April 2013 and 4 February 2016 by all police forces in England and Wales, according to a large-scale freedom of information request by the charity the Suzy Lamplugh trust (2016). However, 1.1 million people, said they have experienced stalking over a period of one year, according to the British Crime Survey (2015). This illustrates that a small proportion of all cases of stalking were either reported to police, or recorded as stalking after being reported. The Suzy Lamplugh trust (2016) says only about half of victims go to the police.

While stalking definitions vary among researchers, in the UK stalking is not defined legally and in America the definition changes amongst jurisdictions. Stalking is generally seen as unwanted, harassing, and threatening behaviour that occurs repeatedly (Tjaden and Thoennes, 1988). Some stalking definitions require the victim to experience fear (Tjaden, Thoennes and alison 2000, Meloy 1988) whereas other do not (Crown prosecution service 2018; Jordan, wilcox and Pritchard 2007). This led researchers to define and measure a range of stalking-like behaviours, Given the lack of a general definition used in the literature (Purcell, Flower, & Mullen, 2008). They have been variously referred to as unwanted pursuit behaviours (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Palarea, Cohen, & Rohling, 2002), intrusive contact (Haugaard & Seri, 2004), and obsessive relational intrusion (Spitzberg et al., 1998). It is important to distinguish if the definition in the literature requires fear, as Dietz and Martin (2007) reported that one fourth of stalking victims do not experience fear or threats.

Stalking is a multifaceted phenomenon that can arise, and be maintained, by a range of motives. There is no reason to assume that stalkers with different motivations share the same characteristics. A number of typologies have been proposed that separate stalkers into more distinct stalker categories (De-Becker 1997, Emerson et al 1998, Geberth 1992, Holmes 1993, James and Farnham 2003, Schwartz-watts and Morgan 1998, Spencer 1998). Few of these typologies have been subjected to rigorous empirical examination (Coleman, 1997, Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010, Del Ben & Fremouw, 2002).

Attachment is defined as a strong affectional bond with a specific person who cannot be replaced (Bowlby, 1980). If the child’s caregiver frequently fails to meet its needs for support and protection, the child will develop an internal working model (a cognitive framework used for understanding the world, the self and others) where they may see others as untrustworthy and unreliable and of themselves as unworthy of being responded to (Bowlby, 1977).  Bowlby (1969) recognised that infants do not have the ability to manage emotions from birth. Therefore, the support from the primary caregiver is crucial in order for the development of self-capacities that produce the ability to control, regulate and react appropriately in stressful circumstances. Thus, undeveloped self-capacities in childhood result in complications and lack of ability to self-soothe (Briere, 1992). Leading to the adoption of maladaptive methods in order to cope and manage negative emotions (Briere, 1992).

For adults, these bonds are with people with whom the person is in a relationship of emotional significance, for example, an intimate relationship (Ling & Qian, 2010). If a bond becomes threatened, individuals engage in behaviours in an attempt to restore the bond (White, Kowalski, Lyndon, & Valentine, 2000). The types of behaviours vary depending on individuals’ attachment styles. Securely attached individuals may engage in open discussions or source comfort from family and friends (Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003; Meyer, Olivier, & Roth, 2005), while insecurely attached individuals may participate in negative or damaging behaviours such as exaggerated expressions of jealousy (Brennan & Shaver, 1995), excessive anger (Davis, Ace, & Andra, 2000; McClellan & Killeen, 2000), coercive control (McClellan & Killeen, 2000) and aggression (Davis et al., 2003). Insecure attachments have been related to the perpetration of stalking (Derlega et al., 2011; De Smet, Loeys, & Buysse, 2012; Tassy & Winstead, 2014) and the frequency of stalking behaviours (Davis et al., 2000). Attachment theory suggests that all individuals alternate between the attachment styles throughout their life in response to different situations/relationships; however, individuals tend to adopt one dominant style which is highly dependent on early attachment relationships.

Meloy (1992, pp. 37-38) was the first to apply attachment theory to stalking behaviours, defining stalking as “an extreme disorder of attachment.”  Meloy (1992) explained that stalkers fit into Bartholomew’s (1990) four type model of attachment styles, Secure; Preoccupied; Dismissing and Fearful. The latter three styles are referred to as ‘insecure’ attachment styles. The anxious (preoccupied) attachment style in adults’ links to the anxious (ambivalent) attachment style in children. The dismissive (avoidant) attachment style and the fearful (avoidant) attachment style, which are distinct in adults, match to a single avoidant attachment style in children. typically, stalkers fit into the Preoccupied (Anxious) attachment pattern (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2003). However, this has not been directly measured on a general population (Meloy, 2003), nevertheless other studies have found supportive arguments for this idea (Guerrero, 1998; Lewis, Fremouw, Del Ben and Farr, 2001).

Attachment theory has generated a number of contrasting if not contradictory explanations of stalking. It is proposed that the development of an insecure attachment style weakens the individual’s ability to appropriately manage relationships in adulthood with a tendency to stalk (Kienlen 1988, Meloy 1996, Hudson 2006, McCan 2001 and Wilson et al 2006). Attachment theory suggests that stalking evolves from a pathological adult attachment style that develops as a consequence of interruptions to the development of secure attachments in childhood (Davies 2000,Kielnen 1997, Tonin 2004, Mackenzie 2008, Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010; Langhinrichsen-Rohling and Rohling 2000).

Research on adult attachment styles suggests that sub-types of insecure attachment should not be considered entirely separately. Ross, McKim, and DiTommaso (2006,p. 307) noted, “given that different dimensions appear to underlie the different styles, the benefit of assuming that different attachment styles are complementary as opposed to mutually exclusive provides a fuller, more accurate representation of adult attachment tendencies.” Patton, Fox & Nobles  (2010) also found that insecure attachment styles should not be seen as opposed to each other.  

Research offers some support for the suggestion that insecure adult attachment increases an individual’s tendency to stalk (Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010, Tonin 2004, Kienlen 1988). It appears that stalkers frequently fail to form secure parental attachments as children, perceiving their parents, particularly their fathers, as neglectful in terms of the care and emotional sustenance provided (Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010, Tonin 2004, Davis & Frieze 2000, Langhinrichsen-Rohling 2000, Mackenzie et al 2008). Research has found that 76% of those who held insecure attachments were survivors of childhood abuse (Muller, Sicoli & Lemieux, 2002). However, Tonin (2004) found that the stalking group (convicted stalkers) were more overprotected by their fathers, and more Insecure in attachment style than the control group (community sample). However, in this sample all the stalkers were all detained under the mental health act. This could imply that other factors may be influencing this behaviour and it may not relate to the wider population. It is possible that persistent mental health issues reduce a stalker’s likelihood to cease their stalking behaviour. Research has looked at, psychosis and personality disorder. While findings for these are mixed (Farnham, James, & Cantrell, 2000; James et al., 2010; McEwan & Strand, 2013; McEwan et al., 2009; Mullen et al., 1999).

There is evidence that when insecure attachments are developed when young they persist into adulthood and have a damaging impact on the impressions that evolve about self and others (Internal working model). In turn, this impacts on the stalker’s ability to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships (Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010). Kienlen, Birmingham, Solberg, O’Regan, and Meloy (1997, p. 331) discussed that many stalkers are insecurely attached to their victims and that this insecure attachment is reinforced “in the face of continuous rejection.” Thus, they carry on with their stalking behaviour despite the victim rejection.

Individuals with preoccupied (anxious) attachments are chronically anxious about rejection and abandonment (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2003) they look strongly for intimacy, often developing extreme dependence on intimate partners (Eells, 2001) Furthermore anxiously attached individuals struggle to be soothed from others (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). Ells (2001) found that a link between relationship breakdowns and the inability to manage their emotions, which could then lead to stalking. Lyndon et al (2011) Completed a meta-analysis over 50 studies and found the majority of stalking research focuses on intimate partner stalking. However, there are six different types of stalkers identified in the literature, not all of them include Intimate partner stalking. Therefor attachment theory may not account for all typologies of stalkers. Although, Typologies are not often discussed in detail when looking at attachment research. This may be because few typologies have been subjected to rigorous empirical examination (Coleman, 1997, Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010, Del Ben & Fremouw, 2002).

Studies have shown that showed that stalkers with a preoccupied attachment style, stalk for significantly longer than stalkers with other types of insecure attachments (MacKenzie et al 2008, Johnson & Thompson 2016). Stalkers that persisted for longer appeared to struggle with a need for intimacy and a fear of abandonment, while at the same time were more distrusting of intimate partners, experiencing more discomfort with intimacy, than less persistent stalkers (Derlega et al., 2011; Dutton & Winstead, 2006; Johnson and Thompson). However, Tonin (2004) reported that preoccupied attachment was not associated to the presence/absence of stalking. Fixated stalkers (who stalk one victim for many years) exhibited significantly more preoccupied attachments than serial stalkers (who target multiple victims). Therefore, stalking persistent may not be related to different attachment types.  It could perhaps be that stalkers with serious disorders of attachment (personality disorders) or with higher levels of attachment anxiety are more persistent (Johnson and Thompson 2016).

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) propose that the negative view of self and others, as reflected in the fearful style of attachment (insecure attachment), can lead to a dependency on others to maintain positive self-regard whilst fearing anticipated rejection. With such a dependency, the idea of rejection becomes unbearable, and the repeated rejection or a failure to obtain ‘‘justice’’ may lead the individual to manifest extremes of anger (Bartholomew and Horowitz 1991).

High levels of insecure attachment style have also been reported among samples of self-reported stalkers from student populations (Davis et al 2000, Langhinrichsen-Rohling and Rohling 2000, Dutton 2006, Lewis et al 2001). Fox, Nobles & Akers (2011) reviewed 56 empirical articles published between 1996 and 2011, they found the majority of studies on stalking focused on convivence sampling of students. Therefor relatively little is known about stalking among national representative samples of adults. It would be of interest to see if research using samples that are representative of the general population, would have the same results. Nobles et al (2009) suggest a majority of stalking occurs before college, therefor research may be missing out on a big proportion of stalking preparators and victims.

Johnson & Thompson (2016) found in their study that 19% of ex-intimate stalkers exhibited a secure attachment style, 30% evidenced a fearful attachment style, 45% evidenced a preoccupied attachment style and 6% evidenced a dismissing attachment style. Attachment theory Ignores that securely attached individuals also become stalkers. It also ignores some aspects of the environment. For example, could stalking behaviour be learned or reinforced through social groups (Social learning theory). (Fox, Nobles and Akers 2011) found that stalking perpetrators react positively to friends involved in stalking. This could also link to cognitive distortions as they are rationalising their stalking behaviour (Fox, Nobles and Ackers 2011).

Throughout the literature there are inconsistencies in how stalking is defined. The majority of the literature is from America where the legal definition changes depending on the jurisdiction. In America and the United Kingdom stalking compromises of combination of behaviours rather than a single behaviour. The diverse definitions of stalking are unlike other definitions when researching crime. A compatible definition and measurement would allow for greater theoretical development and integration.

Fox, Nobles & Akers (2011) found that 65% of the studies they looked at, on stalking defined it by unwanted persistent behaviour. Some of the research on stalking does not explain what is mean by persistent behaviour (Dutton and Winstead 2006). Other studies have specified the behaviour must greater than ten times (mullen, pathe, murdell & stuart 1999, Pathe, Mullen & Purcell 2000). This could discount individuals who feel they have been stalked but the behaviours were under ten. It is difficult to compare research when they may not have looked at the same behaviour, or they behaviour is unclear.

Fox, Nobles & Akers (2011) found that 100% of the articles they reviewed looked at stalking throughout an individual’s life time. This may gain more of a response rate, however there is potential confound from retrospective interpretation of past events (Benard 2000, Henry et al 1994). Retrospective call of events and emotions have been frequently used by prior research (Smith and Ellsworth 1985). When research is looking at attachment they look retrospectively to an individual’s childhood which again could cause confound.  Interviews with perpetrators could avoid time order problems (Horney et al 1995). Fox, Nobles & Akers (2011) found the majority of studies on stalking focused on convivence sampling of students therefor a student’s life time would be considerable different to an older individuals which could cause different responses. 

The majority of studies on attachment and stalking use self-reporting measures, various researchers have raised concerns around this.  (Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000; Kurdek, 2002; Feeney, 2002a; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2002). Self-report measures only probe the conscious attitudes towards relationships and memories (Mikulincer & Shaver 2007). There may also be a perceptual bias contained in the measure, in that individuals who are characterized as having maladaptive patterns of attachment may be unable to correctly interpret social cues from their others, and therefore, may be unable to identify the pursuit behaviour as unwanted, frightening, etc. (Patton, Fox & Nobles  2010). Stalking measurements validity and reliability are generally not discussed in articles (Fox, Nobles & Akers, 2011).  It is therefore unclear if they do not mention it because it meets the criteria so they omit this or whether it is unreported because they fail to meet it.

There are a number of self-reporting measures that look at attachment and various ones have been used in the literature. Researchers have expressed concerns around the variety of alternative measures of anxiety and avoidance that have been developed throughout the years (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Brennanetal.,1998;Collins&Read,1990;Griffin & Bartholomew, 1994b; J. A. Feeney, Noller, & Hanrahan,1994; Fraley et al.,2000; Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan,1992).Detailed research assessing the reliability and validity of many of these different measures remains limited. However, Mikulincer and Shaver (2003) highlighted the need for further for further research to address this limitation in attachment literature. As previously discussed individuals may find it difficult to identify themselves as either stalkers or as the correct attachment style which questions the reliability of the studies.

The majority of the research on stalking looks at Male only perpetrators despite 77% of perpetrators being male, while 22% are female (cupach and spittzberg 2004). Few theories have looked at or acknowledge gender (Davis, et al.2010; Duntley and Buss2010). Two studies with US college students, suggested that female perpetrators of stalking engaged in more mild aggressive stalking behaviour’s than men (Dutton and Winstead2006; Williams and Frieze2005). Another study (Sinclair and Frieze2000) also found women engaged in more moderate levels of stalking behaviour than men, and no gender differences were found for severe stalking behaviour. Women are more likely to be stalked by an intimate partner than are men (Budd and Mattinson2000; Tjaden and Thoennes1998). Due to the lack of empirical research is it difficult to identify how attachment theory links to women perpetrators. Would there be any gender differences with attachment styles or would attachment be the same despite gender. One explanation for gender differences could be cultural and social norms as female participants view stalking situations as more serious than male participants (Cupach and Spitzberg 2000; Dennison 2007; Dennison and Thomson2002; Hills and Taplin1998; Spitzberg, Cupach & Ciceraro, 2010)

All of the above research may not necessarily associate to a causal finding; that is, while insecure (specifically anxious) relationship attachment style is positively and significantly associated with stalking perpetration, none of the data could not conclusively indicate that stalking was caused by insecure attachment. This type of research does highlight that insecure attached individuals do represent a high percentage of the stalking population. This leads to the question, could it just be characteristics of stalkers relate to insecure attachment. Attachment theory fails to take account of environmental factors. Furthermore, it fails to recognise that securely attached individuals do stalk. It also, does not account for the individuals are who insecurely attached and do not ever take part in stalking like behaviours. It does however recognise that the internal working model (how we see the world, our self and others) differs between attachment styles, the application of social learning theory and control balance theories could assist to further explain stalking behaviours.  

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