Breakups are difficult, there is no doubt about that. And while they can indeed elicit very emotional, sometimes even strange, behavior from people, there is a point at which that behavior can become unhealthy and potentially unsafe. While perhaps one or two last sobbing phone calls or a few dramatic emails are the norm — if you tell your ex that you no longer want to be in contact, they should respect that. End of story. There is not always an easy or fail-safe guide for what to do when your ex won't leave you alone, or at what point it starts to become emotionally or physically unsafe. But it is a more common situation than you might think.
According to the Women's Media Center, almost 75% of stalking victims know their stalkers, and a study of abused women in the UK showed that 41% experienced that partners or ex-partners tracked them online or using apps. The internet has brought many more complicated levels to stalking and harassment.
"There are a number of factors to consider when hovering or stalking is a concern," Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, tells Bustle. "The duration of the relationship, the nature of the breakup, and the mental stability of the couple and the individuals involved are all relevant in regard to accurately interpreting behavior and hence, knowing what actions to take."
For example, if a relationship is abruptly abandoned, or there is a betrayal of trust devoid of remorse, there is the possibility of volatile consequences. But again, there is a difference between the emotions that might end a painful, out-of-the-blue breakup, and behavior that becomes threatening.
"The sort of brief obsessive fixation that might result from injurious circumstance is very different from the sort of prolonged obsessive stalking that is pathological and rooted in an attachment disorder," Heller says.
If an ex is mentally troubled and unable to curtail impulsive behaviors, Heller says, such as incessant texting, calls, or showing up uninvited at your residence or place of employment, then a dangerous situation is ensuing. It is very important to notify friends and family for your protection.
"If efforts to intervene do not cease stalking behavior even when you and others stipulate reporting them to the police, the phone company, etc., then an order of protection may be necessary," Heller says. Changing locks, blocking email accounts and perhaps getting a new phone number may be necessary if the ex is becoming increasingly violent. All threats need to be documented and reported.
National organizations like Safe Horizons can assist with taking legal measures, Heller says. These experiences can be incredibly traumatizing and painful, so getting support is crucial.
"In the aftermath it is always helpful to return to safety by working with a trusted therapist who can hold a space for your pain and trauma," Heller says. "It is also imperative to examine difficulties with seeing red flags."
Meghan Cassidy, LCSW, a clinical therapist in Maryland, also tells Bustle that the way you communicate with the former partner to tell them you no longer want to be in touch is all about clarity. Be firm and clear about your boundaries.
"If a former partner continues to contact you, make sure you have explicitly told them to stop — preferably in writing," Cassidy says. "In your email, tell your ex that you will not be responding to any further communication."
Because our human brains are wired to interpret a situation in a way that confirms what we believe, want, and desire, it is really important to be firm and calm when an ex is not respecting boundaries, Cassidy says.
Most of the time if you are able to cease communication, your ex will eventually lose interest as they are no longer getting attention or a reaction from you, Cassidy says. If that does not occur, you have options. You can stay with a family member, reach out for support from a mental health professional, contact an intimate partner violence agency (each state has them), or, again, consider filing a motion for a protection order.
"If your ex continues to pursue communication and if you begin to feel unsafe for any reason, listen to your intuition," Cassidy says.
And as a reminder, Rebecca Capps, MA, MFT, Mind Body Thrive, tells Bustle, "Know that you have every right to protect yourself and your energetic boundaries by blocking your ex's number, email address, and social media accounts,"
While it can be difficult to remember, if you have told them to stop and you have ceased contact, that you are not doing anything to warrant their attention. You have every right to feel safe on an emotional, spiritual, and physical level. If there is anything threatening these boundaries, support is out there.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.