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He Can Be Both Victim And Villain

In her recent Medium essay, writer Kelly Eden details her experience with a woman who contacted her fiancee for two years despite being told repeatedly to stop. Eden refers to this woman as “stalker girl”, a moniker that makes me bristle.

Like many women, I’ve dated people who had the “crazy ex.” They’re usually the same people who include trite disclaimers in their Tinder bios like “no drama.” It goes without saying that most people prefer their relationships sans drama. For someone to make it a point to include that on their dating profile means only one thing: their relationship history has been steeped in volatility and chaos. It’s the reddest of red flags. And yet, many of these people still manage to bamboozle unsuspecting partners into believing they are not at all responsible for the relentless harassment from their former lovers. They’re the victims, you see.

In Eden’s story, she does verbal gymnastics to absolve her fiancee of any wrong doing.

He could already tell she wasn’t a match for him. He’d made a joke about wearing a kilt in the wind — her comment had been so blunt and obscene he’d almost choked on his drink. But one date couldn’t hurt, right? They made plans. After the date, he continued chatting online for a few days — he didn’t want to ghost her. That would be rude (and everyone knows everyone here!). But he made it clear there wouldn’t be a second one.

You’d have to be willfully obtuse not to infer from this passage that Eden’s man and his alleged stalker had sex. Why else does a man go out with a woman he knows ahead of time isn’t someone he could ever see himself dating seriously? Rhetorical question alert! It’s for sex. Eden never confirms or denies if they slept together, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by me.

What irked me most about this piece was Kelly’s smugness. She’s taking pleasure in the fact that “stalker girl” is expressing a concerning amount of anger at someone who insists they did nothing wrong. In my work as a dating and trauma recovery coach, I’ve spoken with women like “stalker girl” and I can tell you this: never has their pain and anger appeared out of the blue. Something — more specifically, someone — triggered it.

Only now, some thirty-plus years after it hit theaters, are people re-assessing the film Fatal Attraction and acknowledging that Dan of “I won’t be ignored, Dan” fame was an abuser of sorts. The podcast Popcorn Psychology delves into Dan’s psyche, something that wasn’t done in the eighties. The hosts, all licensed therapists, highlight Dan’s entitlement and lack of remorse. They intimate that his own lack of boundaries and entitlement resembles narcissistic personality disorder. He wears two masks — husband and boyfriend — and switches between one and the other with ease. He refers to Alex as “honey”, takes romantic walks in the parks wit her, and partakes in romantic dinners and nights out with Alex while his wife is away. He loves the attention Alex gives him until it’s no longer convenient. Only when Alex makes it clear she wants more from Dan does he tell her the relationship is purely sexual. That is when he draws a line in the sand. Unfortunately, by then the damage is done. After witnessing her father’s death at age seven, Alex’s deep-seated abandonment issues take over. Set off by Dan’s sudden rejection, she now becomes obsessed with getting him to love her. Both Dan and Alex show signs of emotional instability, but only Alex is framed as the villain. Dan gets off with a less offensive edit, that of a cad who can’t keep it in his pants. This kind of duality in men is a staple of television and films — Don Draper comes to mind — but we don’t see similar stories with similarly messy female protagonists. (In a cosmic wink from the Universe, the one character that does come to mind — Patty Hewes in FX’s Damages — was played by Glenn Close.)

Eden’s story shows a similar trajectory. Man meets woman; hyper-sexualized conversation ensues; they meet for drinks (and likely sleep together); he continues to engage her and for whatever reason initially refuses to block her; then finally he drags his partner into the mix to help him clean up the mess he’s created. In the context of narcissistic behavior, that’s called “triangulation.” The person at the center invites another party into the conflict in order to inspire competition for his/her attention or affection. In these kind of psycho-sexual dynamics, it’s never as straightforward as one person did nothing and the other person had a meltdown for no reason. (The murder of Travis Alexander by Jody Arias is a compelling example. Despite claiming Arias was stalking him, Alexander continued to engage and have sex with Arias right up until the day she brutally murdered him.)

Yet that’s how Eden is positioning her experience with the woman obsessed with her fiancee. (I’ll stop here to state that nick naming her “stalker girl” is dehumanizing and lacks compassion.) There’s no denying this woman was fixated. Nothing can be said to soften the intensity of this woman’s persistence and refusal to respect boundaries. She’s wrong. Full stop. It’s frightening to be on the other end of that. But do I believe Eden’s fiancee was afraid? Not for a minute. In fact, based on his performative (to me) complaining and invitations to Eden to read the woman’s texts, I think he got off on it. If he were unsettled, even slightly, I would think they would both know broadcasting the situation on the internet under her real name probably wasn’t the best move. In actuality, a stunt like this could make these types of situations more dangerous, not less.

I’ve been writing dating advice for over ten years. When it comes to the subject of how turn down an offer of future dates, I always stress the importance of empathy. At first, at least. If you aren’t interested in seeing someone again, be clear, be concise, but be kind. “It was great to meet you, too. Thank you for the invitation, but I don’t think we’re a match. I wish you the best.” You don’t owe anyone a further explanation. If they persist or want you to expand on your thoughts, do not respond. By requesting more info, they’re revealing their tenuous boundaries and lack of social politeness. Replying will only encourage them to push further. For straight and some queer-identifying women, this is a dicey situation, as we risk verbal assault, insults, or worse. When men complain that a woman ghosted them after a first date, I try to impress upon them the very real dangers women face by saying no.

When the situation is reversed, though, I have a different reaction. When a man refers to a woman he dated as a stalker, my first question to him is, “What did you do?” (Sexist? Sure, if white men were systematically oppressed. But they’re not, so…) While we aren’t privy to any ensuing conversations of what exactly transpired between Eden’s fiancee and the woman he accused of stalking him, one might extrapolate that Eden took her man’s explanation at face-value and applied little to no critical thinking, such as, “She seems awfully upset for someone you just had drinks with.” It can be uncomfortable to face the reality that the person you love might not be as virtuous as you thought, but doing so will save you from heartache and tumult down the road.

Two things can be true at once. Eden’s fiancee can be on the receiving end of harassing behavior and he can have behaved in a way that was unkind and dishonest. He can be both victim and villain. Conversely, his alleged stalker can be as well. Again, I’ll say stories like this are never as simple as they’re often presented, where one person is wrong and the other is right and there’s no middle ground. Such tales should be assessed with a critical eye. Humans are too complex for things to be so black and white. Declaring a woman a stalker might make a man look more desirable to some — a reason I think people like Eden write these essays — but it takes but one kick of dirt to show there’s more going on beneath the surface.

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