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After the Breakup: Who’s Through and Who Pursues

When I told my ex-husband that I wanted a divorce, I knew that it would not be easy to overcome the legal and logistical hurdles that would inevitably follow. But I was eager to tend to my emotional bruises and move on to whatever else life had to offer. My ex-husband, on the other hand, was not ready to let our relationship—or me—disappear quietly into the night. Months after I filed the paperwork and I had moved across town into a small, one-bedroom apartment, he continued to pressure me to give our relationship another chance. He sent dozens of texts and emails declaring his undying love. I awoke one morning to him banging on my door, asking me to comfort him. He left a (gaudy) handpicked bouquet of flowers at my office. Most recently, I opened my front door and literally stumbled over a container full of leftover food and a $500 winning lottery ticket (okay, so I kept the lottery ticket). These events took place so frequently that, for a while, I was genuinely scared to leave my apartment, lest I run into him or another “gift” that he left for me.

My situation is not unique. Unwanted pursuit behaviors—which include relatively innocuous behaviors, such as gift-giving or exaggerated displays of affection, as well as more serious types of intrusions, such as stalking or threats of physical violence—occur relatively frequently following relationship breakups.1 Recently, researchers at Ghent University examined the circumstances under which unwanted pursuit behaviors are especially likely to occur.2 Using a sample of 396 divorced individuals, they investigated whether certain breakup characteristics (most notably, who initiated the separation) predict the frequency of post-divorce unwanted pursuit behaviors. In addition, they examined the extent to which certain features of the former relationship (i.e., partners’ relationship-specific attachment style, amount of conflict, relationship satisfaction, quality of alternatives, and level of investment in the relationship) are tied to ex-partner pursuit.2 In short, the researchers were curious if certain breakup experiences and relationship experiences increase the likelihood of ex-partners engaging in pursuit behaviors after the relationship ends. 

The extent to which characteristics of the breakup were tied to the number of post-dissolution pursuit behaviors depended on the quality of the partners’ pre-dissolution relationship. Specifically, individuals who were dumped by their partners engaged in a greater number of pursuit behaviors to the extent that they (1) perceived fewer available alternatives (“I have eyes only for you” or “No one else has eyes for me”), (2) were more invested in their marriages (“I gave you everything”), (3) reported greater relationship satisfaction (“We were so happy together”), and (4) were more anxiously attached to their former partners (“I have always worried that you were going to leave me”). What do these characteristics have in common? You guessed it: They are all associated with greater relationship perseverance.3,4 That is, these relationship characteristics make it more likely that individuals will fight for their relationships’ futures. So, when these individuals unwillingly lose their relationships, they are especially motivated to try to hold onto their former partners. Those who initiated the divorce, on the other hand, did not engage in more pursuit behaviors, regardless of their relationship satisfaction, level of investment, perceived alternatives, or degree of anxious attachment. This makes sense. When individuals decide they want to leave their partners, it doesn’t matter how much they previously relied on the relationship; they want out, and thus they’re far less likely to pursue their ex-partners after their relationships end (which would clearly be counterproductive).

Breaking up is indeed hard to do, and certain relational dynamics may make it harder for some to fully let go of their relationships. In fact, unwanted pursuits often persist for over a year,5,6 and discouraging ex-partners from engaging in pursuit behaviors generally only exacerbates the problem.5,7 (Because unwanted pursuits have the potential of escalating and putting the individual at risk of emotional or physical harm, please contact your County Attorney or visit your local courthouse if you, or someone you know, is being harassed by a former partner.) Fortunately for me, my ex-husband stopped sending me late-night texts and dropping things off at my apartment (although I wouldn’t be upset with a few more winning lottery tickets!). Regardless, I still glance out the peephole every morning before I open my apartment door—you know, just in case. 

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1Davis, K. E., Ace, A., & Andra, M. (2000). Stalking perpetrators and psychological maltreatment of partners: anger-jealousy, attachment insecurity, need for control, and breakup context. Violence and Victims, 15, 407–425.

2De Smet, O., Loeys, T., & Buysse, A. (2012). Post-breakup unwanted pursuit: A refined analysis of the role of romantic relationship characteristics. Journal of Family Violence, 27, 437–452.

3Barbara, A. M., & Dion, K. L. (2000). Breaking up is hard to do, especially for strongly “preoccupied” lovers. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 5, 315–342.

4Rusbult, C. E., Martz, J. M., & Agnew, C. R. (1998). The Investment Model Scale: measuring commitment level, satisfaction level, quality of alternatives, and investment size. Personal Relationships, 5, 357–391.

5Jason, L. A., Reichler, A., Easton, J., Neal, A., & Wilson, M. (1984). Female harassment after ending a relationship: A preliminary study. Alternative Lifestyles, 6, 259–269.

6Purcell, B., Pathé, M., & Mullen, P. E. (2004). When do repeated intrusions become stalking? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 15, 571–583.

7Brewster, M. P. (1998). An exploration of the experiences and needs of former intimate stalking victims. (Final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, NCJ 175475). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.

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