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Why People Cyberstalk Their Partners

Gender and personality play major roles.

Key points

  • Overall, women cyberstalk more than men.
  • Cyberstalking is a low-risk strategy women employ to avoid making partner choice errors.
  • High levels of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism are related to higher levels of intimate partner cyberstalking.
Dan Race/Shutterstock
Dan Race/Shutterstock

Imagine the situation.

A man goes to sleep and leaves his phone by the bed. While he is asleep, his partner (who knows his passcode or has face id access), without his permission, opens his phone and checks through his messages.

Is this acceptable? Is it normal? Does it depend on the partner’s motive? Is the motivation to do it linked to the partner’s personality? Who does this more, men or women? These were some of the questions addressed in an investigation by Evita March and colleagues (March et al., 2022).

Whether or not the act of benignly keeping track of a partner in the way outlined above is considered cyberstalking is, to some extent, a matter of debate. Certainly, in comparison to acts of cyberstalking that involve harassment or menace, such innocent intimate partner monitoring may be considered quite normal and acceptable.

Intimate partner monitoring may involve checking on a long-term partner and investigating their relationship commitment or checking out a potential short-term relationship to acquire information on such things as sexual promiscuity. In addition, cyberstalking may be motivated by whether one is attempting to acquire a partner or retain a partner one already has.

Finally, it is also possible that the motivation to monitor an intimate partner online may, to some extent, be related to personality. More specifically, those personality traits related to the Dark Tetrad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism).

Evita March and colleagues aimed to investigate the methods employed in the monitoring or cyberstalking of intimate partners and the techniques people use to obtain information about their partners. They investigated cyberstalking methods within short- and long-term mating scenarios, mating goals (acquiring or retaining a mate), and the personality traits as defined within the Dark Tetrad classification.

Cyberstalking was measured with 21 items similar to those below:

  • I have used or considered using phone apps to track my partner's activities.
  • The majority of my time spent on social networking sites is looking at my partner's pages.
  • To a certain extent, my partner should expect that I would log into their online accounts.

Participants were asked whether they would engage in each behaviour by responding yes or no, in four different contexts, a long- and short-term relationship, and while pursuing the goal of either acquiring or retaining a mate.

The researchers analysed the data using a technique known as factor analysis, which classified cyberstalking behaviour into three different types. These were labeled passive (e.g., checking the online status of a partner), invasive (e.g., checking a partner’s messages/phone history), and duplicitous (e.g., using the location settings on a partner’s phone to see where they’ve been).

The Findings

They found that men and women reported being more likely to passively cyberstalk a partner than using invasive or duplicitous methods of cyberstalking. In many cases, the benefits of duplicitous cyberstalking may be offset by its risk. Furthermore, duplicitous cyberstalking involves far more effort than the other forms of cyberstalking.

The findings also revealed that overall, women cyberstalked more than men. When the researchers looked at the three types of cyberstalking, they found that women were more likely to employ passive and invasive cyberstalking methods than men. In addition, women engaged more in invasive cyberstalking to retain a long-term partner, and compared to men, they also employed more invasive cyberstalking to secure a short-term partner.

Cyberstalking is often seen as a male pursuit, yet the findings from this study indicate that the reality is somewhat different. The researchers explain the sex difference in evolutionary terms, suggesting that because mistakes made in partner choice are potentially more costly for women, who invest more in parenting compared to men, then cyberstalking may be a relatively low-risk strategy women employ to avoid making such partner choice errors (Trivers, 1972).

March and colleagues did point out that it is slightly odd that women report using invasive cyberstalking to secure a short-term partner when invasive cyberstalking techniques would obviously depend on greater knowledge of a partner than would normally be available from a short-term relationship (such as having access to their online accounts).

Finally, the researchers found that higher levels of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism were all related to higher levels of intimate partner cyberstalking. However, when the researchers looked at each type of cyberstalking individually, they found only psychopathy related to passive, invasive, and duplicitous cyberstalking. Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism were not related to invasive intimate partner cyberstalking, and Machiavellianism was not related to duplicitous intimate partner cyberstalking.

This study looked primarily at how people cyberstalk their partners and those who may be more likely to do this. It offers an evolutionary explanation for why women may be more likely to cyberstalk. Given the relative cost to women compared to men from making an error in long-term partner choice, an intimate partner cyberstalking by women be justified?

Facebook image: Antonello Marangi/Shutterstock


March E, Szymczak P. Di Rago, M, Jonason, P. K. (2022). ‘Passive, invasive, and duplicitous: Three forms of intimate partner cyberstalking’ Personality and Individual Differences, 189.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). ‘Parental investment and sexual selection.’ In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man (pp. 1871–1971). Aldine.

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