Described as a victim’s emotional “bonding” with their abuser, Stockholm Syndrome was given its name following a hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden when, following the end of a bank robbery, the hostages identified with and supported their captor.
Dr. Joseph Carver, a clinical psychologist, describes emotionally bonding with an abuser as a survival strategy for victims of abuse and intimidation. For example, a victim who was abducted and raped may, years later, describe the captor as a “great person” with whom he/she formed an emotional bond, may be showing characteristics of a victim suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.1
It is important to remember that Stockholm Syndrome develops subconsciously and on an involuntary basis. The strategy is a survival instinct that develops as an attempt to survive in a threatening and controlling environment.
The Components and Progression of Stockholm Syndrome
Following are the components of Stockholm Syndrome as they relate to abusive and controlling relationships. Common symptoms include:1
- Victim having positive feelings toward the abuser
- Victim having negative feelings toward family, friends, or authorities
- Abuser having positive feelings toward the victim
- Victim supporting or helping the abuser
Following are several stages in the progression of Stockholm Syndrome:1
- The victim dissociates from his or her pain, helplessness or terror by subconsciously beginning to see the situation / world from the abuser’s perspective. The victim begins to agree with the abuser and certain aspects of his or her own personality, opinions, and views will fade into the background.
- By doing this, the victim begins to learn how to appease and please the abuser, which may keep him or her from being hurt or worse. Similarly this tactic can be used to manipulate the abuser into being less dangerous, at least for a little while.
- After a while the victim begins to realize that his or her abuser portrays the same human characteristics as anyone else. At this point he or she will begin to see the abuser as less of a threat. Some abusers may even share personal information in an effort to bond with the victim and to promote pity rather than anger.
- This bonding, in turn, leads to conflicting feelings (e.g., rage and pity) and illogical concern for the abuser. The victim may even ignore his or her own needs.
- Once the traumatic event has ended, however, the victim must again learn not to dissociate from his or her emotions and not focus on the abuser. This can be a very difficult transition.
Four situations or conditions are present that serve as a foundation for the development of Stockholm Syndrome:1
- Perceived or real threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and belief that the abuser will carry out the threat. The abuser may:
- Assure the victim that only cooperation keeps loved ones safe.
- Offer subtle threats or stories of revenge to remind the victim that revenge is possible if they leave.
- Have a history of violence leading the victim to believe they could be a target.
- Presence of a small kindness from the abuser to the victim
- In some cases, small gestures such as allowing a bathroom visit or providing food/water are enough to alter the victim’s perception of the abuser.
- Other times, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat can be seen as proof that the abuser is not “all bad.”
- Victim’s isolation from other perspectives
- Victims have the sense they are always being watched. For their survival they begin to take on the abuser’s perspective. This survival technique can become so intense that the victim develops anger toward those trying to help.
- In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome the victim may feel the abusive situation is their fault.
- Perceived or real inability to escape from the situation
- The victim may have financial obligations, debt, or instability to the point that they cannot survive on their own.
- The abuser may use threats including taking the children, public exposure, suicide, or a life of harassment for the victim.
How to Help: What to do and what not to do
While each situation is different, there are general guidelines to consider if you know or suspect that someone you love is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome:1
- Your loved one has probably been given a choice – the “relationship” or the family. Because the victim believes that choosing the family will result in adverse consequences, the family always comes second.
- Your loved one is being told the family is trying to ruin their wonderful “relationship.” Remember: the more you pressure the victim, the more you prove that point.
- Your goal is to remain in contact with your loved one during the abusive “relationship.” There are many channels of communication, including phone calls, letters, cards, emails, etc. Keep contact brief and consider contacting him or her at “traditional” times such as holidays, birthdays, and special occasions.
- Your loved one may open up communication and provide subtle hints about his or her “relationship” with the abuser. If so, listen and let them know that you are behind any decision they need to make. Remember: he or she may be exploring what support is available but may not be ready to ask for help just yet.