Stockholm syndrome refers to a series of attitudinal and behavioral responses that occur when a person is held in captivity, for example when someone is kidnapped or taken hostage, and begins to develop positive feelings towards their aggressor and they believe that escaping would be impossible, living isolated from the rest of the world. Why is this happening?
The victim’s life is in danger, the awareness of an imminent death and the fact that their physical survival and integrity depend on the aggressor arise. In such terrifying conditions, when the aggressor spares the victim, when he has less abusive behaviors, the victim interprets them to be "merciful", and they begin to develop certain feelings of gratitude towards him.
As strange as it may seem, in such a context, when the person is totally dependent on the aggressor and lives in terror, when they can no longer control their own life, they create an emotional bond with the aggressor as a survival strategy, where they don’t see him as the one who created this dangerous situation, but rather the one who gives them the chance to live.
Stockholm syndrome doesn’t occur only in these situations, but also in interpersonal, couple or family relationships, in the case of abused children or incest victims.
In the case of couple relationships, we speak about those situations in which the victim, although physically, emotionally, mentally or sexually abused, fails to break up with the abuser and even defends him in front of other people, or has aggressive reactions to those who try to save them from the abuses. In the vast majority of cases, we speak about women who get attached to an abusive partner, who find them excuses and justifications, which they support and defend and which they can’t separate from. Some of them don’t even realize they are being abused, because they still have the belief that abuse is just physical, or due to social influences they have come to believe it’s normal.
If the close ones try to interfere, the abuser will do whatever he can to limit the interaction with them and to isolate the victim. He’ll say that they are trying to separate them, that they are interfering in their relationship, that they are malicious. He will get angry, start reproaching, emotionally blackmail, make a scandal. To avoid such reactions and other conflicts, the victim will distance themselves from friends and family.
The isolation of the victim is one of the abuser's strategies to have absolute control over them. The victim feels that they don’t know how to get out of that relationship, that there is no possibility for separation.
To further complicate their situation, the abuser can restrict their access to money, to common assets; if there are children, he will threaten to take their children and never see them again; he will also threaten to destroy their life, to divulge secrets, or to commit suicide if they leave him.
Even if at the beginning there are "just" some ugly words, small jealousy crises, or interdictions that the person in question can overlook them by considering to be momentary mistakes, while the time passes by, the abuses become more and more serious and frequent. After each abuse, there are excuses, regrets, promises that it won’t happen again or plenty of "love proofs" (gifts, attentive gestures, sweet words) meant to confuse the victim and induce them the idea that the situation isn’t that bad. But it is.
There are the same arguments as always, despite the promises, nothing changes, even though in calmer times you are convinced that finally the change has happened, this doesn’t happen and the problems start all over again, you make a great effort for not making mistakes (that is, you are hypervigilant and you carefully plan your actions for fear of not causing another aggressive reaction or a new scandal). There is the feeling that you couldn’t live without your partner and the urge to return to them whenever there are major conflicts or breakups. There is a blockage that stops you from detaching yourself in spite of your sufferings.
In the case of Stockholm syndrome the attachment bond is formed after the abuses, but most of the times a partner begins to attach to another at the beginning of the relationship, when everything seems wonderful. When Prince Charming transforms into the bad character, there is a phase of shock and denial on the part of the victim. Others symptoms include:
- feelings of guilt and shame - the victim thinks that it’s their fault for this transformation, that if they realize what they’ve done wrong they’ll be able to fix it and so their partner will change back;
- finding their partner excuses and justifications - the person can’t accept that their relationship has turned into a toxic one. Because reality is different from the vision they have on their own relationship, the person seeks strategies to eliminate this discomfort caused by the contradiction between what they think and what they experience;
- considering abuses momentary mistakes due to the stress their partner is facing- in the same category of excuses is included the hard life or unhappy childhood that the abuser says they had. Therefore the victim start to pity them, to justify their behaviours saying that they’ve also been a victim and that is not their fault they’ve turned into this or they do what they do;
- then the victim becomes confused because terrifying moments are mixed with affectionate ones, they hope that everything will return to what it was before, and their self-esteem, self-confidence and the ability to trust their own decisions and thoughts decrease as fear and abuses grow.
At this point, victim’s vulnerability and the incredible stress they are going through makes them see their partner’s small gestures of kindness as love evidence (during periods of calm), and the release felt these moments strengthens the sickly affective relationship already formed: “Finally they calmed down and stopped hurting me. I feel like I need to reward them."
Thus, what began as a normal relationship turned into an abusive one where the abused person tries to find all kind of strategies to cope with the situation they are in. Their attitudes, thoughts and behaviors are directed to ensure their survival and reduce the emotional and physical risks which they might go through. Many of the victim's behavior doesn’t mean what we think they mean (for example, distancing from their family and friends or even quarreling with them doesn’t mean that the positive feelings towards them have been replaced with negative ones, but it represents a strategy by which the victim manages to avoid their partner’s scandals or aggressions who is bothered by these interactions, thus protecting themselves).
If a person close to you has such a relationship, the first reaction you can have is to try to convince them to break up, to get angry when you realise that your words aren’t listened to, to criticize them for their decisions, to speak bad about their partner. The problem is that, by repeatedly doing all these things, that person will distance from you even more and they will try even harder to find them justifications. Be there for them, keep the communication open so as they know they have external support, but be aware of the fact that you can’t change overnight their thinking and vision
If you find yourself in such a relationship, keep in mind that no matter how hard or impossible things may seem to you now, there are solutions for you to get rid of the toxicity you are living in. Consider the option of asking for help, because sometimes one step is enough to change your path.
Dr. Ursula Sandner