Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition that occurs when a victim of abuse identifies and attaches, or bonds, positively with their abuser. This syndrome was originally observed when hostages who were kidnapped not only bonded with their kidnappers, but also fell in love with them.
Professionals have expanded the definition of Stockholm syndrome to include any relationship in which victims of abuse develop a strong, loyal attachment to the perpetrators of abuse. Some of the populations affected with this condition include concentration camp prisoners, prisoners of war, abused children, incest survivors, victims of domestic violence, cult members, and people in toxic work or church environments.
The Characteristics of Stockholm Syndrome
It may be easier to understand Stockholm syndrome as an actual survival strategy for victims. This is because it seems to increase victims’ chances of survival and is believed to be a necessary tactic for defending psychologically and physically against experiencing an abusive, toxic, and controlling relationship. Stockholm syndrome is often found in toxic relationships where a power differential exists, such as between a parent and child or spiritual leader and congregant. Some signs of Stockholm syndrome include:
- Positive regard towards perpetrators of abuse or captors.
- Failure to cooperate with police and other government authorities when it comes to holding perpetrators of abuse or kidnapping accountable.
- Little or not effort to escape.
- Belief in the goodness of the perpetrators or kidnappers.
- Appeasement of captors. This is a manipulative strategy for maintaining one’s safety. As victims get rewarded—perhaps with less abuse or even with life itself—their appeasing behaviors are reinforced.
- Learned helplessness. This can be akin to “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” As the victims fail to escape the abuse or captivity, they may start giving up and soon realize it’s just easier for everyone if they acquiesce all their power to their captors.
- Feelings of pity toward the abusers, believing they are actually victims themselves. Because of this, victims may go on a crusade or mission to “save” their abuser.
- Unwillingness to learn to detach from their perpetrators and heal. In essence, victims may tend to be less loyal to themselves than to their abuser.
Anyone can be susceptible to Stockholm syndrome. Yes, there are certain people with abusive backgrounds that may be more likely to be affected, such as people with abusive childhoods; but any person can become a victim if the right conditions exist.
Battered partners or spouses are a prime example of Stockholm syndrome. Oftentimes, they are reluctant to press charges or initiate a restraining order, and some have attempted to stop police from arresting their abusers even after a violent assault. After the relationship has ended, victims of domestic violence may often make statements such as, “I still love him,” even after being brutally beaten.
Battered partners or spouses are a prime example of Stockholm syndrome. Oftentimes, they are reluctant to press charges or initiate a restraining order, and some have attempted to stop police from arresting their abusers even after a violent assault.
How Stockholm Syndrome Works
Stockholm syndrome occurs when certain dynamics are at play, and it happens within particular circumstances. Following is a list of ingredients that can contribute to the development of the syndrome in individuals:
- The condition can develop when victims of abuse believe there is a threat to their physical or psychological survival, and they also believe their abusers would carry out that threat.
- When victims of kidnapping are treated humanely or simply allowed to live, they often feel grateful and attribute positive qualities to their captors believing that they are, indeed, good people.
- Intermittent good/bad behavior can create trauma bonds. Stockholm syndrome is a form of trauma bond, where the victims “wait out” the bad behaviors for the “crumbs” of good behaviors bestowed on them.
- Victims are isolated from others. When people are in abusive systems, such as a kidnapping situation, access to outside input and communication is limited, or even nonexistent. This way, only the perpetrators’ input is allowed. It’s like “uber-propaganda.”
How to Help People Who May Have Stockholm Syndrome
Understanding the underlying psychology surrounding Stockholm syndrome can help you know how to help someone who has it. Stockholm syndrome is the victim’s response to trauma and involves many social dynamics. Some of these social dynamics include conformity, groupthink, deindividuation, romantic love, and fundamental attribution error, among others.
- Try psychoeducation. Psychoeducation involves teaching victims of Stockholm syndrome what is going on. Remember the saying, “Knowledge is power”? Knowing what you’re up against is the best offense to win the battle for your loved one’s freedom.
- Avoid polarization. Don’t try to convince the victim of the villainous traits of the abuser; this may cause the victim to polarize and defend the perpetrator.
- Use the Socratic method. Ask the victim questions about how they see the situation, how they feel and think, and what they believe needs to happen next.
- Listen without judgment. As the victim ponders everything that’s happened and processes their experience with the perpetrator, listen and use reflection to show concern and validation.
- Don’t give advice. Victims of abuse need to be empowered to make their own decisions. If you come along and tell them what to do because you “obviously know better,” then you are not helping the victim build their muscle of personal power. Remember, the road to healing from abuse is often to empower the victim to make their own decisions, to know this, and to own it.
- Address the cognitive dissonance. Being in a manipulative relationship can cause cognitive dissonance. This means the victim’s intuition has been damaged, and they may be confused about reality. Help them by validating their truth and encouraging them to trust themselves.
- Identify the “hook.” Victims of Stockholm syndrome can become dedicated to a cause or an unspoken desire. They may over-identify with the perpetrator in a dysfunctional way in order to fulfill a personal need. This is the “hook.” Help the victim identify what the underlying need is that is being fulfilled by the abusive relationship connection. Once the victim understands why they are so committed to the relationship, they can start making positive changes.
Examples of hooks include a variety of feelings, such as those of loyalty. They can be found in statements such as “I’ll be there no matter what,” or “It’s you and me against the world.” These types of needs tend to be unconscious and may have developed at an earlier stage of an individual’s life.
Being aware of the psychological underpinnings of Stockholm syndrome can help you understand how to best help someone with the condition. Its treatment is under-researched. While there is ample discussion of the legal ramifications of the disorder, very little has been written on how to help someone who has been affected. The bottom line, no matter what intervention you use to help someone who has this condition, is to remember to offer empathy always and coercion never.
If you think you or a loved one is experiencing Stockholm syndrome, a therapist may help you or them work through some of the steps to healing above. Start your search for the therapist best suited to helping you today.
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- Social psychology. (2010). Retrieved from https://www1.psych.purdue.edu/~willia55/120/LectureSocialF10.pdf
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