Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser

Dark storm clouds rolling in

People are often amazed at their own psychological conditions and reactions. Those with depression are stunned when they remember they’ve thought of killing themselves. Patients recovering from severe psychiatric disturbances are often shocked as they remember their symptoms and behavior during the episode. A patient with Bipolar Disorder recently told me “I can’t believe I thought I could change the weather through mental telepathy!” A common reaction is “I can’t believe I did that!”

In clinical practice, some of the most surprised and shocked individuals are those who have been involved in controlling and abusive relationships. When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as “I know what he’s done to me, but I still love him”, “I don’t know why, but I want him back”, or “I know it sounds crazy, but I miss her”. Recently I’ve heard “This doesn’t make sense. He’s got a new girlfriend and he’s abusing her too…but I’m jealous!” Friends and relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. While the situation doesn’t make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint? The answer is – Yes!

On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.

While the psychological condition in hostage situations became known as “Stockholm Syndrome” due to the publicity – the emotional “bonding” with captors was a familiar story in psychology. It had been recognized many years before and was found in studies of other hostage, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:

  • Abused Children
  • Battered/Abused Women
  • Prisoners of War
  • Cult Members
  • Incest Victims
  • Criminal Hostage Situations
  • Concentration Camp Prisoners
  • Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation. The “Stockholm Syndrome” reaction in hostage and/or abuse situations is so well recognized at this time that police hostage negotiators no longer view it as unusual. In fact, it is often encouraged in crime situations as it improves the chances for survival of the hostages. On the down side, it also assures that the hostages experiencing “Stockholm Syndrome” will not be very cooperative during rescue or criminal prosecution. Local law enforcement personnel have long recognized this syndrome with battered women who fail to press charges, bail their battering husband/boyfriend out of jail, and even physically attack police officers when they arrive to rescue them from a violent assault.

Stockholm Syndrome (SS) can also be found in family, romantic, and interpersonal relationships. The abuser may be a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, father or mother, or any other role in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority.

It’s important to understand the components of Stockholm Syndrome as they relate to abusive and controlling relationships. Once the syndrome is understood, it’s easier to understand why victims support, love, and even defend their abusers and controllers.

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Mental Health Professional Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in southern Ohio USA. He began his career in 1971, and has practiced in psychiatric and medical hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. He is currently in private practice. He also provides expert witness testimony for the Social Security Administration. In May 2007 he became a Consulting Psychologist for Counselling Resource in Great Britain.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Abused | Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

  2. Jackie

    August 16, 2014 at 3:51 am

    This article was an amazing read. I’ve known for sometime that I am in an abusive relationship. It’s hard because I do love him. I have justified my staying with him. But at the same time I crave a normal relationship. He does not kiss, nor touch. He’s cut off ALL forms of intimacy as punishment. I work so hard and it’s NEVER enough. He just watched movies and plays games and we eat. If I don’t give him a peck kiss before I leave he gets angry. But he refuses to really kiss me. It feels like he hates me and making me pay for the abuse his mother and brothers and ex wife bestowed upon him. I HATE this relationship ( at times).. I feel crazy and erratic most of the time and use alcohol to calm my nerves.. which can upset him too. I’m so lost. Sad. Scared. Just feel beaten and exhausted. Thanks for this article. It has opened my eyes but I don’t know where or how to begin to change.
    God bless

    • Sean Bennick

      August 18, 2014 at 12:59 am

      Jackie, there are resources in every city that you can reach out to. Look for an organization that assists those in domestic violence situations if that is the situation you are in. There are other organizations that offer someone to talk to when you are in crisis. Whatever you decide to do, please keep yourself safe.

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