It’s crazy, my Mother and her friends abused me for fourteen years yet I still yearn for her love and defend her to my Therapist and family. I won’t hear a bad word said against her despite everything she did. It defies logic. I know it does but I cannot help it. Why?
Some of the most surprised and shocked individuals are those who have been involved in controlling and abusive relationships and then 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”. I’ve once 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 defence fund to aid in their criminal defence 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 recognised many years before and was found in studies of other hostage, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:
- Physically Abused/Sexually Abused Children
- Battered/Abused Women
- Prisoners of War
- Cult Members
- Incest Victims
- Criminal Hostage Situations
- Concentration Camp Prisoners
- Controlling/Intimidating Relationships
In my situation, I was the victim of a paedophile ring organised by my parents for fourteen years. I became convinced that the only way to get my Mother and Father to love me was to do the ‘acts’ the men wanted me to do. I was desperate for my Mother’s love in particular and even when she kicked me out onto the streets of Dublin at the age of eighteen and I was rescued by the Salvation Army I tried to go back home to her. They had to do everything in their power to get me out of the Country to safety against my wishes. When I got to Australia I sent her back money for years and wrote her letters every week, never getting replies. I began when I got married and had suppressed all memories of the atrocities that had happened to visit them. She behaved as if nothing had happened and it is only with the onset of the Complex PTSD in the last four years that the extent of the crime has emerged. Even with clear evidence, it is impossible for me to blame her for what happened and believe her guilty of such a crime. I defend her passionately and blame the paedophiles, not her as the incarcerator and organiser, nor as the woman who beat me and starved me, leaving me for days in a room unfed. A classic case of “Stockholm Syndrome”.
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 an abused child in situations is so well recognised 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 downside, 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 recognised 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, child/parent 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.
Every syndrome has symptoms or behaviours, and Stockholm Syndrome is no exception. While a clear-cut list has not been established due to varying opinions by researchers and experts, several of these features will be present. For example in child abuse situations or hostages:
- Positive feelings by the victim toward the abuser/controller
- Negative feelings by the victim toward family, friends, or authorities trying to rescue/support them or win their release
- Support of the abuser’s reasons and behaviours
- Positive feelings by the abuser toward the victim
- Supportive behaviours by the victim, at times helping the abuser
- Inability to engage in behaviours that may assist in their release or detachment
Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t occur in every hostage or abusive situation. In another bank robbery involving hostages, after terrorising patrons and employees for many hours, a police sharpshooter shot and wounded the terrorising bank robber. After he hit the floor, two women picked him up and physically held him up to the window for another shot. As you can see, the length of time one is exposed to abuse/control and other factors are certainly involved.
It has been found that four situations or conditions are present that serve as a foundation for the development of Stockholm Syndrome. These four situations can be found in hostage, severe abuse, and abusive relationships:
- The presence of a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat.
- The presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim
- Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser
- The perceived inability to escape the situation
- Perceived Threat to One’s Physical/Psychological Survival
The perception of threat can be formed by direct, indirect, or witnessed methods. Criminal or antisocial partners can directly threaten your life or the life of friends and family. Their history of violence leads us to believe that the captor/controller will carry out the threat in a direct manner if we fail to comply with their demands. The abuser assures us that only our cooperation keeps our loved ones safe.
Indirectly, the abuser/controller offers subtle threats that you will never leave them or have another partner, reminding you that people in the past have paid dearly for not following their wishes. Hints are often offered such as “I know people who can make others disappear”. Indirect threats also come from the stories told by the abuser or controller — how they obtained revenge on those who have crossed them in the past. These stories of revenge are told to remind the victim that revenge is possible if they leave.
Witnessing violence or aggression is also a perceived threat. Witnessing a violent temper directed at a television set, others on the highway, or a third party clearly sends us the message that we could be the next target for violence. Witnessing the thoughts and attitudes of the abuser/controller is threatening and intimidating, knowing that we will be the target of those thoughts in the future.
The “Small Kindness” Perception
In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope — a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abuser’s benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor. In criminal/war hostage situations, letting the victim live is often enough. Small behaviours, such as allowing a bathroom visit or providing food/water, are enough to strengthen the Stockholm Syndrome in criminal hostage events. This is also the case with children. Children are naturally trusting and of course particularly so of their parents so evidence of hope is gratefully received and welcomed. They are quickly won over once again and so the cycle continues.
In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive but evidence that the abuser is not “all bad” and may at some time correct his/her behaviour. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation.This is particularly effective when dealing with children. An aggressive and jealous partner may normally become intimidating or abusive in certain social situations, as when an opposite-sex coworker waves in a crowd. After seeing the wave, the victim expects to be verbally battered and when it doesn’t happen, that “small kindness” is interpreted as a positive sign.
Similar to the small kindness perception is the perception of a “soft side”. During the relationship, the abuser/controller may share information about their past — how they were mistreated, abused, neglected, or wronged. The victim begins to feel the abuser/controller may be capable of fixing their behaviour or worse yet, that they (abuser) may also be a “victim”. Sympathy may develop toward the abuser and we often hear the victim of Stockholm Syndrome defending their abuser with “I know he fractured my jaw and ribs…but he’s troubled. He had a rough childhood!” Losers and abusers may admit they need psychiatric help or acknowledge they are mentally disturbed; however, it’s almost always after they have already abused or intimidated the victim. The admission is a way of denying responsibility for the abuse. In truth, personality disorders and criminals have learned over the years that personal responsibility for their violent/abusive behaviours can be minimised and even denied by blaming their bad upbringing, abuse as a child, and now even video games. One murderer blamed his crime on eating too much junk food — now known as the “Twinkie Defence”. While it may be true that the abuser/controller had a difficult upbringing, showing sympathy for his/her history produces no change in their behaviour and in fact, prolongs the length of time you will be abused. While “sad stories” are always included in their apologies — after the abusive/controlling event — their behaviour never changes! Keep in mind: once you become hardened to the “sad stories”, they will simply try another approach. I know of no victim of abuse or crime who has heard their abuser say “I’m beating (robbing, mugging, etc.) you because my Mother hated me!”
Isolation from Perspectives Other than those of the Captor
In abusive and controlling relationships, the victim has the sense they are always “walking on eggshells” — fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst. For their survival, they begin to see the world through the abuser’s perspective. They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem. If we only have a dollar in our pocket, then most of our decisions become financial decisions. If our partner is an abuser or controller, then the majority of our decisions are based on our perception of the abuser’s potential reaction. We become preoccupied with the needs, desires, and habits of the abuser/controller.
Taking the abuser’s perspective as a survival technique can become so intense that the victim actually develops anger toward those trying to help them. The abuser is already angry and resentful toward anyone who would provide the victim support, typically using multiple methods and manipulations to isolate the victim from others. Any contact the victim has with supportive people in the community is met with accusations, threats, and/or violent outbursts. Victims then turn on their family — fearing family contact will cause additional violence and abuse in the home. At this point, victims curse their parents and friends, tell them not to call and to stop interfering, and break off communication with others. Agreeing with the abuser/controller, supportive others are now viewed as “causing trouble” and must be avoided. Many victims threaten their family and friends with restraining orders if they continue to “interfere” or try to help the victim in their situation. On the surface it would appear that they have sided with the abuser/controller. In truth, they are trying to minimise contact with situations that might make them a target of additional verbal abuse or intimidation. If a casual phone call from Mother prompts a two-hour temper outburst with threats and accusations — the victim quickly realises it’s safer if Mother stops calling. If simply telling Mother to stop calling doesn’t work, for his or her own safety the victim may accuse Mother of attempting to ruin the relationship and demand that she stop calling.
In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome in relationships, the victim may have difficulty leaving the abuser and may actually feel the abusive situation is their fault. In law enforcement situations, the victim may actually feel the arrest of their partner for physical abuse or battering is their fault. Some women will allow their children to be removed by child protective agencies rather than give up the relationship with their abuser. As they take the perspective of the abuser, the children are at fault — they complained about the situation, they brought the attention of authorities to the home, and they put the adult relationship at risk. Sadly, the children have now become a danger to the victim’s safety. For those with Stockholm Syndrome, allowing the children to be removed from the home decreases their victim stress while providing an emotionally and physically safer environment for the children.
Perceived Inability to Escape
As a hostage in a bank robbery, threatened by criminals with guns, it’s easy to understand the perceived inability to escape. In romantic relationships, the belief that one can’t escape is also very common. Many abusive/controlling relationships feel like till-death-do-us-part relationships — locked together by mutual financial issues/assets, mutual intimate knowledge, or legal situations. Here are some common situations:
Controlling partners have increased the financial obligations/debt in the relationship to the point that neither partner can financially survive on their own. Controllers who sense their partner may be leaving will often purchase a new car, later claiming they can’t pay alimony or child support due to their large car payments.
The legal ending of a relationship, especially a marital relationship, often creates significant problems. A Controller who has an income that is “under the table” or maintained through legally questionable situations runs the risk of those sources of income being investigated or made public by the divorce/separation. The Controller then becomes more agitated about the possible public exposure of their business arrangements than the loss of the relationship.
The Controller often uses extreme threats including threatening to take the children Interstate, threatening to quit their job/business rather than pay alimony/support, threatening public exposure of the victim’s personal issues, or assuring the victim they will never have a peaceful life due to nonstop harassment. In severe cases, the Controller may threaten an action that will undercut the victim’s support such as “I’ll see that you lose your job” or “I’ll have your car burned”.
Controllers often keep the victim locked into the relationship with severe guilt — threatening suicide if the victim leaves. The victim hears “I’ll kill myself in front of the children”, “I’ll set myself on fire in the front garden”, or “Our children won’t have a father/mother if you leave me!”
In relationships with an abuser or controller, the victim has also experienced a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological energy. The victim may feel “burned out” and too depressed to leave. Additionally, abusers and controllers often create a type of dependency by controlling the finances, placing cars/homes in their name, and eliminating any assets or resources the victim may use to leave. “I’d leave but I can’t even get money out of the savings account! I don’t know the PIN number.”
In teens and young adults, victims may be attracted to a controlling individual when they feel inexperienced, insecure, and overwhelmed by a change in their life situation. When parents are going through a divorce, a teen may attach to a controlling individual, feeling the controller may stabilise their life. Freshmen in college may be attracted to controlling individuals who promise to help them survive living away from home on a college campus.
In unhealthy relationships and definitely in Stockholm Syndrome there is a daily preoccupation with “trouble”. Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, or cold meal that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser. To survive, “trouble” is to be avoided at all costs. The victim must control situations that produce trouble. That may include avoiding family, friends, co-workers, and anyone who may create “trouble” in the abusive relationship. The victim does not hate family and friends; they are only avoiding “trouble”! The victim also cleans the house, calms the children, scans the mail, avoids certain topics, and anticipates every issue of the controller or abuse in an effort to avoid “trouble”. In this situation, children who are noisy become “trouble”. Loved ones and friends are sources of “trouble” for the victim who is attempting to avoid verbal or physical aggression. Children learn to avoid eye contact with an abusive parent lest it is misconstrued for the aggressive behaviour of a “come on sexually”. Girls learn to wear jeans and long sleeve tops all the time to keep covered in the hope it might protect them sexually. Mothers find themselves shopping differently for their abused daughters.
Stockholm Syndrome in relationships is not uncommon. Law enforcement professionals are painfully aware of the situation — making a domestic dispute one of the high-risk calls during work hours. Called by neighbours during a spousal abuse incident, the abuser is passive upon arrival of the police, only to find the abused spouse upset and threatening the officers if their abusive partner is arrested for domestic violence. In truth, the victim knows the abuser/controller will retaliate against him/her if 1) they encourage an arrest, 2) they offer statements about the abuse/fight that are deemed disloyal by the abuser, 3) they don’t bail them out of jail as quickly as possible, and 4) they don’t personally apologise for the situation — as though it was their fault.
Stockholm Syndrome produces an unhealthy bond with the controller and abuser. It is the reason many victims continue to support an abuser after the relationship is over. It’s also the reason they continue to see “the good side” of an abusive individual and appear sympathetic to someone who has mentally and sometimes physically abused them.
Is There Something Else Involved?
In a short response — Yes! Throughout history, people have found themselves supporting and participating in life situations that range from abusive to bizarre. In talking to these active and willing participants in bad and bizarre situations, it is clear they have developed feelings and attitudes that support their participation. One way these feelings and thoughts are developed is known as “cognitive dissonance”. As you can tell, psychologists have large words and phrases for just about everything.
“Cognitive Dissonance” explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation — few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance — the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions — adding new thoughts and attitudes. Some examples:
Heavy smokers know smoking causes lung cancer and multiple health risks. To continue smoking, the smoker changes his cognitions (thoughts/feelings) such as 1) “I’m smoking less than ten years ago”, 2) “I’m smoking low-tar cigarettes”, 3) “Those statistics are made up by the cancer industry conspiracy”, or 4) “Something’s got to get you anyway!” These new cognitions/attitudes allow them to keep smoking and actually begin blaming restaurants for being unfair.
Your husband/boyfriend becomes abusive and assaultive. You can’t leave due to the finances, children, or other factors. Through cognitive dissonance, you begin telling yourself “He only hits me open-handed” and “He’s had a lot of stress at work.”
Leon Festinger first coined the term “Cognitive Dissonance”. He had observed a cult (1956) in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment — they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral: the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with “I’ll get them next time”. If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment.
Studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating. The initiation rituals of university fraternities, boot camps, and graduate school all produce loyal and committed individuals. Almost any ordeal creates a bonding experience. Every couple, no matter how mismatched, falls in love in the movies after going through a terrorist takeover, being stalked by a killer, being stranded on an island, or being involved in an alien abduction. Investment and an ordeal are ingredients for a strong bonding — even if the bonding is unhealthy. No one bonds or falls in love with being a member – yes!
Abusive relationships produce a great amount of unhealthy investment in both parties. In many cases, we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship. Try telling a new Marine that since he or she has survived boot camp, they should now enroll in the Army! Several types of investments keep us in the bad relationship:
We’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that we feel we must see the relationship through to the finish.
We’ve got our pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, we remain in the relationship.
If children are present in the relationship, decisions regarding the relationship are clouded by the status and needs of the children.
In many cases, the controlling and abusive partner has created a complex financial situation. Many victims remain in a bad relationship, waiting for a better financial situation to develop that would make their departure and detachment easier.
Many controlling/abusive partners use money or a lifestyle as an investment. Victims in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.
We often invest emotional and sexual intimacy. Some victims have experienced a destruction of their emotional and/or sexual self-esteem in the unhealthy relationship. The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumours or tell intimate details or secrets. In situations of child sexual abuse, these secrets usually amount to something as simple as saying “I will say you asked for it” or “I know you wanted it” and transfer the guilt onto the child. That is enough to cause such horrific confusion in a child’s mind by an adult of power that the child is bound to secrecy. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations.
In many cases, it’s not simply our feelings for an individual that keep us in an unhealthy relationship — it’s often the amount of investment. Relationships are complex and we often only see the tip of the iceberg in public. For this reason, the most common phrase offered by the victim in defence of their unhealthy relationship is “You just don’t understand!”
Combining Two Unhealthy Conditions
The combination of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “cognitive dissonance” (This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time) produces a victim who firmly believes the relationship is not only acceptable but also desperately needed for their survival. The victim feels they would mentally collapse if the relationship ended. Up until my Mother’s death two years ago I placed an unhealthy significance in the relationship with her. I believed I would die if she did not love me. She clearly wanted no relationship and only wanted money from me. I kept her in the best Nursing Home available and that was all she wanted. She was never going to give me the love I wanted and was certainly never going to give me an explanation for the acts of so long ago but yet I continued to defend her to my Therapist and family. It was destructive to my healing and my mental health but I could not be reasoned with. In long-term relationships, the victims have invested everything and placed “all their eggs in one basket”. The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.
For reasons described above, the victim feels family and friends are a threat to the relationship and eventually to their personal health and existence. The more family/friends protest the controlling and abusive nature of the relationship, the more the victim develops cognitive dissonance and becomes defensive. At this point, family and friends become victims of the abusive and controlling individual.
Importantly, both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance develop on an involuntary basis. The victim does not purposely invent this attitude. Both develop as an attempt to exist and survive in a threatening and controlling environment and relationship. Despite what we might think, our loved one is not in the unhealthy relationship to irritate us, embarrass us, or drive us to drink. What might have begun as a normal relationship has turned into a controlling and abusive situation. They are trying to survive. Their personality is developing the feelings and thoughts needed to survive the situation and lower their emotional and physical risks.Just think of the mind of a twelve-year-old child who is being sexually abused by her Father. She is torn between desperately wanting it to stop but hopelessly in love with her Father and fiercely protective of him so will not give Authorities any evidence against him even if the Mother reports him backed by other members of the family. They are all caught in a horrible bind. All of us have developed attitudes and feelings that help us accept and survive situations. We have these attitudes/feelings about our jobs, our community, and other aspects of our life. As we have found throughout history, the more dysfunctional the situation, the more dysfunctional our adaptation and thoughts to survive. The victim is engaged in an attempt to survive and make a relationship work. Once they decide it doesn’t work and can’t be fixed, they will need our support as we patiently await their decision to return to a healthy and positive lifestyle.
As relatives or friends of a victim involved with a controller or abuser, our normal reaction is to consider dramatic action. We become angry, resentful, and aggressive at times. Our mind fills with a variety of plans that often range from rescue and kidnapping to ambushing the controller/abuser with a stick !!!!. A rule of thumb is that any aggression toward the controller/abuser will result in additional difficulties for your loved one. Try to remain calm and await an opportunity to show your love and support when your loved one needs it.
In some cases, as in teenagers and young adults, the family may still provide some financial, insurance, or other support. When we receive angry responses to our phone calls, our anger and resentment tell us to cut off their support. I’ve heard “If she’s going to date that jerk, it’s not going to be in a car I’m paying for!” and “If he’s choosing that woman over his family, he can drop out of college and flip hamburgers!” Withdrawing financial support only makes your loved one more dependent upon the controller/abuser. Remember, if we’re aggressive by threatening, withdrawing support, or pressuring — we become the threatening force, not the controller/abuser. It actually moves the victim into the support of the controller. Sadly, the more of an “ordeal” they experience, the more bonding takes place, as noted with both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance.
As you might imagine, the combination of Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance may also be active when our loved one is involved in cults, unusual religions, and other groups. In some situations, the abuser and controller is actually a group or organisation. Victims are punished if they are viewed as disloyal to the group. While this article deals with individual relationships, the family guidelines may also be helpful in controlling-group situations. If it’s a child you fear is experiencing child abuse at the hands of a parent you are duty bound to report it to the authorities. Make sure you are ready to offer that child a home. They will be angry as they may not want to be separated from their parents no matter how abusive but safety trumps all and you must be prepared to weather the storm. Authorities are well equipped to support you in this endeavour. Whatever you do, do not stand idly by and do nothing out of fear of causing offence to a son or daughter when a child’s safety is at risk. No child should be invisible. There is absolutely no excuse for standing by and ignoring suspected child abuse. We all have a duty to the innocent. We are their voice and they will have been successfully and horribly brainwashed to believe their parent has a right to treat them as they wish.
You may be the victim of a controlling and abusive partner, seeking an understanding of your feelings and attitudes. You may have a son, daughter, or friend currently involved with a controlling and abusive partner, looking for ways to understand and help.
If a loved one is involved with a Loser, a controlling and abusing partner, the long-term outcome is difficult to determine due to the many factors involved. If their relationship is in the “dating” phase, they may end the relationship on their own. If the relationship has continued for over a year, they may require support and an exit plan before ending the relationship. Marriage and children further complicate their ability to leave the situation. When the victim decides to end the unhappy relationship, it’s important that they view loved ones as supportive, loving, and understanding — not as a source of pressure, guilt, or aggression.