Without understanding the context in which abuse occurs, victims of domestic violence can be viewed as irrational and self-destructive for staying with their abusers. Stockholm Syndrome helps us understand these seemingly masochistic behaviors.
Stockholm Syndrome explains why victims bond to their abusers. It comes from the will to live and the efforts necessary to survive chronic and persistent abuse. When community members, family and friends do not understand these things, they tend to blame the victim; however, doing this encourages further abuse. It further isolates the victim, making their escape that much more difficult.
“Why would they stay?” “Why don’t they just leave?” “When will they realize that they will never change?” It’s perplexing, right? For those in our community who have never experienced abuse it seems absurd to put one’s self through the pain, suffering and trauma that living with an abusive partner causes. How can they express love for someone who hits them every day? How can they say, it is “not that bad?” How can they keep going back? Victims have paradoxical responses to their abusers.
Stockholm Syndrome was coined in 1974 with a bank robbery gone awry; the captives, who included Patty Hearst, the daughter of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, formed an attachment to their captors. In a phone call between the police and one of the captives, Hearst declared that she had absolute trust in her captor but only feared for her life if police intervened.
Hearst, in some sense, became the “poster child” for Stockholm Syndrome. She eventually assisted her captors in a bank robbery.
Stockholm Syndrome has also been documented in cases of incest, cult membership and prisoners of war.
Men and women are equally likely to develop Stockholm Syndrome, as long as the conditions are “right.” Psychologist Dee Graham has identified four conditions that are necessary for Stockholm Syndrome to develop: First, the victim perceives a threat to their survival (a physical or psychological threat). It is also important to note that other people, outside of the abusive situation, may view the victim’s situation as a threat to their survival and they may not understand the victim’s perception of the situation. Second, the victim sees the abuser as performing small acts of kindness (such as getting a treat for a special occasion, or letting the victim talk to friends or family members). Third, the victim is isolated, kept from family, friends, and their community. This can come from physical isolation or the abuser only allowing the victim to talk to those individuals they deem acceptable. Finally, the victim does not see a way to escape the abuser.
All of these factors are traumatizing. Because the victim does not perceive a way to escape and because they are kept isolated from other means of kindness and nurturing, they turn to their abuser to receive these things and to ensure their survival. This often means that the victim will do what they can to keep their abuser happy, thereby ensuring to the best of their ability, their survival.
Fear of retaliation and losing the only “positive” relationship in their lives are also mechanisms that make it difficult for victims to leave. Due to the isolation and constant fear, their sense of self begins to dissolve and the victims begin to view themselves through the eyes of their abuser.
Graham also identified indicators that Stockholm Syndrome has developed in a victim. The victim has bonded with the abuser (which also means that the abuser has bonded with the victim. The relationship is bi-directional).
This bond works as a safety strategy. The victim shows intense gratitude for any small act of kindness shown by the abuser. The victim rationalizes, denies or minimizes the violence. These feelings are essential for the victim to bond with their abuser. The victim becomes hyper vigilant to the needs of their abuser. In turn they lose touch with their own needs.
When an abuser offers alternating abuse and nurturance it may lead the victim to develop borderline-like personality characteristics and behaviors. Because of the abuser’s perspective the victim loses their sense of self. They can exhibit depressive tendencies and catastrophic responses to losses. Bonding with the abuser helps provide self-soothing mechanisms and protection.
The victim may demonstrate self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse. These may reflect the abuser’s perspective (the abuser tells the victim they are a worthless alcoholic or a drug addict). They need to distort terror and think of it as love or caring in order to survive. The abandonment of the abuser at this point directly threatens the victim’s life.
Just as there are misconceptions regarding domestic violence, there are common misconceptions about Stockholm Syndrome and those who suffer from it, especially victims of domestic violence. People who develop Stockholm Syndrome do so because of the need to survive, and the bond formed with the abuser is a survival strategy. It is not their choice. It is the abusers, not the victims who are most likely to have or have had personality defects and abusive backgrounds. Would you say to a prisoner of war, “why didn’t you just leave?” Would you ask a woman with child in an abusive relationship, “why don’t you just call for help?” Do you blame them?
It is important for us as members of the community to do our best to understand survivors and victims. We must work to meet them where they are at and do our best to support them. This means avoiding blaming of victims and examining our urge to do so. There is more work to do.
Elaina Budris is the Volunteers in Service to America Representative (VISTA)
at Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center in Moab.