Stockholm Syndrome is a phenomenon whereby victims feel sympathy and empathy for their abuser.

If you have positive feelings towards an abuser, and continue to love them and miss them in spite of how they treat you, this may be a characteristic of Stockholm Syndrome. Do sentiments 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” resonate?

It can develop as a consequence of traumatic bonding, whereby reward and punishment create fierce emotional bonds that to others may appear ‘irrational’. Friends and relatives may be shocked when they hear sympathetic comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. Stockholm Syndrome can be more common in those who have grown up in abusive households as they see the abuse patterns as ‘normal’ aspects of a relationship, but it can occur in anyone.

Emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation. 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.

Victims can look positively on abusers and controllers for not abusing them, when in a certain situations they would expect it e.g. 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 or wronged. Sympathy may develop toward the abuser e.g. “I know he fractured my jaw and ribs…but he’s troubled. He had a rough childhood!” 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. 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.

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. Any contact the victim has with supportive people in the community can be met with accusations, threats, and/or violent outbursts from the abuser. 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. On the surface it would appear that they have sided with the abuser/controller. In truth, they are trying to minimize contact with situations that might make them a target of additional verbal abuse or intimidation. If a casual phone call from Mum prompts a two-hour temper outburst with threats and accusations — the victim quickly realizes it’s safer if Mum stops 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. 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.

The best treatment for Stockholm Syndrome is intense therapy as well as the love and support from the prisoner’s family. It may take many years for the former prisoner to recover from Stockholm Syndrome – these shackles are not easily undone.