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People can form immensely powerful relationships with hostage-takers. Is it any wonder that Stockholm Syndrome also develops in relationships with abusive partners? Here are the causes, the symptoms, and the way out.

One summer morning in 1973, safe-cracker Jan-Erik Olsson strolled into Stockholm's Sveriges Kreditbanken, fired a submachine gun at the ceiling, and yelled, in English, "The Party has just begun!" It marked the odd start to a surreal story. After injuring a policeman and taking four bank employees hostage, Olsson demanded that Clark Olofsson, a dangerous criminal he wanted for his accomplice, be released from prison — and had his wish granted. 

The authorities didn't give him the safe passage with his hostages in tow that he wanted, though. What followed was a six-day ordeal during which the four, three women and a man, had dynamite strapped to their bodies.

Once they were finally liberated, however, the four hostages not only refused to testify against their captors in court, but one set up a legal defense fund for them, while another actually got engaged to one of the perpetrators.

The victims had, as it turned out, become deeply emotionally attached to their captors. The male hostage went as far as to say that he saw Olsson as "an emergency God". Though these victims had been taken hostage, and though their lives had been put in danger, their captors had shown them some basic human kindness. They were both villain and savior. A lot can happen in just six days. 

It was this curious episode that led to the term "Stockholm Syndrome". When we hear the term, we immediately conjure up images of prisoners of war, concentration camp victims, cult members, and hostages of criminals — situations in which nobody is expected to feel any positive feelings towards their tormentors. It's not difficult to understand how those feelings can arise, though. Expecting only the worst, every incident of seeming kindness can mean the world, and confuse the brain, or rather, perhaps, allow it to go on. 

If it's so very possible to have these kinds of feelings towards people whose relationships with us started on an enemy basis, how much easier would it be to develop Stockholm-type emotions for someone who came into our lives as a romantic partner?

Stockholm Syndrome In Domestic Violence Situations 

People may develop Stockholm Syndrome towards any person who has an eerie degree of power over them, including people they have interpersonal relationships with — husbands, wives, partners, parents, grandparents, children. The syndrome is built on a foundation of fear, threats, and isolation, and is generally believed to require victims' belief that they can't escape the situation they're in. The next magical ingredient is "small acts of kindness" on the part of the abuser, real or perceived. In all that grim darkness, the abuser's own actions are looked towards as a source of the flame of something to live for.

It works so well that cult leaders and dubious agencies of dubious governments have it down to a science... along with abusive partners. 

That's not to say that abusive partners consciously create Stockholm Syndrome in their victims (though some would). Rather, every person who has stayed in an abusive relationship any length of time is familiar with the honeymoon period after episodes of terror, which always seems to add a self-doubt-inducing ray of light to the prospect of trying to escape the relationship. "He still loves me."

Could You Have Stockholm Syndrome?

Symptoms Of Stockholm Syndrome

A person affected by Stockholm Syndrome in an abusive relationship may be fully aware, cognitively, at least at some point, of all the objective wrong-doings their partner routinely engages in or engaged in (after they've left). They may find themselves unable to leave, take actions that would make leaving possible, anyway, or after leaving, may mull the good aspects of their abuser over in their heads, and actively miss them or crave their presence. Rather than hurrying to the side of those who will help them defend themselves against their abuser, they may find themselves indicting those very people. 

At the same time, they can't help but defend their abuser's behaviors and have positive feelings towards them, at times, even, defending them against law enforcement officials and others who would help them break free. 

Do you recognize yourself or someone you love in that description? First and foremost, know that Stockholm Syndrome isn't a sign that the person suffering from it has gone "crazy". Indeed, it is well-recognized that Stockholm Syndrome is a survival mechanism, one that both helps avert dangerous moves from the abuser themselves (hence the advise to tell hostage-takers as much as possible about yourself, allowing them to see you as a human rather than an object), and allows the victim to cope. 

Once the "hostage situation" is over though, victims can begin to heal. 

Healing From Stockholm Syndrome: Is It Possible?

Connections forged during times of trauma don't simply disappear — even, or perhaps especially, when the bond you are talking about is the bond with the very person who created the trauma in the first place. The three ingredients that will encourage healing appear to be:

  • Therapy, offered by a person or people who are experienced in treating people who have acquired Stockholm Syndrome. Do your research and prepare for your first therapy appointment
  • Time and the opportunity to soak in the world anew, as a free person. 
  • The love and support of others, outside of this framework. 

If you're supporting someone who has Stockholm Syndrome, remember that their deep connection with their abuser means that pressuring them to see their abuser in a negative light is likely to backfire, so keep your support simple and sincere, without such attempts. Connect them with the rest of the world, rather than trying to tear the world they know down in front of their eyes. Seeking therapy for yourself will help you help your loved one

If you are personally affected or think you may be, be kind to yourself, give yourself time, and trust yourself. Aim not to obliterate the good points of your abuser but to see the bad ones for what they are or were. Journal, and try to pull your abuser down from their pedestal. Don't pressure yourself, but keep moving forward in the new life you are building for yourself. While there's no magic solution, time and lots of therapy does give you the ability to become free, not just physically, but mentally as well. 

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