Hands tied up with rope

Most of us are familiar with the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ from TV shows like Law & Order or CSI. We associate it with the kidnap and abuse of young children. There are many cases recorded where children, when rescued, felt love towards their abuser.

Although less widely known, Stockholm Syndrome also influences many adult victims of emotional abuse.


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The Technical Bit

Stockholm Syndrome (also known as capture bonding) often occurs when a person is held captive, and a form of abuse is used against them by another person. Effectively the victim emotionally bonds with the abuser as a means of survival. This bonding typically occurs subconsciously. The case that gave this phenomenon its name, was a bank hold up in the city of Stockholm. The hostages showed remarkable empathy and sympathy toward the bank robbers by the time the six-day siege was over.

The first high-profile case of Stockholm Syndrome (aside from the actual bank incident!) was Patty Hearst in the 1970s. In her early captivity days, she was subjected to rape, torture, brainwashing, sleep deprivation, gaslighting, and various forms of mind alteration, which led to a complete change of behaviour. Many people saw her as a traitor when in fact she did what she had to in order to stay alive and lessen the torture. Although hard to believe for an outsider, Stockholm Syndrome works on the simple premise that in the absence of other options, the target is left with only this survival tool.

A Means of Survival

Although a survival mechanism for the victim, the process is facilitated by the abuser. It is a method of brainwashing the victim, where even when not physically restrained, the victim will not even try to leave. The bond is used to gain power and control over the victim. By inducing fear but also adding small kindnesses into the mix, the victim will become confused. Eventually, they will become convinced that the abuser has a good side or is even acting with the best of intentions. It is the classic scenario of: He is so broken, and I am the only one that can love him back together again.

Moreover, it is believed that the younger the victim, the more likely they are to co-operate and attempt to gain a relationship with their abuser. A published study by the FBI which looked at over 1200 hostage/kidnap incidents, found that the length of time the hostage was held directly impacted whether or not Stockholm Syndrome developed. It also found that Stockholm Syndrome did not develop in hostages who were kept separate from their captors. So when a child is abused by their own parent, they are literally influenced right from day one, and in close proximity to their abuser. The child grows up with the fear of angering the parent, knowing that when they are ‘good’ the daily outcome will be so much easier for them.

Taking the Focus Off the Abuser

I remember very clearly being a witness to my mother’s silent treatment or rage against one of my siblings and made sure my behavior was absolutely perfect so I too didn’t become her target. Essentially I felt horrible for the other person but also very glad that it wasn’t me on the receiving end.

Creating distance between victims has the power to ensure that victims start to resent each other rather than the abuser. This works particularly well between siblings, although the strategy works in other settings too. One victim is targeted more frequently or more openly, and another person doesn’t appear to suffer in the same way.

I remember one of my younger siblings in later life told me how she always felt we would all look at her with such disappointment and she would feel so isolated. She had no comprehension that we had all felt the same way.

Another way of influencing the dynamic between victims is by conditioning one victim to defend the abuser and function as a Flying Monkey. By doing so the abuser takes the focus off himself, and onto the Flying Monkey. Now, there’s a buffer between the abuser and the abused, allowing more room for emotional bonding.  For the Flying Monkey, the bonus to this arrangement is that they stay out of the line of fire, which again leaves room for emotional bonding. In some cases, the initiative to bully a fellow victim may come from the Flying Monkey themselves, in an effort to keep the focus of the abuse on that particular victim. This is one reason why scapegoats are often created in toxic families.


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Emotionally Responsible

I was also the focus of her silent treatment. Knowing that she would heap her ‘over the top’ loving attention on my siblings whilst no-one would talk to me gave me an overwhelming feeling of guilt and toxic shame. How could I not be loved when my siblings were treated so kindly? What was wrong with me that I did not deserve to even be spoken to?

I would often be sent to my room to reflect on what I had done or said, and was not allowed to read or play with my toys. I purely had to devote the many hours I was there to think about my part in being unlovable. No matter how hard I tried I could not understand what was happening and the reason for it.

On the bad days, the victim is made to feel responsible for having caused the abuse. This makes them feel responsible for the abuse but also makes them feel it is within their reach to fix the problem. The combination of those two ideas makes for another perfect bonding opportunity. Just imagine you inadvertently hurt a friend, say by forgetting their birthday. They are hurt and it is your fault. It is also within your control to apologize and maybe splash out on an extravagant gift. There you go, problem fixed, friendship saved, bonding occurred. The same principle will guide a victim to bond with the abuser, with the big difference that the relationship will never truly be mended.

Push and Pull

I know there were many times in my life when my mother was helpful and generous. This would absolutely conflict my interpretation of just who she was. It is the reason why I didn’t let go of the relationship until four years ago. I finally realized I could no longer allow her to suck me dry of energy to feed her parasitic needs because I needed my energy to purely survive.

If an abuser does not occasionally allow the victim a nibble of the carrot that is dangled in front of them, they will eventually leave. The continuous tide of push and pull keeps victims confused and on edge. A victim may experience compassion at the hand of their abuser, this allows them to associate loving traits with people who in fact go out of their way to hurt them.

Gaining Emotional Independence

Stockholm Syndrome is one of the many reasons why survivors deal with so much guilt. It makes us think that ‘it was not all bad’ and ‘maybe we are overreacting’. This especially crops up when talking to people who have no experience (and therefore no knowledge of) toxic relationships. They may say something like: “Well it couldn’t have been all bad for you to stay for ‘x’ years.”

Oh, yes it was. Count yourself lucky that you can’t fully understand.

It’s just that we lost our ability to discern good from bad and put it in proper perspective. The only “good” was what was used as a tool to continue the bad.

Learning more about the underlying issues that may have caused the toxicity in the abuser is a good way for a victim to start making sense of things. Reading more about personality disorders and the behaviours associated with emotional abuse empowers the victim. By learning more about emotional abuse, how it works and what drives the abusers, survivors will become more aware of the true self of their abuser, rather than the image they have projected and the dynamics they manipulated.

By exposing the true image of the abuser, the emotional bond will start to break down. A victim will be able to gain the emotional independence needed for healing from the abuse suffered.

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Most of us know the term Stockholm Syndrome from TV shows. We associate it with the kidnap and abuse of children. It also influences adult victims of abuse.


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