South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

The Stockholm Syndrome

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The Stockholm Syndrome was originally developed to explain the phenomenon of hostages bonding with their captors. The name refers to a bank holdup in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973 when four people were held hostage for six days by two men. The hostages and their captors bonded with each other and the hostages actually came to see their captors as protecting them from the police. One was even reported as later becoming engaged to one of the captors.

Subsequent research found that such a reaction had occurred in allthe "hostage" groups studied, including cult members, battered women, incest victims and physically or emotionally abused children. Researchers have concluded that this seems to be a universal phenomenon which may be instinctive and thus play a survival function for hostages who are victims of abuse.

There is no universally accepted definition of the Stockholm Syndrome but it has been suggested that it is present if one or more of the following is observed:

  1. positive feelings by the captive towards his/her captor.
  2. negative feelings by the captive toward the police or authorities trying to win his/her release.
  3. positive feelings by the captor towards his/her captive.

It has been found to occur in circumstances where there is:

  1. a perceived threat to survival and a belief that the captor is willing to carry out that threat.
  2. a perception by the captive of some small kindness from the captor within the context of terror.
  3. isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor.
  4. perceived inability to escape.

The following explanation has been put forward for the phenomenon.

The abuser (or captor) terrifies the victim, who cannot escape, by threatening his or her physical or psychological survival. As a result of being terrified the victim needs nurturance and protection. Being isolated from others, the victim must turn to the abuser for this if s/he turns to anyone. If the abuser shows the victim some small kindness this creates hope in the victim, who then ignores her rage at the terror-creating side of the abuser (because this rage would be experienced as overwhelming) and bonds to the positive side of the abuser. With the hope that the abuser will let him or her live, the victim works to keep the abuser happy. In trying to determine what will keep the abuser happy, the victim's own needs, feelings and perspectives must take second place and s/he unconsciously takes on the world view of the abuser. The victim sees the abuser as the "good guy" and those trying to win his/her release (e.g. police or therapists) as the "bad guys", as this is the way the abuser sees things. Over a period of months or years, the victim's entire sense of self may come to be experienced through the eyes of the abuser. The victim may have extreme difficulty leaving the abuser, if the opportunity arises, because s/he no longer sees a reason to do so.

For victims of sexual abuse, their families and therapists, the Stockholm Syndrome is useful in explaining the victim's experiences, current "symptoms" and the relationship between victim and abuser. It can help remove the tendency of the victim to blame him or herself for "allowing" the abuse to continue or for "causing" the abuse. It can also help to make sense of the ways in which the victim's perceptions of themselves and the abuser can be distorted, by explaining those distortions in terms of the Syndrome and making clear their origins as an instinctive survival function.

The following are some common ways in which the victim's view of their situation can become distorted, with the corresponding explanations in terms of the Stockholm Syndrome:

The victim denies the abuser's violence against him/her and focuses on his positive side.

Explanation: An unconscious attempt to find hope (and thus a way to survive) in a situation in which s/he would otherwise feel powerless and overwhelmed.

The victim feels shame for abuse done to him/her.

Explanation: Reflects the victim having taken the abuser's perspective (namely, that s/he caused the abuse and therefore it was deserved).

The victim resents outsiders' attempts to free him/her from the abuser.

Explanation: The victim knows that the abuser is likely to retaliate against him/her for any disloyalty shown, so s/he resists others' attempts to free her or to hold the abuser accountable for the abuse.

The victim identifies with the "victim" in the abuser.

Explanation: This represents the projection of the victim's own victim status onto the abuser. It enables the victim to feel sympathetic and caring towards the abuser.

The victim believes s/he deserved the abuser's violence.

Explanation: This represents an attempt to feel that s/he controls when and whether the violence/abuse is done and thus permits him/her to believe s/he can stop the abuse.

The victim rationalises the abuser's violence against him/her.

Explanation: An attempt to maintain a bond with the abuser (and thus hope of survival) in the face of behaviour (abuse) that would otherwise destroy that bond (hope).

Victim uses abuser-as-victim explanation to account for the abuse.

Explanation: This represents an effort to see the abuser in a positive light so as to maintain the bond (since the bond provides the victim with the only hope of surviving).

The victim feels hatred for that part of him/her which the abuser said led to the abuse.

Explanation: To improve chances of survival, the victim internalises the abuser's perspective, including the reasons given for the abuse.

The victim fears the abuser will come to get him/her, even if he is dead or in prison.

Explanation: The victim knows the abuser is willing to "get" him/her because he has done so at least once before. The victim remains loyal in anticipation of his return.

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