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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / Can DV Survivors Adopt Stockholm Syndrome?

Can DV Survivors Adopt Stockholm Syndrome?

Sorting out feelings of empathy and compassion for one’s abuser

  • By
  • May 09, 2016
Can DV Survivors Adopt Stockholm Syndrome?

Psychologists coined the term “Stockholm syndrome” in 1973 to help explain a hostage situation in which an escaped convict held four employees captive inside a Stockholm bank for five days. By day two, the hostages had become hostile with police negotiators. When released, they protected their captor from being shot by police, eventually helping to raise money for his defense fund.

A year later, Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The granddaughter of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Patty was held by the Symbionese Libation Army for over a year and, during that time, began to help them commit armed robberies. She’s often cited as a textbook example of Stockholm syndrome.

“Stockholm syndrome describes a powerful and loving connection people who are oppressed develop for their oppressors,” explains Paul Hokemeyer, psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified clinical trauma professional. He calls it, “another manifestation of trauma bonding,” meaning an abuse survivor becomes incapable of leaving their perpetrator or viewing them as the hostile aggressors they truly are. It's hard to imagine a victim of abuse can feel empathy for their abuser—why does this sometimes occur?

Hokemeyer: While there are several theories used to explain the phenomenon, they all have, at their core, an acknowledgment that human beings are built to survive. They are incredibly resilient and adaptive to their environments. Rather than place themselves in an escalating cycle of violence, they consciously and unconsciously figure out ways to deescalate and resolve the conflict. In its most basic sense, this is seen as surrendering to win. The victim gives into the source of violence and aligns with it. In so doing, they feel protected by their perpetrator rather than hostile with them. In their minds at least, the stress and terror of the situation subsides. Although the physical pain of their situation continues, they experience an incredible reduction in their emotional pain, which for human beings, is the most unbearable. Is Stockholm syndrome a tactic abusers use to gain more power and control over their victims?

Hokemeyer: I view it more as an incredibly effective survival tactic that [some] survivors unconsciously develop. While far from perfect, it deescalates the intensity of the situation and enables the survivor to … formulate an escape plan. So, in this sense, it is a power play. It empowers the survivors to find a foothold in the chaos rather than to be fully decimated by the inequity of the situation they are trapped in. Is it harder to escape abuse when the victim suffers from Stockholm syndrome?

Hokemeyer: It's illogical on the surface, but Stockholm syndrome provides the survivor with temporary relief that, over time, they can use to safely and permanently extract themselves from their abuser. To do this, however, they must connect with someone outside their relationship with the abuser to get out of it, and also have faith that a better life awaits them. This is an incredibly difficult task, although far from impossible.

Survivors of Stockholm syndrome have three doors to pass through to freedom. The first is the door of distorted reality. They must push through a false sense of love. Then, they must pass through the door of terror that is represented by the potential annihilation at the hands of their abuser. Finally, they must pass through the door of faith and trust that there is a better world waiting for them. I've witnessed success in these transitions time and time again so I know it’s an attainable goal.

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Your support gives hope and help to victims of domestic violence every day. If you're currently with an abusive partner and recognize some of the signs of Stockholm syndrome in yourself, or if you are a friend or loved one of a victim and see the signs in him or her, what can you do?

Hokemeyer:The key to getting away from an abusive partner is marshaling the courage and intellect that resides within you to connect with a positive force to transition you through a terrifying process. This may be your best friend, family member, doctor or nurse [or DV advocate]. Ideally it will be a group of professionals at a domestic violence shelter or a trained clinician who you can lean on for guidance. In this regard, insight, if only the slightest twinkling of insight, is key. If you receive a rational thought, a sense that your feelings about your situation are inconsistent with the facts, then you have what you need to build on. Just don't think you can or should go forward in your recovery process alone. Know that the strength and courage you have within you will be best marshaled in relationship with others who are there to help.

However, at least one domestic violence expert sees a different side of things. “Having done this work for over three decades, the coping skills of those abused are phenomenal efforts to stay alive and functioning in an incredibly stressful and dangerous environment,” says Rita Smith, consultant and national expert on violence against women. “As such, I don’t see them having a syndrome, Stockholm or Battered Women’s, but as creative strategies to keep themselves alive.”

It’s important to note that not all survivors who feel empathy for their abusers necessarily have Stockholm syndrome. Only a mental health professional can assess the specific psychological conditions that arise from enduring abuse, and what effects these conditions will have on a survivor long-term.