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

Can DV Survivors Experience Stockholm Syndrome?

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

  • By Samia Salahi
  • Jul 08, 2024
Survivor trauma bonded to abuser

This article was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2024.

Have you ever witnessed a friend being abused, or had them reveal to you that their significant other has been abusive? Whether it’s physical, mental or emotional abuse, it’s clear that your friend could be in danger. You might wonder why your friend stays— but if you ask them, they may take it as a threat to their relationship. They may defend their abuser and end up right back in the abuse again.

Stockholm syndrome is the emotional and mental response where a survivor of violence shares loyalty and/or compassion toward their abuser. First coined in 1973 by Nils Bejerot, a Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist, he used the term to help explain a hostage situation in which an escaped convict and another man held four employees captive inside a Stockholm bank for six days. By day two, the hostages had become hostile with police negotiators and compassionate towards their captors. When released, they protected their captors from being shot by police. There were reports that some of the hostages even helped to raise money for the two men’s defense funds. 

One year later– the next famous case of Stockholm syndrome appeared when 19-year-old Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her home in California. The granddaughter of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Patty was held by the Symbionese Liberation Army for over a year, and, during that time, she 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 or bond people who are oppressed develop with their oppressors,” explains Paul Hokemeyer, psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified clinical trauma professional. He calls it “another manifestation of trauma bonding,” making the task of leaving an abusive situation for a survivor much harder due to the unstable bond and emotional attachment a survivor may have for their perpetrator.

Trauma bonding is the emotional bond and psychological attachment that can be felt toward someone who’s causing them trauma. It may include simultaneous feelings of sympathy, compassion and love, as well as confusion. It often traps a survivor with an abuser indefinitely because, while it feels like genuine feelings of compassion, it’s actually manipulation on the part of the abuser that’s causing the survivor to stay attached or leave and then return again. 

Stockholm Syndrome is a Survival Tactic

Experts say there are many theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome, however so much is still unknown.

“It's more of a framework or box that can kind of explain a very unique set of behaviors in a very unique circumstance that we can't really study,” says Llewellyn Ellardus Van Zyl, industrial psychologist, management consultant and professor of positive psychology. 

So, why do survivors of abuse feel empathy for their abuser? What makes an emotional bond strong enough to withstand abuse and manipulation, but still offer compassion to their captor?

Human beings are naturally adaptive, says 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,” says Hokemeyer. “Rather than place themselves in an escalating cycle of violence, they consciously and unconsciously figure out ways to de-escalate and resolve the conflict.”

In the most basic sense, Hokemeyer calls this, “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,” says Hokemeyer. 

Some believe Stockholm syndrome is a phenomenon abusers use to gain more power and control over their victims, weaponizing it to keep a partner trapped. Hokemeyer sees it differently.

“I view it more as an incredibly effective survival tactic that [some] survivors unconsciously develop. While far from perfect, it de-escalates the intensity of the situation and enables the survivor to formulate an escape plan,” Hokemeyer says. In this sense, he considers it 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.”

Escaping Stockholm Syndrome 

Power and control are common themes abusers use to create dynamics between them and the survivor. And while it may not be as obvious, Stockholm syndrome can appear across various relationship contexts: whether it’s the home, job settings, or even competitive sports. It can happen in any relationship that uses these abusive power imbalances. 

“The abusive partner is usually someone who has a physical, emotional, psychological, financial, environmental resource that we're dependent on and don't have access to in our own way,” explains Van Zyl. 

In the context of domestic violence, Stockholm syndrome undoubtedly makes it more difficult to escape an abuser.

“There's always this inherent fearful situation where you're physically dependent, emotionally and financially dependent upon this person initially,” says Van Zyl. Often this comes with a time investment, making it even more difficult for someone to leave, he says. “Unless there's an extreme intervention, these things don't necessarily change.”

It's illogical on the surface, but Stockholm syndrome provides the survivor with temporary relief. Over time, the survivor can safely and permanently extract themselves from their abuser, says Hokemeyer. “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.” 

Survivors of Stockholm syndrome have three doors to pass through to freedom, says Hokemeyer.

  1. The first is the door of distorted reality. They must push through a false sense of love. 
  2. Then, they must pass through the door of terror that is represented by their potential annihilation at the hands of their abuser. 
  3. 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,” Hokemeyer says.

Stockholm syndrome can be difficult to identify from an outsider’s perspective, whether a healthcare professional or a friend, making it harder for survivors to get out of unsafe situations. And due to the inability to identify exactly what this syndrome does, it is unable to be covered in the DSM. Some experts are even challenging the method and quality of measurements used when evaluating this syndrome. 

If You Notice Signs of Stockholm Syndrome In Someone Close to You 

“I think the big thing to realize is that the moment that you offer help, they will interpret it as a threat to the stability of this relationship,” says Van Zyl. “The best that you can do is just sit, listen and ask questions to try and understand things from their perspective.” Although it may be helpful if you can help facilitate them to answer the questions for themselves, he offers. “In most of these situations, people consciously know that what's going on is not okay.”

“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,” says Hokemeyer. This support could come from a best friend, family member, doctor, employer or advocate. “Ideally it will be a group of professionals at a domestic violence agency or a trained clinician who you can lean on for guidance.”

“Insight is key,” he says, “and if you receive 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,” says Hokemeyer.

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 I see them using creative strategies to keep themselves alive.”

Some researchers have even criticized the terminology of this phenomenon, and its effects, calling it a misrepresentation of the survivor’s experience. One article published in 2023 argues that instead of compassion and shared mutuality, survivors might be using another survival instinct against their captor: appeasement

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 in the  long-term.

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