Stockholm, Sweden, 1973. Two men entered a bank armed with machine guns. They held three women and one man hostage for several days. By the end of this ordeal, the victims took the side of their captors. They defended them to the media, to the police and one of the woman became engaged to one of the bank robbers. Another spent a lot of money for the legal defense of one of the criminals. This psychological phenomenon is so common that it acquired its own label: “Stockholm Syndrome” otherwise known as Trauma Bonding. Is Stockholm Sydrome only applicable to those who have been held hostage or kidnapped? Absolutely not. It is more commonly found in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships are not limited to physical abuse. This syndrome is as common, if not more so, where you find the more insidious psychological and emotional abuse within relationships. Let’s explore.
Those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome develop an unhealthy positive attachment to their abusers/partners. They come to accept the abuser’s lies and rationalisations. This psychological condition makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the victims to engage in behaviours that facilitate detachment from the abuse, such as exposing misconduct or leaving.
The unhealthy bonding solidifies when the abuser alternates between the carrot and the stick conditioning. The abuse –the lying, the cheating, the implicit or explicit threats and insults, are interlaced with small acts of kindness; gifts, romantic cards, a date to a nice restaurant, apologies and occasional compliments. Needless to say, in any rational person’s mind, a gift or a compliment couldn’t erase months or years of abusive behaviour. Yet, for a woman whose independent judgment and autonomy has been severely impaired, it can and it often does.
Such a woman takes each gift, hollow promise and act of kindness as a positive sign. She hopes that he has learned to love and appreciate her as she deserves. She wants to believe him even when the pattern is repeated over and over again. This is what trauma bonding is all about. The victim irrationally clings to the notion that if only she tries hard enough and loves him unconditionally, the abuser will eventually see the light. He, in turn, encourages her false hope for as long as he desires to string her along. Seeing that he can sometimes behave well, the victim blames herself for the times when he mistreats her. Her life has been reduced to one goal and one dimension, which subsumes everything else. She dresses, works, cooks and makes love in ways that please the psychopath. All the while, her self-esteem becomes exclusively dependent upon his approval and hypersensitive to his disapproval.
However, psychopaths and narcissists can’t be pleased. Relationships with them are always about control, never about mutual love. Consequently, the more psychopaths get from their partners, the more they demand from them. Any woman who makes it her life objective to satisfy a psychopathic partner is therefore bound to eventually suffer from broken self-esteem and a distorted perception of reality. This distorted perception of reality is a cognitive dissonance, which psychopaths commonly inculcate in their victims. The combination of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ creates a victim who firmly believes that the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. They have invested everything and placed all their eggs in one basket. The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.
Oppression creates dependency. Anytime you give, or allow someone to take your personal power, you become bound to their will. We become weak, needy, anxious and fearful and living for those intermittent rewards. Experiments with primates playing with a fruit slot machine that paid out intermittently caused them to play with it all day; the effect of when fruit was given every time they pulled the lever, or when fruit never came out. When we cannot predict when a reward (kindness, affection) will be given, it causes us to intensify our focus and our efforts and it is the premise behind addiction. In relationships, these aspects cause a type of emotional addiction, where a deep emotional attachment is developed to the giver of the abuse.
The same can be said for the atrocities that go on in a relationship with a Narcissist. Many have said that they have never felt such a deep connection to anyone before. They call their abuser their best friend, or even their soul mate. This connection does not come from reciprocal love, kindness and trust. The connection is an expression of the high emotional charge from the trauma. Shared trauma deepens connection.
How can you feel such a strong connection to the actual person that is responsible for the trauma and the pain? Aside from all the emotional and psychological reasons that you continue to stay, there are biological components as well. When someone is flying off the handle at us, our nervous system is on high alert, preparing us to fight or take flight. When we are constantly in this high state of arousal our nervous system become accustomed to the high levels of Cortisol that the body produces. Neural pathways are created and cemented, which will in future make all ‘normal’ relationships seem boring and uninteresting. Why? Not because the abuser is special, it is simply because a healthy relationship cannot produce those same toxic high arousal feelings that you have become accustomed to and believe are deep love and connection.
The issue of motivation is key. Psychopaths’ partners commonly lose weight, dress better, pursue the same hobbies as their partner, all of which may appear to be positive signs. Look a little closer, and it is evident that they’re not if these ‘self-improvements’ are motivated by the desire to gain the psychopath’s approval, keep the peace or to avoid his disapproval. The quest for his validation keeps you (and your self-esteem) enchained to a disordered human being whom can never be satisfied and who doesn’t have your best interest at heart.
Sometimes, family and friends of the victims notice similar behaviour from the victim as from the psychopath himself. Both, for instance, may lie. Contact with a psychopath tends to be contagious and destructive, like a virus. It distorts perceptions of reality, corrupts your moral values and diminishes empathy for others. Perhaps most noticeable of all is the reaction when someone mocks or questions the relationship and the abuser. It is not the abuser who steps up to justify themselves, but rather the victim who becomes hateful, full of rage and defends as ferociously against any perceived attack as if they were defending themselves. The reason behind this is clear – if the truth is told about how weak and pathetic the abuser might be, then the image predicated on lies is destroyed. The victim will have to face their own reality.
Women seduced by psychopaths enter what psychologists call a “hypnotic state.” They shut out any aspects of reality that would reveal the truth. They focus instead only on the parts of reality that conform to the distorted perspectives presented by their partner. Repeated emotional abuse creates psychological trauma. Trauma creates deep attachment bonds; causing a craving for the very person that causes you the most harm. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find the inner strength to confront the truth. Your tortured love for him may last for a long time, but it’s highly unlikely that the psychopath will stick around to see that through. Being stuck in delusion may eventually destroy you. Only the truth will set you free.