What is Stockholm Syndrome and How Do I Cope?
Technically speaking, Stockholm Syndrome refers to a particular emotional, physical, and psychological experience that people go through in hostage situations. In popular culture, we refer to anyone who seems overly compliant and sympathetic with an abuser as a person with Stockholm Syndrome. In the era of #MeToo, examples of powerful women being abused by even more powerful men has opened our eyes to the reality that Stockholm Syndrome as we popularly refer to it can happen to anyone, not just hostages.
History of Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm Syndrome was an explosive development on the psychological scene in the 1970’s, when its namesake criminal case occurred. In 1973, a man who had disappeared while on furlough from a Swedish prison robbed a bank and took four hostages in the process, demanding that one of his friends also be released from prison. What happened next shocked the world.
In the process of negotiations, the hostage-taker was allowed to have his friend come into the bank. Then, situation got even weirder. The hostages were having their lives threatened, were periodically subjected to physical intimidation, were kept in a small vault with limited rations, had to use a bucket as a bathroom, and were generally subjected to a terrifying, humiliating, experience by two men with whom they shared no former bond. But when they were finally allowed to leave 6 days later, they sided with their captors over the police who had rescued them. They refused to cooperate with police during the criminal trials, and raised money for their captors’ defenses. Over the course of the 6 days in the vault, they had developed what is now known as Stockholm Syndrome.
Is Stockholm Syndrome Real?
There was a lot of debate about the validity of Stockholm Syndrome or brainwashing, and a tendency on the part of some researchers and media pundits to dismiss the psychological syndrome altogether. They saw the victims as either weak or willingly cooperating, and not deserving of sympathy. However, the concept can be extremely useful can also in explaining the signs and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome in intimate personal relationships, where we don’t usually expect something as maladaptive as Stockholm Syndrome to flourish.
One of the big problems with Stockholm Syndrome is that the victims in the relationship often don’t realize or believe that they have it, or even that they are being abused. That’s why it’s important to learn about the signs and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome and how to cope. Knowledge is power. Being informed about abusive relationships can save lives.
Types of Relationships That Involve Stockholm Syndrome
One of the defining characteristics of a relationship that engenders Stockholm Syndrome is a power differential between the perpetrator and the victim. In the original case of the bank robbery, it is easy to see who has the power: the men with the guns. But in the context of personal and intimate relationships, we often neglect to recognize the inherent power differentials that are ripe for abusers to exploit.
What makes the power differential so important is that it automatically sets a victim up to give an abuser the benefit of the doubt, and to defend the abuser from outsiders. This is because the power differential means that the victim depends on the abuser for something.
Parent/child: This is probably the common relationship with the largest power differential—the child literally depends on the parent in every way—for survival, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Even in cases of horrific abuse, the child will often continue to love and defend their parents, because their perception of their abuser has become so warped through Stockholm Syndrome.
Caregiver/cared for: Once again, we would hope to the bottom of our hearts that the people who take charge of the lives of the less able and/or less fortunate never have any ulterior motives. Unfortunately, the more helpless a victim, the more ruthlessly a caregiver can exploit the power differential, if he or she desires, similarly to the parent/child relationship.
Boss/employee: We can even find Stockholm Syndrome in professional settings, where feelings and emotions are supposed to come second to the business at hand. Unfortunately, because bosses have power and control over their employee’s livelihoods, and therefore their lives, they can abuse that power, and the employees can end up with Stockholm Syndrome in order to withstand the abuse.
Stockholm Syndrome in Intimate Partner Relationships
When it comes to abusive intimate partner relationships, there is seldom a clear-cut power differential like in the relationships described above. That’s because oftentimes in abusive relationships, the abuser starts out by creating the ultimate fantasy relationship—a honeymoon period to put all honeymoon periods to shame. They love-bomb their victim, portray themselves as caring and understanding, and provide the highest highs that romantic love can provide. Who stops to think about power differentials when they’re falling madly in love? However, once the abuse starts and the victim stays, the abuser’s power is clarified and magnified over time, until Stockholm Syndrome becomes a psychological refuge for the victim.
In order to protect ourselves and our loved ones from remaining in dangerous and abusive relationships, we can arm ourselves with knowledge about Stockholm Syndrome, so we can easily answer the question: “Am I in love or do I have Stockholm Syndrome?”
Signs of Stockholm Syndrome
Appeasing the abuser: if you often find yourself walking on eggshells and doing things well outside of your comfort zone to avoid “setting off” someone, then you are appeasing them. Appeasement goes beyond trying to make someone happy, it is a fear-motivated behavior, rather than a desire-motivated behavior, which means it’s maladaptive.
Seeing abuser as a victim: Another common sign of Stockholm Syndrome is seeing the abuser or the person in power as a victim. This is intentional on the abuser’s part. They do this to kick the can of accountability further down the road—it’s not my fault I treat you so terribly, so you can’t blame me.
Apologizing for the abuser: Along with seeing the abuser as a victim, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome often apologizes for the abuser and makes excuses for him or her. We saw this in high-profile cases of celebrity abuse, where friends and even victims of the abuser came forward to defend him or her, until the evidence of abuse became too overwhelming.
Feelings of love for the abuser: In extreme cases, the victims of Stockholm Syndrome can even develop feelings of love for their abusers. Psychologists believe that this is directly linked to the enormous pressure to please the abuser and conform with their wishes. It’s akin to “fake it till you make it;” if you practice being in love with someone, feelings of real love can develop.
Unwillingness to cooperate against abuser: This is one of the defining signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Even in cases of horrific abuse, the victim will side with their abuser against people who are trying to help the victim. For example, Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped and held for 18 years by abusive monsters Phillip and Nancy Garrido wouldn’t cooperate with police until she was told that Phillip Garrido had confessed to his crimes. It was only after that veil was lifted that she felt safe enough to tell them who she really was and what she’d gone through.
How to Cope With Stockholm Syndrome
Now that we know a little bit more about the signs of Stockholm Syndrome, it’s time to learn how to cope with it.
Coping With Stockholm Syndrome Within a Relationship
Catalog their actions objectively: We all know that actions speak louder than words, but abusers are experts at manipulating victims with their words while abusing them with their actions. Try writing down the actions that the abuser does in your relationship. Don’t use emotional language or try to justify anything, just make a list of objective facts about the way they behave in a relationship. For example:
- Gets drunk every night
- Yells at me when his baseball team loses
- Criticizes and embarrasses me in front of our family
- Pushes me around
Take a look at the actions you list, and then write down how they make you feel. Do they make you feel loved, or scared? You can. Trust these feelings, because you are basing them off of objective reality.
Identify your blockers: One helpful exercise is to catalogue the reasons you have for remaining in the relationship. Feel free to start with the obvious—for what do you depend on the other person? What do you gain from being in the relationship? Now try making a list of ways to get the things you gain from the relationship outside of your relationship, instead. Do you have another avenue for getting affection and emotional support, like a friend, family member, or pet? Do you have another means to provide for yourself, like getting a new job or going back to school for a new career? Explore your options, and you may feel less dependent.
Reach out for support: Abusers like nothing more than to isolate and alienate their victims from their support systems. If you are feeling stuck in a bad relationship and disconnected from the friends and family you would normally turn to, you are not alone. If you feel that personal resources are unavailable to you, try online support groups and therapy for confidential and expert help. Make a list of resources for yourself, and keep track of how they make you feel.
After The Relationship Ends
The end of an abusive relationship can often be traumatic rather than freeing. Living with Stockholm Syndrome means a dramatic re-orientation of your world perspective, and leaving it behind means re-contextualizing yourself to the wider world. We always recommend finding a therapist you can trust to help with these important issues, but in the meantime, here are a few tips for how to cope.
Repair trust in your intuition: Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome means uprooting your entire worldview, and ignoring your intuition. An abuser makes you feel like “your gut” is lying to you, or that you’re crazy for thinking something’s wrong (see: gaslighting). To begin to repair your intuition, simply start noticing how you feel about certain things, and write it down. Something so simple as writing a list of things you enjoy and why you enjoy them can help reconnect you to your feelings, and therefore your intuition.
Learn to recognize signs of cognitive dissonance: People who live in relationships with Stockholm Syndrome become unwilling experts in cognitive dissonance, which means that they hold contradictory thoughts, values, or beliefs in their brains. It’s why they are able to say things like “He hits me because he loves me.” To people outside of the situation, that simple sentence seems like an obvious and jarring contradiction, but to people with Stockholm Syndrome, that sentiment seems normal. To repair your sense of coherent reality, try making a list of statements about your relationship, and see if you can notice any contradictions. Sometimes, it’s easier for us to notice contradictions when they’re written down, or we give ourselves a chance to think about them a little more deeply.
Don’t blame yourself: Finally, after getting out of Stockholm Syndrome, don’t blame yourself. In recent years, we have seen waves of celebrities and powerful people come forward to share that they have been abused. It doesn’t make them any less powerful. In fact, being open with yourself and refusing to take blame for someone else’s abusive actions is actually empowering, and can help you move on. Stockholm Syndrome can happen to literally anyone, no matter how smart, educated, rich, or powerful, so it’s important to focus on healing and taking care of yourself by seeing the situation for what it is: an abuser being abusive, not you being silly or weak or susceptible or “asking for it.”
We hope that by learning more about Stockholm Syndrome, you will be more empowered to make sure that you or your loved ones don’t remain and suffer, and instead seek the freedom and the help you need to move on to full, happy lives, free from abuse.
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