Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome

On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.

While the psychological condition in hostage situations became known as “Stockholm Syndrome” due to the publicity, the emotional “bonding” with captors was a familiar story in psychology. It had been recognized many years before and was found in studies of other hostage, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:

• Abused Children
• Battered/Abused Women
• Prisoners of War
• Cult Members
• Incest Victims
• Criminal Hostage Situations
• Concentration Camp Prisoners
• Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation.
-----Dr. Joseph M Carver, PhD

When one looks at domestic violence and asks the question, "Why doesn't she just leave?", if you look at the question through the eyes of Stockholm Syndrome the reason seems to make a little more sense. At least there is a reason to explain what seems to be an illogical if not unsafe choice. When an abuse victims seems unable to assist in their own defense, or assist in helping others who are trying to help them, it may be that the individual has bonded in this way to their abuser.

As scripture says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. In my studies of physical/natural health it became so clear to me that the way we were made included the primary will to live and to survive. That instinct is a priority in human beings as God created our bodies with that ability and we are not even in control of it. Our bodies will do what is best for us to survive and to live even if we don't understand why it is doing the things it does. As an extension of that, since our bodies are not separated from our mind, our soul and our spirit, our mental and emotional life does what it needs to do in order to survive whatever situation we find ourselves in. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a perfect example of that. Individuals develop DID as a defense mechanism to be able to survive prolonged and severe trauma. If that is the case, why would we question our abilities to be able to survive in other ways as well?

Although domestic violence and trauma situations have a very clear pattern to them, Stockholm Syndrome does not seem to occur in every traumatic situation. If we look at the initial event outlined at the beginning of this article, it is important to know that what ended the hostage situation was that a police officer shot and wounded the bank robber. After he went down, there were two hostages who held him up in the window so the policeman could shoot him again. In the end, although there were a certain number of the hostages who ended up defending the robber, it is clear that these two individuals did not hold the same opinion. Considering this event as well as other abuse situations that can be studied, it is clear that the length of time a person is exposed to the trauma is a significant factor. Another factor that can be considered is how emotionally strong an individual is. Someone who is healthy emotionally has more resistance to abuse than someone who isn't, however even an emotionally strong individual can be worn down over time.

In some of my other articles I mentioned that often abuse victims will bond to their abusers because they perceive kindness in their abuser. In a physically violent relationship perceived kindness could come from the abuser taking care of the victim after s/he has physically assaulted them. As I have often said, the spectrum from abuse on one hand to a viable and life giving relationship on the other is wide and when the abuser stops being abusive, that only brings the relationship to ground zero on the spectrum. From there, the relationship needs to be built through re-establishing trust, restitution, respect and honor. Stockholm Syndrome at its foundation has the mis-perception that if the abuse ceases, the abuser is being kind. The victim will seize that hope and cling to it in order to survive an obviously dangerous situation. Abusers who are seen as having a compassionate or sensitive side by the victim can play into this scenario.

Another part of the development of this syndrome is perpetuated by the belief that there is a threat to survival, whether physical, emotional or both. Anyone who has worked in the domestic violence field for very long will see a progression in relationships that is unmistakable. An abusive relationship may start out with acts of violence, yelling, screaming or even violent acts done to things that are important to or loved by the victim, such as their pets, their belongings or their children. As the relationship progresses, the need for the abuser to actually do these things become less and less as the victim has been conditioned to understand that the abuser is able and capable of such things. Over time, just the threat of violence whether physical or emotional is enough to subdue the victim. Once this belief is perpetuated, it only takes a look, a gesture or even a tone of voice to control the victim.

The other two conditions which foster Stockholm Syndrome can also be found in almost every domestic violence situation. They are isolation and the victim's belief that they will never be able to escape from the abuser. More and more, I am getting questions from young women in dating relationships describing situations where their boyfriends are isolating them from their friends or family and creating dependent relationships. Disassembling the victim's support network and creating dependence on the abuser is a traumatic situation to be in for anyone. Independence, self esteem and identity are eroded away and a learned helplessness begins to take over in the victim. It is important for young women to see these behaviors as huge red flags and to steer clear of allowing that kind of restriction to be put upon them.

Although much more could be said on the subject and has been, this will give you a good start in understanding what is happening to you or to someone you care about when they continue to stay in situations that are obviously unhealthy or dangerous to themselves and their children. Stockholm Syndrome is a form of denial that is based on an unhealthy emotional bond with an abusive individual and it is often extremely hard to combat until the victim has been removed from the trauma for an extensive period of time. Over and over I have heard women look back on these situations after they have been away from the abuse for several years and wonder why they stayed, why they put up with what was obviously a tragic and destructive way of life.

In closing, I find it interesting that some of the very things that are foundational for the development of Stockholm Syndrome are also conditions that must be present in order for a person to legally use deadly force against a perpetrator. These conditions are:

1) The immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent
2) Ability - power to kill or cripple the innocent
3) Opportunity - being capable of employing that power
4) Jeopardy - person acting in such a manner that a reasonable and prudent person believes they intend to kill or cripple

This is why a woman can be convicted of murder for killing her abuser, even if he has severely beaten and abused her over many years. Deadly force must only be used in those moments when there is an immediate and unavoidable threat of danger. When the beating is over, so is the threat. However the intimidation goes on forever.

Stockholm Syndrome, in my opinion, results from a "perceived" deadly force situation going on over an extended period of time. For each person, perception can be different which may be why those two individuals who stood the wounded bank robber back up in the window did not succumb to the syndrome. It is clear that they did not perceive themselves as being powerless in the situation...they fought back when there was an opportunity. However, in those situations where perceptions are not as positive, our mental and emotional powers create for us a life that is sustainable. Fascinating......

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is with great curiosity that I read the article. I can't quite work out if I have suffered from such traumatic bonding, although the fact that I stayed for a long period of time and often defended my husband to others is a clear sign that I always saw him as the "good guy". But my conscious reason for saying and thinking the best of him was my belief that love always defends and thinks the best, and that one should never criticise one's husband, either in your heart or to others. Early authors on marriage taught that, eg Tim LaHaye in How To Be Happy Though Married.

It is true in my case that the physical abuse decreased after the first few years, because I was always ready to jump at his command, fearing a bad reaction. After years of seeking counsel by myself, a pastor eventually told me that I should speak up. When I tried to, his abusive behaviour got worse, but I still didn't recognise abuse. Finally, it got so bad I left the relationship. I guess that's the reason I didn't sepak up before - I knew that I would pay the price, and it would never be resolved, and either I would have to just shut up and put up or leave.

The article didn't allude to possible ways of breaking this bonding. Although I have left, I still feel a strong pull and obligation. I feel very very sorry for my husband who is left on his own. And I also feel like he is right when he implies that I am the abusive one. How does one get over it?