Stockholm Syndrome

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The psychological tendency of a hostage to bond, identify, or sympathise with his or her captor/s.

In my clinical practice, some of the most surprised and shocked clients are those who have been involved in controlling/abusive relationships.
When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as:-

“I know what he’s done to me, but I still love him”,
“I don’t know why, but I want him back”, or
“I know it sounds crazy, but I miss her”.
Recently I have heard,
“This doesn’t make sense. He’s got a new girlfriend and he’s abusing her too…but I’m jealous!”

Friends/relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. While the situation does not make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint?

The answer is, Yes!

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 defence fund to aid in their criminal defence 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 recognised many years before and was found in studies of other hostages, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:

  • Abused Children
  • Battered/Abused Women
  • Cult Members
  • Incest Victims
  • Criminal Hostage Situations
  • Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation.
The “Stockholm Syndrome” reaction in hostage and/or abuse situations is so well recognised at this time that police hostage negotiators no longer view it as unusual.

In fact, it is often encouraged in crime situations as it improves the chances for survival of the hostages. On the downside, it also assures that the hostages experiencing “Stockholm Syndrome” will not be very cooperative during rescue or criminal prosecution. Local law enforcement personnel have long recognised this syndrome with battered women who fail to press charges, bail their battering husband/boyfriend out of jail, and even physically attack police officers when they arrive to rescue them from a violent assault.

Stockholm Syndrome (SS) can also be found in family, romantic, and interpersonal relationships. The abuser may be a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, father/mother, or any other role in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority.

The psychological tendency of a hostage to bond, identify, or sympathise with his or her captor/s.

In my clinical practice, some of the most surprised and shocked clients are those who have been involved in controlling/abusive relationships.
When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as:-

“I know what he’s done to me, but I still love him”,
“I don’t know why, but I want him back”, or
“I know it sounds crazy, but I miss her”.
Recently I have heard,
“This doesn’t make sense. He’s got a new girlfriend and he’s abusing her too…but I’m jealous!”

Friends/relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. While the situation does not make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint?

The answer is, Yes!

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 defence fund to aid in their criminal defence 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 recognised many years before and was found in studies of other hostages, prisoner, or abusive situations such as:

Abused Children
Battered/Abused Women
Cult Members
Incest Victims
Criminal Hostage Situations
Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation.

The “Stockholm Syndrome” reaction in hostage and/or abuse situations is so well recognised at this time that police hostage negotiators no longer view it as unusual.

In fact, it is often encouraged in crime situations as it improves the chances for survival of the hostages. On the downside, it also assures that the hostages experiencing “Stockholm Syndrome” will not be very cooperative during rescue or criminal prosecution. Local law enforcement personnel have long recognised this syndrome with battered women who fail to press charges, bail their battering husband/boyfriend out of jail, and even physically attack police officers when they arrive to rescue them from a violent assault.

Stockholm Syndrome (SS) can also be found in family, romantic, and interpersonal relationships. The abuser may be a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, father/mother, or any other role in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority.

© 2016, Content: Dr Vasilios Silivistris – Artwork: Ian Francis. All rights reserved.

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