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Can Stockholm Syndrome Explain Domestic Violence?

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Ever since the rescue of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was held by her kidnapper for eighteen years, there’s been one question on everyone’s lips—why didn’t she say something? She went out in public and interacted with people, but why did she always return to her abuser? We expect a victim of kidnapping or abuse to jump at the first chance to plead for help or return to their family, but Jaycee kept quiet for eighteen years, even though she had access to the outside world and plenty of opportunity to speak up about who she was. 


It’s not as uncommon as it sounds. In 2006, sixteen-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was returned to his family after being held captive by his kidnapper for four years, during which time he even placed a police report for a stolen bike, yet didn’t tell the officers he had been abducted. Ten-year-old Natascha Kampusch was abducted in 1998 and held in an Austrian cellar for eight years, yet when she escaped, she said of her captor, “I feel more and more sorry for him—he’s a poor soul.” Psychologists have come to understand that victims of kidnapping and hostage situations sometimes develop what’s known as Stockholm Syndrome, where victims emotionally bond and begin to identify with their captors. (It’s also referred to as “traumatic bonding” or “terror-bonding.”) Many consider Stockholm Syndrome an exotic and unlikely scenario for the average person, but aspects of this troubling phenomenon reach into many more everyday relationships than we’d think. 


Stockholm Syndrome is usually marked by a few key behaviors: positive feelings toward the abuser, support of the abuser’s behavior or reasoning, negative feelings toward family or the authorities, and reluctance to seek freedom. Sometimes the abuser even develops positive feelings toward the victim. The way victims of terrible crimes adapt and cope is very similar to the victims of domestic violence and abusive relationships. Just as we ask about kidnap victims who develop relationships with their captors, in situations where women are battered and abused, people often ask, “Why don’t they just leave?” The psychological factors at play may not seem as hazardous as the physical risks of being a hostage, but they’re actually very similar. There is a strong and paradoxical bond between abusers and their victims that compels the victims not to seek help, but to stay and endure more abuse. 


Different Crimes, Same Lines
Why do people bond with their abusers? In the book Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives, Dee L. R. Graham explains that there are four basic precursors, regardless of the specifics of the situation. First, there must be a perceived threat to survival, and it must be credible. Abusive spouses don’t have to make direct threats or use guns, as armed robbers do. They can threaten a victim’s family members, make subtle intimidations that the victim can never leave, or refer to the harm they’ve done to other people. Even witnessing violence can be perceived as a threat, like if an aggressor breaks furniture or is cruel to animals. Threats of violence instill fear in the victims, making them easier to control. 


Second, abusers gain a victim’s trust with small acts of kindness. In a hostage situation, they might offer food and water or trips to the bathroom, while a domestic abuser might give gifts, a birthday card, or any small treat that leads the victim to think, “He’s not all bad,” or “he’s changing.” Abusers might also discuss childhood traumas with their victims, revealing their “soft side,” which convinces the victim that they’re really a caring person deep down. 


Third, abusers isolate their victims from other people, who might interfere and offer help. They force them to cut ties with families and friends, and the victim becomes obsessed with the needs and desires of her abuser, beginning to avoid doing things or seeing people that she knows will make the abuser angry. 


Last, they encourage their victims to bond with them by making it seem like there is no escape. Kidnappers might suggest that no one is looking for the victim or that her family has forgotten about her. Domestic abusers often convince their victims that they can’t survive on their own, or they cut off their access to money or resources. Children are often used as a bargaining chip in abusive relationships, with the victim not wanting to leave her children fatherless. 


Syndrome as Strategy
Whether from a bank robber or a battering husband, the tactics used by abusers all encourage victims to be docile, obedient, and loyal. The victims learn that agreeing to the demands of their abuser is their best chance to stay alive. Stockholm Syndrome is recognized as a legitimate psychological coping mechanism—victims come to identify with their captors to maximize their chances of survival, because they know that fighting back or resisting could get them killed. 


True and profound Stockholm Syndrome, as when a hostage marries her captor or refuses help from the police, is actually far rarer than the media portrays. Most crime victims, even if they express some affinity for their abusers, do want to be rescued, and the FBI reports that about 73 percent of kidnapping or violent crime victims never form an emotional attachment to their captors. They may play along to help themselves survive, but they form no outward feelings of loyalty or bonding. Often, they act agreeable or voluntarily return only to prevent their captor from harming them or their family or carrying out other threats and to gain the captor’s trust and potentially escape. 


It’s impossible to know what horrors Jaycee Lee Dugard endured at the hands of her abductor, but the techniques he used to subdue and manipulate her are not so different than the techniques used by everyday spousal abusers. Although Stockholm Syndrome is a much-debated psychological phenomenon, the way it describes the relationship between abusers and their victims has practical applications for understanding POWs, cult members, survivors of incest, and even abused children. In any situation where someone is being abused, survival instincts kick in. For any victim of violence, humanizing themselves in an attempt to appeal to the abuser may be the best way to stay alive, and labeling these confusing feelings as “love” might be the best way to cling onto hope.

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