If somebody captured you and held you hostage you probably wouldn’t like them much, right? Over the course of civilisation, there have been many cases where people have been taken, hostage. Often these people develop a fondness for their captors. It may sound bizarre but is a psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome. But did you know Similar mechanics are in play when a person suffers domestic abuse?
One of the first recorded cases of Stockholm syndrome was, unsurprisingly in Stockholm. The Swedish capital had a bank heist where hostages were taken. They were trapped in the bank for six days with dynamite strapped to their bodies. A traumatic experience to say the least. However, during the event, the captives were uncooperative with the police, seemingly siding with their captors. Some even refused to press charges and even maintained contact with their captors after the event.
As with anything pertaining to the brain we can only really theorise as to the reasoning. Psychologists believe that it is a coping mechanism. In the mind of a captive, they are nice to the person holding them hostage as it presents the highest chance of surviving the situation.
This kind of behaviour doesn’t just apply to hostage situations either. Similar behaviour can be exhibited by people who are in abusive relationships.
The factors that lead to Stockholm Syndrome
There are four elements that need to be in place for somebody to develop this psychological quirk. The first, and probably most obvious factor is a person needs to feel threatened. They need to believe that the “oppressor” will harm them or something, someone, they love in some way.
They have to show some form of kindness. In the case of the Stockholm robbery, it’s the fact they were fed by the assailants. These token moments of kindness lead the victim to believe the situation can improve. With an abuse victim, it might be that their partner buys them a gift or pays them a compliment.
The third condition is being isolated in some way. This can happen in abusive relationships when the abuser will prevent their significant other from spending times with friends and family. The effect of this is that it acts to normalise the abuse.
Finally, they must feel like there is no escape. In the case of the bank robbery they were at their captives mercy in the case of abuse, it might be money, children or a family home tying a person to the situation.
The abuse cycle
In a typical abuse cycle we a see a pattern of gathering tension, followed by an incident followed by reconciliation. In many ways, that cycle mirrors Stockholm syndrome. You get the same pattern with abuse victims often feeling a sense of devotion to their significant other even though they do not deserve their loyalty or affection.
So how do you support somebody going through this?
Like in Stockholm where the hostages seemingly sided with their captors it is unlikely you are going to be able to convince somebody that their abusive partner is the “enemy” in fact by using this tactic you may well push them closer towards them. It is difficult to see anybody, let alone somebody you care about being abused. However, where this dynamic is in play it is important to tread lightly. Listening and being supportive is probably all you can really do. In order to break the cycle, they may well need professional assistance. This could well be the advice that you offer them. It is important not to paint the abuser as the “bad guy” as you may not like the response you get to this approach.