Why we love the ones who hurt us
MSNBC News/May 11, 2005
By Clint Van Zandt
In August 1973, a heavily-armed robber by the name of Olafson swaggered into a busy bank in downtown Stockholm, Sweden. Firing shots as he entered, he took three women and a man hostage, strapped dynamite to their bodies, and herded them into a subterranean bank vault where he refused police demands for his surrender and the release of his hostages for the next six days.
After the eventual arrest of the robbers (a friend of the bank robber who was in prison at the time had been brought mid-standoff to the bank at the demand of Olafson) and the rescue of the four victims, the continued friendly and caring attitude on the part of some of the hostages toward their captors was viewed with suspicion. This was especially so when the police considered that the captives were abused, threatened, and had allegedly feared for their lives during the week they had been held against their will. Authorities were even more amazed when they found out that one or more of the female hostages may have had consensual physical intimacy with their captors.
The relationship between the robbers and their former captives thereafter saw former hostage Kristin break off her engagement to another man in order to become engaged to Olafson; while another former hostage started a defense fund to pay for the robbers’ legal defense.
The relationship that develops between hostages and their captors is now known as “the Stockholm Syndrome,” a type of emotional bonding that is in reality a survival strategy for victims of emotional and physical abuse— including not only hostages, but also battered spouses and partners, abused children, and even POWs.
Hostage in abusive relationships
Although not victims of a robbery or hostage situation, 700,000 Americans per year experience non-fatal physical domestic violence. There are about 8 million individuals involved in emotionally and physically abusive relationships at any one time. About 20 percent of all women report having been assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. In same-gender partner violence, over half a million gay men are victims of domestic violence. Ten percent of high school students and 40 percent of college students report being assaulted by a date, and 20 to 25 percent of college women report rape during college. The vast majority of rapes and intimate partner violence, whether the victim is male or female, still go unreported.
The bond that exists between the captor/abuser and his or her victim is strong and can compel the victim to stay with (or otherwise support the actions of the abuser) when the need to run is blatantly obvious to everyone but the victim. The investment that one has made in the relationship directly impacts the ability to recognize the negative or threatening aspects of the association. This also affects the ability to either correct or flee.
People share various intimacies with their significant others (who may also be an abuser). Abusers can threaten to tell other people about the “special” aspects of their relationship, if he or she does not do exactly as the abuser says. Victims may have become financially dependent on the abuser and find themselves unable to pay their own way, or they may believe that they can’t make it in life without the other’s physical and financial support. Many have allowed an abusive relationship to stay hidden from family and friends, and people have stayed in these kinds of relationships so as not to embarrass themselves or their abuser. (One woman whose husband made her “pretend” to beg for physical intimacy with him told me that she’d be too embarrassed for “her husband’s sake” to ever ask for help, even though this aspect of their relationship emotionally devastated her.)
Some abused individuals have had children with their abuser; therefore they keep quiet so as not to “damage” their family reputation or otherwise impact on the “stability” of their family, forgetting that to allowing one’s self to be abused in front of one’s children only paves the way for further victimization. Allowing abuse to go on in a family also sets a negative example that children may follow, perpetuating the abuse from generation to generation.
Why don’t victims just leave?
Abused individuals are questioned by family and friends as to why they take the mistreatment and why they just don’t leave. This is one of the many situations in life where you must have walked a mile in the shoes of another to understand their situation. A long-term relationship is just that for many of us— long-term. We have invested much of ourselves into the relationship and it just isn’t like selling a car that continues to break down. A large part of one’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem is likely to have been invested in the relationship and, like the broken down car, we just want it fixed and running— as we neither want nor can afford a new car or a new relationship.
Hostage negotiators know that they cannot argue or otherwise talk a delusional individual out of their delusion. They will not listen to the negotiator, or they will somehow incorporate the negotiator into their delusion. They can write off the negotiator off as someone who “just doesn’t understand.”
If you are in a long-term abusive relationship, your choice may be to ignore the warnings of others,believing that those opinions could destroy your relationship. The logic goes that the person offering advice simply doesn’t understand your situation and doesn’t know that their well-meaning advice, if taken, could destroy your relationship with your spouse or partner. But the long-term effects of abuse include depression; suicide or attempted suicide; anxiety; guilt; withdrawal from school, work and social settings; feelings of shame; and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (both on the one abused and on any children in the family).
What to do if you’re in an abusive relationship
Understand that an abusive individual will continue to abuse you until you stop him or her from doing so, even if it requires you to emotionally and physically separate yourself from your abuser. But don’t allow your abuser to separate you from your contact with family and friends. They are your support system and you need them to help you maintain a healthy frame of reference concerning your life, your relationship, and the world.
If the victim of the abusive relationship is your child or a friend, you need to remain supportive and not put even more stress, pressure, and guilt on the abused individual. An abuser can change, but he/she must want to change, and the longer he is allowed to abuse, the less likely he is to alter his behavior. If emotional or physical abuse is present in a dating relationship, know that the abuser is a loser; the abuse will become worse as time goes by, so turn on your heels and move quickly away from the influence of this person. Period.
If you, your friend, or your child is involved in a long-term abusive relationship, including a marriage with children, again know that the abuse is not likely to end without outside assistance. The more you pretend it isn’t happening, or the more you accept abusive behavior in your home and within your family, the more will come your way.
I recall a woman who told us that she helped her husband commit a kidnapping and murder because “If he was occupied doing something else, he was too busy to abuse me.”
The abuser may threaten you or even himself (“I’ll kill myself if you leave,” or “I’ll lose my job if you tell”) in an attempt to control you and keep you as his helpless victim. He may abuse and then— even beg— for your forgiveness, only to reoffend in the near future. If the abuse is due to a mental disorder, a personality disorder, or substance abuse, there is no way that it will get any better. It will definitely get worse. Some victims will become so conditioned to their abuser’s actions that they cannot function without the co-dependent relationship with their abuser.
Like cancer, abuse will not heal itself and if left alone, it can destroy your lifestyle and happiness. It may even take your life. Be quick to demand that the abuse ends— and if it doesn’t, know that your decision is either to continue to be emotionally and perhaps physically pounded on, or to seek outside help to save the relationship, and possibly save your very life or that of your children.
Not everyone continues to take this abuse and many have successfully altered the behavior within the relationship— or left the relationship to ultimately survive and thrive. We all need to endure the many challenges and traumas of life in ways that preserve our sense of self worth and self-esteem. We don’t have to be victims and we don’t have to accept abuse at the hands of others, especially a supposed intimate whom we initially trusted and loved and who now hurts us with clock-like regularity. We each have an inner voice that tells us when something is really wrong. In the case of abusive relationships, listen to the voice and then do something about it. Your very life is on the line.
Oh, and by the way. Remember the Stockholm bank robbery where the hostages gave into their captors? In another similar situation, the police sniper had to shoot an armed hostage-taker who was threatening the lives of two female hostages. When shot, the robber fell to the floor, whereupon his two female hostages picked him up off the floor and held him in front of a window so that he could be shot a second time. (No second shot was needed.)
The Stockholm Syndrome
Signs and symptoms
As an FBI hostage negotiator and behavioral profiler, I taught others that this so-called syndrome or set of symptoms includes certain behaviors that may be exhibited during a significant personal challenge or stressful situation, including:
Positive feelings towards kidnapper/abuser
Victims have positive feelings towards the hostage taker, kidnapper, abuser or controller in his or her life.
Negative towards help
Victims have negative feelings towards the authorities, family members, or friends who try to rescue or otherwise win the victim’s release from their threatening and/or challenging situation. By this, any rescue attempt– be it from a volatile hostage situation or a volatile marriage– could be seen as a threat as it’s likely that the “victim” could be injured (physically or emotionally) during any attempt at “rescue.”
Supporting their reasoning
Victims support the hostage taker’s or the abuser’s behavior and reasoning, including assisting, helping, or refusing to acknowledge the negative impact of the individual’s behavior and actions.
Inability to escape
The victim is unable to behave or assist in a manner to help his/herself escape from a challenging or threatening situation.