Stockholm Syndrome In Abusive Relationships

Trigger warning: Information presented in this article discusses on abuse which may be triggering to some people. If you notice you or your loved ones have such experiences or present the signs of being abused, please reach out to mental health professionals.

You heard the story of a neighbour being abused by her husband, and you thought to yourself, “Why didn’t she just leave?” 

Or perhaps you read a news article about a male teenager who was held hostage by his kidnapper for multiple years, and even if he was left alone in the house, he never attempted to flee. 

In any kind of abusive relationship (emotional, psychological and/or physical abuse, gaslighting), the victim experiencing abuse may sympathize for the abusive person, which is eventually reinforced by cycles of abuse, followed by guilt. This condition is known as Stockholm syndrome (Petric, 2019). 

The History of Stockholm Syndrome 

This syndrome originated many centuries ago, but this entrapment came to be named in August 23, 1973, when four people were held captive for 131 hours following a bank robbery by two machine-gun carrying criminals in Stockholm, Sweden. During captivity, they were threatened, abused, and strapped with dynamite. Surprisingly, despite such treatment, they showed supportive reactions towards the hostage takers. What’s more puzzling was one woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another one developed a legal defense fund to help the hostage takers (Logan, 2018). 

What Is Stockholm Syndrome? 

Stockholm syndrome is one type of trauma bonding, whereby the people who are held hostage against their will develop feelings of affection and trust for the captors (Gaba, 2019). An FBI trained hostage negotiator and forensic psychologist, Dr. Matthew H. Logan (2018) stated that in hostage negotiation, it is defined as “the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.” Both Stockholm syndrome or trauma bonding are not listed as DSM or ICD diagnosis. 

How to recognize trauma bonding? 

It exists in a relationship in which the connection is illogical and is very difficult to break. In order for a trauma bond to form, a power differential, intermittent good/bad treatment, and high arousal and bonding periods are the crucial components (Dutton and Painter, 1993). Excessive fear and will to survive in concentration camps and kidnap experiences can cause such a bond with the criminal. This bonding is perpetuated by the imbalance of power and the manipulative nature of intermittent cycling of abuse with acts of kindness. (Logan, 2018). 

The Abuser or Captor 

Below are the characteristics of the captor, according to Logan (2018):

  • Highly narcissistic, often psychopathic individuals, use manipulation to satisfy their own need for power and control.
  • High comorbidity between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Psychopathy. 
  • Narcissists exhibit charm, grandiosity, and conning/manipulative elements common to psychopathy, but they may not have the antisocial facet of the psychopath.
  • Psychopaths have the nasty combination of lack of empathy, callousness, and poor behavioural control. 
  • Having the uncanny ability to sense a weakness or vulnerability in another person is followed closely by the charm of first impression and then buttressed by the promises of meeting the unmet needs of the other.
  • Both the psychopath and narcissist are adept at making the captive feel sorry for them by telling stories of their own abuse as a child and making excuses for their temper and aggressive or assaultive behaviour.
  • Displays small acts of kindness ingratiates them to the captive after the abuse that sets the fear of reprisal up in the captive. 

The Abused or Hostage 

Dr Logan listed the characteristics of the captor as following: 

  • Develops an emotional bond with the abuser as a strategy for survival. Their personality is developing the feelings and thoughts needed to survive the situation and lower their emotional and physical risks.  
  • The fear of outbursts from the abuser becomes a controlling factor in the victim’s life. For survival, the goal becomes to anticipate anything that may result in an outburst for the controlling person and avoid it at all costs.
  • The outcome of this survival mode or ‘‘freeze’’ reaction versus ‘‘fight’’ or ‘‘flight’’ reaction can result in a captive who experiences a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological energy and who is ‘‘burned out’’ and too depressed to leave. 

According to an article written by Dr. Joseph Carver posted an in August, 2003 titled Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser,there are several types of investments that further bonds the captive to the captor.

  • Emotional Investment—They’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that they feel it necessary to see the relationship through to the finish.
  • Social Investment—They’ve got pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, they remain in the relationship.
  • Family Investments—If children are present in the relationship, decisions regarding the relationship are clouded by the status and needs of the children.
  • Financial Investment—In many cases, the controlling and abusive partner has created a complex financial situation. Many captives remain in a bad relationship waiting for a better financial situation to develop that would make their departure and detachment easier.
  • Lifestyle Investment—Many controlling/abusive partners use money or a lifestyle as an investment. Captives in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.
  • Intimacy Investment—They often invest in emotional and sexual intimacy. Some captives have experienced a destruction of their emotional and/or sexual self-esteem in the unhealthy relationship. The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumors or tell intimate details or secrets. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations.

Final thoughts 

Dr Logan (2018) further reiterates that Stockholm syndrome can exist in any interpersonal relationships. The abuser is usually in a position of control or authority. This type of authoritarian control also exists in a corporate sector, in which a supervisor exerts control over an employee. This is known as  Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. Dr Logan described the relationship between the supervisor and employee as “there is a carrot dangling in front of the employee who believes that they will eventually benefit if they are compliant. Many are ‘‘frozen’’ into their roles because they lack the psychic energy to move on or ‘‘change pastures.’’ Like rats on a treadmill they work for the captor who feeds them the scraps of kindness intermittently with the Kool-Aid of control.”

If you suspect that you or your loved one has developed Stockholm syndrome, please reach out to mental health professionals for counselling and psychological treatment. With proper treatment, you or your loved one will soon be on the path to healing and recovery. 


Dutton DG, Painter S. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of the traumatic bonding theory. Violence Vict. 8, 105–120

Gaba, S. (2019, May 29). Trauma Bonding, Codependency, and Narcissistic Abuse. Psychology Today. 

Logan, M. H. (2018). Stockholm Syndrome: Held Hostage by the One You Love. Violence and Gender, 5(2), 67–69.

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