- When survival is threatened, victims may bond with their abusers, using small kindnesses as proof of humanity.
- Isolation and dependence may keep victims hyperfocused on pleasing abusers.
- Victims may start to rationalize abuse by adopting their abuser's perspectives and blaming themselves.
- Humanity's capacity for hope may allow some victims to see abusers as "good people" forced into violence.
Becky was in an abusive relationship—belittled, controlled and cut off from her friends and family for many years. Yet she refused to leave, defending her abusive partner's actions and blaming herself for everything. When Leon got arrested for domestic abuse, she paid his bail and refused to press charges. She was convinced he'd change; he had, after all, gotten “better” over the last couple of months.
This seemingly bizarre and puzzling behaviour has been characterized as Stockholm syndrome, a proposed condition in which abuse victims form powerful emotional bonds with their abusers. While not a formal diagnosis and thought to be extremely rare, understanding why it might occur could provide valuable insights into the dark psychology of abusive relationships.
What is Stockholm Syndrome?
Swedish psychiatrist Nils Bejerot coined the term in 1973 after observing how four hostages of a bank robbery apparently bonded with their captors after being held hostage for six days in Stockholm. After being rescued, the hostages refused to testify against their captors and even raised money for their defence.
Bejerot found it bizarre that hostages could display such strong sympathetic behaviour toward their captors despite being subjected to extreme trauma; he called the phenomenon "Stockholm syndrome." In later research, Namnyak and colleagues (2008) noted that Stockholm syndrome has six distinct symptoms:
- Feeling affection for and developing an emotional attachment to the abuser.
- Acting out, distrusting or feeling negative towards others trying to help them leave the abuser.
- Showing sympathy for or voluntarily helping/protecting the abuser.
- Rationalizing the abuse.
- Perceiving basic decency as exceptional kindness.
- Feeling powerless to leave
For Stockholm syndrome to occur, a rare mix of special circumstances needs to be present:
- A real threat to safety or physical survival.
- The belief that the abuser will act on this threat.
- The perceived presence of small benevolent, kind-hearted gestures by the abuser amid the abuse.
- The victim is isolated from the views or perspectives of those other than that of the abuser.
- There is a perceived inability to escape from the situation.
While this all seems counterintuitive, it does make psychological sense. When our survival is threatened, our primal drive is to do whatever it takes to stay alive—even if that means bonding with our abusers. We may therefore analyse our abuser’s behaviour for any small acts of kindness and use this as a sign of hope that they won’t kill us.
A brief moment of eye contact, a supportive smile, a bathroom break, or a glass of water could all become “proof” that the abusers have compassion and that they aren’t monsters. This can then lay the groundwork for traumatic attachment.
Why Abuse Victims Bond with Their Abuser
This process, sometimes known as "trauma bonding," begins when abusers occasionally mix in small acts of kindness with their abuse or threats. These small acts of kindness may bring great relief and lead the victim to express feelings of gratitude. This, combined with fear, may make the victim more reluctant to show negative feelings toward the abuser and become hyper-focused on pleasing them, to keep getting these small acts of kindness and avoid further angering them.
The victim becomes hypersensitive and attuned to the abuser’s behaviours and emotions. They may start to ignore their own needs in favour of those of the abuser. They develop strategies to get their abuser to like them and may even adopt their perspectives or views as survival strategies.
If these strategies work and the abuser lets them live or momentarily stops the abuse, the victim may come to see them as omnipotent heroes, downplaying their cruelty and focusing on the little “mercies” they show in not abusing or killing them. Their affection and sympathy move to their abuser, who they may come to see as a good person forced into violence by circumstances.
Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships
A version of this bond is common in abusive relationships. Domestic violence victims often stay in part because they’ve developed an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. The intermittent abuse mixed with little gestures of kindness can create powerful emotional bonds over time. Even if the victim escapes or leaves the relationship, they may feel they “need” their abuser and may even regret leaving.
In line with the tenets of Stockholm syndrome, some abuse victims report that they stay in these relationships because:
- They have strong emotional attachments with the abuser due to being together for a long time.
- They sympathise with their abuser and believe they are generally “good and kind-hearted people” who are just victims of difficult circumstances.
- They rationalise the abuse by seeking the cause for the violence in themselves.
- They were isolated from their friends/family by the abuser and fear being judged or embarrassed.
- They believe they can “fix” their abuser by providing support and attending to their needs.
- They fear they might not be able to survive financially without their abuser.
- They share finances, property, or pets, or even have children together.
- Their self-esteem relied heavily on the relationship.
When so much time and emotional energy is invested in a relationship, leaving an abuser becomes extremely difficult—even if the relationship is unhealthy or dangerous.
Humans are inclined to seek hope, even in abusive situations. When abusers mix in kindness, trauma bonding may occur. Over time, victims may become attached to their abuser, with separation bringing distress rather than relief.
Ultimately, the idea of Stockholm syndrome represents our deep capacity for hope and attachment—even with people who hurt us. Understanding its psychological forces could allow us to better help abuse victims leave unhealthy relationships.
Jameson, C. (2013). The" short step" from love to hypnosis: A reconsideration of the Stockholm syndrome. In Hope and Feminist Theory (pp. 25-43). Routledge.
Logan, M. H. (2018). Stockholm syndrome: Held hostage by the one you love. Violence and gender, 5(2), 67-69.
Namnyak, M., Tufton, N., Szekely, R., Toal, M., Worboys, S., & Sampson, E. L. (2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome’: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 117(1), 4-11.
Sabila, T. M., Hutahaean, E. S. H., & Fahrudin, A. (2022). Self-Esteem and Stockholm Syndrome in Dating Violence Victims. Asian Social Work Journal, 7(3), 12-16.