Abusive Relationships: Situations-Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome

Table of contents for Abusive Relationship Help

  1. Abusive Relationships: What if You Still Love Them?
  2. Abusive Relationships: Situations-Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome
  3. Abusive Relationships: How Friends and Family Can Help

This is Part 2 of 3 of the post regarding emotional ties that often keep a person from leaving an abusive relationship. It will cover the 4 main situations creating Stockholm Syndrome in controlling relationships and the resulting symptoms. If you missed Part 1, please click the above link to read it first. Part 3 will give guidelines for friends and family who wish to help.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this post, the feelings of love for the abuser are actually part of an emotional defense mechanism, as opposed to real love that exists in a healthy relationship. This emotional bonding is a survival strategy for victims of abuse and intimidation, though they are not fully aware of it happening.

To give thorough explanation of this topic of Stockholm Syndrome in controlling and/or abusive relationships, I’m going to refer to several quotes from an incredible article by Dr. Joseph Carver, Psychologist. The full article is many pages long, and very detailed. For those of you who desire to study this in more detail, a link to his full article is provided at the end of this post. Dr. Carver has a very beneficial website, and I’m sure we’ll be referring to it again in the future.

There are several symptoms to Stockholm Syndrome which will vary some with the individual. However, here are 5 Common Symptoms that Dr. Carver provided:

1. Positive feelings by the victim toward the abuser/controller

2. Negative feelings by the victim toward family, friends, or authorities trying to rescue/support them or win their release

3. Support of the abuser’s reasons and behaviors

4. Positive feelings by the abuser toward the victim

5. Supportive behaviors by the victim, at times helping the abuser

Besides a hostage situation, the following 4 Types of Situations also occur in severely controlling, abusive relationships, creating the Stockholm Syndrome responses:

1. The presence of a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat

2. The presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim

3. Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser

4. The perceived inability to escape the situation

As a person with Stockholm Syndrome often becomes incapable of carrying out the necessary behaviors to detach emotionally and physically and so escape the environment, it is helpful to take a deeper look at:

(1) How the 4 situations create Stockholm responses

2) What friends and family should do to help

These illustrations are also from Dr. Carver’s article.

Situation 1: Perceiving a Psychological or Physical Threat

First realize that the threat does not have to have been carried out or acted upon for the victim to sense danger. Here are examples of threatening situations experienced by someone with Stockholm Sydrome.

Witnessing violence or aggression is also a perceived threat. Witnessing a violent temper directed at a television set, others on the highway, or a third party clearly sends us the message that we could be the next target for violence. Hearing threatening and intimidating thoughts and attitudes of the abuser/controller and realizing that we will be the target of those thoughts in the future.

Situation 2: Experiencing a Small Kindness from the Abuser

In controlling or abusive situations, the victim looks for and holds on to any small sign of hope that the situations may improve, such as:

When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abuser’s benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor…In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not “all bad” and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner in a certain type of situation in which the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse.

An additional situation that is similar to the small kindness is the abuser occasionally exhibiting a “soft side,” such as in these examples:

The abuser/controller may share information about their past – how they were mistreated, abused, neglected, or wronged. The victim begins to feel the abuser/controller may be capable of fixing their behavior or worse yet, that they (abuser) may also be a “victim”. Sympathy may develop toward the abuser. Abusers may admit they need psychiatric help or acknowledge they are mentally disturbed, however, it’s almost always after they have already abused or intimidated the victim. The admission is a way of denying responsibility for the abuse.


Please take careful note of what Dr. Carver says is actually happening when the abuser shows a softer side. This is urgent to understand!

In truth, personality disorders have learned over the years that personal responsibility for their violent/abusive behaviors can be minimized and even denied by blaming their bad upbringing. While it may be true that the abuser/controller had a difficult upbringing – showing sympathy for his/her history produces no change in their behavior and in fact, prolongs the length of time you will be abused. While “sad stories” are always included in their apologies – after the abusive/controlling event – their behavior never changes! Keep in mind; once you become hardened to the “sad stories”, they will simply try another approach!

Situation 3: Being Isolated from Other Perspectives Outside of the Abusive Relationship

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 avoiding it at all costs. The abused person becomes preoccupied with the needs, desires, and habits of the abusive, controlling person.

Especially for those of us with loved one’s in an abusive or controlling situation, read this quote from Dr. Carver explaining why the abused person refuses help.

Taking the abuser’s perspective as a survival technique can become so intense that the victim actually develops anger toward those trying to help them. The abuser is already angry and resentful toward anyone who would provide the victim support…Victims then turn on their family… Supportive others are now viewed as “causing trouble” and must be avoided.. On the surface it would appear that the victim has sided with the abuser/controller. In truth, they are trying to minimize contact situation that might make them a target of additional verbal abuse or intimidation. If a casual phone call from Mom prompts a two-hour temper outburst with threats and accusations – the victim quickly realizes it’s safer if Mom stops calling.

In Stockholm Syndrome relationships, there is a daily preoccupation with “trouble”. Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, or cold meal that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser. To survive, “trouble” is to be avoided at all costs.. The victim does not hate family and friends; they are only avoiding “trouble”! The victim also cleans the house, calms the children, scans the mail, avoids certain topics, and anticipates every issue of the controller or abuse in an effort to avoid “trouble”. .. In truth, the victim knows the abuser/controller will retaliate against him/her if …they don’t personally apologize for the situation – as though it was their fault.

Situation 4: Feeling Unable to Escape

In romantic relationships, the belief that one can’t escape is also very common. The victims feels he or she are bound for life to the abuser due to:

Financial Problems: The couple will be locked together by mutual financial issues/assets, mutual intimate knowledge, or legal situations. Controlling partners have increased the financial obligations/debt in the relationship to the point that neither partner can financially survive on their own. Controllers who sense their partner may be leaving will often make large purchases, later claiming they can’t pay… [Or the abuser controls all the money.] In clinical practice I’ve heard “I’d leave but I can’t even get money out of the savings account! I don’t know the PIN number.”

Threats: The Controller often uses extreme threats including …, threatening public exposure of the victim’s personal issues, or assuring the victim they will never have a peaceful life due to nonstop harassment. In severe cases, the Controller may threaten an action that will undercut the victim’s support such as “I’ll see that you lose your job.” Controllers often keep the victim locked into the relationship with severe guilt – threatening suicide if the victim leaves.

Loss of Self-Esteem and Depression: In relationships with an abuser or controller, the victim has also experienced a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and psychological energy. The victim may feel “burned out” and too depressed to leave.

(5) Other Factors:

Studies show that ordeals create strong bonds of loyalty, even if it is to an unhealthy relationship that is difficult and humiliating. See these examples Dr. Carver provides of how the person in a controlling relationship feels bound by the personal investment:

Emotional Investment – We’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that we feel we must see the relationship through to the finish.

Social Investment – We’ve got our pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, we 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 victims 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. Victims in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.

Click Here to Read the Full Article by Psychologist, Dr. Joseph Carver, Love and the Stockholm Syndrome.

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