When You Love Your Abuser: Stockholm Syndrome and Trauma Bonds

They say that when you get burned by fire you don’t put your hand in the hot oven again. But that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes, it’s the fact of being burned that emotionally bonds you to an abuser. In fact, studies show that emotional abuse intermixed with small acts of kindness can bond some victims to their abusers even more than consistent good treatment can. So far I’ve used the word “victim” to describe the women (or men) who suffer at the hands of psychopaths. Yet I don’t really like this word for several reasons. It tends to imply a certain passivity, as if the woman herself had nothing to do with the decision to get involved with the psychopath or, worse yet, to stay with him even once his mask of sanity started to slip. It’s rare that a psychopath physically coerces a woman to get involved with him or to stay with him. Although he intimidates and brainwashes her, generally the victim cooperates.

This isn’t to imply, at the opposite end of the spectrum, that the women who get involved with psychopaths are “guilty” or deserve the mistreatment. In fact, that’s the other main reason why I don’t like the term “victim.” It evokes certain notions of moral purity that put the victim on trial. There used to be a conventional prejudice, for example, that if a victim of rape dressed in a provocative manner or walked around alone at night, then she wasn’t really “innocent” and somehow “asked for it.”

We realize now that this perception is false and prejudicial. Women can be targeted and abused without being perfect angels themselves. Analogously, one shouldn’t have to have to prove one’s perfection in the court of public opinion to gain sympathy for being used and abused by a psychopathic partner. Nobody capable of empathy and love deserves the kind of brainwashing, intimidation, lying, cheating, manipulation and distortion of reality to which a psychopath routinely subjects his partner. Despite the fact that I don’t like some of the connotations of the word “victim,” however, I use it because I believe that the women who become involved with and stay with psychopaths of their own free will are, in some respects, being victimized. To illustrate how you can be victimized while colluding in your own victimization, I’ll rely upon Dr. Joseph Carver’s explanation of Stockholm Syndrome in his article “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser.” (drjoecarver.com)

Carver states that he commonly runs in his practice into women involved with psychopathic partners who say something to the effect of, “I know it’s hard for others to understand, but despite everything he’s done, I still love him.” While cultivating feelings of love for a partner who repeatedly mistreats you may seem irrational, it’s unfortunately quite common. Psychological studies show that molested children, battered women, prisoners of war, cult members and hostages often bond with their abusers. Sometimes they even go so far as to defend them to their families and friends, to the media, to the police and in court when their crimes are brought to justice.

This psychological phenomenon is so common that it acquired its own label: “Stockholm Syndrome,” named after an incident that occurred in Stockholm, Sweden. On August 23rd, 1974, two men carrying machine guns entered a bank. They held three women and one man hostage for several days. By the end of this ordeal, surprisingly, the victims took the side of their captors. They also defended them to the media and to the police. One woman even became engaged to one of the bank robbers. Another spent a lot of money for the legal defense of one of the criminals. Those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome develop an unhealthy positive attachment to their abusers. They come to accept the abuser’s lies and rationalizations for his bad behavior. They sometimes also assist the abuser in harming others. This psychological condition makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the victims to engage in behaviors that facilitate detachment from the abuser, such as turning him in, exposing his misconduct or leaving him.

This unhealthy bonding solidifies when the abuser alternates between the carrot and the stick conditioning, as we’ve seen in the case of Drew and Stacy Peterson. He interlaces the abuse–the lying, the cheating, the implicit or explicit threats and insults, and even physical assault–with acts of “small kindness,” such as gifts, romantic cards, taking her out on a date to a nice restaurant, apologies and occasional compliments. Needless to say, in any rational person’s mind, a cute card or a nice compliment couldn’t erase years of abusive behavior. Yet for a woman whose independent judgment and autonomy have been severely impaired by extended intimate contact with a psychopath, it can and often does. Such a woman takes each gift, hollow promise and act of kindness as a positive sign. She mistakenly believes that her abusive partner is committed to changing his ways. She hopes that he has learned to love and appreciate her as she deserves. She wants to believe him even when the pattern of abuse is repeated over and over again, no matter how many times she forgives him. This is what trauma bonding is all about.

A victim of Stockholm Syndrome irrationally clings to the notion that if only she tries hard enough and loves him unconditionally, the abuser will eventually see the light. He, in turn, encourages her false hope for as long as he desires to string her along. Seeing that he can sometimes behave well, the victim blames herself for the times when he mistreats her. Because her life has been reduced to one goal and one dimension which subsumes everything else–she dresses, works, cooks and makes love in ways that please the psychopath–her self-esteem becomes exclusively dependent upon his approval and hypersensitive to his disapproval.

As we know, however, psychopaths and narcissists can’t be pleased. Relationships with them are always about control, never about mutual love. Consequently, the more psychopaths get from their partners, the more they demand from them. Any woman who makes it her life objective to satisfy a psychopathic partner is therefore bound to eventually suffer from a lowered self-esteem. After years of mistreatment, she may feel too discouraged and depressed to leave her abuser. The psychopath may have damaged her self-esteem to the point where she feels that she wouldn’t be attractive to any other man. Carver calls this distorted perception of reality a “cognitive dissonance,” which psychopaths commonly inculcate in their victims. He elaborates:

“The combination of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ produces a victim who firmly believes the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. The victim feels they would mentally collapse if the relationship ended. In long-term relationships, the victims have invested everything and ‘placed all their eggs in one basket.’ The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.” (drjoecarver.com)

I stated earlier that the only way to escape this dangerous dependency upon a psychopath is to remove yourself permanently from his influence. Any contact with him keeps you trapped in his web of manipulation and deceit. In some respects, however, this is a circular proposition. If you have the strength to leave a psychopath and the lucidity to reconsider your relationship with him, then you’re probably not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. You may have been temporarily lost in the fog of the psychopathic bond, as I was. But those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome find themselves lost in a dark tunnel. They don’t know which way to turn anymore. They probably need outside help to see the light and save themselves. So what can family and friends do for them?

Liane Leedom addresses this question in an article called “How Can I Get My X Away From the Psychopathic Con Artist?” (lovefraud.com, September 7, 2007). She advises a subtle intervention rather than clobbering the victim with accusations against her abuser, which may put her on the defensive. As we recall, psychopaths establish control of their victims BITE by BITE, like emotional vampires. Once again, “BITE” stands for “behavior, information, thoughts and emotions.” Psychopaths attempt to control all aspects of their partners’ experience of reality.

To counteract their dangerous influence, you need to BITE back. Give the victim a true perception of reality and real emotional support. If and when she complains about her psychopathic partner, don’t rush to join her in criticism. She’s likely to start defending the psychopath again. Instead, be a good listener. Draw out calmly and rationally the implications of the actions which upset her. Show her that you understand and support her. This way she’ll have a standard of comparison between her partner’s abusive behavior and your genuine caring. As we’ve seen, a psychopath is bound to make his partner feel insecure and pathologically dependent on him. Encourage the victim to find other sources of satisfaction in her life, which are not motivated by the desire to please him.

The issue of motivation is key. Psychopaths’ partners commonly lose weight, dress better, find better employment, pursue more interesting hobbies, all of which may appear to be positive signs. But they’re not if these self-improvements remain motivated by the desire to gain the psychopath’s approval or avoid his disapproval. The quest for his validation keeps the victim–and her self-esteem–enchained to a disordered human being whom she can never satisfy and who doesn’t have her best interest at heart. Above all, Leedom suggests that family and friends of the victim should make it clear that they will be there for her once she disengages from the psychopath. She won’t find herself lost, unloved and alone, as the psychopath probably leads her to fear in order to keep her under his control.

Sometimes, family and friends of the victims notice similar behavior from the victim as from the psychopath himself. Both, for instance, may lie. Leedom and other psychologists state that, sadly, this phenomenon is also quite common. We’ve seen that contact with a psychopath tends to be contagious and destructive, like a virus. It distorts your perception of reality, corrupts your moral values and diminishes your empathy for others. According to Leedom,

“This is what happens when you have any association with a psychopath, no matter how you know them and whether or not you live with them. This is why I strongly encourage family members to cut the psychopath off. Psychopaths’ whole way of relating to the world is about power and control. This need for power and control is very personal. They do it one person at a time, one victim at a time. They do it very systematically with malice and forethought. When they succeed in hurting someone or getting another person to hurt him/herself or others, they step back, revel in it and say ‘I did it again, shit, I’m great!’ (they use a lot of foul language also).” (lovefraud.com)

Just as most people experience a visceral pleasure in making love, or eating chocolate, or seeing their children’s team win a game, so psychopaths experience great pleasure when they hurt others. They enjoy corrupting their partners so that they too become manipulative, deceptive and callous like them. For a psychopath, destroying his partner from the inside/out–her human, moral core, not just her daily life–represents a personal triumph. Psychopaths identify, pursue, isolate, corrupt, devalue and eventually discard one victim at a time. By this I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that they’re faithful to anyone. But they focus their energy in a single-minded fashion on destroying one life at a time, one person at a time. Women seduced by psychopaths enter what psychologists call a “hypnotic state.” They shut out any aspects of reality that would reveal the truth. They focus instead only on the parts of reality that conform to the distorted perspectives presented by their partner. This logic often applies to the psychopath’s family members as well. I’ve already mentioned that Neil Entwistle’s parents supported their son even after he was convicted of murder. Parents who behave this way, Leedom explains, “want to have the perfect family as much as anyone else. They therefore normalize and justify all of the psychopath’s hurtful controlling behavior.” (lovefraud.com) Of course, when parents go so far as to either ignore or justify murder, their behavior crosses the line into pathology.

Yet no matter how much love and support you may offer the victim of a psychopath, like individuals who suffer from other kinds of addictions, she can only save herself. Ultimately, it’s up to her to find the inner strength to confront the truth about the psychopath. Psychologists state that, generally speaking, the longer a woman stays with the psychopath, the less likely she is to recover from that harmful relationship. Her tortured love for him may last for the rest of her life. But it’s highly unlikely that the psychopath will stick around for that long. If you don’t leave a psychopath, chances are that he’ll eventually leave you to mine for new opportunities elsewhere. Leedom adds, “The question here is whether this will take so long to run its course that the victim will lose herself completely. When that happens there is great risk of suicide when the relationship falls apart.” (lovefraud.com) Hopefully, the more information we spread about psychopathy, the easier and sooner victims will recognize the symptoms of this personality disorder. This information can give them the strength to escape psychopathic seduction and control before it’s too late.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness


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6 Comments

  1. I think there are two very helpful books regarding this topic. One is The Betrayal Bond : Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships. It helped me more than any other book on psychopaths, sociopaths etc. It explains that once you have one betrayal bond, with a parent for example, you are at risk of having more betrayal bonds in your life. It makes clear the different kinds of betrayal bonds that can happen, and what supports these bonds. It also makes clear what has to happen to break these bonds, with various options given. My copy looks like a beat up textbook, all underlined, with pages with sticky notes, etc. I actually ended up outlining the book.

    One key is that to break the betrayal bond, your whole relationship with the abuser needs to change. This needs to happen even if you are at “no contact”. Before I read this book I cried and cried about my dumpiing the psychopath. I may have dumped him, but it was because of how cruel he had become. Now, strain as I may, “hurt” is not an emotion I can conjure up in regards to the creep. My whole relationship to him in my head has changed. I’m still angry and repulsed, but not “hurt”. The “hurt” was only there when I still thought I had lost something positive. I don’t know exactly when that switch flipped, but I now that the Betrayal Bond book was essential for that to happen for me.

    The second book is The Emotinal Rape Syndrome : How to Survive And Avoid it” by Michael Fox, PH.D. His phd is not in the mental health field, but I found this book invaluable for helpinig me to realize that I had been emotionally raped as well as sexually assualted by the creep. It does an EXCELLENT job of refusing to blame the victim. If you are feeling any shame or blame, read this book!

    One thing to remember. With all our vulnterabilities, these vulnerabilities do NOT cause us problems when we are involved with a GOOD man. My husband has known for 40 years what he could say or do to me to make me curl up in a fetal position. He knows I have (or had, nowdays) buttons to push. But a good man does not push them. He goes out of his way to NOT cause you harm. If my husband saw a person dependent on crutches to walk, he would NOT be tempted to kick the crutches away. A psychopath finds our weak spots and kicks at them, pushes our buttons and delights in seeing their power over us and our hurt. Point is, NO BAD GUY=NO PROBLEM. Sure I had issues to work on, but the only reason I had to work on them and get over them is BECAUSE OF the bad guy! If the world were only full of people who are compassionate and kind, my “issues” would never come to light.

  2. It’s true I use the pronoun “she” for the victim and “he” for the psychopath, but that’s only because female psychopaths are rarer than male ones.
    About 4 percent of the male population is psychopathic compared to 1 percent of the female population. Of course, there are female psychopaths
    as well, and their behavior is very similar to that of male psychopaths. Moreover, as you say, they’re just as potentially dangerous.
    Saying “he” when referring to psychopaths is just a linguistic shorthand, since it would be very cumbersome to write he or she every time.
    You might want to read my article about the causes of psychopathy. There is a genetic and physiological component to this personality disorder.
    Even children raised by the best of parents and in the best of environments can be psychopathic. Sometimes bad upbringing can exacerbate this problem,
    but often it’s a genetic disorder best described as an emotional retardation (the inability to bond emotionally in any meaningful way to others).

  3. Is it not more than emotional retardation? I know that Psychopaths apparently are emotionally 6 or 12 or whatever while being intellectually genius in many cases (mine was). But that doesn’t explain the pre meditated ‘evil’. The plotting and planning in my ex’s case was a carreer in itself and he worked as a master at ‘his craft’.
    They ‘choose’ to do bad and regard ‘good people’ as idiots.
    My ex laughed at people who worked for a living and said that people were jealous of him because he had worked out a system whereby he was ‘free’ to do as he wished every day. He said he guarded his ‘freedom’ aggressivly – nobody dare (hinting at me of course -gaslighting) interfere with it! And so he never had to repeat that. I was afraid to even call him on his mobile – dare I be checking up on him. that’s just one small example of the ingenius machinations of what i sometimes refer to as a ‘deviant spirit’.
    I really feel that their power is super human and that the guy I was with anyway, was actually evil and I had often looked at him (even when things were not too bad) and thought he was taken over by an evil spirit. My gut felt that.
    Most humans dont have the ‘knowledge’ they seem to have naturally, in how to destroy others. You would have to study it and maybe do a degree course or a masters to learn what they ‘know’ instinctively? (if you can understand what Im saying?)
    This is what really amazes me.
    Tricia

  4. Sorry Its me again! I would just like to add that you can’t blame normal people for being taken in by this level of deception. Anybody can be fooled , even the experts (psychologists etc ) are fooled. My ex has just completed a ‘self development’ course given by a renowned psychotherapist, who has worked for many years with abused women. I can guarantee that he convinced her that he had been abused (BY ME!!!). This is what he told everybody and he got lots of shouders(womens) to cry on!!He told me that he would never have anything to do with women again after ME! I was so awful to him. As he was telling me this he was in at least two (probably more) relationships .He has now moved into one of those womens homes. She has a young daughter and her ex is looking for custody of that child. My ex has come to her rescue!!!! – just like he came to my rescue 4 years ago!
    what an operator. And there’s no way of saving that women – or is there?
    Tricia

  5. Tricia, Your comments are always welcome. You’re right, even experts are fooled by psychopaths. Not because psychopaths are so clever, but because most people don’t expect such a degree of deception and malice from anyone they’re being nice to. Even enemies don’t treat you as badly as a psychopath who claims to be your good friend.
    I don’t know if you can or should try to save the new victim. The problem is that since psychopaths use women as toilet tissue, there will always be the next victim, and the next, and the next. You’d be spending your life trying to figure out his current supply and getting involved in the drama of saving them. It might be detrimental to your recovery and moving on with your life. Claudia


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