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

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


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How to Recognize Emotional Abuse

We usually recognize physical abuse because it often leaves external marks: bruises, broken bones, wounds, gashes or disfiguration. Because such abuse tends to be objectively identifiable, we’re not only likely to recognize its signs, but also to sympathize with the victims. Some of the great novels of modern and contemporary literature focus on victims of (statutory) rape, battery and other forms of physical abuse. I’m thinking, above all, of Nabokov’s incomparable Lolita which, without any trace of sentimentality or moralism, offers a multidimensional characterization of the victim as well as a realistic portrayal of the remorseless pedophile. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue, two of my favorite contemporary novels, give a compassionate portrayal of the victims. If readers readily sympathize with the heroines of these novels, it’s partly because the victims are as innocent as it gets and partly because their physical abuse (rape in one case, battery in another) is obvious. Yet, as I’ve tried to convey here, in many situations in real life the abused isn’t as morally pure (because she colludes with the abuser) and her abuse isn’t necessarily so obvious (because it may be emotional rather than physical in nature). Some psychopaths, especially those who also suffer from borderline personality disorder, may, indeed, spin out of control and engage in acts of physical violence. But many are subtler in the damage they inflict upon others.

As we’ve seen, charismatic psychopaths present to the outside world and even to their partners an impeccable image of self-control, sanity, kindness and charm. Such psychopaths sometimes pose a greater danger than those who engage in overt acts of physical violence because their personality disorder is better camouflaged. Unfortunately, so are the symptoms of their abuse. Which brings me to my main point here. Just as outsiders may fail to identify and sympathize with the signs emotional abuse, the victims may as well. In her article “How Can I Get My X Away from the Psychopathic Con Artist?” Liane Leedom explains that psychopaths escalate their control over their partners gradually, BITE (behavior, information, thoughts, emotions) by BITE. (lovefraud.com, September 7, 2007) Psychopaths intuitively tighten the screws at the moment when they feel they can get away with it. Over time, the victim becomes used to each new form of abuse as well as to the on-going manipulation and deceit. Charismatic psychopaths poison you softly, while pretending to love you and act in your best interest.

To offer an analogy, I’ve watched several episodes of Forensic Files where a man has poisoned his wife by introducing small doses of a toxic chemical into her food. She eventually died after months of gruesome suffering. Most psychopaths don’t literally poison their spouses. But they achieve a similarly toxic effect on a psychological level. They introduce tiny doses of emotional poison into their partners’ daily lives.

Your life with a psychopath can turn into a constant state of anxiety and self-doubt. You may develop neurotic habits, eating disorders and depression. Furthermore, the abuse can be so underhanded that you may not even realize that the person causing you all these negative symptoms is your own partner, the supposed love of your life. Consequently, saving yourself from a charismatic psychopath entails, first and foremost, recognizing his pattern of emotional abuse. After all, you can’t fix a problem until you identify its cause.

Definition: Emotional abuse constitutes a pattern of behavior over time that is designed to control another human being through the use of manipulation, deceit, threats, intimidation, emotional blackmail, verbal abuse, insults, gaslighting, coercion or humiliation. Even normal people occasionally engage in some of these behaviors. But the key term here is a “pattern” of such behavior over time. Emotional abuse functions as a form of brainwashing. The strategies I will describe below are commonly used in prisons, labor camps, by the Secret Police of totalitarian regimes and cult leaders. They’re extremely effective and very destructive. They can reduce a healthy and strong human being to the mere shadow of her former self.

1. Abusive Expectations. Emotional abuse occurs in asymmetrical relationships, where one partner strives to meet the expectations of the other, while he constantly raises the bar. In a healthy relationship, expectations are reasonable, fair and balanced. Both partners strive to please each other and treat each other with mutual respect.

2. Threats. A psychopath maintains control of a relationship through the use of implicit or explicit threats and the inculcation of fear or anxiety. He may tell his wife that she needs to lose weight, or move to another state with him, or change her interests and habits, or leave her job in order to keep him. Otherwise, he implies, he’ll cheat on her or even divorce her. A sword hangs over the victim’s head if she doesn’t meet the psychopath’s incessant demands and unreasonable expectations. However, even when she meets his demands he still cheats, lies and actively seeks other opportunities. Meeting a psychopath’s demands accomplishes nothing constructive. It only weakens the victim and places her further under his control.

3. Verbal Aggression. This includes name-calling, blaming or commanding. Psychopaths rely upon such tactics to assert dominance. Verbal abuse transforms what should be an equal and mutually respectful relationship into one where the psychopath is on top. His partner fears to disappoint him or do anything that might trigger his anger.

4. Condescending Attitude. Charismatic psychopaths often couch their aggression in a condescending attitude towards their partners. For instance, a psychopath may act as his partner’s spiritual guide or life coach. He may pretend to alleviate the symptoms of the psychological problems that he, himself, has caused her. If she develops anxiety attacks, insomnia or an eating disorder because of his ongoing deception, manipulation and mind games, he might paternalistically act as her guide, as if to help alleviate these negative symptoms. The underlying assumption in such a relationship is that the psychopath is healthier, more sane and superior to his partner. She should strive to approximate his level of mental, physical and emotional health. This cultivates her dependency on him and fosters a sense of helplessness. More importantly, it masks the underlying source of her psychological problems, which is him and his harmful behavior. It’s kind of like the husband who puts poison in his wife’s soup while pretending to be loving and concerned. When you get rid of the psychopath in your life, who’s poisoning your existence, you also alleviate the symptoms of whatever psychological and physical ailments you developed while being involved with him.

5. State of Uncertainty/Emotional Chaos. A psychopath derails his partner by keeping her in a perpetual state of uncertainty. She doesn’t know what to do to please him. She constantly struggles to keep him from engaging in various misdeeds or abandoning her. Psychopaths who also have borderline personality disorder transform daily life into a battlefield with occasional truces. A charismatic psychopath, however, poses a more hidden threat. He preserves the external appearance of being calm, collected and loving while periodically hinting that the perfect picture of the relationship you struggle so hard to preserve is highly precarious. Anything you might do–or fail to do–can destroy it. In reality, of course, nothing you do or refrain from doing meaningfully affects his behavior. I’ve never read about (or met) a psychopath who didn’t do exactly what he wanted.

6. Denying your Needs. Being completely narcissistic, a psychopath won’t prioritize your needs unless they coincide perfectly with his or cultivate your dependency on him. Consequently, he’s bound to discourage you from any pursuits that solidify your bonds with others or make you stronger, more successful and more independent. His motive is clear. The less self-confidence and meaningful contact with others you have, the more he has you under his thumb and can mistreat you however he wishes. Moreover, if you dare complain that he doesn’t satisfy your basic emotional need for caring or communication, he’s likely to become dismissive, sarcastic, derisive or even aggressive. In his mind, everything and everyone should revolve around him.

7. Domination. Psychopaths establish control over their partners through a ratchet. They automatically get their way on everything when their will is not contested. When you challenge them and express your own needs, they may sometimes compromise with you, to appear fair. This image of equality is misleading, however. When you look at the whole picture of your relationship over time, you notice that it’s systematically determined by the desires of the psychopath. Such an asymmetry constitutes a form of domination, which should be unacceptable to any woman who considers herself equal to her partner and worthy of the same consideration and respect as him.

8. Invalidation. To psychopaths, what other people think, want and feel is, to use the vernacular, “bull crap” (they commonly use such vulgar language). If you disagree with a psychopath, he’s likely to invalidate your arguments and insult you. Psychopaths tend to be stubborn and persistent. Even when a psychopath momentarily relents, in the long run he returns to the same issue to “win” the match by getting his way. If your partner consistently dismisses what you know, feel, want or believe, it’s obviously a very bad sign. It means that he doesn’t have any genuine respect or love for you.

9. Minimizing and Gaslighting. If you tell a psychopath that you’re hurt by his actions–such as his constant lying and cheating–he’ll either deny that behavior (i.e., lie to you yet again) or minimize it by saying that you’re being hypersensitive or paranoid. He’ll argue that you misinterpreted the matter, or that you’re exaggerating, or that it’s just a misunderstanding, or that you’re being a drama queen. If he calls you “crazy” and tells you that you’re imagining things when you accuse him of the bad deeds he’s actually done, then he’s also gaslighting you.

10. Arbitrary Reactions. Psychopaths and narcissists commonly use arbitrary reactions to establish dominance over others. If you can’t anticipate how your partner will react, then you’re always on edge, trying to figure out what to do or say to please him. In addition, if you care about his opinion, your moods and self-esteem will oscillate like a yo-yo, depending upon his approval or disapproval. A psychopath can keep his partner completely focused on his needs by toying with her emotions in this seemingly arbitrary fashion. This despotic behavior leads his partner to feel unhinged, anxious, depressed and powerless.

11. Sarcasm, Irony and Humiliation. Because they prefer to cultivate a nice external image, charismatic psychopaths may not verbally abuse their partners in a blatant fashion. They may opt for more subtle techniques—such as sarcasm, irony and humiliation–to make the victims feel bad about themselves. If you’re involved with a psychopath, you may have noticed that while he makes fun of you and others, any joke or wry comment about him is unwelcome and not considered amusing. Psychopaths establish double standards in practically all aspects of their lives: fidelity, honesty, freedom and even the hidden weapons of sarcasm and humor. While they routinely humiliate their partners to weaken their self-esteem, they demand nothing but the utmost respect for themselves.

The only way to reclaim your dignity when you’ve suffered the pattern of emotional abuse I’ve just described is to go straight to the source. Uproot the psychopath from your life. If you stay with him, he’ll continue to mistreat you and undermine your self-esteem as he’s done so far.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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