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


Keeping up with the Kardashians: Is Scott a Psychopath?

Confronting the problem of psychopathy isn’t reserved just for criminologists, psychotherapists or journalists who cover crime stories on the news. Because it often occurs in our daily lives, it also appears on popular reality shows.  In one of the recent episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Khloe wonders out loud if Scott, her sister’s boyfriend, is a psychopath. She laughingly dismisses the idea, as the whole Kardashian family struggles to accept Scott. After all, he’s the father of Kourtney’s baby, Mason Dash, and Kourtney herself seems to really love him. And yet, much of the tension in the Kardashian family revolves around Scott’s bad behavior, usually followed by repeated apologies and reconciliations. He lies without any apparent compunction to Kourtney and others, cheats on her, picks fights with family members but magically smooths things over whenever it suits him (which is usually when he’s about to be thrown out for good). One of the most memorable scenes of the show is when Scott gets very drunk, attacks a waiter and aggressively shoves money into his mouth. True, people do strange things when intoxicated. But in my eyes, Scott’s behavior seemed more about asserting dominance than about being inebriated.

Another bad sign is the fact that Scott teases Kourtney about her weight gain after she gives birth to their baby so much so that she develops a complex about it. In one episode, she literally faints from not eating enough and excessive exercise. Psychopaths usually begin a relationship with flattery and sweetness, to reel you in. But as the relationship unfolds, they normally switch to criticism to get you to focus on your (real or perceived) flaws, so that you feel weaker and more insecure. This strategy also has the added benefit (for the psychopaths) of distracting you from what they’re doing wrong. That way, rather than focusing on the glaring flaws of the toxic relationship and on the personality disorder of your partner, you focus instead on how to improve yourself to please the psychopath in your life.

Of course, even therapists administering the Hare Psychopathy Test can’t diagnose this personality disorder from afar, much less the rest of us watching it on T.V. Which brings me to the main point of this post. For most of us, the purpose of gathering information about psychopathy is NOT to become a trained specialist in the field and make a clinical diagnosis. It is to recognize dangerous personality traits and protect ourselves and our loved ones from people who manifest those characteristics and behavior. Making a clinical diagnosis of personality disorders is, of course, only up to experts. But identifying potentially dangerous traits isn’t just for experts because any of us can be adversely affected when we allow disordered individuals into our lives. Knowledge is the most essential form of self-defense. Widespread information about physical and emotional abuse has saved millions of people from domestic violence. Spreading information about psychopathy may help save millions of additional lives from harm.

Khloe Kardashian recognized dangerous personality traits in Scott Disick but eventually dismissed her doubts because she was comparing him to Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers. Although psychopaths tend to share common symptoms–glibness and charm, extreme egocentricity, grandiose sense of self, deceitfulness, manipulativeness, impulsiveness, an underlying need to control others, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, lack of remorse for harm inflicted on others, hypersexuality, the need for constant stimulation, etc–mercifully for the rest of society only a small percentage of them become violent criminals. That still doesn’t make a “sub-criminal” psychopath good boyfriend or spouse material. Scott Disick may or may not be a psychopath. But given his behavior so far, I predict that the intrigue of Keeping up with the Kardashians will continue to revolve around keeping up with the problems he causes in their lives. 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

 



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