They say, when you get burned by fire, you don’t put your hand in the hot oven again. That isn’t always true, though. Sometimes, being burned is the very thing that ties you to your emotional captor.
There often come trying times in our lives, when we begin to feel trapped. Trapped by our jobs, the monotony of our daily chores, responsibilities, and of course, by the people we surround ourselves with. But this entrapment is what seems to keep us sane, keeps us going; because without it, our lives would probably have no meaning. It may be excitement of the negative kind, but it’s excitement, nevertheless. And without it, things would just be too mundane.
The Stockholm Syndrome, depicted beautifully in the movie Highway, is a condition (observed in a bank robbery case in Kreditbanken, Stockholm in 1973) where, in a hostage situation, the captive emotionally bonds with the captor and begins to identify with them. They show strong feelings of defense and understanding towards the captor, and often fail to press charges on being rescued, bail the culprit out, and sometimes even attack their rescuers. Conditions that serve as a foundation for such a syndrome are the presence of a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat, the presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim, isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser and the perceived inability to escape the situation.
Though this was mostly noticed and studied only in hostage situations, it was later realized that this phenomenon takes place just about everywhere, in most people’s lives. So many of us become victims of emotional Stockholm Syndrome or emotional capture-bonding, owing to the constant physical abuse or emotional bondage games played on us by very many characters in our lives, every day. It could be a spouse, a friend, a superior at work. Anyone.
In an earlier article of mine, I mentioned how toxic people in our lives get a hold on us emotionally, even though they constantly play mind games; may demean and belittle us, bombard us with passive-aggressive behaviour and sarcasm. It is with such people that we bond and let them afflict any kind of negative treatment on us while we accept silently that that is what we deserve. This unhealthy bonding solidifies when the abuser alternates between ‘the carrot and the stick’ conditioning. This kind of bonding is what emotional Stockholm Syndrome is all about.
Every syndrome has symptoms or behaviours and Stockholm Syndrome is no exception. And the same applies for it even in a non-hostage situation, but a personal, emotional relationship. It is typically characterized by:
- Positive feelings by the victim toward the controller
In such a setup, we adopt feelings of sympathy (sometimes even empathy), love and respect towards the person who is mentally abusing us. We feel like we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and justify it to ourselves. We convince ourselves that their behaviour is for our own good, and that one way or another, we deserve it.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have often noted that even after getting out of such relationships, many patients have said things like “I know no one would understand, but in spite of everything she/he has done to me, I still love her/him.”
- Negative feelings by the victim towards their family, friends, or people trying to rescue/support/help them
Near and dear ones often find out about these detrimental situations we manage to put ourselves in, and try to aid us by giving advice, suggestions, conducting interventions, or helping us physically move away from the ‘monster’. But when we’ve already fallen prey to such a person, we see only them in a positive light; while everyone else trying to deter us from them seems to become the ‘bad guy’. Nothing they do or say to help us can stop us from believing that the toxic person in our life is bad for us.
- Support of the abuser’s reasons and behaviors
Because of our pre-existing notions that our controller is on our side, no matter what they put us through, we make it a point to accept their reasons and defend them before people who oppose them. While cultivating feelings of love for a partner who repeatedly mistreats you seems irrational, it is unfortunately quite common.
- Positive feelings by the abuser toward the victim
A lot of times, even though our abuser has the strong need to exploit the other, they begin to feel a strong sense of affection, protectiveness, possessiveness towards us. But why don’t they stop the abuse? They can’t; it is out of their control. Or worse, the sadist in them feeds on such guilty pleasure. Worst thing possible? They believe it is for the greater good and it’s what the bigger picture demands.
- Supportive behaviors by the victim, at times helping the abuser
Once we have submitted to the abuser emotionally, it’s hard to turn back. Not only do we defend the abuser, but even aid them in their misdeeds. After all, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Or so we believe.
- Inability to engage in behaviors that may assist in their release or detachment
When strong measures are taken by others to save us, get us out of the greedy grasp of the controller’s vilification, we are mostly unable to cooperate with them or take their advice. We lose the power to differentiate between right and wrong, when it comes to our abusive relationship.
- Every small kindness shown by the abuser is taken as a change for the better
Needless to say, in any rational person’s mind, a cute card or a nice compliment couldn’t erase years of abusive behaviour. Yet for a woman whose independent judgment and autonomy have been severely impaired by extended intimate contact with an abusive partner, it often does. Such a woman takes every gift and hollow praise or promise to be an act of kindness. She mistakenly believes her abuser is committed to changing his ways. 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.
- Repeated attempts by the victim to please the abuser
We irrationally cling to the notion that if we try hard enough and love our controller uncondionally, they will eventually see the light. The abuser, in turn, encourages false hope for as long as they like to string us along. Seeing that they can sometimes behave well, we blame ourselves for the times we are mistreated. It is obviously our fault, right?
This phenomenon is more common around the world than one would think. If you feel you know anyone in such a situation, try your best to help them. If you are in one yourself, believe what’s written above and get out of it immediately. It’s not a relationship that will ever amount to anything, no matter how hard you try. So, for the greater good, you must move on from it.