Stockholm Syndrome At Home

Read the hand.

The term “Stockholm syndrome” – meaning an emotional attachment to a captor, formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate in order to guarantee the hostage’s survival – was coined in 1978. This followed five years of psychologists arguing what could possibly be the reason for such an attachment. In 1973, in the course of a violent robbery of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden, four bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault for nearly a week. They had no idea whether they would survive. During that time, the four hostages developed unforeseen emotional attachments to their kidnapper – whom they had not known prior to the robbery – and a concomitant fear of rescuers. Because such attachments seemed inexplicable, experts as well as the public discussed what could bring about what seemed a reversal of expectations.

There is an interesting connection between Stockholm syndrome and the attachment of people to abusive spouses. Let’s take a look at the language.

“An emotional attachment to a captor . . ..” Current newspapers are filled each week with stories of spouses – usually wives – who escape a marriage based on abuse and humiliation. Sometimes torture. Likewise, the murder-suicides instigated increasingly by husbands. These are the end-point of a struggling marriage, often where the wife has indicated plans to leave or has sometimes only mentioned that she is considering it. In these marriages, there is a controlling captor – to whom other family members, even adults, have an emotional attachment.

“… formed by a hostage . . ..” It could be argued that where people come and go, there is no hostage-taking. On the other hand, do those people feel free to leave at their own convenience? Must they account for their movements? Are they allowed access to money, passports, resources? If they return late, are they fearful of consequences? Are they afraid that other people – perhaps children – might be punished for failure to conform to the captor’s demands?

“… as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate . . ..” It’s easy to count the stress in the life of someone whose spouse or family member is abusive. Stress is constant. It’s like living in a concentration camp where the rules can change in an instant at the whim of those who hold power. Such hostages have to calculate every move, and their attention to detail engenders stress. Dependence is often enforced on them. With little power, little money, often isolated from friends and family members who might support their leaving, those who are in thrall to their captors lead lives of quiet desperation and fear. The need to cooperate is paramount. Rebellion is cruelly quashed, after which the captor takes revenge. Against the adults, against children, sometimes against animals. The message is clear: this is what happens when you disobey.

“… in order to guarantee the hostage’s survival.” Life or death. That is what hostages feel is on the line. It’s unimportant, really, what their captors say (“I was kidding!” “It’s a game we play!” “She’s crazy!”), because the bottom line is whatever the person threatened perceives it is. In the past, police officers took the word of the captors. These days, they’re learning. Captors will lie, and lie bigtime. What matters is the story of those being held. Unfortunately, their survival is too often not guaranteed.

The New York Times recently ran a piece that examined how multiple killers, mass murderers, often “practice” on their wives and girlfriends. Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, should thus be seen as the tip of a warped and fatal iceberg. If we stop terrorism at home, we are more likely to prevent even greater tragedies.

Activists have been trying for years to get police and municipalities to understand that they should drop the requirement of a complaint from the injured party. If it’s a Rolex watch taken, an iPad stolen, the police need no special input from the aggrieved party. Robbery is robbery, and the sooner it’s stopped the better. If a domestic hostage is so immersed in Stockholm syndrome that she fears pressing charges, then police must go ahead anyway. They’ve got demonstrable injuries, often with witnesses from within the household. Usually, there are neighborhood witnesses as well, people who can testify as to noise, yelling, the sounds of battle.

We have to punish the perpetrators of violence wherever it is. Not only does it hurt people, affect children’s development and often lead to death, it can also be a dry-run for the massacre of strangers.


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