Stockholm Syndrome and Trauma Bonding in Narcissistic Relationships
In 1973, there was a huge bank robbery attempt in Stockholm, Sweden. The robbers held four bank workers hostage for six days. On the sixth days, the police broke inside, trying to arrest the robbers and save the hostages but the said hostages tried to protect the robbers from the police. Later on, the hostages refused giving testimony against the robbers and they even started collecting money to defend them. Within six days of captivity, the hostages had started developing a deep sympathy for the robbers.
As a result, the incident in which captives start developing positive feelings for their captors was named Stockholm Syndrome. This intriguing and paradoxical bond between captors and captives was also found amongst prisoners of war and those being kept in concentration camps as well. But in time, it’s seen that Stockholm Syndrome is not all about literal captors and captives. For example; Stockholm Syndrome can be found between parents and children or spouses as well as in narcissistic relationships, which is the main topic of our article.
In what conditions do we see Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm Syndrome requires four important elements:
- The victim should be in a life threatening situation.
- The victim should be isolated.
- The victim should be unable to perform survival strategies such as “fight or flight”. (Or at least feel like they’re unable to.)
- The abuser should show some “kindness” every once in a while.
Judging by the first one, you might think that Stockholm Syndrome happening in a narcissistic relationship is very unlikely. You might feel like a narcissistic relationship cannot exactly be life threatening. After all, not all narcissists resort to physical violence. On the other hand, living with a narcissist can mean that your life is indeed in danger. This danger can be physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. Besides, narcissists can throw violent temper tantrums when they can’t get something they want or when they’re losing control over someone (narcissistic rage). People on the receiving end of this rage (even if their partners have never abused them physical in the past) may find themselves fearing for their lives or well-being in general.
And the second case is about isolating the victim. Isolating the victim is a typical abusive behavior. In some cases, the victim can practically turn into a hostage due to being completely alienated from the outside world. And in some others, the victim avoids the point of views of other people when under the influence of feelings such as jealousy, paranoia and fear fueled by the narcissist. The isolated person fails to notice the abuse they’re being put through due to not being able to consult to other people, and they also feel like this small, artificial kindness shown by the abuser is all they have now so they cling to it.
Another reason is that the victim is unable to escape, or so they believe because they were convinced by the abuser. In the Stockholm robbery, it was found out that one of the hostages got a chance to escape and yet she did not. The reason to that may be the fact she believed she could not succeed, perhaps she was simply afraid of the danger this attempt might bring. In this situation called “behavioral despair”, the victim feels so hopeless that they resign to their fate. In narcissistic relationships, if the victim is financially abused as well, or if they’re in a relationship where there are children involved, they can be convinced that there’s no way out for them. And if the abused person also has a narcissistic parent, it’s quite likely for them to show signs of behavioral despair. Babies are dependent on their parents in order to survive. But when it comes to children who grow up in problematic environments where their needs are not met; the fact they feel dependent and not strong enough as well as the “small favors” granted by their abusive parents every once in a while may cause them to develop a sympathy for them.
In our last condition, in order for the Stockholm Syndrome to emerge the abuser should display a certain amount of kindness. A desperate and hopeless person who’s already in a life threatening situation and utterly at the mercy of the abuser can start trying to rationalize the situation when they’re shown some kindness by the abuser. These attempts at rationalizing the situation may start with “it’s not that bad!” and end in deeply positive feelings for the abuser in time. After a while, the abuser stops being a bad person in the eyes of the victim, they’re simply misunderstood and turned into what they are today due to certain circumstances.
At this point, the abuser clings to the exaggerated versions of the few good memories they had with the abuser and starts seeing them the way they want them to be, not the way they actually are today.
Reasons of Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm Syndrome is a product and natural result of systematic abuse, and it’s practically a survival mechanism. People try to save themselves from dangerous situations with “fight or flight” instincts. But running away or fighting it may not always be possible. If we consider the Stockholm robbery, the hostages cannot really overpower armed robbers, and their chances of getting shot are pretty high if they try to run away. As a result, the victim experiences stress and wants to protect themselves, but that doesn’t seem possible. Also, our brains and bodies are not fit for long-term and continuous stress. Therefore, eventually people tend to focus on the “positive aspects” instinctively in an attempt to reduce the stress they’re experiencing. This is practically something that protects them from going utterly insane and it helps them cope with the trauma. People suffering from Stockholm Syndrome have faced something so traumatic that the only way to reduce it was to do this.
The first instinct of the hostages might have been to pretend like they’re on the robbers’ side in order to avoid angering them rather than “focusing on the positive”. They can try to please the abuser to avoid violence. In bilateral relationships, if one of the parties is prone to violence and sudden, aggressive outbursts; the other party may instinctively try to keep them satisfied just to avoid their wrath. But after a while, once the hope for escape has completely faded, this situation goes beyond just pretending and the victim can find themselves feeling a genuine sympathy for the abuser.
Long story short, when there’s no hope for escape and that there’s no other options (or so you think), you try to fit in and adapt to the new conditions in order to survive. Besides, once you embrace the abuser’s point of view, you’re no longer a victim. This situation makes one feel less inferior and more in control of things. As long as the danger of maintaining the relationship isn’t much higher than the risk a breakup might bring, it’s quite hard for the victim to acknowledge the situation they’re in.
All these situations serve the abuser well, because then they’ve successfully created a voluntary victim. Especially for the emotional manipulators, keeping the victim completely under their control is not enough; they want the victim to be willing as well.
Despite all this, you might still find Stockholm Syndrome illogical. You might be having trouble understanding a hostage getting attached to their captor, or a child loving their abusive parent, or a person being unable to leave their violent partner. But do not forget that people who have suffered traumatic things cannot always make reasonable choices. Traumatic incidents are exceptional conditions and desperate times call for desperate measures.
What to do in order to get rid of Stockholm Syndrome in narcissistic relationships?
Breaking the trauma bond on your own might be too difficult, so it would be wiser to get psychological help if possible. You need to make sure the person you’re consulting to has enough knowledge and experience about narcissistic personality disorder, codependency and narcissistic relationship dynamics.
You need to cut all ties with the narcissist for good and follow the “no contact rule”. In this way, you’ll be able to establish yourself a safe zone.
And in relationships, you should always focus on the big picture rather than small details. These “small favors” other people grant you may cost you much bigger things in the long run.
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You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Evrim Ağacı. “Stockholm Sendromu: Hayatta Kalmak için Bağlanmak”. Access 17 December, 2018. https://evrimagaci.org/stockholm-sendromu-hayatta-kalmak-icin-baglanmak-7517.
Narcissistic Behavior. “The Place of Stockholm Syndrome in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome”. https://narcissisticbehavior.net/the-place-of-stockholm-syndrome-in-narcissistic-victim-syndrome/.