Stockholm Syndrome & Emotional Abuse – Part I


[cn/tw: emotional abuse, psychological abuse, just… all the abuse, really]

This is Part I of a 2 part series on Stockholm Syndrome & Emotional Abuse. Find Part II here. Find the Part I twitter thread here and the Part II twitter thread here.

With everything that’s going on with #SurvivingRKelly – and how the conversation around #MeToo has been expanding and deepening in the past few months – I’d like to talk about Stockholm Syndrome, emotional and psychological abuse, and what really goes on in abusive relationships that cause this bond. (Originally a twitter thread, linked here)

First, the term “Stockholm syndrome” was coined after a 6-day hostage situation in Sweden. But something similar happens in abusive relationships. It’s often called “trauma bonding” or “terror bonding”.

What happens first is you witness the abuser in a position of power in a traumatic event, but you are spared their wrath somehow. If we’re sticking with hostage situations – you don’t die. Someone else does. Then you’re very quickly in a powerless position. You’re still in shock, you’re not processing things properly. Within a few hours you become dependent on your captor for food, water, permission to use the bathroom. You start to feel gratitude.

After all, you didn’t die. And all these little things, like letting you speak, letting you move, start to make you feel grateful towards your captor.

So let’s translate this to an abusive relationship scenario.

This is more complicated than the hostage situation scenario because it happens slower and over a longer period of time. One of the most important things for this to happen is isolation. In a hostage situation you’re immediately isolated so it happens faster. In a relationship, it takes more time. Your abuser will slowly turn you away from your friends and family and make you wary of others.

Your abuser becomes your main point of contact, your most intimate relationship, your strongest connection, because they’re slowly convincing you to sever all the other connections you have.

If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship, you might remember that your feelings of love for your abuser were so intense. Maybe you even feared that you could never love this hard again if you left.

But part of this feeling is because you’re so isolated. You have little contact with others, you’ve become distrustful of others, and your abuser is the only connection that feels genuine and real.

Trauma bonding is then ignited in small ways. Your abuser raises their voice. They punch a wall. Throw something. Cuss out someone else in your presence. Make threats against others. You’re grateful it’s not directed at you.

Whatever the behavior or action is, the point is that it shocks you, and then before you have time to process it, your abuser is going to manipulate your emotions in order to make you feel grateful that it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

You then rationalize it, “as long as I don’t do x, I’m okay, it won’t escalate, it’s not abuse.”

What you don’t know is x is a moving target.

And your feelings for this person are so intense, so twisted, that x seems like a reasonable thing to avoid. If you really love them you’ll work for it, right? You’ll do the things they ask because you don’t want to cause them the pain of getting angry.

You don’t trust your friends or family, you don’t have anyone to talk to, you’re not sharing details of your relationship with anyone. You don’t have anyone who can say “umm, this is fucked up.”

The people around the abuser, the others you meet through them, have all been conditioned the same way. They’re all playing by their own set of rules.

It’s a complicated game of “not it.”

You might think you’re not friends with an abuser. But do you have a friend who’s just a little bit dangerous? Just a little bit “don’t get on their bad side”? Just a little bit “oh they just like things a certain way.” Do you have a friend who has rules about you speaking to their partner? A friend you’ve seen lose it and thought “wow at least it wasn’t me”. A friend who you’re not totally yourself around because there are expectations on your behavior?

You might think you don’t know an emotional abuser. That they’re rare. But almost everyone I know has been in an emotionally abusive relationship, so that math doesn’t work. The abuser may have just trained you not to question them.

If any of this is ringing for you and you want to do more research on this, open an incognito tab on your phone or computer and please do some research into abusive relationships. Call your national domestic violence hotline, they often have resources for friends and family as well.

And if you suspect a friend or family may be in an abusive situation, look for Part II where I’ll give some tips on how to help.


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