The last emotionally packed and paradoxical sequel of the film Raavana wherein Rajini, disillusioned and suspicions of her husband goes onto meet Veera, her captivator was quite baffling. Why would Rageeni need to confirm the truth with Veera, her abuser, whom she knew barely for 14 days as against her husband who loved her for so long? How will Rageeni deal with her conflicting emotions now if she decides to go back to her marriage? Although most of us who have seen the movie ‘understand’ Rageeni’s emotions; if we try and socially or logically analyze it, we will be at a dead end. While the situation doesn’t make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint? The answer is – Yes…its called the Stockholm Syndrome!
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological shift that occurs in captives when they are threatened gravely but are shown acts of kindness by their captors. Captives who exhibit the syndrome tend to sympathize with and think highly of their captors. When subjected to prolonged captivity, these captives can develop a strong bond with their captors, in some cases including a sexual interest. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, widely credited with Stockholm Syndrome’s psychiatric definition, describes it as “a primitive gratitude for the gift of life,” not unlike that felt by an infant.
Is Stockholm Syndrome limited only to dramatic situations like kidnapping and hostage? Surprisingly, it is more common than people realize it to be. We all know it under the name of “Domestic Violence”. People are often amazed at their own psychological conditions and reactions. Having worked with couples for a number of years I come across many such cases in my clinical practice. Some of the most surprised and shocked individuals are those who have been involved in controlling and abusive relationships. When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as “I know what he’s done to me, but I still love him”, “I don’t know why, but I want him back”, or “I know it sounds crazy, but I miss her”. Recently I’ve heard “This doesn’t make sense. He’s got a new girlfriend and he’s abusing her too…but I’m jealous!” Friends and relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship.
Stockholm Syndrome (SS) can also be found in family, romantic, and interpersonal relationships. The abuser may be a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, father or mother, or any other role in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority. In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not “all bad” and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation. An aggressive and jealous partner may normally become intimidating or abusive in certain social situations, as when an opposite-sex coworker waves in a crowd. After seeing the wave, the victim expects to be verbally battered and when it doesn’t happen, that “small kindness” is interpreted as a positive sign.
As relatives or friends of a victim involved with a controller or abuser, our normal reaction is to consider dramatic action. We become angry, resentful, and aggressive at times. A rule of thumb is that any aggression toward the controller/abuser will result in additional difficulties for your loved one. Try to remain calm and await an opportunity to show your love and support when your loved one needs it. Remember you can not help the victim till the victim does not decide to help himself / herself.
Taking the abuser’s perspective as a survival technique can become so intense that the victim actually develops anger toward those trying to help them. The abuser is already angry and resentful toward anyone who would provide the victim support, typically using multiple methods and manipulations to isolate the victim from others.
Any contact the victim has with supportive people in the community is met with accusations, threats, and/or violent outbursts. Victims then turn on their family – fearing family contact will cause additional violence and abuse in the home. At this point, victims curse their parents and friends, tell them not to call and stop interfering, and break off communication with others. Agreeing with the abuser/controller, supportive others are now viewed as “causing trouble” and must be avoided. Many victims threaten their family and friends with restraining orders if they continue to “interfere” or try to help the victim in their situation. On the surface it would appear that they have sided with the abuser/controller. In truth, they are trying to minimize contact situation that might make them a target of additional verbal abuse or intimidation. If a casual phone call from Mom prompts a two-hour temper outburst with threats and accusations – the victim quickly realizes it’s safer if Mom stops calling. If simply telling Mom to stop calling doesn’t work, for his or her own safety the victim may accuse Mom of attempting to ruin the relationship and demand that she stop calling.
In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome in relationships, the victim may have difficulty leaving the abuser and may actually feel the abusive situation is their fault. Remember, the more you pressure the “victim” of the Loser/Abuser, the more you prove their point. Your loved one is being told the family is trying to ruin their wonderful relationship. Pressure in the form of contacts, comments, and communications will be used as evidence against you.
Your contacts with your loved one, no matter how routine and loving, may be met with anger and resentment. This is because each contact may prompt the Loser/Abuser to attack them verbally or emotionally. Try to maintain traditional and special contacts with your loved one – holidays, special occasions, etc. Keep your contacts short and brief, with no comments that can be used as evidence. Remember that there are many channels of communication. It’s important that we keep a channel open if at all possible. Communication channels might include phone calls, letters, cards, and e-mail. Scheduled monthly shopping trips or outings are helpful if possible. The goal is to maintain contact while your loved one is involved in the controlling/abusive relationship. Remember, the goal is contact, not pressure.
Don’t feel the victim’s behavior is against the family or friends. It may be a form of survival or a way of lowering stress. Victims may be very resistive, angry, and even hostile due to the complexity of their relationship with the controller/abuser. They may even curse, threaten, and accuse loved ones and friends. This hostile defensiveness is actually self-protection in the relationship – an attempt to avoid “trouble”.
The victim needs to know and feel they are not rejected because of their behavior. Keep in mind, they are painfully aware of their situation. They know they are being treated badly and/or controlled by their partner. Frequent reminders of this will only make them want less contact. We naturally avoid people who remind us of things or situations that are emotionally painful.
If the relationship has continued for over a year, they may require support and an exit plan before ending the relationship. Marriage and children further complicates their ability to leave the situation. When the victim decides to end the unhappy relationship, it’s important that they view loved ones as supportive, loving, and understanding – not a source of pressure, guilt, or aggression. The victim and the family may also require some counseling to undo the hurt, anger and guilt.