On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees "The party has just begun!" The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th. After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. This phenomenon has become known as the “Stockholm Syndrome”, capture bonding, or trauma-bonding .
Trauma-bonding has been recognized in many different situations including:
• Fraternity hazing,
• Military training
• Child physical abuse
• Child sexual abuse
• Domestic violence
• Political torture
• Prisoners of War
• Criminal Hostage Situations
• Concentration Camps
Some have speculated that Stockholm Syndrome is a manifestation of “capture-bonding” or social reorientation when being captured from one warring tribe to another was an essential survival tool for a million years or more. Natural selection has left us with psychological responses to capture seen in the Stockholm Syndrome and the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Those who reoriented often became our ancestors. Those who did not became dinner. Once you realize that humans have this trait, it accounts for the "why" behind everything from basic military training and sex bondage to fraternity hazing (people may have a wired-in "knowledge" of how to induce bonding in captives). It accounts for battered wife syndrome, where beatings and abuse are observed to strengthen the bond between the victim and the abuser--at least up to a point .
George Orwell described the creation of a trauma-bond in his classic book, 1984, in which his main character, Winston Smith, is being tortured and brainwashed by Big Brother. The process has taken many years, and finally, it is working. The torturer, O’Brien, says to Smith:
“You are improving. Intellectually there is very little wrong with you. It is only emotionally that you have failed to make progress. Tell me, Winston – and remember, no lies; you know that I am always able to detect a lie – tell me, what are your true feelings toward Big Brother?”
“I hate him.”
“You hate him. Good. Then the time has come for you to take the last step. You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him; you must love him” (Orwell, 1981, p. 232).
O’Brien manipulates Smith into betraying the woman he loves by using the most horrific threat he can imagine, and in his act of betrayal, what remains of Smith’s will gives way. By the closing sentences of the book, the final betrayal of the self, the “soul murder” is accomplished:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother (Orwell, 1981, p. 245).
One of the manifestations of trauma-bonding is that traumatized people often find themselves in highly abnormal and dangerous relationships as their normative idea of what relationships are supposed to be. Trauma-bonding is a relationship based on terror and the twisting of normal attachment behavior into something perverse and cruel. People who are terrorized, whether as adult victims of torture, or domestic violence or child victims of family abuse, experience their abuser as being in total control of life and death. The perpetrator may variously use behavior control, thought control, emotional control, economic control or information control – or all these forms of control. The perpetrator is the source of the pain and terror, but he is also the source of relief from that pain. He is the source of threat but he is also the source of hope.
Unfortunately, when the danger is not external to the social group, but instead comes from within the immediate family circle, the body reacts in exactly the same way. This produces the apparently paradoxical situation in which the abuser is the very person that the battered child or spouse turns to for safety. The primary caretakers have total control over children’s lives and if abusive they become the source not just of the abuse, but also of the relief from this abuse. The children end up unable to imagine survival without their abusers, since it was their abusers who repeatedly granted them their life by not killing them. The relief they feel for this is expressed as gratitude towards the perpetrator (James, 1994). Children thus affected may never develop the capacity to attach normally and receive love, nurturance, and protection, respect for themselves or for others, self-mastery, or autonomy. They internalize the image of their own helplessness and the role of the perpetrator and go on as adolescents and as adults, reenacting one or both of those roles.
If it is your own mother and father who have been the source of danger, then you are going to persist in believing that attachment = danger. This is particularly true when the occasions of danger have been intermittently supplanted by more rewarding aspects of a relationship. This is complicated by the fact that on a very basic, perhaps even biological level, danger enhances attachment behavior. Again, from an evolutionary point of view, this is sensible. Our best protection against danger is the help of other people. So danger calls us together as a highly adaptive coping strategy under circumstances of external threat.
What you may commonly see if people who are going through this is those who are:
• Jumpy, edgy, irritability, short fuse AND/OR Numb, shut-down, unresponsive, dazed
• Difficulties concentrating, making decisions, taking initiative
• Fiercely held, impossible or contradictory beliefs about self, others, abusive partners, children
• Substance abuse, self-abuse, poor impulse control, risk-taking
• Revictimization, bad choices
• Inability to tolerate other people’s control (i.e. legal system)
• Defending perpetrator, minimization of damage to self or children (trauma-bonding)
• Helplessness and resistance to change
Trauma-bonding helps us get a better idea of what is involved in domestic violence situations:
• Victim perceives the abuser as a threat to her survival, physically or psychologically.
• Victim perceives the abuser is showing her some kindness, however small.
• Victim is kept isolated from others.
• Victim does not perceive a way to escape from the abuser.
• The perception of threat can be formed by direct, indirect, or witnessed methods.
• Criminal or antisocial partners can directly threaten your life or the life of friends and family.
• Their history of violence leads the victim to believe that the captor/controller will carry out the threats
• The abuser assures the victim that only cooperation will keep loved ones safe.
• Witnessing a violent temper directed at a television set, a pet, others on the highway, or a third party clearly sends the message to the victim that she (he) could be the next target for violence.
1. Strenz, T., The Stockholm Syndrome, in Victims of Terrorism, F. Ochberg and D. Soskis, Editors. 1982, Westview: Boulder, CO. p. 149-164.
2. Henson, H.K., Sex, Drugs, and Cults. An evolutionary psychology perspective on why and how cult memes get a drug-like hold on people, and what might be done to mitigate the effects. . The Human Nature Review 2002. 2: p. 343-355.
3. Shengold, L., Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation. 1989, New Haven: Yale University.