What Is Stockholm Syndrome In A Relationship?

What Is Stockholm Syndrome In A Relationship?
What Is Stockholm Syndrome In A Relationship?

Is Stockholm Syndrome Making You Stay In A Toxic Relationship? The Truth About Trauma Bonds


Have you ever wondered why some people stay in abusive relationships? Why they continue loving someone who repeatedly hurts them physically, emotionally, financially, or sexually? It may seem unfathomable from the outside looking in. However, there are complex psychological factors at play that make leaving extremely difficult for the victim. What most refer to loosely as "battered wife syndrome" or feeling unable to leave an abusive partner is actually much more intricate than it appears. The genuine psychological phenomenon is referred to as "Stockholm syndrome" - and it can happen in any relationship, not just with physical violence. Understanding the twisted trauma bonds that form, why they develop and how to safely break free is critical.

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

The term Stockholm syndrome was coined after a 1973 hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden. During a failed bank robbery attempt, four hostages were held captive in a bank vault for six days. During this time, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors and even defended them after being freed. The psychological phenomenon is defined as a survival strategy where hostage victims form an emotional or trauma bond with their captors over the course of their imprisonment. This helps victims tolerate the abuse and find meaning in the terror. The syndrome has been observed in many hostage situations over the decades since then. However, it is also recognized today as occurring in other scenarios - like abusive domestic relationships. When a victim develops positive feelings and attachments for their abusive partner, they are experiencing Stockholm syndrome. They feel bonded with, desire to protect, or even love their abuser despite the pain and cruelty inflicted on them. This subconscious survival mechanism gives victims a sense of control or purpose in the dangerous situation. However, it keeps them trapped in the endless cycle of violence and prevents them from leaving.

What Is Stockholm Syndrome In A Relationship?
What Is Stockholm Syndrome In A Relationship?

How Does Stockholm Syndrome Develop in Relationships?

So how does something so counterintuitive like bonding with and loving an abuser happen? Stockholm syndrome can take shape in any relationship where there is an uneven power dynamic - one partner exerting control and abuse over the other. The abuser systematically isolates, demeans and frightens the victim through physical, emotional, psychological and sexual acts of aggression. This leads to trauma bonding and pathological attachment. There are four key factors that create Stockholm syndrome in toxic relationships:

Isolation from Friends and Family

The abuser separates victims from loved ones and outside support. They convince the partner that no one else understands them, only the abuser truly cares. This destroys their support networks and makes them dependent solely on the abuser.

Threats and Fear of Violence

The abuser keeps victims afraid through intimidation, threats of harm and random violent outbursts. Victims are in constant fear and feel they must appease and bonding with the abuser is necessary for basic survival.

Occasional Kindness

Abusers strategically follow up violent episodes with gifts, compliments or affection. This provides intermittent reinforcement. Victims cling to small acts of kindness amidst the cruelty, fueling their traumatic attachment.

Perceived Powerlessness

Victims feel increasingly helpless to escape or change the situation. The abuser systematically destroys their self-worth, confidence and perception of options. They feel powerless and bonding with the abuser gives them a sense of purpose in the power imbalance.

When all these factors are at play over time, victims form trauma bonds as a protective psychological mechanism in the vicious abuse cycle.

Stockholm Syndrome vs Normal Healthy Relationships

It is critical to understand that Stockholm syndrome is not love. The dysfunctional trauma bonding that occurs is the opposite of a normal, healthy relationship. Where Stockholm syndrome takes root, you will see:

  • Isolation vs Freedom
  • Fear vs Safety
  • Manipulation vs Respect
  • Control vs Equality

A loving partner builds you up and brings out your best self. An abuser systematically tears you down for their own gain. Discerning the difference is key to breaking free.

Signs You May Be Trauma Bonded With Your Abuser

Many victims do not even realize they are experiencing Stockholm syndrome. The following are common signs you have developed an unhealthy trauma bond with your partner:

  • You minimize, deny or rationalize their abusive behaviors
  • You feel unable to leave or like you cannot survive without them
  • You feel pity, sympathy or affection for them after abuse episodes
  • You take the blame for their actions against you
  • You avoid friends/family and are isolated
  • You feel you must protect them and keep their secrets
  • Their wellbeing and approval is your main concern
  • You dread them being upset or disappointing them
  • You find yourself continually "walking on eggshells"
  • Small acts of kindness keep you bonded through the cruelty

If this sounds familiar, you may be trauma bonded to your abuser. The next vital step is discovering why you stay...

Why People Stay Trapped In Abusive Relationships

Leaving any relationship is difficult. However, getting out of an abusive relationship in which you've developed Stockholm syndrome and trauma bonding is exponentially more complicated. Victims stay for various reasons including:


Abusers methodically instill fear in their victims through intimidation, threats and violence. Victims stay because they are terrified of what will happen if they try to leave - to themselves, their children, pets or family members. The abuser has systematically stripped away their self-confidence leaving them afraid they cannot survive on their own.


Abusers manipulate victims into feeling responsible or deserving of the abuse. Victims feel profound guilt over abandoning someone who "needs" them or not trying hard enough to help the abuser change. Some even feel guilty for not having the strength to leave sooner.


Victims feel great shame over the abuse, believing they are damaged goods if the relationship ends. They may hide what is happening from friends and family to avoid judgement. The abuser often convinces them that no one else will love them.


Victims often have an endless hope that their abuser will change or things will get better. They are trauma bonded to the person their abuser claimed to be in the beginning of the relationship before the abuse began. Abusers strategically nurture this hope just enough through periodic apologies, flowers, gifts, etc.

Lack of Resources

Some victims do not have access to financial resources, alternative housing, transportation or even a support system to help them leave. Their partner has systematically isolated them from family and friends. Without outside assistance, leaving may seem impossible.

Protecting Children

Victims with children face additional challenges. Many stay because they don't want to separate their kids from the other parent. They may not have the means to raise the children independently or fear the abuser gaining custody. The children themselves may be trauma bonded to the abuser.

Cultural/Religious Beliefs

Some victims stay because the idea of divorce goes against their cultural or religious beliefs. Their community may not be supportive of leaving. The abuser may even use spiritual beliefs to justify the abuse.

Physical Health Problems

Some victims have health problems that impede their ability to leave an abusive relationship. Their partner may even control access to medications making them feel unable to survive on their own.

Lack of Awareness

It's shocking but many victims are simply unaware they are being abused. The manipulation happens gradually over time. The abuser may define the relationship as "normal" and the victim believes that. They may feel they just need to try harder to be a better partner or meet their abuser's needs. Recognizing Stockholm syndrome requires awareness that the situation is abusive.

As you can see, there are powerful psychological and practical factors that keep victims trapped in toxic relationships long after love has died. Their spirit is held hostage even when the opportunity to flee arises. Understanding why they stay helps make sense of the seemingly unimaginable.

Is This Abuse? 20 Signs of Emotional Abuse in Relationships

Physical violence in a relationship is obvious abuse, but it is not the only kind. Emotional and psychological abuse can be subtle and insidious, slowly wearing down the victim's self-esteem and sanity. Victims are often unaware the relationship has become abusive until it has gone too far. Here are some common signs of emotional abuse to be aware of:

  • Humiliation, put downs, name calling
  • Isolating you from family and friends
  • Controlling what you wear, where you go, who you see
  • Stalking, harassing or monitoring your activities
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Financial control or unwillingness to contribute financially
  • Unexpected angry outbursts
  • Blaming you for their problems or bad behavior
  • Making you feel like you're "walking on eggshells"
  • Gaslighting - denying or minimizing their abuse
  • Rage, violence or threats against pets, loved ones, objects
  • Pushing, blocking, restraint or restricting your movements
  • Driving recklessly to frighten you
  • Coercion or threats to get you to do something you don't want
  • Criticizing your parenting, threatening to take the kids
  • Forcing you to do degrading acts
  • Destroying property or household items that have significance
  • Acusing you of cheating and being jealous/possessive
  • Minimizing your accomplishments or dreams

If you see a pattern of multiple signs of emotional abuse, it is time to carefully evaluate your relationship and seek help. Abuse tends to escalate over time. The damage to your psyche and soul can be long lasting, but you have the power to stop it.

Why Do People Become Abusers?

To let go of anger toward your abuser, it helps to understand why people become controlling and abusive in relationships. While backstories are not excuses, looking at common roots of abusive behavior can lead to greater compassion. Many abusers suffer from psychological conditions like:

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Addiction or Substance Abuse
  • Attachment Disorders
  • Childhood Abuse
  • Mental Health Conditions

These can result in symptoms like:

  • Lack of Empathy
  • Difficulty with Impulse Control
  • Pathological Jealousy and Possessiveness
  • Extreme Mood Swings
  • Insecurity
  • Fear of Rejection/Abandonment

Abusers often have distorted thought patterns, difficulty with emotional regulation, and profound insecurities. Their behavior comes from internal wounds, though they alone are responsible for healing them. Viewing your abuser as emotionally damaged can help you let go of anger and move forward in freedom.

Escaping a Trauma Bond Safely

If exploring the reasons above has helped you recognize you are trauma bonded to an abuser, the next step is safely breaking free. Ending an abusive relationship can be extremely dangerous if not handled carefully as abusers escalate when losing control of the victim. Here are some tips:

Make an Escape Plan

Carefully plan the details of leaving including where you will stay, financial plans, how to safely retrieve belongings. Store duplicates of key documents somewhere secure. Arrange alternative transportation. Leave when the abuser will least expect it.

Secure Emotional Support

Reconnect with empathetic friends or family who can emotionally support you through the turmoil of leaving. Seek professional counseling from a domestic abuse specialist. Join a support group to know you are not alone.

Get Legal Help

Contact an attorney and the police to discuss legal protections like restraining orders. Ask the police to accompany you to retrieve belongings. Consider legal separation or divorce proceedings.

Change Passwords and Locks

Change all account passwords, locks on your home/vehicle, and your phone number. Update home security measures.

Seek Shelter if Needed

If you are at risk of physical violence, get emergency shelter through a domestic violence hotline/shelter. Do not tell the abuser where you are going.

Stay Strong Through Guilt Trips

The abuser will try to make you feel guilty for abandoning them and coerce you to return. Stay strong and remember why you need to go.

Allow Time to Heal

Recognize it will take time to detox from the trauma bond once free from the relationship. Be patient and seek counseling to process the emotions.

With careful planning and support, you can break free from abuse and thrive in healthy love. Your spirit longs to soar.

Recovering From Trauma and Finding Healthy Love

Escaping the relationship is only the first step in recovering from Stockholm syndrome. The trauma bonds and scars from abuse run deep and can plague survivors for years. Here are some tips for healing:

Seek Therapy

Find a therapist who specializes in domestic abuse recovery. EMDR therapy is particularly helpful for processing trauma. Join a support group to know you are not alone.

Practice Self Care

Make your physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing a priority. Do activities you enjoy. Pamper yourself. Move your body through exercise. Eat nourishing foods. Get plenty of rest. Release negative emotions through journaling.

Establish Healthy Boundaries

You likely had poor boundaries which enabled the abuse. Learn to set strong boundaries in all aspects of life going forward.

Learn Relationship Red Flags

Understand the signs of narcissists, sociopaths and other toxic personality types. Learn to spot red flags early so you can forge new healthy relationships.

Forgive Yourself

Let go of any self-blame or shame. The abuse was not your fault. Have compassion for why you stayed and forgive yourself.

Be Patient

Healing from abuse and trauma bonds takes time. The effects can last years. Have patience with yourself and seek support. This too shall pass.

Love Yourself First

The greatest gift of escaping abuse is remembering how to truly love yourself. Focus on your own growth and sources of joy.

Trust in Love Again

When the time is right, open your heart to love again. Healthy love is healing. Find someone who cherishes your light. The possibilities are endless.

You are stronger than you know. Believe in yourself and a joyful future free from abuse. Your spirit longs to soar - and the sky is the limit.

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