Love and the Stockholm syndrome: Why do I still love the abuser?

Domestic ViolenceThis is a question generated by the last post, and it is a good question:

“Is it possible to say yes to one’s self but underneath still love the abuser? Or can it just be a comfort zone for the victim? Is it at all possible for the victim to explode once with fury and rage and not allow herself to go back to that dark place?”

For the purposes of this blog entry, let’s take a look at your first question. Your question highlights a most complex and enigmatic problem: How can I still love a man who is so cruel to me, so violent and abusive, so manipulative and vicious?

  • Perhaps you hold on to your memories of good times and acts of kindnesses in the past. Are you living in the past?
  • Perhaps you hold onto the idea of your husband, not so much the man himself.
  • Possibly the idea of marriage holds power for you, not so much how your actual marriage turned out.
  • Do you hold onto the idea of the abuser if only he wasn’t mean?
  • Does it feel like a relationship addiction: as though, like heroin, you know it is destroying your life, yet you feel you can’t live without it?
  • Does your loving and nurturing nature hold out hope, even now, that he will change? Just as you would never give up on a child, do you forever hold out hope that your love will “change him?”
  • What does it mean when you “love” but you are met with exploitation: one-way love?

Joseph M. Carver, PhD. Clinical Psychologist, wrote a brilliant and compassionate article named, The Mystery of Loving an Abuser. I think he approaches this complex problem with insight and could go far in helping you understand the apparent irrational and self-defeating behavior. Even though it is quite long, even in an abbreviated version, I think you will find amazing gems here. Here are excerpts:

“In 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. While the situation doesn’t make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint? The answer is – Yes!

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. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.

 In the final analysis, emotionally bonding with an abuser is actually a strategy for survival for victims of abuse and intimidation.

It’s important to understand the components of Stockholm Syndrome as they relate to abusive and controlling relationships. Once the syndrome is understood, it’s easier to understand why victims support, love, and even defend their abusers and controllers.

Every syndrome has symptoms or behaviors and Stockholm Syndrome is no exception. While a clear-cut list has not been established due to varying opinions by researchers and experts, several of these features will be present:


  • Positive feelings by the victim toward the abuser/controller
  • Negative feelings by the victim toward family, friends, or authorities trying to rescue/support them or win their release
  • Support of the abuser’s reasons and behaviors
  • Positive feelings by the abuser toward the victim
  • Supportive behaviors by the victim, at times helping the abuser
  • Inability to engage in behaviors that may assist in their release or detachment

These four situations can be found in hostage, severe abuse, and abusive relationships:

  • The presence of a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat.
  • The presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim
  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser
  • The perceived inability to escape the situation

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.

In unhealthy relationships and definitely in Stockholm Syndrome there is a daily preoccupation with “trouble”. Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, or cold meal that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser. To survive, “trouble” is to be avoided at all costs.

Stockholm Syndrome produces an unhealthy bond with the controller and abuser. It is the reason many victims continue to support an abuser after the relationship is over. It’s also the reason they continue to see “the good side” of an abusive individual and appear sympathetic to someone who has mentally and sometimes physically abused them.

Is there something else involved?

In a short response – Yes! Throughout history, people have found themselves supporting and participating in life situations that range from abusive to bizarre. In talking to these active and willing participants in bad and bizarre situations, it is clear they have developed feelings and attitudes that support their participation. One way these feelings and thoughts are developed is known as “cognitive dissonance”. As you can tell, psychologists have large words and phrases for just about everything.


“Cognitive Dissonance” explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation – few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance – the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree, or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions – adding new thoughts and attitudes. Some examples:

Leon Festinger first coined “Cognitive Dissonance”. He had observed a cult (1956) in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment – they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral – the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with “I’ll get them next time”. If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment.


Studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating.

Abusive relationships produce a great amount on unhealthy investment in both parties. In many cases we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship.

Combining Two Unhealthy Conditions

 The combination of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “cognitive dissonance” produces a victim who firmly believes the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. The victim feels they would mentally collapse if the relationship ended. In long-term relationships, the victims have invested everything and placed “all their eggs in one basket”. The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.


For reasons described above, the victim feels family and friends are a threat to the relationship and eventually to their personal health and existence. The more family/friends protest the controlling and abusive nature of the relationship, the more the victim develops cognitive dissonance and becomes defensive. At this point, family and friends become victims of the abusive and controlling individual.


Importantly, both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance develop on an involuntary basis. The victim does not purposely invent this attitude. Both develop as an attempt to exist and survive in a threatening and controlling environment and relationship. Despite what we might think, our loved one is not in the unhealthy relationship to irritate, embarrass, or drive us to drink. What might have begun as a normal relationship has turned into a controlling and abusive situation. They are trying to survive. Their personality is developing the feelings and thoughts needed to survive the situation and lower their emotional and physical risks. As we have found throughout history, the more dysfunctional the situation, the more dysfunctional our adaptation and thoughts to survive. The victim is engaged in an attempt to survive and make a relationship work. Once they decide it doesn’t work and can’t be fixed, they will need our support as we patiently await their decision to return to a healthy and positive lifestyle.”

My next blog will be directed to family members and friends of one who is abused, as elaborated in Dr. Carver’s article.











































The Cycle of Abuse

Lenore Walker

The origin of the cycle of abuse rests with the work of a woman named Lenore Walker in the 1970s. Her seminal work explained the pattern that she saw in abusive relationships.  While she focused on the patriarchal misuse of power, the pattern can be seen in other relationships – whether it be between man to wife, wife to husband, mother or father to their child or children, children to the mother or father, or homosexual relationships.  It can be seen in relationships in the workplace or between so-called “friends.”  I find the theory Walker developed is perceptive and very useful in seeing through the maze of the complexity of all types of relationships.

The First Phase she calls the Tension Building Phase.  It is characterized by poor communication, passive aggression, rising interpersonal tension and fear of causing outbursts in one’s partner.  The victim may try to modify his or her behavior to avoid triggering their partner’s outburst.

The Second Phase is identified as the Acting Out Phase.  It is characterized by outbursts of violent, abusive incidents.  The abuser attempts to dominate his or her partner with the underlying threat of violence.

The Third Phase called the Reconciliation or the Honeymoon Phase.  It is characterized by affection, apology or it could be actively ignoring the incident.  It marks the apparent end of violence, with assurances and promises that it will never happen again.  The abuser promises that he or she will change and often the abuser may express feelings of overwhelming remorse and sadness.Some abusers deny the situation happened but in some small way some sign of reconciliation or apology may emerge.  There may be a return to less noxious ways of communicating or behaving.  In situations that have built up to an intense level the abuser may use self-harm or threats of suicide in order to gain sympathy or to prevent the victim from leaving the relationship.  The abuser can be very convincing and the victim, having been worn down by long repetitive bouts of abuse, may hope against hope that the abuser will actually change.

This may make the problem even worse.  By behaving in a calmer or conciliatory way the victim may feel that it is harder to leave the relationship because she or he may then perceive that “The relationship isn’t all that bad.  There is some good in him/her.”

The Forth Phase is called the Calm Phase.  An extension of the honeymoon phase, this part of the cycle is relatively calm.  However, there will soon be signs of “trouble in paradise.”  Tension will inevitably arise, leading back to the tension building phase.  Here is a diagram used by many Domestic Violence Support groups based on Walker’s model:

The phases of this cycle can take a short or a long time, but the progression is from longer to shorter time frames.  In the worse case scenario the Calm and Reconciliation phases may virtually disappear.  Once established these relationships are characterized by a predictable repetitious pattern of abuse, whether it be emotional or physical, with psychological abuse nearly always preceding and accompanying physical abuse.  One of her most helpful concepts is that the cycle leads to learned helplessness and a battered person syndrome.

The concept of learned helplessness is enlightening.  It assists us in trying to understand why, against all rationality, the victim stays and perpetuates a condition of great pain.  This occurs when the victim has learned (or been taught)  to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for help. 

This is the most confounding aspect of victimization:  it is against self-interest and the basic survival instinct.  The apparent attachment to an unhealthy and hurtful situation mystifies those who see it from the outside, as well as in the victim him or herself.  Why do I stay?  Why can’t I say no to obvious disrespect and hurt?  The learned helplessness theory helps us understand that the victim perceives they are helpless – by training – and therefore is stuck or numbed into a static course.  The victim feels they are unable to control their fate and that lack of control leads to devastating self perception and paralysis.

It was her observation that the only way to stop the cycle was for the victim, turned survivor, to abandon the abusive relationship.

 Out of the Fog (

A different perspective on the abusive cycle is proposed by an organization called Out of the Fog designed to help those at the mercy of those identified as having Personality Disorders.  FOG stands for fear, obligation and guilt and was first coined by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their book “Emotional Blackmail.” 

 They classify the abusive cycle as an ongoing rotation between destructive and constructive behavior, which is typical of many dysfunctional relationships, and families.  It is a repeating pattern where both perpetrator and the victim of abuse contribute to the conditions which prolong the cycle.  Both Walker and Out of the Fog focus on the abuser, but also look at the ways in which the victim plays into the hands of the abuser.  They both understand there is a dance between the two. 

At the center of the cycle FOG identifies the First Phase: a process they call the Flashpoint Phase.  The Abuser has maximum power in this phase and the victim minimal power.  The emotional energy in the relationship increases dramatically and the “fight or flight” response kicks in for both.

They then identify the Second stage as the Retribution Phase.  After the offensive behavior the abuser begins to fear the consequences of their behavior while the victim may pull away emotionally or physically.  The abuser may “hoover” their victim (suck them back in) with affection, favors, gifts or promises to change.  Out of the Fog brilliantly identifies that the victim is in maximum power during this phase.  Lists may be drawn up as to the conditions that must be met for the abuser to win back his or her good graces.  The abuser may feverishly try to meet those demands and the victim’s morale is most high.

Out of the Fog identifies the next stage as The Reflection Phase.  Once things quiet down the victim’s walls come down and the abuser is less worried about losing the relationship.  The Abuser may reflect with resentment that too many restrictions and conditions have been levied.  The victim may also feel resentment at having “to play the role of prison guard.”

Out of the Fog identifies a Third Phase called The Regression Phase.  At this point both drift back to their original or default state.  Both parties become resigned about the nature of their relationship.  They are moving to their “normal.”

Like Walker, they both agree, “Abusers need a victim.”  They agree that the most effective strategy for eliminating abuse often begins and ends with the victim “taking action to protect themselves.” (Please go to for extensive articles and in-depth descriptions of personalities disorders, traits, guidelines and forums.)

Related articles:

A. Introduction: Power Politics or True Empowerment


Power Politics or True Empowerment

by Cynthia M Chase

     With awareness, we have choice. Knowing the “truth” can set us free. This blog is based on personal and 30 plus years of clinical experience. It is my hope that by sharing the intricacies and inner workings of abusive relationships, both abuser and the victims of their abuse can be set free from their suffering and pain.

     The depth of pain felt by those dis-empowered is extraordinary.  Sometimes people say, “It’s only emotional pain, not physical.”  No scars or black and blue marks are left, but the psychological wounding is profound.  Just because the effects are not physically evident doesn’t mean that it hurts any less.  The hidden twistings and turnings that make up an emotionally abusive relationship can be hard to describe.  The Police won’t arrest the abuser since their ways are hidden behind closed doors and sometimes even the victim doesn’t understand what is happening.

     Accommodations are made, subtle adjustments are put in place to placate the abuser and to try to keep safe.  Over time the victim doesn’t often notice the ground lost or the confidence diminished.  Denial is the constant companion of the victim.  I was there, I know.  It is because of my own pain, years of denial and devastated self-esteem that I had to fight to empower my own life.  “What is wrong with me?” “What is wrong with him/her that makes me hurt so?”  These are the questions that plagued me.  This is my contribution to those of you who are suffering victims.  If you know what makes you vulnerable to these manipulations and if you begin to track the motivations, techniques and behaviors of the Abuser, you have a chance to change your life.

     The Abusers are in pain as well but are more difficult to help:  often they fight awareness of what they do, how much pain they cause, and sometimes don’t even care.  Certain Abusers act as though their feelings are the only ones that matter.  I offer compassion to you – you may not even know the loss of humanity that has robbed you of a heart.  Look carefully at yourself.  Understand that this loss deprives you of true empowerment.  The power that you seek over your Victim is a hollow victory.  Where is the happiness and contentment that you deserve?  You can never find it by using, manipulating or overpowering the other.

     As a psychotherapist of over 30 years I have seen hundreds of people caught in the web of an emotionally abusive relationship.  I have shared many of the ideas with my patients which I will now present to you.  They have been helped and have urged me to spread the word so that others may also seek their own salvation.  I honor them as I share my insights with you now.

I will be introducing ongoing chapters on this blog, Power Politics or True Empowerment on a regular basis.  I welcome your feedback and the sharing of your experience.

     Abusive relationships are based on the belief that external power over another leads to “winning.” What I have seen is that, on the contrary, abuser and victim become “locked in a death embrace” and both lose, unless detachment is achieved. Detachment facilitates the ability to “come home” to the self, to grow, and move towards self love.

     I have separated the abusers into two categories: The stealth hunters and the raptors. Based on nature’s model the first group hunts in the dark, keeping somewhat hidden in their search for prey and tending to camouflage their aggression. My focus here will be on stealth hunters. The second group, the raptors, is the equivalent of birds of prey: they attack, maim, and kill their prey. This may be the focus of a later blog.  Just know that in reality, there may be a fuzzy line between the stealth hunters and the raptors.

     First I want to talk to you about the abuse cycle. Then I will identify the characteristics of the stealth hunters and the victims or prey. We will approach this dysfunctional relationship in terms of how the abuser and victim connect with their energies so you can see why it is so difficult to “untangle the web”.  Then we will take a look at what a healthy relationship looks like and what kind of healing is needed to be free and empowered.

     We will delve into the Bill of Rights for both the Abuser and the Victim and end with thoughts on how to heal both the hunters and the prey.

     The journey is one from darkness and despair to freedom and light.  It’s not an easy journey but one worth traveling. There is hope!  Let’s begin.