“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.