The Stockholm Syndrome

Posted: March 12, 2012

According to the 2011 UN Women Report, nearly 39 per cent of men and women in India think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. A more recent report (State of the World’s Children, 2012: UNICEF) says that 57% male adolescents and 53% female adolescents in India feel that husbands were justified in beating their wives “under certain circumstances”.

These statistics, especially what the female respondents think, remind me of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome – also called terror bonding or traumatic bonding, a phenomenon in which victims display compassion for and even loyalty to their captors. It was first widely recognized after a Swedish bank robbery in 1973 during which for six days, thieves held four Stockholm bank employees hostage at gunpoint in a vault. When the victims were released they hugged and kissed their captors, declaring their loyalty even as the kidnappers were being taken to jail.

A well known case was that of heiress Patty Hearst who was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. She famously became their accomplice, adopting an assumed name and abetting the radical political group in a bank robbery.

Perhaps the most widely publicized case of this syndrome was that of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who spent 18 years in captivity. During all these years, she assisted her alleged abductor Phillip Garrido with his home business, sorting out orders by phone or e-mail. She occasionally greeted customers alone at the door. She even went out in public. But she apparently never made a run for it, returning each day instead to a shed in Garrido’s backyard, the man who allegedly kidnapped and raped her. Her stepfather Carl Probyn, who witnessed Jaycee being snatched at age 11 from a bus stop in 1991, said later, “She really feels it’s almost like a marriage.”

According to a recent FBI report, 73% of victims display no signs of such affection for their abductors. To my mind, the remaining 27% showing signs of this syndrome is in itself a horrifying number.

Am I being too far fetched in comparing a marriage – one which sees domestic violence off and on – to the Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t think so. What about you?

Pic credit: Nina Amaho

I am a former bureaucrat, and have worked a lot on gender issues, disaster management

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  1. I’ve read about a similar reaction in Urvashi Bhutalia’s book The other side of silence when women abducted and brought over during partition of Pakisthan. They refused to go back to their families when the Indian government offered to rehabilitate them preferring to stay on with their abductors despite the fact that these women were raped and abused by them. The reason given was that their families may not accept a person who had been raped or physically molested by a Hindu. They had bonded with their abductors and that was it.

    Similarly women are not welcomed by their parents or siblings if they opt to break free from a traumatic marriage and they feel that even if the husband beats him up she would respected by society for putting up with it but the same society/family would look down upon her if she left her husband. Tongues would wag and life would become difficult for her. She feels safer in an abusive marriage.

  2. You are not at all exaggerating when comparing abusive marriage relationship to “stockholm syndrome”. a loved one of mine is stuck in a similar situation and it is clearly stockholm syndrome. Domestic stockholm syndrome is widely seen in most of the domestic abuse cases. we also need to blame our culture, we have been brought up in such a way and taught to give utmost importance to “marriage”. while i cherish doing it myself, but if you get caught in a relationship with an abuser, who can be crude enough a psychopath , you get stuck. for some time you spend you are patient enough , giving 100 % for the relationship and wait to see if things might change. kids come in and complicate issues. you cannot move out just like that . it reaches a point where you start supporting the abuser just to survive. the victim, who turns out to be a woman in most of the cases, loses her self confidence, self esteem and the abuser tactfully brings down her morale to such a great extent, she cannot move out, despite there being people and her own relatives and friends to support her. I plead to everyone, if you suspect that your loved one be it a friend or relative is in an abusive marrige, please please bring her out from the tormentor at the earliest before she goes into this syndrome. i wonder why our laws dont recognise this syndrome when we try to save or rescue them. if committing suicide is unlawful, allowing to be abused should also not be allowed. atleast , a fair chance should be given to rescue her and counsel her so that she gets on to a mind frame to decide for herself. We are totally helpless in our attempt to save our loved one. we know she has been abused for long, and thats had a beating on her mind, she is now surviving with the stockholm syndrome. if there could be some way out, i would be most greatful..
    mam- domestic stockholm syndrome is more dangerous and prevelant and its so heartbreaking for the relatives or friends of the victims who are just helpless, knowing that she is being abused. the victims place all their eggs in one basket- “the marriage” and cant just move out of it even when they are with inhuman partners. unfortunately, seperation from the abuser is the first step of treatmetn for stockholm syndrome, leave alone the next stage of getting out of the trauma. … our indian laws should address this for sure… hopefully.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I can only wish there was some way out of abusive marriages, especially in the Indian context. It’s easy for me to say, but our attitudes need a total overhaul before we as a society will stand up and say NO to marital abuse.

  4. Pingback: Are Indian girls ready for marriage so young?

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