Stockholm Syndrome – Adapting to Survive

Content Note: Emotional Abuse, Co-dependency, Financial Abuse, Divorce


“I mean, they call it Stockholm Syndrome and post traumatic stress disorder. And, you know, I had no free will. I had virtually no free will until I was separated from them for about two weeks.”

– Patty Hearst


And so it is, whilst survivors are in the relationship they cannot see what is happening to them. Being labelled “co-dependent” is unhelpful. And judgemental. One of the questions survivors are asked time and time again is “Why didn’t you leave?”. If the question is being asked then the door for education has been opened widely.

It’s an intriguing lesson.

Stockholm Syndrome is the term describing the emotional trauma bonding of the victim with their abuser in order to survive their ordeal of living as if a hostage under threat.

The phrase was reported to have been coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot. In the 1970s, psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg defined the syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard.

Therefore, the child of an abuser will try to please the parent, defend the parent and deny the cruelty; the partner of an abuser will placate the abuser, be grateful for acts of kindness and focus on the few minutes of respite from abuse rather than the hours of agony.

Emotional, psychological, and spiritual prison

This prison has no time and space, no physical construct. It is an emotional, psychological and spiritual captor. There may be geography and space involved but the real prison transends the place of abuse.

Long after separation, the abused can, without insight and specialized therapy, remain captive to the abuser. Long after the narcissistic partner has discarded their survivor the rumination by the survivor acts as adjunct imprisonment.

As therapists, family, friends, concerned others – asking the “why didn’t you leave?” question echoes the shame put into them by the abuser implying that somehow staying was their fault. That they are to blame. As if they hadn’t thought a million times about leaving.

Please avoid phrasing it so – even if well intentioned. I understand that you may be frustrated by their pain and hurting for them but please, please be careful how you explore what is happening.


There are four identifying features of Stockholm syndrome:

There is a perceived threat to life: This can be physical or to the person’s identity and/or their psychological and spiritual wellbeing. There is a feeling experienced by survivors when dealing with their abuser – it is a unique sickness – a constant nausea felt when dealing with the narcissist. It may take years to become overwhelming but there are often instances early in the relationship that may be dismissed or minimised by the survivor in order to, well, survive.

There are sporadic acts of kindness: An unexpected trip or a well placed compliment, This perceived kindness confuses the survivor and disorients them. This is the objective.

The survivor will have been isolated from friends and family: These observers may see the signs of abuse and the abuser will triangulate (saying family/friends dislike them, for example). They may remove access to a phone or make seeing family/friends very difficult – eg. getting “sick” just before they go out.

Perceived inability to escape: “Learned helplessness” sets in. Feeling too depressed to get a job and therefore financial freedom. The prospect of a long legal battle keeps the survivor in the situation (“if you try to divorce me I will destroy you”; “I will make sure you never see your children again”; “I will tell them you are lying”). It may be that the narcissist has all financial power and therefore there is no clear means of starting over.


Stockholm Syndrome is a primal defence mechanism. The hook is these kindnessess.

Just as the abuser detects your readiness to leave, they reel you back in – a few romantic gestures or well timed compliments and the cycle begins again. You are back on the idealization, devaluing and discarding misery-go-round.

Abusive people know this type of manipulation works. They are ruthless and strategic knowing that if they show kindness you will capitulate. These abusers are shameless and use you, instrumentally.

You are not recognised as a person – purely a way to achieve their selfish ends. They need you to give birth or sire their children, pay their expenses, facilitate their social and financial ambitions, look after them in dotage, come up with ideas for which they take all credit – remember, it’s all supplying them.

They keep you hooked in order to do their bidding. They will contact you on significant dates (anniversary of the death of a parent, for example, or an special birthday) when you may be off guard or vulnerable. They will feign care. The truth is that they told you that parent didn’t even like you and rarely acknowledged your birthday when they were in your life. That’s what narcissistic abuse is. Emotional terrorism.

Narcissistic abusers will weaponise your children, family, colleagues and community in their ambition to keep you as supply. They will use, abuse and then refuse to separate from you long after they have a new partner or fresh supply. And they will lie about you in order to keep you under control.

Own and guard your Truth


Please recognise these patterns and respect your truth. Your experience of these people is unique. Covert narcissists are the hardest to detect so if your boss is the most charming person to all but you, document and record.

Evidence is key in these situations and bear witness to your experience. Copy in a legal professional and friend if you can. If your parent is a community leader and at home belittles and criticizes you, you still know the truth. If your partner is a narcissist and refuses to discuss finances with you – seek legal advice .

More than anything, narcissists fear being exposed, so keep as much evidence as you can. We will visit this in another post.

For now, speak to someone and learn as much as you can about this type of abuse. You do not need to lead this life one second longer. It may take planning but you can escape the abuse, You are not a prisoner. You cannot be owned. Self determination is your birthright.

You deserve to be free.


Margaret Ward-Martin
Margaret Ward-Martin

BA (Hons), MA, PGCE, Post Graduate Cert. in Coaching Psychology, MBACP, Int. Aff. APA