Two out of every three women have been abused at some time in their lives. Men also experience abuse in relationships – often in the form of verbal or emotional abuse.
What is it that drives people to stay in abusive relationships? Why do abused victims find it so incredibly difficult to escape or leave abusive relationships?
In 2013, it was discovered that Ariel Castro had abducted and held hostage in his home, three girls for almost ten years (Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus.) One of the girls, Amanda Berry gave birth to Castro’s child who is now 6 years of age.
What caused these women to stay in the house and not make repeated attempts to escape? Was it just fear?
Testifying at the trial, Dr. Frank Ochberg, the internationally acclaimed expert on trauma and the Stockholm Syndrome revealed that often in these types of cases, the hostages bond, empathize, become emotionally attached and can even form a romantic bond with the kidnapper/hostage taker. This phenomenon is known as The Stockholm Syndrome.
Is Stockholm Syndrome responsible for what keeps men and women emotionally captive in abusive relationships?
Dr. Frank Ochberg, is an acclaimed psychiatrist, a pioneer in trauma science, an educator and the editor of the first text on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is one of the founding fathers of modern psychotraumatology and served on the committee that defined PTSD. Dr. Ochberg was responsible for identifying, defining and explaining The Stockholm Syndrome.
Human Behavior Expert, Dr. Patrick Wanis and Dr. Frank Ochberg explore The Stockholm Syndrome, the Ariel Castro case and abusive relationships. Dr. Ochberg reveals the way that the fear, the abuse and even torture create the emotional bond between the abused and the abuser. They also discuss specific cases and examples of abusive relationships.
Dr. Frank Ochberg applauds Dr. Wanis: “You do have a really powerful way of joining, looking, searching human behavior; it’s a real skill and it’s a pleasure to have a conversation with you.”
Read more about trauma bonding and trauma therapy.
Click below to listen to the interview, and further below is the entire transcript
What Drives People To Stay In Abusive Relationships?
Dr. Patrick: This is Patrick Wanis, human behavior and relationship expert, Ph.D.
What is it that drives people to stay in abusive relationships?
In the recent case of Ariel Castro who kidnapped three women, it was identified that there was an extraordinary bond between these three girls who had been held captive for up to a decade and their hostage taker or their kidnapper.
This is not unusual. This is not new. It’s a phenomenon known as the Stockholm syndrome. In the early 1970s, two men held up a bank and took hostage four bank employees and kept them inside the bank vault for five days. When they’re finally released, it was revealed that these hostages are actually sympathizing, empathizing and even siding with the hostage takers.
So what causes this? What drives this?
Dr. Frank Ochberg is an acclaimed psychiatrist, a pioneer in trauma science, an educator and an editor of first text from the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s also one of the founding fathers of modern pyschotraumatology and served in the community that defined PTSD. Today, he’s recognized as an internationally acclaimed expert on Stockholm syndrome.
Dr. Frank, thank you for making yourself available and at your gracious request, I’m going to refer to you as Frank.
Can you briefly define Stockholm syndrome?
Dr. Frank: Well, first, thank you, Patrick, and thanks to anyone who is listening. These are interesting topics but they also are vexing. At times, they have us questioning our own rationality and humanity. It’s no surprise that a lot of colleagues find it fascinating but alarming.
Stockholm syndrome means, to me, a very specific thing because I was a consultant to the FBI, to Scotland’s Yard back in the ’70s when a wave of hostage taking was occurring for many different reasons. Some were —
Dr. Patrick: Political?
Dr. Frank: — dedicated terrorists. They were political. Some were crazy. They were literally insane and delusional. Some were criminals who were holding people for ransom. We had to learn about it. We had to get good at dealing with them. That meant we had to understand what was going on with their hostages.
What we observed was some of the time, not all of the time but some of the time, one or more hostages would develop this ironic positive feeling toward the bad guy who did this to them. I interviewed a lot of them after they came out of captivity.
Here’s what I heard. First, they were so stunned, shattered and treated like an infant that they reported they couldn’t talk or they couldn’t move and something that they only revealed after I got to know them for a while. They couldn’t use a toilet without permission.
Dr. Patrick: So it wasn’t just that they’re being treated — but, Frank, it wasn’t just that they’re being treated like an infant. What you’re saying is they transformed or became or regressed to an infant?
Dr. Frank: Correct. It happened in a shocking, sudden life-threatening way. Many of them, Patrick, said to me not “I thought I was going to die,” “I knew I was going to die.” They had a conviction that their life was over and here it is, out of the blue, you’re riding on a train, you’re in a plane, the senior judge from Rome is on his way home actually from his mistress so he was a little concerned about his reputation and then boom! You are captured by someone you never knew before.
Dr. Patrick: But let’s look at this in a little more detail to fully understand what actually happens to the adult. In some cases we know with a lot of the child with kidnapping, so you’re talking about a very young age. But when you have adults, you have, hopefully, a complete — have completed all of their faculties, now this physical survival was threatened. They can’t talk. They’re taught when to talk. They’re taught when to go to sleep. They’re taught when to eat and when to go to the toilet.
What is the physiological arousal or what occurs that then makes them bond with the hostage-taker?
Dr. Frank: Well, here’s the point, there is physiological arousal. They’re shocked. Their adrenaline is flowing, their pupils are dilated, all that stuff happens, Patrick, but in addition, they are infantilized. They are made psychologically like a three-month-old. They’re dependent on one of their captors for the necessities of life and they don’t even realize it. This is after the fact.
We go back there together and aha, “Yes. I was like an infant.” And then they say, “But then,” and I remember this as though it was yesterday. I remember Gerard Vaders, the editor of the largest paper in the North of Holland saying, “But then they gave us blankets. They gave us cigarettes.” He told me, Patrick, “We had to fight the feeling of,” I think he used the word, “compassion.”
They start to have positive feelings. They don’t want to have these positive feelings, but they have them. And they realize, some of them, this feeling, it isn’t right but it’s there.
Dr. Patrick: Let me ask you this, we forgot the physiological arousal because there was also the study on — so you’re aware of this in the ’70s — the Rickety Bridge study done by some American psychologists where a man and woman will be crossing a rickety bridge and the greater the physical arousal there was, the fear, the anxiety, the tension, adrenaline popping, pupils dilating, hot rising, fear for life, the greater attraction there was between the man and woman crossing the bridge. So there was emotional bonding.
Dr. Frank: Well, yeah. And that — yes and that shouldn’t be surprising because at a moment in which you are in touch with your mortality, you regress. The soldier who’s been shot says, “Mother! Mother!” He’s not — some are asking for medics but some are crying for their mothers. When they let themselves think about what’s going on, it’s not just arousal. It’s regression to infancy.
I don’t think — I think there’s a missing step if you go straight from terror to love, and the missing step is regression to infancy. I call it infantilization. That’s —
Dr. Patrick: Okay. So you brought in the original meaning to the FBI when you were asked coming up with the term Stockholm syndrome. You said three things were necessary.
Dr. Frank: Yes.
Dr. Patrick: One was that the hostage will have to develop some sort of positive feelings to the hostage taker. The hostage taker would have this some sort of positive feelings for the hostage and then together they will have to say, “It’s us against the world.”
Dr. Frank: Yes.
Dr. Patrick: How did they get to that third step? And then I want to ask you about the romantic feelings, but how do they get to the third step?
Dr. Frank: I want to point out at this point, they don’t all have romantic feelings because some of them, depending on the age and gender, told me — I remember this with the Italian accent, “He was like my teenage son.”
It’s a positive feeling that may enter the realm of romantic love. See, of course, I think the feeling is a feeling that we all have prior to having the capacity to love in an erotic way. It’s the bond of the infant to the mother. That gets recreated in this dire circumstance.
Now, the reason I wanted to emphasize the reciprocal bond and the joint opposition to us on the outside was for the purpose of negotiation tactics and negotiation strategy.
I can remember within the FBI an agreement that sure, when we promote the Stockholm syndrome, we are losing our star witness for the prosecution. But —
Dr. Patrick: What do you mean by that?
Dr. Frank: That if we have a tactic that tries to create or advance or enhance the Stockholm syndrome, what’s going on is the hostage is turning against us, the FBI, on the FBI’s consultant. They’re regarding us as the enemy. They’re bonding to the perpetrator. And when they come out and are interrogated and when they get on the witness stand, they’re going to say things that favor the defense rather than the prosecution.
Dr. Patrick: This was similar to what happened with Patty Hearst because she ended up siding with her —
Dr. Frank: Yes, yes.
Dr. Patrick: — kidnappers in the political movement or in the movement of terror which is the background of that story? What I’m not clear that — and I’d like to move into held relationships — what you’re saying makes complete sense.
So here you have an adult who’s now reduced and regressed to an infantile position or infantile state, is fully — here, she’s fully dependent on the kidnapper, the hostage taker for survival — when to eat, when to sleep, when to talk, when to move, when not to move. Okay, so there’s whole control, complete manipulation. That might explain the bonding of “I’m the child. This person is my mother. Therefore, I’m depending on him or her for survival.”
However, one of the hostages from the Stockholm syndrome when she was released, she apparently fell in love with one of the hostage takers and even broke off her engagement. So how did she develop romantic feelings because that’s very different to the mother-child bond?
Dr. Frank: What I think happens is the mother-child bond lasts for minutes or hours or even days and then when the whole scene matures and you begin to get to the point where you count on living rather than dying, a different relationship becomes evident. I take this up in my debriefings of many who were held hostage. The feelings start to change. You begin to become hopeful. By that time, you’re connected and then you’re returning more to your adult self and your adult feelings.
Now, I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t look for infantile emotion in my patients. I’m much more in the here and now. But I think it makes sense that our ability as adults to feel connected and have an emotion that accompanies a human bond, that this evolves through time and it begins with the pleasurable experience of the mother’s touch and all that that means, it begins there and then it becomes other things as we grow up.
This growing up happens very suddenly in a crucible of captivity.
Dr. Patrick: So what you’re saying is and what makes complete sense is in this situation, we have someone returns to the infantile state. They depend on this person for survival.
Dr. Frank: Yes.
Dr. Patrick: We now see a mother — a parallel of another child bond?
Dr. Frank: Yes.
Dr. Patrick: As well, because they are doing so much together or spending so much time together, because we also bond emotionally by being with people and doing things together, they now develop an emotional bond and emotional connection. And if this person is also teaching them the propaganda, the manipulation that we can’t trust anyone else, we only have each other, it’s us against the world, then that further deepens and reinforces the bond. So he was —
Dr. Frank: That’s right. Yes. I mean, Patrick, there’s a common enemy and the fact is you can get killed in there. A SWAT team can come in, and they may kill you accidentally as they’re trying to neutralize the person who’s holding you hostage. The threat is very real and the way the sides start to take shape, not all the time but some of the time, is the people who are on the inside of the siege room against those who are on the outside.
Dr. Patrick: So we understand how that works in the situation of a kidnapping, hostage-taking over a long period of time. We also understand from what you’ve just revealed how the same phenomena would play out in a battered woman syndrome, in an abusive relationship and in any relationship where there’s authority and complete control of the other person. That makes sense —
Dr. Frank: Yeah. But let me say something about that because, Patrick, Stockholm syndrome doesn’t explain everything and some people tend to use the Stockholm syndrome concept to explain other things that I think have better explanations.
Think of this: our species is from a mammalian animal species. We have dominance hierarchies. We accept that there are people who are more powerful and are less powerful in a way that I don’t think any sensible person likes.
We also do that with whole human groups. We have a caste system in some societies. We have upper class, lower class. We have very, very wealthy people who form a plutocracy and run governments and institutions and we have others who do their bidding.
In many, many ways, we are stratified in a hierarchy. When we are thrown into a new hierarchy, it isn’t all Stockholm syndrome dynamic. It’s something else that goes on. What happened in the siege room in that house in Cleveland with Ariel Castro and with Gina, Amanda and Michelle, it’s not just Stockholm syndrome.
To me Stockholm syndrome explains the beginning, but what goes on after that unfortunately is going on all over the world in households that are dominated by tyrannical often men. Very often, it’s the lover of the biological mother. We’ve got different dynamic. It’s an incest dynamic.
Dr. Patrick: Can you explain that? What do you mean, “the lover of a…” Dr. Frank, what do you mean by “the lover of a biological mother?”
Dr. Frank: Well, the mother, it’s the biological child of the mother who is the exploited girl or boy who was beaten, who was sexually used and who doesn’t tell her mother that this is happening. The incest secret is as much, if not more, of a corruption of what is right than the bullying and the beating and the sexual abuse of the child.
That’s what I wanted to bring out. I was one of the experts for the prosecution in the case in Cleveland. I wanted it to be fully understood that these young women were treated in an inhuman way and they adapted to it. One of the major losses that they suffered was the loss of a mother during ten years of their growth from being a girl to being a woman. That’s a very important loss.
I’ve been the doctor for a number of adult women who have undergone that. One of the most important things I can offer them as their doctor is recognition that they’ve been deprived of a normal mother-daughter relationship. That imperils their ability to know who to trust, to be able to be intimate in a mature way.
Very often I’m surprised that I’m not working so much on the horror of having been abused. I’m working on the deprivation from an important step in human maturation. And you see —
Dr. Patrick: So what you’re referring isn’t just limited to a situation when someone is kidnapped. The loss, the deprivation of a relationship with one’s mother can occur in almost any situation could be who someone who grows up without even knowing their mother, without ever having a mother?
Dr. Frank: Well said. However, when you grow up without having had your mother, which happened to me, my mom died when I was 16, and it may have, in some way, helped me be available to other people who had significant disruptions in their life.
You were right. That condition happens but there are ways that it can happen that are shameful. That your mother is still there and everyone assumes you’re getting what you need but you’re not because you’re being systematically abused by someone that she loves or someone that she tolerates. And so —
Dr. Patrick: You’re right. There are many situations even with my clients where the greatest pain they go through isn’t just the fact — if it’s a female — that the father abused them. It’s that the mother knew and did nothing about it or the mother didn’t want to know or the mother pretended she doesn’t know.
Dr. Frank: That’s right. It’s a failure of the non-offending parent, and that’s part of the formula. But here’s what we’re going in this conversation. We’re seeing Stockholm syndrome matters. Stockholm syndrome should be understood. There are situations in which people are ironically positively disposed to a tyrant, to a villain, to an abuser; and it doesn’t mean that the person who has that condition is a bad person or a weak person. It’s part of the way our species responds to tyranny and to evil. It gets attached and it gets diminished.
We’re going to struggle with this for centuries. We’re a long way from figuring out how to deal effectively with evil that is embraced by a powerful person.
Dr. Patrick: And in this case, all the cases we’re citing, we’re talking about extremes, there are also — and this is one of the reasons why I turned to you — we know what the situation is with women who are in adult abusive relationship. We know that they’re often abused as children where they have extraordinary deficits in self-esteem and then we know that once that relationship begins, it’s very hard for them to break free from it.
You used the word “vexing” in the beginning. What vexes many people is what is the actual motivation for men to stay in an abusive relationship with a woman when the abuse is not physical, it’s not sexual; it is actually more emotional and verbal?
What is it from your experience, your insight, your wisdom, your expertise that you consider that this is why men stay in this relationship and become attached to the woman even though they know she’s bad, she’s a bad mother, she’s not a good person, she treats them badly but can’t break away from those chains? How do you explain —
Dr. Frank: Yes, it’s a terrific question, Patrick. I don’t know that every one of those situations is similar enough for us to generalize. In many cases, there are not better alternatives or the abusive woman wasn’t abusive in the beginning, and she gets abusive because she develops a mental illness or a chronic pain problem or becomes an alcoholic. Some good partners try to see it through. They’ve been connected to —
Dr. Patrick: Well, that makes sense. But that topic —
Dr. Frank: Yes. All I’m saying is that’s one situation. I have found that very few people are masochistic; that there’s something in their character in which they want to be punished, they want to be abused. There may be something in a person’s perverted sexual orientation where being —
Dr. Patrick: They want to be abused.
Dr. Frank: Yeah. Or they want someone who is powerful and they find it arousing and that’s a source of attachment. So there can be certain skewed situations. We’ve all seen movies in which —
Dr. Patrick: But let’s move away from those — yeah. What you’re saying makes sense. Let’s move away from those extremes. The extreme of, well, the first situation where the wife was very healthy, something happens, becomes abusive. The second scenario is where the actual person being abused is a masochist for whatever reason. But the third scenario where you have the successful, intelligent, effective businessmen who are in a relationship with a woman who’s abusive.
Is it always the case of he too was abused as a child, so therefore he’s repeating the pattern or repeating the pattern of receiving abuse or he believes that is the real definition of love being twisted?
Dr. Frank: No. I’m going to do something that very few purported experts do in a circumstance like this. I’m going to tell you I don’t know. I’m not sure. When I’m — Patrick, when I’m working on —
Dr. Patrick: Thanks for your honesty.
Dr. Frank: Yeah. I really don’t. And I think it could be a little glib to give it a formula. I find that when I work as a therapist, I’m looking at all kinds of things. I’m learning as I go, and I’m seeing what appears to make sense.
I think of a patient now. I don’t want to say enough to identify him.
Dr. Patrick: Of course.
Dr. Frank: I doubt that he’ll listen to this particular exchange, but he’s a real man’s man physically. He retired from being a corrections officer. His wife is a very successful person in government. She has a lot of command. He’s not too happy with her. She does not treat him very well. She’s verbally abusive at times. And I’ve seen them together and I confirm that.
I wish that she had more kindness in dealing with his post-traumatic stress which is very much like a war veteran’s. He had to deal with horrible scenes in his job. When he was young, he had an alcoholic, physically abusive father. They had a fist-fight at one point.
So here’s someone who would look like a very macho man. And he’s married to a woman who, I believe, is at times verbally abusive and not very charitable. He makes do with it.
Dr. Patrick: He still has to come to you for help. I mean he survives but he’s coming to you for help.
Dr. Frank: Yeah, but no, but not anymore. We have succeeded in reaching a point where he got over some of his self-defeating behavior. He put a lot of the ghosts of the past to rest. We used a lot of post-traumatic stress techniques. He’s okay. He’s up in his 50s. Maybe he’s past 60 by now. I think he’ll do all right, and he’ll tolerate this marriage to her.
See, I believe there was an attraction back when they first fell in love where he’s quite a physical specimen and he knows how to handle tough situations. She’s a woman with a head on her shoulders but also with a sharp tongue in her mouth. You also have the classic taming of the shrew kind of situation where some men —
Dr. Patrick: He enjoys the challenge.
Dr. Frank: Yeah. But I don’t think that’s the case of my patient. What I’m saying here is as a therapist dealing with a situation, sure, I see it and I steer ahead working with everything I learned as we go. I don’t have a formula that I apply. I have techniques that I use that I’m comfortable with. A lot of what I’m trying to do is just get in there with this guy and look at life through his eyes.
It’s gratifying for him and for me. I get a lot of feedback, “Doc, you get it. You understand what I’m dealing with.”
Dr. Patrick: Well, and what you’re saying is also that sometimes some people simply need, like you said, recognition, validation, understanding and maybe even a sense of compassion and support. My approach is sometimes to try and help the person too if this is what he really wants; to find that power, that ability to break away from that relationship that’s abusive and find himself attracted to someone that is no longer abusive.
Dr. Frank: Well, that’s a good point but, boy, that’s a huge decision. That is a very, very big one, and I don’t enter to those lately. And I’m usually following the lead of my patient and my client.
In this case that I used, it is a good example. He gets along with her father better than she does. He had an anger management problem, and he drank too much. He is on the wagon. He’s managing his anger a lot better, and maybe she’s given him some moments of decency and gratification because he just becomes more able to deal with her personality.
Dr. Patrick: Now, let me just add that I’m not the person that would say to someone, “Look, you must end this relationship or marriage,” unless there is extreme abuse or that person’s life is in danger or the children are being very negatively affected. But I do understand your point.
I know that you have another appointment so I want to thank you for the generous and extraordinary — first, a generous amount of time and also the extraordinary amount of information, insights and sharing of your wisdom. Thank you and I hope that we can have a couple of these conversations because you have decades of wisdom.
Dr. Frank: Patrick, we definitely can, and I thank you. I’ve been interviewed by the best of them. I work a lot with leading journalists. I try to help them in this field. And you do have a really powerful way of joining, of looking, of searching. It’s a real skill and it’s a pleasure to have a conversation with you.
Dr. Patrick: Thank you. You’re very gracious, Dr. Frank.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, he’s the internationally acclaimed expert on Stockholm syndrome, one of the first people to write about post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s also in private practice.
Again, Dr. Frank Ochberg, thank you very much.
Dr. Frank: You’re welcome, Patrick. I’ll sign off now. Bye-bye.
Anointed “The Woman Expert” by WGN Chicago, Patrick Wanis PhD is a renowned Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert who developed SRTT therapy (Subconscious Rapid Transformation Technique) and is teaching it to other practitioners. Wanis’ clientele ranges from celebrities and CEOs to housewives and teenagers. CNN, BBC, FOX News, MSNBC & major news outlets worldwide consult Wanis for his expert insights and analysis on sexuality, human behavior and women’s issues. Wanis is the first person ever to do hypnotherapy on national TV – on the Montel Williams show.