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Joyce Boaz & Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D.

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Stockholm Syndrome, Trauma Bond and Undue Influence

Q: Dear Joyce,

Recently several people involved in inheritance and custody disputes have asked me to explain the concepts of Stockholm syndrome, trauma bond and undue influence. They once had a close loving relationship with a parent or child, and now that loved one seems to have been stolen, psychologically, by a former spouse or a relative. They wonder if they have encountered a form of Stockholm syndrome. Here is my explanation:


Stockholm Syndrome, Trauma Bond and Undue Influence

Stockholm syndrome is a form of trauma bond in which victims are suddenly and violently captured, threatened with death and not allowed to move, talk, eat or use a toilet without permission from their assailant. But, ironically and paradoxically, they experience positive feelings toward this cruel captor as the captor grants permission to move, speak and eat, and as, psychologically, the captor is perceived not as an agent of death but rather as a giver of life. Usually this perception is unconscious. Survivors do not know where their feelings of attachment come from. They only know that the captor is a source of sustenance and survival. There are two other elements of the syndrome. The captor experiences a bond, too. He is a mother figure, sustaining an infant, and he feels a maternal attachment, regardless of gender. The third element of the syndrome is mutual distrust and antipathy toward those outside of the siege room who negotiate and who may attempt an armed rescue. They are the dangerous enemy.

There are other forms of trauma bond that have different but similar elements. They involve a person who has power and uses it illegally or unethically to dominate or threaten or humiliate a person of lesser rank. Then the harsh treatment is replaced with presents or compliments or liberty. The victim experiences profound relief, denies the fact that harsh treatment or deceit was used in the past, and experiences a bond. In such a state of trauma bonding, the victim is compliant, easily manipulated, and unduly influenced.

Trauma may not be necessary for undue influence. In domestic situations one family member may isolate a vulnerable family member, create a sense of threat by characterizing a rival as dangerous, and thereby influencing that vulnerable person to favor them. This occurs in "granny snatching" when a wealthy parent or grandparent is isolated during an inheritance dispute. It also occurs in custody disputes when an unscrupulous parent attempts to vilify a former spouse in order to win the confidence of a child while destroying the trust that child once placed in the other parent.

Frank M Ochberg, MD

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