Stockholm Syndrome and the Ex-Husband

Reader’s Question

My fiancee was abused by her ex-husband for almost 15 years. They were finally divorced around Feb. 2007. Recently I found that she had a secret cell phone that she uses just to contact her ex-husband and for him to contact her. I have also had run-ins with him and I realized that he must have been and still is a very abusive man to live with. To this day he still verbally abuses her and blames her for his problem with drinking. (He is an alcoholic.) He claims that he still loves her and wants her back. At one point I read a message that he sent her and he told her he misses her and she responded back to him that she “missed him also”. I was extremely hurt like never before. I asked her if she did really miss him and she said she did miss him but she did not want him back. She claims that she only misses the way things were before he started to drink. Now he claims that he has stopped drinking also. Then I remembered the Patty Hearst story and started to research on the The Stockholm Syndrome. Is this something that has a bearing on this relationship or do I need to realize that she is still wanting him back and that I need to find my place in someone else’s dreams?

Psychologist’s Reply

A type of Stockholm Syndrome is often present in abusive relationships. I’ve written an article on the topic that’s available on this website, entitled Love and Stockholm Syndrome. I would also suspect that his behaviors are outlined in another article on the website entitled Identifying Losers in Relationships. Abusers, like this character, often blame their victims for their misbehavior. When the abusive relationship ends, the abuser tries to keep the ex-partner on “back burner” with the idea that he may need to use and abuse her again. He is clearly trying to keep her on “back burner” with claims that he has stopped drinking (he probably hasn’t) and seen the error of his ways (he clearly hasn’t).

I’d recommend that she read both the Loser and Stockholm Syndrome articles. It would also be helpful to read the online discussion groups on those two topics — also on this website. If she’s still having difficulty, I’d recommend counseling to sort out her feelings about the abuser.

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Stockholm Syndrome can be very powerful. The abuser has no problem ruining your relationship with his ex — even though he has no intention of changing their old relationship. He will not want to see her happy in any way and in fact, will increase his efforts the more she shows attraction to you. Sadly, she is accidentally providing him information about the significance of your relationship — thus allowing him to estimate what he needs to do to ruin it. If you set a marriage date, for example, he’ll likely join the church or threaten suicide — sounds bizarre but it happens. You are threatening to take away one of his back burner options and he will likely resist.

In these situations, it’s often helpful to place the relationship on a type of probation. Give the relationship a number of months with the understanding that she needs to read/study her situation, make some decisions, etc. If after several months, she is still on the “back burner” with her abuser and continues to contact and maintain a relationship with him, you may need to rethink the future of the relationship. Three’s a crowd, as they say.

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