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Ana Nogales, Ph.D.

Psychological Slavery

Understanding the complexity of psychological slavery.

According to relevant literature, slavery has been a legal institution in which one person (the slave) is the property of another (the master). Slavery dates back to ancient times, but contemporary international treaties (Slavery Convention of 1926) consider slavery a crime against humanity.

However, slavery and human exploitation still exist. Along with them, we are left with a legacy of psychological slavery that we see in many homes where highly abusive relationships prevail.

Many studies in the field of psychology and sociology explain psychological slavery based on an incident that occurred in 1973, where two robbers entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden with guns and dynamite, took four hostages—three women and a man—and held them hostage for 131 hours. After their rescue, the hostages showed a peculiar behavior. These people who had been threatened, abused, and intimidated felt gratitude towards their captors and tried to protect them when expert investigations were made. One of the women became emotionally attached to one of the assailants and another began a campaign to raise funds for the legal defense of the criminals.

As strange as it sounds, similar situations occur in daily life with abused children, battered women in relationships, prisoners of war, victims of incest, and generally in families where there is physical and/or emotional abuse.

The explanation lies in our survival instinct, described here as Stockholm syndrome. When the lives of victims depend on the action of their assailants, the emotional reactions of some victims turn into gratitude once they survive, just as slaves may have also expressed gratitude when they were given their freedom. Similarly, in many contemporary families the victims, feeling hopeless, develop positive feelings toward the abuser or controller, rationalize to accept such behavior, react negatively to family or friends who try to rescue them, and have difficulty freeing themselves from this emotional trap.

For psychological slavery to occur, research studies have found four typical situations:

  • Perception of a threat, physical or psychological, and the conviction that misfortune can really occur;
  • Appreciation of small acts of kindness by the abuser towards the victim;
  • Isolation from others;
  • Conviction that one is unable to escape the situation.

Just as in the case of the bank hostages in Sweden, interpersonal relationships where there is an abuse of power also establish a similar pattern which is hard to escape, resulting in psychological slavery.

Threats may be direct or indirect. The threat may even be directed toward other family members. When a person feels threatened, the reaction is to find hope in anything that will strengthen the will to survive. When the abuser or controller offers small acts of kindness such as a glass of water, the victim may think that behind the maliciousness, the perpetrator has positive feelings and good intentions. As a consequence, a "spiritual connection" and gratitude for still being alive are established.

The victim may rationalize and justify the criminal behavior. Moreover, they may genuinely try to help the criminal emotionally, feeling the pain of the other instead of their own pain.

When a person lives in a world of abuse and control, that person quickly learns to be careful of what to say or do for fear of provoking unrest that might result in violence. As a result, the victim tries to please the abuser or controller by worrying about everything that could disturb them and by trying to satisfy the wants and needs of the abuser or controller to keep the peace at any cost. Unfortunately, this attitude helps perpetuate the abuse. The abuser learns to demand more to practice control and power. In turn, the victim must remain isolated so that the abuser can continue manipulating the victim with criticism and accusations. The victim agrees to be isolated to avoid conflict and embarrassment, and detaches from family members. Overwhelmed by abuse and already depressed, the victim comes to accept the situation and considers it part of their life.

Freeing oneself from this kind of relationship can be very difficult, even impossible. The victims often feel bound not only emotionally, but also because of financial obligations, legal issues, the
children´s future, and/or threats of death or suicide.

Understanding the complexity of psychological slavery preserves the possibility of helping those who need it, keeping a connection, contributing to their self-esteem, and opening the door when the time comes to cherish their freedom.


About the Author

Ana Nogales, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and well-known media personality, columnist, speaker, and advocate for victims of domestic violence.