Identification With The Aggressor:
Counterintuitively, it is not uncommon for those who have been badly mistreated by parents or primary carers to still feel an affectionate bond with their abusers. This can be regarded as a kind of pathological relationship that involves the victim ‘identifying with his/her aggressor,’ to use the technical term.
Why should this odd form of emotional bonding between the victim of abuse and the perpetrator of this abuse occur? A leading theory in response to this puzzling question is that it is an unconscious process designed to keep the victim safe. But how would this be? Well, it is hypothesized that if the victim can persuade him/herself that s/he has some understanding, sympathy and positive regard for his/her abuser, and acts in a manner that reflects such feelings, the perpetrator is more likely to reciprocate the positive regard and therefore less likely to seriously harm the victim.
The term ‘identification with the aggressor’ was first coined by Sandor Ferenczi and the concept was developed by Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund Freud). In psychoanalytic terms, it falls into the category of ‘defence mechanisms. When the victim ‘identifies with the aggressor,’ it means s/he (the victim) internalizes his/her (the aggressor’s) attitudes and behaviours; again, this can be seen as a way in which the victim strengthens the emotional bond with the aggressor.
Example Of Traumatic Bonding:
An example of such a paradoxical relationship would be that of a violent father and a physically maltreated son. Because the son is dependent upon the father, he (the son) might internalize his father’s violent behaviour (e.g. by physically bullying peers at school) and attitudes (e.g. the importance of being ‘tough’, manly’ and of despising ‘weakness’). Furthermore, he (the son) may maintain affection and admiration for his father by, for example, being grateful for the material support the father provides, looking up to him because of his ‘masculinity’ and even by having gratitude towards the father for ‘keeping him inline’ with his severe approach to ‘discipline.’
When such a bond develops in the way described above it is also sometimes referred to as the ‘trauma bond’ or the ‘terrifying bond,’ Such pathological bonding has been documented as occurring in many scenarios beyond that which is described above, including between hostages and their captors (referred to as Stockholm Syndrome’) and even between concentration camp prisoners and their guards. And, perhaps best known of all, is the tragic situation when one partner repeatedly beats the other partner in a domestic setting yet the abused partner stays in the relationship and consistently refuses to report matters to the police out of a sense, despite everything, of love and loyalty.
Vicious Cycle Of Abuse:
Unfortunately, whilst such identification with the aggressor may work as an unconscious survival mechanism in some respects to some degree, the internalization of the aggressor’s attitudes and behaviours can lead to the child identifying with the violent father to such a degree that he himself becomes a violent father when he grows up, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse down through the generations.
Vital Importance Of Therapy / Interventions:
The danger of such a harmful cycle developing. then, makes it all the more urgent that perpetrators of such abuse seek immediate therapy and other appropriate interventions.
Reference: Ferenczi, Sándor (1949) . “Confusion of the Tongues Between the Adults and the Child—(The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)”. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 30 (4): 225–230.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).