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Emotional Abuse In Expat Couples – 4 Essential Steps To Deal With It

Sophie sits on the couch, her empty gaze staring at the salon table in front of her.
Jack, her husband arrived from work and they’ve just had an argument.

Emotional abuse in expat couple

It’s become more and more frequent since they moved to this new country, a year ago. Sophie left her job to follow Jack when he got a promotion…

She thought she’d done for the best. Not once has he acknowledged her courageous decision.

When she complains about his lack of compassion for her struggles — not understanding the language, feeling isolated, suffering from the loss of her financial independence and her role as a co-provider for the family — he brushes her off with comments like “You didn’t like your job anyway. You were stagnating in that position for years.”

On the outside, they have a fabulous life: they are in a gorgeous flat with panoramic city views. They go twice a year on holidays. The kids thrive at school and Jack enjoys his new position, even if it’s quite stressful.

On the inside, the reality is less glamorous. Sophie is drifting.

‘What am I doing here? Is this now supposed to be my life?’

And her doubts are amplified by Jack’s behavior.

‘He’s totally oblivious to my needs. He often blames me, implying that I have an easy life in coffee shops and massage salons while he works his tail off. But it’s not true. I’m running the household on my own because he’s never home. Those stinging comments hurt so much. I feel I have to justify myself all the time.

Sure, we have some good moments together. This gives me hope that he’ll understand me better.

But I’ve noticed that he avoids any deep conversation. He always has a good excuse: tired, stressed, not in the mood. Or he says that I don’t know how to speak to him, I’m always doing something wrong.

It’s my tone of voice or my use of language or the moment I’ve chosen that’s inappropriate. I never know when the next blow will come. Recently he even inferred that I was giving the kids a bad example, always whining and complaining. I start to get anxious when he comes back from work.’

What Sophie doesn’t know yet is that she’s suffering from emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is insidious. It’s extremely dangerous because it seems innocuous. No bruise, no scar, ‘only’ cold looks, deadly innuendos, destructive comments to destabilize and demean.

How can you convey such an experience to outsiders?

Sophie doesn’t dare to speak because she’s confused herself, wondering ‘Maybe I didn’t understand properly’, ‘I’m thinking too much’ or ‘I’m complicating things’.

She fears not being understood. The incidents taken separately seem harmless but the sum of them all deeply affects her self-esteem and self-confidence. She’s afraid people will find her weak or treat her as a paranoid.

She’s ashamed to be in such a situation and she isn’t ready to admit to herself that the person she loves so much is not the ideal she’d dreamed of years ago.

She feels even more powerless because she is living abroad confronted to other laws, the language barrier, the lack of support networks and no easy access to money or job.

Why is it so important to identify emotional abuse?

  • Because it often precedes physical violence
  • Because it gives a very bad role model for the children
  • Because it’s toxic and can lead you to depression and other physical ailments
  • Because it’s not what love is about.

In such a situation, what can you do?

In her groundbreaking book ‘Stalking The Soul’, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst M-F Hirigoyen gives 4 essential steps to deal with emotional abuse.

1. Recognize the abusive process

Look for the following patterns in the communication [1]. Renown therapist Virginia Satir describes the first 4 and Hirigoyen adds the last 2 ones.

Those techniques aim at maintaining distance rather than establishing meaningful contact so that the other person can be used and more easily controlled.

Blaming is characterized by ‘judging, comparing, complaining and bullying others while denying one’s own role in the problem’.
‘See? You made me angry, once again. You don’t know how to talk to me. Your tone of voice is just awful. Ask my colleagues at work. They all come to my office and confide in me their worst problems. They’ll tell you that I’m a great listener.’

Placating is characterized by ‘pacifying, covering up differences, denying conflict and being overly ‘nice’. It’s used to consistently defuse the conflict.
‘You’re making this all up. You have the need to find problems when really there aren’t. It’s your nature. You need to worry about something otherwise you’re not happy. I don’t see any problem, really.’

Distracting is characterized by changing the subject, being quiet, feigning helplessness or pretending to misunderstand. The purpose is to avoid the conflict.
‘Wait a second. I need to check my emails. I’m expecting a message from my boss about the big project I’m managing at the moment. Work is priority.’

Computing is characterized by taking an overly intellectual approach, lecturing, taking the higher moral ground and using outside authority to back up intellectual arguments without engaging emotionally.
‘I know what’s wrong with you: you’re still experiencing culture shock. The second phase is very typical. Sadness, complaints, resentment.’

M-France Hirigoyen adds two extra typical “communication” styles.

Use of paradox is characterized by a mix of innuendo and unspoken hints contradicting each other and aiming at creating confusion in the other person’s mind.
‘You’ve been dealing with the kids all day. Sure, I totally get it that you’re exhausted. How would you cope if you had my job…’

Silent treatment
The words speak for themselves. Imagine Sophie waiting impatiently for Jack after he was away on a business trip. She goes to pick him up at the airport and he gives her an icy look: she didn’t put on the dress he expected. He wouldn’t talk to her for the next 3 days.

Violence, even when it is non-verbal, hidden, and smothered, can be transmitted by what is unspoken and implied, and will result in considerable anguish.

Marie-France Hirigoyen

2. Stop justifying yourself
…even if you’re highly tempted to do so.

Sophie thinks it’s surely a misunderstanding because there’s an element in the story her husband isn’t not aware of. Certainly when she tells him, he’ll understand.

If this sounds familiar to your life, you’ve also noticed time and again, explaining yourself doesn’t help. It’s as if there is neither good faith nor good will. All of what you say may be used against you.

When dealing with emotional abuse, don’t argue with your partner. The best is to remain silent.

In this case, it’s not a form of abuse. It’s a way to keep your energy and protect you from further attacks.

3. Set boundaries

Define firmly what is acceptable behaviour and what’s not for your own integrity.

· Look at the pain. When does it hit?

· Look at the fear. When is it triggered?

· Look at the patterns. What do you notice?

This is all the more difficult that the abusive process is insidious and may echo your own doubts: not contributing financially, doing work that is essential to your household, but not truly valued by your spouse.

BEWARE: Setting boundaries is easier said than done. Each time you define a particular boundary, it triggers a crisis.

Setting boundaries acts like earthquake tremors, but it’s the only way to work out a compromise or possible solution to the situation.

Marie-France Hirigoyen

This is the moment where you’re truly alone, facing your fate. You need to fend for yourself and nobody can do it for you. It can be paralysing but…
‘The longer the crisis is delayed, the more violent it will be when it finally arrives’, she adds.
And this is why you absolutely need some form of support.

4. Don’t remain isolated

The emotional turmoil is huge and Sophie needs to find some psychological support for herself. Trusted friends, support groups or/and professional help are indispensable.

In a country with different (and unknown to you) laws, another language, limited network of friends and in the case of expat compound, privacy issues, this may prove extremely challenging. Sometimes, psychological support is enough. Sometimes, physical integrity is threatened, certainly during the earthquake tremors of the previous step in setting boundaries.

Sophie is worried. She’s terrified. She’s ashamed. Is she the only one going through this?

The experience each person believes to be unique is shared by many others

Marie-France Hirigoyen

Emotional abuse is not what love is about.

Will you let it rule your expat life?


[1] Source: Family therapy: concepts, process and practice – Alan Carr detailing Virgina Satir’s description of pathological patterns of communication

Credit picture Depositphotos credit music Free Music Archive

Repatriation With Children – How To Be Sure You’re Doing The Right Thing

“Going back ‘home’? Are you serious?”
Repatriation with children
Jonathan’s eyes bulge out of his head. He’s 13. When his family moved abroad, he was 8.

“I don’t want to leave my friends! I don’t know anyone back there. Why are we going? Why don’t we stay?”

“My job ends next month. We have to leave,” says his dad.

Jonathan looks at his mum.

“Mum, is it for sure?”

She nods.

“But why did we do all that hard work if we now have to go back? How come you never talked to me about it before?” exclaims Jonathan.

“We only got confirmation yesterday!”

Jonathan slams the door and goes to his room.

Debbie, 10 and little Stan, 6 haven’t said a word yet.

The parents look at each other. Tough call.

“And you guys, how do you feel? We’re going to live closer to grand-ma and grand-pa.”

Debbie shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t want to change school but I’m happy to visit grand-ma. She always plays with me and I love her cakes!”

“Stan, you haven’t said anything.” Stan keeps on playing with his Legos. He doesn’t seem to care.

The parents are puzzled.

Three children, three different stages of development, three different reactions.

Moving abroad or repatriating are big changes. They deeply affect all family members. They’re not easy decisions to make.

How can you be sure as a parent that you’re doing the right thing?

You feel torn between returning to your home country and cutting your children off from their friends, their activities, their school. Sure, in some cases, you have no choice: if your contract is terminated for example, you HAVE to go back home.
You know that those experiences abroad – if successfully handled – will give your kids a wealth of skills for life, but your heart aches when you see them suffering.

In those difficult moments, you want to be at your best.

Drawing on the work of Francoise Dolto, paediatrician and psychoanalyst who devoted her life to listening to and understanding children through all their stages of development, I’ve included some useful and universal basic principles to guide your actions.

Let’s first define what it means to ‘do the right thing’.

Dolto mentions that in difficult situations the point is not to make the child happy, but to keep the focus on fostering a dynamic for his/her healthy structural development.
And a healthy development is more often than not built with hostility from the child.

Take the example of a kid who wants to sleep in the same bed as their parents. Saying no doesn’t make them happy, but it’s essential for their healthy development.

Talking to the children and giving an explanation that goes beyond the obvious reason of the move (mum or dad lost their job) is essential.
Children think for a long time that their parents are omnipotent, that they can move when and how they fancy. It’s important to underline the constraints you face as adults too.
Generally speaking, people want to avoid conflicts but it’s the conflicts that are formative when they are out in the open.

What generates dramas for the future, is what didn’t cause dramas as a child: what couldn’t be said and couldn’t be handled in the moment.

Françoise Dolto

Repatriation, like any other expat assignment, is a move.

Common guidelines on the way to handle a move abroad apply here, too. A move is a change. In this respect, it’s going to trigger grief.

Allow time and space for your children to grieve. Grieving is unique to each person and children grieve too.

Even if they seem forgetful or don’t shed tears, you shouldn’t assume that they’re not feeling deep sadness.

But repatriation is not like any other expat move.

“We’re going back home” can be so confusing.

What does it really mean for children who don’t remember the time they spent in their home country?

How is it true for families who relocate to the home country, but don’t return to their original house, nor their previous neighbourhood?

What does it entail for adults like you who left decades ago?

Pitfall #1 – You already know the place: You may be tempted to rush the process or not dedicate as much attention as you would for another move.

And so may your children. When you took them on holidays to visit family, friends, cities, monuments, natural sites, you gave them a sense of what the country was about. But it’s one thing to visit for a few weeks time, to be a tourist in your passport country, another is to live there, go to school and interact daily with family and local people.

Dolto asserts that children need continuity on 3 levels: their environment, their social network, their sources of affection.

Going back to your home country will bring disruptions in at least two dimensions: the place is different and social interactions will be highly modified.

Tip: Avoid any additional disruption. It’s not a good idea to decide that your child should stop thumb sucking for example.

Pitfall #2 – You may be forcing on your children an identity  that they don’t have.

You’ve spent years teaching your children about your home country. Abroad, you tried to re-create the atmosphere, the dishes, to pass on the traditions, the values, the language, the culture. You told them about your childhood, about the school system, about the pros and the cons of the mentality, the political system, the welfare situation.

Now you’re finally going to let them experience the REAL thing!

It’s both exciting and scary.

What if they don’t like it?

What if they find they don’t belong?

What if they don’t identify with their ‘home’ country?

Chances are … they’ll experience culture shock and they’ll feel awkward among their peers: they have the passport but not the shared experiences and the pop culture attached to it.

“Sorry I don’t know this TV show. Last year, I climbed Kilimanjaro with my parents. We lived in Tanzania.”

Hard to relate to your schoolmates who’ve never left the country. It’s just weird.

They may shame themselves about the language, not being able to master it as a ‘local’ or using ‘odd idioms’. They don’t stand out physically but they experience massive culture shock (not really reverse culture shock because they don’t remember or never lived in the country of origin).

They’re hidden immigrants. They seem invisible: they’re not seen so they can’t be heard.

Tip: Maintain the contact. Be present and lend an attentive ear WITHOUT judging, commenting, fixing, criticizing, denying, justifying, arguing however hard this may be!

Pitfall #3 – You think you know the country but you’re destabilized, too

Children and parents are not equal in repatriation.

You’ve called your home country ‘home’ but your children never lived there or don’t have any memories.

This is a totally different dynamic for you and your family.

In all the previous moves, when you went to a country as an expat family, all of you would be ‘equal’ aka equally ignorant: not knowing culture, language, customs from that country, being lost, surprised, puzzled as much as your kids. Now in your home country, you’re really supposed to know… while you may feel lost and out of place as well.

Children who could understand that you didn’t know things in other countries may be puzzled and frightened that you don’t feel you belong.

Where is home then?

What does it mean?

Repatriation can shatter all illusions of ever having a place that you can call home.

Tip: be prepared to take care of yourself. Seriously. You’ll need it. Expat grief, reverse culture shock, misunderstanding, rejection, guilt, doubts may all strike at various times.

Now, over to you. I’m curious to know how you’ve handled this special move.

What did you find most difficult with your kids?

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2015 – A Year In Expatland

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Trailing Spouse – Does Volunteering Make You Happier?

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Paris Attacks – 5 Contradictions You Face As An Expat When Terror Strikes In Your Home Country

For the second time this year, Paris is the scene of multiple terrorist attacks:  137 people lost their lives and 352 are severely wounded. The random killing of innocent people is wrong  no matter the country, the victims’ nationalities or the invoked cause. But when those tragic events happen to your home country while you’re living […]

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School Bullying – 5 Points For Expat Parents To Consider (Before It Spirals Out Of Control)

“Ching-Chong” shouts Werner at Cheng. And he laughs. On the playground, a few students raise their head and sneer.  Cheng slouches. It’s not the first time it happens. In this new school, the other children seem to avoid him. Cheng’s smile has vanished. His grades have dropped. Every morning, he stares silently at his cereal […]

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