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



  1. Beautiful article, Anne, about a subject that is so important and needs to be better understood. Bravo!

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