Emotional Abuse – Why Expat Couples Are At Risk

She comes back home, tired but thrilled. Her Vuitton bag, her manicured nails, her Chanel tailleur… She feels so attractive.

Everything and everyone at her feet!

Everything and everyone at her feet!

In the elevator bringing her home to the 27th floor, a luxurious duplex with panoramic city view catered for by the company, she is in a dream…

The CEO, Henry, has just appointed her to represent the firm in New-York at a strategic meeting. From the ten managers in the team, she is the one picked up.

Henry said he chose the best.

The elevator stops. She steps outside.

Searching for her keys, she’s standing at the front door when she hears the purring of the TV on the other side. She frowns.

Pushing the door, she uncovers Frank, her husband, sprawled on the couch. Unshaven, disheveled hair.

“Hello,” she greets him coldly. “Everything’s fine? Life’s not too hard? I see what you’re doing while I’m working my tail off.”

Frank replies back, stung.

“Why don’t you start by asking me what I’ve been doing all day? I spent the whole morning sorting out the paperwork for our car insurance and your doctor’s bills, I ran some errands, cooked dinner, helped at school for the fair coming up, brought the kids to their soccer training and music lesson, came back, fed them and just put them in bed. I didn’t have a minute to breathe. I needed a break and I’ve just been sitting here 5 minutes catching up with the news.’’

She keeps on going.

“Did you pick up my dress at the dry cleaning?”

“No, I completely forgot!”

“What? I can’t believe it. The only thing I asked you to do and you’re not even able to pick up my dress! I need it. I have such an important meeting tomorrow.”’

“I’m sorry. I forgot.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem with you. You’re always so forgetful. You never pay attention to anything. How many times do I need to tell you? I’m the one working here. We’re not going to pay the bills on what you’re doing.”

The arrow hit its target, once again. Frank is stunned.

“It’s easy for you to forget now who paid for your MBA for three years and who left a wonderful job behind to advance your career.”

Sandy feigns to ignore him and consults her emails.

How did she fall in love with such a loser, always whining and complaining?

Betty, her secretary who has become her best friend, is right. She should just dump him. He’s useless. At work, there are at least real men.


This is called emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is “ any behaviour that deliberately undermines someone’s confidence leading the person to believe they’re stupid, ‘a bad parent’, useless or even to believe they’re going crazy or are insane. This type of abuse humiliates, degrades and demeans the victim.” (source)

Emotional abuse exists in all social settings, regardless of professional occupation or level of education. Emotional abuse can be targeted at both men and women.

And even though few talk about it, emotional abuse is very common. It’s difficult to convey to a third party because it doesn’t leave physical marks and concrete evidence. It starts in subtle ways that can evolve over several months and years with victims remaining oblivious partly because it echoes their own doubts.

While there is no bruise or physical scar, it’s an extremely destructive process: the erosion of your identity.

But why are expat couples at greater risk?

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse, said Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

And there are definitely power imbalances in an expat relationship. Especially where one spouse got the job abroad and takes their family with them as accompanying members.

Power starts with the Right to Live in the Host Country

If you follow your partner for work purposes, you’re totally dependent on their visa sponsored by the employer. You’re mentioned as a secondary applicant. In other words, you’re granted residence only because of your relationship with the primary applicant.

The same applies for access to health care insurance.

Then comes Money

If you don’t have any income — and in many countries you’re not even allowed to work (!) — you can’t open a bank account on your own. You need your spouse’s presence and their pay slips.

In many places, you need a working permit, a document granted after a tedious administrative process. Delays go from several months to several years. You may already be on your next posting when you get it!

And when you DO get your permit, you’re faced with language barrier, lack of useful network and credential recognition.

Custody of the Children

Should you want to return home if things go astray, you’re not sure to be able to take your children with you. The Hague convention considers the new country as your children’s residence and without your spouse’s consent, their repatriation back even in their original country (or yours) is considered abduction!

Zero Support System

Add to these facts that you’re far away from your family and friends, submitted to the unfamiliar laws of a foreign country and that you may not even speak the local language.

What Your Spouse Gets

On the other side of the coin, your spouse gets a boost in self-esteem and self-confidence: a new position with very often substantial benefits. Living off lavish hotels, restaurants and business class flights, glued to their screens, they can easily lose touch with practical reality. Accustomed to play games of power and politics, they may be tempted to replicate this scheme in their private relationships.

All these circumstances make emotional abuse in expat couples both easier to experience/inflict and more difficult to get out of it.

In her groundbreaking book Stalking the soul, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marie-France Hirigoyen analyzes the process from start to finish.

Lack of respect, lies or simple manipulative acts are the forerunners. Tone of voice, gesture, body language are also part of the game to destabilize the other person.

Emotional abuse is not described easily

How can you convey appropriately the “importance of every word, every intonation, and every allusion? The details taken separately seem harmless — that’s why the victim struggles to describe her situation to outsiders and remains silent. But added together, they show a destructive process.” (M-F Hirigoyen)

Sometimes the lack of communication is even worse:

  • checking emails in the middle of a conversation,
  • not answering when talked to,
  • refusing to discuss important matters while devoting full attention to futile occupations,
  • withdrawing affection.

It’s not the acts in themselves but their systematic use that should ring a bell.

In absence of a reaction, the behavior escalates.

Is that to say that all expat couples will experience emotional abuse?

Of course not.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Abraham Lincoln

Trailing spouses are particularly vulnerable: their frail sense of identity after an international move makes them an easy prey for partners who are naturally prone to relationships based on control and power.

How to Address Your Situation

If you think you’re in a situation of emotional abuse, know that your caring nature has been detoured and is used against you. Your endurance demonstrates your strong resilience, but you need to address this highly unhealthy situation now. For yourself and your children’s sake.

Darlene Lancer, licensed marriage and family therapist, specialized in emotional abuse and codependency says:

“Intentional abuse is about power and the victim should not explain his or herself, but set boundaries. With consistent boundaries, often the abuser will stop and the relationship will improve. It’s not hopeless. I’ve seen marriages where the abuse stops and spouses learn to be authentic and loving toward one another. Finally, listening to verbal abuse unabated harms your self-esteem. It doesn’t always lead to violence, but it does precede it.”

Reach out for help, whether it’s a professional trained to deal with abuse, a support group, a trusted friend or a reliable family member. Do it now. The clock is ticking. You deserve to be loved and to feel safe.


Credit photo Depositphotos Credit music Piano Society



  1. Erna Cox says:

    I am one of those spouses. Found a hand written divorce plan of my husband hidden in his cupboard. I did not want to do this last expat posting but was told by International Social Services that if I return home without my husbands consent that I will be seen to be ubducting our children hence me staying with him and moving again…TRAPPED! comes to mind. He knew this and threatened me with “i will say you stole the kids”. The Hague Convention seems to be used and abused by abuser. After discovering this divorce plan of his and reading up what this meant for me, I soon discovered that I will loose my visa and will be deported home within 90hours of the divorce being final. I will not be able to take my children by law so will loose my kids too. I then decided that I need to be with family to sort out head and heart. When I left he cancelled another credit card of ours, he has been cutting us off financially for months already and this was one of the last doors he shut on me and my kids having access to money. Now I am back home , safe with our kids and he is filing through the Hague Convention. Worst part is that his legal fees will be paid by our home country and I have to make debt to defend my case in court with no financial income. He cut us off completely. Currently I am cleaning houses just to help keep our kids in school in a healthy routine and try and give them some normality. My faith in God is getting us through this very tough time.

    • Dear Erna, my heart goes out to you. Thank you for sharing your story. Know that you’ve been heard and you’re not alone. Have you heard of Expat Stuck Mums? They might provide useful information. Sending you lots of warm thoughts. Anne

  2. Anne,

    This is a powerful and beautifully written piece. Thank you. Very stimulating the way you changed the male/female positions in the story. But the message is relevant. How voice tone, body language and the put-downs convey messages that are very debilitating to the receiver, already suffering loss of self in the situation.
    I did once experience this kind of abuse in a colonial style Singapore office with a boss who didn’t like the fact that I’d been transferred from the London office. I think he resented me and was concerned I might report back on his loose lifestyle. The constant undermining eventually affected my confidence. But at least I was free to leave. Back in the day, that meant leaving Singapore because the job enabled the visa. So that’s how and why I moved to Hong Kong. Your post stirred up the memory. Thanks again. Julia

    • Dear Julia, what a pleasure to read your comment. Thank you very much for sharing this personal story that beautifully illustrates the far reaching consequences expats experience in such situations.

  3. When I read your story, you have nicely changed the sexes, but it also applies the other way round. With me, many expats have the same scenario, all with similar or different outcome.
    But one thing missing here, is that there is a relentless competition to keep up with the Jones…. Many is plenty. I got a friendly divorce out of all this Expat life. No affair on both sides. But how many endure any style of abuse just for the money sake? Man are forced and used to bring home the big bucks. No Job is safe. Wife are forced to join the social life of the other Expat wifes. No friendship is true and blue in this environment. Once Job or Money gone. You gone. Man and Wife.
    The scarrs are deep. Mariage gone. What a price to pay. In reflection of our story, better we never moved and lived our good live with all the ups and downs. Being an Expat is a trap, which you cant escape.

  4. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. We work with people like you as your Immigration & Relocation consultants. It is good for us to realize that behind a nice face, this can be the reality. Sometimes it will help to share some of this with one of us, so we can look into the immigration options available for spouses. We are going to use this powerful document for learning purposes in our company. We try to look look out for the “trailing spouses” just as we look out for the children, but maybe we can do more. Take care, from all of us at PIRGROUP.

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