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