Emotional abuse runs rife in expat communities.
Because isolation and control are the abusers weapons of mass destruction, easily obtained by removing the victim from family, friends and social support back home to a foreign country.
Often, prior to relocation, emotional abuse is less obvious, and concealed under the busyness of family, friends, work and everyday life.
Sometimes abuse is obvious even intolerable, and the move abroad is seen as a solution to the ‘problem’.
And in some cases, there is no apparent abuse until the couple move abroad and get to know each other and the ‘honeymoon’ period wears off.
And sometimes people are abused as targets of expat con artists, manipulators or serial cheaters.
But in all cases the abuse is not caused by a new city, country or the process of relocation.
The bottom line is abuse is caused by the abuser.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is- constant criticism, silent treatment, creating self- doubt (gas lighting), lying, mind-games, control, jealousy, name-calling, creating confusion, cheating, raging, scapegoating, triangulating, smear campaigns, future-faking.
As a counsellor and expat woman living in France, I often hear the following statements from my expat clients-
We’ve been married for years, when we moved to France he became more controlling and jealous of my family and friends.
When we retired abroad, I thought he’d be less stressed, but the abuse got worse. He became obsessive about everything, until I felt I couldn’t do anything right.
I fell pregnant while studying in Paris, we moved in together, had a child and now he and his family, make my life a misery.
We met in France after my wife died. I couldn’t afford to return home and was glad of her friendship. Little did I know she’d con me out of my life savings and leave me here with nothing.
How expat abusers control and isolate their victim
1. Family contact– Abuse thrives on isolation. Living thousands of miles away from family and friends, the emotional abuser controls contact by timing, monitoring, recording or listening to Skype/Phone calls. Often abusers control laptops and mobile devices by checking messages and recording calls or disrupting the router during calls, or ensuring insufficient phone credit.
2. Learning the language-The abuser prevents the partner from attending language classes or is highly critical of their attempts to speak, by humiliating in private and public. Being prevented from speaking the language further isolates the victim from making meaningful connections in their local community.
3. Controlling finances-Many abusers control finances by denying their partner a right to their own money, making them dependant for basic necessities. By controlling finances the victim is unable to visit family and friends or have access to outside support. The abuser may also be the named person on all legal documents and household accounts, using the excuse of being more fluent in the language, rendering the victim without legal documentation to leave or legally stay in the country.
4. Control of property– Encouraging the victim to sell their family home to buy abroad and exploiting the use of foreign country law by placing the title deeds in the abusers name. Or persuading the victim to use the proceeds of the family home to buy a joint business, then finding a legal loop-hole to take full ownership from the victim
5. Control of driving-Learning to drive in a new country takes confidence, time and practise. The abuser will insist on driving, criticise the partners driving or deny her access to a vehicle to further isolate her. She may become dependent on the abuser for access to airports, trains and transport to her home country which the abuser may refuse.
6. Controlling Social Group– Expat groups are a great support and often a close-community, but also a breeding ground for gossip. The abuser may monitor who the victim spends time with. or generate a smear campaign to turn people against them. By isolating the victim from the group, the abuser is free to have affairs and social contact, while segregating the victim from the friends, social and spiritual groups.
7. Controlling Children/Family members. Turning children and family against the victim and threatening to keep the children’s passports, making them unable to go on holiday or leave the country. Guilt tripping the victim into staying, as leaving would ‘break up the family’ and ‘ruin’ the ‘dream life abroad’ or ruin their relationship with foreign grandparents. Alternatively, the abuser may threaten to leave, taking the children, leaving the victim alone in a foreign country
Can the emotional abuser change?
This is the most common question clients ask in counselling and sadly the answer depends on many factors. If the abuser has many traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder, not only will they not be willing to change but the chances of change are extremely unlikely, due to their lack of empathy and self-awareness. Couples counselling is also ineffective with NPD and ASPD as the abusive partner manipulates the therapy session or appears to cooperate only to use the victim’s disclosure as a further means to increase the abuse.
NPD and ASPD are synonymous with emotional abuse, manipulation and exploitation.
However, not all emotional abusers are Narcissistic/Antisocial Personality Disordered.
Some emotionally abusive people can change, providing they become self –aware, actively work to change their behaviour and respect their partners boundaries.
What can you do?
You are the expert in your own life and only you can decide what the best solution is for you and your family.
Choosing a trusted non- judgemental friend or family member you can talk to, either in your country of residence or back home is not easy, but can help validate your situation and make you feel that you’re not going crazy.
There’s also much free support, advice and information online in your own language. Online counselling is also highly effective with a therapist who understands emotional abuse and/or personality disorders.
If you’re feeling anxious and depressed, have sleeping and eating problems and are easily startled, you may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the abuse. A visit to your G.P to discuss medication can help you cope in the meantime and help you get your physical and mental health back on track to help you decide your next steps.
And lastly, safe keeping of passports and documents for you and your children is vitally important and a list of emergency numbers if you find that you’re in physical danger.
Living with emotional abuse abroad is a highly stressful and lonely experience. Please don’t struggle alone. There is help out there. Many brave men and women have managed to learn effective skills to reclaim their lives regardless whether they stay or go.
Jacqueline Groves is a counsellor specialising in helping women reclaim their self worth from emotionally unavailable or toxic relationships in love, life and work.