The red-flags for covert abuse, coercive control and gaslighting in a toxic relationship usually take time to notice. We enter into coupledom in a state of vulnerability, with an open heart, and assuming our partner has the best intentions. When things go wrong, we might blame ourselves or start thinking we are unwell. Then we notice the warning signs in the form of patterns of dominating conduct. Becoming aware of manipulation and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships is the first step in managing and ultimately refusing it. Recovering and healing from the psychological harm inflicted by an abusive ex-partner can be better helped by counselling and other professional support.
Manipulation through Deception and Abuse Erodes Self-Worth
As an online therapist for English-speaking expats in Sweden and around the world, I work with many individuals struggling with coercive control and gaslighting. Sometimes clients contact me for couples therapy when they are actually looking for a referee or help in escaping the relationship. Often, in their initial emails, my counselling clients outline problematic behaviour by their spouse, sambo or lover that is clearly inconsistent with the signs of a healthy relationship. I’m referring here to the trust, respectful communication, mutual support, shared decision making and commitment to each other’s growth. Most of us are seeking those when we start sharing a life with someone.
Examples of controlling behaviour in relationships are abundant. Gaslighting, for example, is a specific type of manipulation that leads a person to self-doubt. It could be via outright deception or ‘crazy-making’ (pathologising). I often hear stories from people who arrive in Sweden from to start a new life only to find themselves pseudo-diagnosed by their partner as depressed, anxious, ‘bipolar’, obsessive compulsive disorder, or ‘ADHD’ or as suffering from borderline personality disorder. The effect on my English speaking clients is to undermine their sense of self and distort their reality. They feel sick, wrong or broken. Covert abuse, consistent coercive control and gaslighting can make a person mentally ill.
Self-Worth and the Adjustment to Swedish Culture
In other cases the controlling behaviour is more subtle. It might include prioritising friends or family over a partner, consistently making unilateral decisions or demanding particular outcomes without any offers or negotiation (also known as ‘my way or the highway’). Some clients are repeatedly infantilised. Their partners are not prepared to accommodate the time it might take a new immigrant to adjust to Swedish culture. In some cases my clients are being ‘abandoned with care’: made important but worthless at the same time through the provision of limited financial support but a disregard for emotional needs. These are all situations that result in an erosion of self-worth.
More obvious abusive relationships involve the denial of autonomy, or monitoring and surveillance of activity. Name-calling, mockery, put downs and other forms of bullying are further examples. Threatening harm to pets, or children, or even violence to the person themselves might be accompanied by a suggestion that the victim would somehow be responsible for the abuser’s behaviour. These are clear signs of abuse that will have a person living in fear. The turning point for my talk therapy clients in Sweden is often the realisation that they can choose not to live in fear and that everyone has a right to an intimate relationship free of dread, coercive control and gaslighting, even when socially isolated in an unfamiliar country.
Vulnerability to Coercive Control and Gaslighting for Expats in Sweden
Abusive and controlling behaviour in expat relationships arises in combination with a number of factors. Moving to a new country can be stressful and the person immigrating often leans into their partner for more support in the initial months and years. There are sometimes massive Swedish cultural differences not always apparent when first arriving. Language and communication difficulties can erode a person’s confidence and lead to further reliance on the native partner. Social isolation and financial dependence can play a part in ceding to a domineering spouse or lover. When one partner starts disregarding or disrespecting the other, it often leads to loneliness within the relationship.
But these instances don’t explain every situation. What about so called Third Culture Kids (TCKs), adults who spend a good deal of their childhood moving countries with their parents? I assist many TCKs via webcam therapy sessions from Sweden other countries. They also often report symptoms of toxic relationships despite often being adept at adjusting to new countries and cultures and having advanced language skills. So what might be happening for TCKs?
The acceptance and tolerance of controlling behaviour often relates back to past relationships. It can evolve due to or childhood experiences or religious trauma. Often my clients realise they have a pattern of abusive relationships that defy transnational migration and transcultural relocation. Interpersonal conflicts re-emerge. The emotional support yearned for is distinctly absent. The awakening to a relationship as controlling is a shock. But moving to a new country represents a new start, a way of leaving a difficult or shameful past behind. Unfortunately it can also mean a replication of the enmeshment or co-dependence that occurred in the family of origin or church along with similar abandonment, isolation, loneliness, and neglect.
Toxic Relationships: A Pattern from Childhood and Family
We are usually drawn to people who offer the promise of a missing experience, something we seek in childhood but never receive. Yet the person who attracts us can also be somewhat familiar. Ever heard the expression ‘They married their mother / father’? For those with backgrounds of neglect, abuse or abandonment, where a parent is distant, absent, critical or authoritarian, it can be easy to slip into yet another unsatisfactory and abusive relationship. But if you start to recognise a pattern in your relationships, that they are abusive or mirror somewhat the relationship you had with a parent, it’s important not to give yourself a hard time. Now you can use self-compassion.
Some clients report a kind of low mood that persists since childhood. They manage go about their lives, appearing somewhat functional, but never feel particularly happy for long. The trauma therapist and Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) Patrick Teahan refers to this as Refrigerator Buzz Depression. You live with it for so long that it becomes background noise. Processing childhood trauma, and awakening to how bad it is, are integral to recovery but can initially inflame mood disturbances. At the same time, changing one’s life by moving to a new country like Sweden can also bring the realisation that you no longer have to put up with the sadness you have lived with for so long.
Treatment, Healing and Recovery from Coercive Control and Gaslighting in Relationships
Finding your way out of a controlling relationship involves awareness, accessing support and taking practical action. But it also means trusting yourself. We evolve with emotions for good reason. Noticing your anger, shame, fear or sadness is part of realising that something is wrong. Developing a kinder and less critical relationship with yourself can be the key to accessing a way out.
The isolation of being in a foreign country like Sweden can cause confusion. If you are struggling to understand how to cope in your relationship, an individual consultation might be better help than couples counselling. For a relationship beyond repair, couples therapy can only involve supporting the relationship to end. An individual session might reveal you have been over-tolerating bad behaviour. You could be in a state of self-blame or toxic shame. You may find it difficult to navigate relationships and deal with coercive control and gaslighting. Getting good with yourself through the encouragement of an English speaking therapist can assist you to manage emotions and develop a course of action. If you are in danger, go to the police.
Therapy for Managing Controlling Relationships
Therapy for those experiencing manipulation by their intimate partners can involve:
- Stress management techniques;
- Problem solving around boundaries, risk and managing safety;
- Psychoeducation to understand the signs of coercive control and gaslighting and other forms of covert abuse;
- Strategies for de-escalating, responding to and eliminating abusive behaviour;
- Development of a plan around financial independence and social and emotional support;
- Grief counselling, particularly around the sense of betrayal and emotions that accompany separation.
Good talk therapy is not simply about venting or offloading your feelings. Being able to talk and be heard are important but an experienced therapist will not only listen, they will assist you to develop your self-agency or your capacity to change your circumstances. They will encourage and support you to take action and reach a turning point. This might involve practising self-compassion, assertiveness or prioritising new habits over fast gratification. In any case, a willingness to take new steps is part of recovery. Even the best psychologist in Stockholm will not be influential if you are not willing to do something yourself about the situation.
Identifying, dealing with and recovering from a relationship involving coercive control and gaslighting can take time. This is particularly true for those who find themselves isolated in toxic partnerships that resonate with abusive childhood experiences. In the beginning, it can feel overwhelming. But with the right support, it is possible to change your circumstances and recover both a sense of safety and a nurturing relationship with yourself.