This is the seventh of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Degradation & Suppression of Potential.
Men who degrade their female partner do this by calling her derogatory names like slut or whore, using abusive language, correcting things the woman says or does, by depriving her of sleep, food or health care, by humiliating and embarrassing her in public, by putting down or making fun of her cultural traditions, spiritual beliefs, interests, ideas and desires. Degradation can also entail threatening women with a wide array of reasons why she could never leave such as incessant jibes that no one else would ever want her. All these forms of degradation, and other tactics that women discuss below, all lead to a suppression of women’s potential.
It is our human birthright to grow, to flourish, to live in a nourishing environment that feeds us. Women usually enter a relationship with a man believing they will grow together. Ironically, this is what many men believe too. But when the man is uncritically steeped in gaining emotional and social kudos for controlling “his” woman by putting her down to make himself look like “the man” in the eyes of others – then a lack of growth is inevitable – in fact a slow slow slow psychological and spiritual decay occurs – for the woman – and for the man.
Women I interviewed cried when they discussed some of the ways the man they loved and once trusted chipped away at their soul. Here are their stories . . .
Puts her down
Luke diminished Heather’s intelligence saying that their son was going to be like Luke when he gets older, that he’s going to be bright, not like Heather.
Elizabeth said David “certainly didn’t encourage my self-esteem. He was very derogatory, he used to put me down a lot.”
Elsie said Leon “was always putting me down, always, always was. He would tell me I was fat and stupid, a million things really. Nothing that I did was good enough whether it was around the house or in the garden, or something that was on the news, or whatever, I never gave my opinions. It just wasn’t worth it. In the end I gave up having my own opinions. I didn’t really believe his, but I’d just agree with him.”
One time when Susan was pregnant, Anthony wouldn’t talk to her about the pregnancy. Instead, he put her down by saying, “Are you going to call the baby after the last place you lived in or all the people you slept with?”. Yet Susan said she didn’t sleep around. Many women experience such degrading comments by men who engage in possessive jealousy.
Karen told me that her mum used to despair watching the way Felix treated Karen. Karen said this was, “because I’d be bouncing around, apparently as a child I used to skip everywhere singing, and I bounced when I came into a room and he’d watch me and then he’d just find the most cutting thing that he could say and I’d fold over, go and sit in the corner. My mother told me it would wrench her heart. She told me this after we split. She was the one who pointed it out to me that if I said it was ‘blue’, he’d say it was ‘green’. She pointed that out about four or five years into the relationship. I thought it was good that she told me this because I thought at that stage that it was me that was wrong.”
Raewyn said if she “had an idea, it would be like Brian would almost ignore me. He would never listen to me and then somebody else who he respected, usually a male, would have an idea that had been the same as my idea, and he would be all ears and say, ‘Yeah that’s great, that’s great.’ So in some ways, although the same idea would crop up and he would believe it, but initially it would make me feel like I was useless.” Despite Brian’s dismissiveness, Raewyn said she “still gave opinions but I held back a lot of things because I used to get to the stage where I just felt I couldn’t be bothered with him.”
Teresa worked in the same place as her partner, but after she left him, she ended up having to work with him because her co-worker had left. She said “it was awful having to sit there and face Patrick for four hours every morning. He was absolutely foul to me the whole time, really nasty. I’d had two lumps taken out of my breast and I’d had something done to my knee so I’d had three surgical procedures, and he said to me one morning, really conversationally and in a friendly way, ‘How many anaesthetics have you had in the last year?’ And I said, ‘Three’ and he said, ‘That explains why you’re so fucked in the head.’ He’d introduce something in a really conversational way, but he’d have planned the barb to come at the end of it. I cried, I was really upset. I gradually started to get angrier and walk out of the room, and in the end I’d only go in there to do my set job and I’d leave the room again straight after. I wasn’t very good at being angry directly to him and saying ‘piss off you wanker’, or anything like that.”
Compares her unfavourably to other people
Teresa said Patrick compared her to his ex-wife sometimes and unfavourably so. “He’d say – ‘Well Sandra was always happy when I did this, she didn’t mind if I did that’.” Teresa responded to these comparisons, “By changing what I did so that it was more like what she had done”.
Dylan constantly put down how Sally looked. She said, “He put down my breasts, he was always comparing them to other lovers that he had in the past and how mine were not as big, not as firm, not as pert not as upright. I was not allowed to not wear a bra because that meant that over time they would hang down too low and they would be ugly and he would want to leave me. I wasn’t allowed to have children because it would effect how my breasts looked because lovers he had in the past who were mothers had ugly breasts and if I had ugly breasts he would leave me.”
Victoria said Graham compared her to her sister. “I think he quite fancied my sister. ‘Diana’s so good, Diana does this, and Diana does that’. I already thought my sister was better than me anyway, so it just confirmed it. And it made me feel that really everybody was right, that I was lucky to be married, so just don’t rock the boat.”
Exploiting women’s vulnerabilities is a method many men use to establish one-upmanship, which is also a tactic used by school bullies. Many women are very astute at recognising that among men’s motivation to control them is often a need to maintain a certain masculine image.
For example, Victoria said, “I didn’t make many achievements after we were married, because again it would threaten his masculinity, so it’s best not to do that. I learned that really quickly if I wanted to keep the peace. He very much discredited me as a female. That just reinforced everything I believed to be true about myself anyway. I think he destroyed my identity (laughter). I didn’t have one. One part of me was like, ‘I don’t deserve this, I deserve better than that’, and the other part of me was like, ‘just put up with it, you get what you deserve’. There was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy that nobody wants you and you’re not good enough and you’re not of any worth, you’re going to a marriage that supports that anyway. But deep down I kind of knew I was better than that.
The incessant and often subtle clawing away at degrading women and suppressing women’s potential one facet at a time, day in and day out, is draining and debilitating as each woman slides into decline.
Victoria describes the erosive impact here . . .
“It wasn’t an overt degradation, it was just – what I had to offer wasn’t what he needed to meet his needs, so it just kind of had to go really. I felt great sadness and disappointment and regret and longing. Throughout all of this, throughout the whole marriage, I really wished that it was normal, I really longed for a proper marriage. This had been something I’d waited for a long time and the result was just unbelievable. I deserved better than that.”
Denies her of her individual tastes, or downgrades them
Pauline’s husband Chris would say things to downgrade her personal tastes. She said, “we were trying to decorate the home and any suggestion that I would come up withI just wasn’t allowed it. I would say what I thought and my taste and everything, but he would come back with a comment that would wipe it.” Pauline said that silently on the inside she wouldn’t accept that, rather she would think, “You bugger”. But on the outside she said she make it appear as if she just accepted his perspective.
Uses emotional blackmail to make her feel selfish or guilty for pursuing her own interests
Calling women selfish eats at the heart of the way most women are socialised to behave – sacrifice yourself for your husband – being selfish is considered a big no no for women. But the social messages for men are the opposite, so men who believe they are entitled to have everything their way use this as a manipulative control tactic.
When I asked Teresa if Patrick ever called her selfish, she replied, “Oh yes, yes, yes, yes, I was very selfish. That’s what my mother had always said as well, so it was just reinforcing that. I absolutely believed I was selfish and would redouble my efforts to be not selfish.”
Teresa experienced guilt and fear for pursuing her relationships with family and friends. She said, “I thought it was really selfish and that I should be thinking of him. I’d feel guilty when I’d do things without telling him I’d done them, I’d feel really guilty, like if I’d gone and had afternoon tea with a friend while he was at work. Sometimes I’d lie about where I’d been. He’d say ‘what have you been doing?’ and I’d say ‘nothing’ and Patrick would say ‘well I rang and you weren’t here’, I’d say ‘oh, I just went for a walk’. But I felt really guilty about it, coz you’re not supposed to have lies in a relationship (laughter), you’re supposed to have honesty.”
Criticises and diminishes her strengths and achievements
When the women told me about being degraded, they said a lot of the tactics were incredibly subtle. For instance Karen said Felix dagraded her “all the time, just subtle little comments like ‘Oh yes that’s very nice but what about the bit you missed over here?’” Karen went on to say that Felix “criticised my strength, well tried to negate it. Intelligence, organisational skills, artistic ability, creativity, he’d bring it all down. I’ve always been a very resourceful crafty person making stuff. He’d find a hole in it. In response I could either turn around and bitch back at him and have a fight, or I could try and just ignore it. Either way was part of me resisting it, tossing it off, ‘that’s just a load of bullshit, you know that’s not right’. Equally the flip side of that was me believing I had made a mistake and I had done something wrong, that it was something about me. There was a subtle erosion.”
Teresa said, “During the course of the relationship and after it as well, Patrick tried to diminish my professional achievements in quite insidious ways where I didn’t realise what he was doing, because it didn’t occur to me that somebody would do that to somebody that they supposedly loved. You expect people to be supportive and kind and proud of you, but, because we worked in the same field, I think that was very much to do with his own self-esteem. By diminishing me and my achievements, he’d build up his own.
Teresa’s feeling of achievement was diminished. Her self-esteem through the relationship dropped to absolutely zero. She said, “I don’t think it diminished my intelligence in any way. He did challenge my intelligence. At the time I was studying for my Certificate in Horticulture. He was quite dismissing of that and quite patronising, like it was – ‘Your little hobby. Well if it makes you feel as if you’re achieving something, well that’s good.’ But in a way where it sounded like he was proud of it – ‘Oh it’s so great you’ve got this little thing you’re interested in’. So it was the two messages coming through. I didn’t notice this until I looked back and realised. It was really typical of the whole relationship that it was gradual and insidious and you just slid slowly down the slope.”
Teresa said Patrick “put down what I thought when we were still having the relationship. Once the relationship was over he used to put down how I looked and acted quite a lot. I’d come into work and he’d go, ‘oh, that’s an interesting look.’ It was awful because I’d just started to get some confidence back and I’d feel I looked nice, and I’d come in and it would just take it away. He seemed to know exactly where all my vulnerable points were and he’d get me every time, it was really horrible. I just wouldn’t say anything to him if he said that because I was trying to be mature and reasonable. At that point I was able to think, ‘well no!’ This was after the relationship was over. But it would knock my confidence and I would be full of doubt again about, ‘did I look horrible?’.
The whole time Teresa was with Patrick she didn’t feel as if she had strengths. Though, now she feels as if she has got a lot of strengths. She said, “I saw myself only in relation to him and that was where I existed, was in his perception of me.”
Elizabeth thought “that going to the parenting course 13 years ago would have been the beginnings of starting to look at what the hell has been going on here. She thought David saw the parenting courseas just a little thing – ‘you go off and do that, it’ll keep you busy, it’ll keep you happy’. He was disrespectful and very disdainful like it was of no consequence. I had joined a sewing group and had just learned to sew and it was like he was doing the important things and I was just doing the fiddly bits around the side (laughter).”
Raewyn said she “used to keep very quiet about having a Masters degree. Brian would rubbish the work I used to do when I was working , he would say, ‘Oh God what’s the point of that?’ ‘Head tripping’ – that’s what he used to say. I would never argue and that’s when I was protecting him. Because I used to think he’s just jealous.” Everytime Brian criticised Raewyn’s strengths she, “Usually just ignored it. I just thought, ‘huh?’ I mean in some ways I had enough in me to know that he just loved to put me down. It was just him trying to put me down, although I got worn down by it.”
Uses various tactics to suppress her ideas
Elizabeth said she often used to come up with ideas about things and David hated it. She said, “he would just reject them out of hand and then a bit further down the track he would come up with exactly the same idea and it would be his idea (laughter) and I used to find that quite annoying. I would say, ‘Hang on a minute I was talking about….’, but his response was ‘Oh, no, no, no, no that was something different.’ So there was no acknowledgement at all for any contribution I might make.”
As a result Elizabeth “used to get really pissed off, but it was the way it was. David wouldn’t listen, he wasn’t interested in listening to what my ideas might be because he’d indicate they were always really stupid ideas.” Elizabeth said she “stopped voicing my ideas and self doubt has always been a really big thing, but I think over the time that I was with him my self doubt grew even more and more because everything I suggested just got put down. I guess it fed my thing about somehow the patriarchal thing too that women are inferior and men are superior.”
Elizabeth talked about how this continual silencing of her voice by David “just proved to me that these ideas that were out there were really the truth, that is the way it works, men are more superior, they do know more, they are cleverer.”
Elizabeth said . . .
“It’s taken me a long time to think – ‘hey my ideas are really valid, just as valid as anybody else’s’ – and have the confidence to speak them.”
Elizabeth then shared that the long-term negative impact of being degraded meant “I still find I can be in a room at a meeting, and I do speak up now at meetings, whereas I used to not say anything, I was too scared to say anything at all, but if I don’t start getting some feedback pretty quickly, like through body language or just noises, I’ll start to think ‘am I not making sense?’, or ‘do you not understand me, is this really dumb?’ That starts very quickly with me so I still battle with that now. My father was very ridiculing and putting down too.”
As Elizabeth was telling me about being put down she started to cry as she continued to say, “I can’t even remember anyone ever saying to me, ‘Well that was a good idea Elizabeth’. So I’m only just starting to have some faith in myself, some confidence now so it’s had a big impact really, which I hadn’t really thought about.”
The women I interviewed had been out of their relationship for more than a year, some such as Elizabeth, for about 10 years. Everyone who experiences putdowns suffers – no matter what age or what gender, and when degradation and suppression of your potential is part of a multitude of other controlling tactics, the wounding is huge and can take years to heal, and the scars may always remain.
Suppresses her potential
Victoria thought Graham “felt quite threatened by my initial independence. I was a relatively independent person, so he definitely thwarted any growth there and tried to retard that by his behaviour. For example, Victoria “got onto the teaching training programme and it just started to cause too many ructions, so I gave it up after six months. And it had been something that I’d strived for a long time to get in. I think it threatened his position of power that I was being academic, that I was achieving and moving forward. He used to talk about the fact, ‘I’m useless, I’m nothing, I can’t do anything’, and in order not to offend his ego any more I pulled out.”
As part of gender socialisation, there are many social messages that influence women to pull back on pursuing their own potential because they believe they should not offend men’s ego, in other words, not be equal to or better than their male partner.
Teresa had “thought about going back to university which Patrick wasn’t encouraging of, so that was something I didn’t pursue, but I hadn’t decided I wanted to do it, but I was thinking about it. I put everything on hold that he wanted me to put on hold.”
Many of men’s tactics described by women I interviewed were subtle. They stemmed from the man’s need to maintain a masculine status that was above the woman. This is personal for many men –– and it is deeply social –– it is how masculine the man feels he’s perceived by others.
Karen said that when she went to university, “the shit hit the fan big time. I kept going though. I discovered feminism there, which was huge. I’m crying now just thinking about that. It was a huge relief for me. It was like I’d been validated. Somebody’s out there talking about this stuff, I’m not mad. I felt really really isolated being a mother in the situation I was in. I’d been through a very rough few years in this shitty relationship, so when I got to university it was wonderful. I discovered all this stuff about reading and writing feminism. It was great, but it was a big bloody challenge to Felix. He didn’t like it much. He didn’t tell me to stop, in a lot of ways he was supportive, but in other ways not. Sometimes it’s subtle sometimes it wasn’t.”
Elizabeth said, “I didn’t really know who I was, and if any slight glimmer of it came through, it got squashed before it saw the light of day. I remember once that when I was doing part-time work for a clothes designer – oh and I loved it, I just loved that contact with the public and the beautiful clothes that I was working with and I was imagining what it would be like to have my own clothing business to be able to buy fabrics and design clothes and it was like, ‘oh wow it would be so cool’ and it was just this idea! I talked to the people that I was working with quite a bit, and where they got the stuff’ and where I could learn. I came home and I said, ‘Oh what about dah dah dah?’ And it was stomped on straight away and I felt just totally stunned, and it just wiped it away. I didn’t give it another thought, that was it.”
If Elizabeth tried to discuss or express any area of her creativity with David, he would stomp on it, squash it and push her potential back down immediately. The result was that Elizabeth “put on hold finding out who I was, getting in touch with my own purpose in life, my own spirit. I was so busy trying to be the role, that who I was didn’t even come into it.”
Elizabeth had a miscarriage and did little part time jobs, which she had quite a lot of fun doing, but David never really gave her career a lot of encouragement and support. Elizabeth, like many other women, coped with her husband’s lack of encouragement, by following social messages about how to be a woman. For example, Elizabeth said, “I know a couple of times I came up with ideas about things I’d really like to do and he was very quick to just slate them completely, ‘There’s no way you can do that, what are you talking about, you couldn’t do that, where would you get the money?’ He was very negative about it, and I guess I still had this picture in my mind that we were married, and we were going to have babies, and I would be the mum and stay at home and look after them, the way my mum did. And that he would look after me, and that would be the way it was. I didn’t have strong feelings about a career anyway, so I can’t say it was all his doing that I didn’t end up with a career.”
Tells her their relationship is the best she can hope for
Donna said Frank reckoned that, “once he died I’d probably never be able to re-marry because I had the best, no one else could measure up.”
Teresa mentioned the other version of this control tactic, that is, Patrick would often tell her, “’No-one will ever love you as much as I do.’ Which in one way sounds like a nice thing to say, but it’s not. It’s like saying, ‘no-one else will ever love you really’.”
This is an incredibly common tactic used by men who are determined to control their partner. Elizabeth said David would often say, “’Who else would want you?’ ‘Who else would put up with this stuff?’ like I was so bad that he was doing me this big favour by putting up with me. I think at the end of the day, what I was to him was a possession.” After Elizabeth left, she thought David “was really pissed off that he lost his prize possession. He is still really angry now, and it’s nearly eight years down the track.”
Not long before Elsie left Leon, he played the “this relationship is the best you can hope for” card. Elsie said, “It was when I was pregnant. I left when my son was eight or 12 weeks old or something. I was about seven months pregnant when he said that I’d need him because when the baby came along I wouldn’t be able to live on my own. I’d find it really hard. I think he knew I was getting near snapping point. I didn’t argue with him, I didn’t say anything, but in my head I just knew that that wasn’t true, coz by then anything would have been better.”
Heather said Luke “used to say that half of Whanganui wanted him, even though I was the one that had his child, and that when I left him, I’d be the one that would regret it and I wouldn’t find a guy like him. He’d say that he’s the one that’s the most affectionate person in Whanganui and I wouldn’t find someone that hugged and kissed like he did.”
Heather explained that this was hard, “It’s still quite hard today because I haven’t met another man and I think, ‘are there other affectionate men out there, was he the only affectionate man?’ I think maybe he was, because I really enjoyed the affection, that was the thing that attracted me to him, holding hands and stuff. But then I remember seeing his face yelling and screaming and I think I don’t want that, but then I think he seems to always have one woman after another. He must have some charm that picks up women quite quickly.”
Respectful relationships require challenging rigid gender socialisation
For centuries, generally speaking, men’s roles have been given the most kudos and respect and women’s roles have been subordinated, marginalised and demeaned. Many men do not tolerate these ideas, they challenge themselves and other men to have compassion and respect for people’s differences whether they are male or female, no matter what age, race or class. But many men take gender socialisation for granted – as if it is natural to be superior to their partner. One of the social messages that influences some men is that it is weak to admit to mistakes and failings and seek support to change. The first step is challenging the status quo, naming the costs to men for degrading the women they claim to love, naming the harm to themselves, to their children, to their children’s mother. And as one man I interviewed said – men just have to change in front of other men – be a role model – and not wait for approval from other men before challenging the social norms that breed disrespect.
Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:
One-Sided power games
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children