Tactic #15 — How Men Coerce Women into Domestic Slavery and why Equality is the Answer

This is the fifteenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Domestic Slavery.

Power & control wheel #15 Clare Murphy PhD

Rigid Gender Roles

Amongst heterosexual couples, many people believe the man should be the breadwinner (although being the sole breadwinner is really only possible for wealthy families). Alongside this, many people believe the woman should stay at home to care for the children, the house, the shopping and the cooking.  Or, if the woman does earn money, this is often viewed as supplementing the man’s income — and her duties are often thought of as “not real work”.  Socially speaking, the male breadwinner role has been assigned a high status that includes having power over their wife and children, the privilege to do what he wants when he wants, and our society has made this role the central way for men to express a masculine identity.

This social identity is rewarded with respect and therefore influences men’s self-esteem and self-worth. Hence men’s masculinity and status are threatened when men are unemployed or if their female partner earns more than he does. Of course this is not the case for all men, however, it is the case for many men who coercively control their female partners.

Before the industrial revolution most family members contributed to bringing in the family income and engaged in a variety of roles. The current male breadwinner/female home-maker roles were only created about the middle of the 19th century, yet in reality only a minority of families have ever fitted the stereotype.(1)  Firstly, because most people can’t afford to only have one breadwinner, and secondly, not everyone has ever agreed with this rigid division of roles.(2)  And, despite the stereotypes, the majority of wives have worked for money outside the home for decades.(3)  However, research shows that when men and women both work full time, the majority of housework and child care continues to be performed by the woman.(4)

Brendan, a man who abused his wife, said, “I think most blokes still would like the old traditional values, where, if they’re gonna get married and have kids, then most of the men I know would expect the woman to take on the traditional role of looking after the house, doing those sort of decisions, but allowing the man to have the final financial decision and, the final direction for the family.”

Likewise, David said, “Blokes like to control money, their money. When they get home from work they expect everything to be laid out for them, they want their dinner and want the kids to be quiet and everything.”

Alex had the same view, saying, “I always expected my wife to do the cooking coz she’s a woman, I expected my wife to clean the house coz she’s a woman, make the beds coz she’s a woman, little things like that and I used to say things like that to her so that the kids would hear me say that to her.  Like I come in from work and the house is in a mess I say, ‘What happened here today? What’ve you been doing all day?’ Little things like that. And I’m always doing that to my wife.”

Despite the huge increase in women participating in the workforce and many husbands and wives both earning money, the wider social attitudes still consider men should be the primary breadwinner.(5)  These beliefs place pressure on men to perform, and as women tell their stories below, it is apparent that, for some men who ‘fail’ to live up to the breadwinner role, they use coercive control as a way of achieving a sense of masculinity, power and control.

She is obliged to carry out her responsibilities, he is not obliged to carry out his

When Karen started living with Felix her “perceptions were initially that we should share everything, that none of us should take responsibility for the traditional gender places, but eventually it worked out that I was doing all the girlie jobs and he was doing the boy jobs — but then I was doing the girlie jobs and the boy jobs. I was really desperate for him to take responsibility. He drives me nuts, he won’t take responsibility and he’s got it down to an absolute fine art and he’s just got worse and worse and worse. When I met him he was working, he ran a household, it was clean, he cooked good meals. As soon as I turned up he saw it as an opportunity to just relinquish those responsibilities. He saw that he was able to just flick his wrists and just toss it off and I would be there to pick it up for him and I ended up working really hard, very hard. If I asked him to do anything he would immediately get his back up and refuse to do it.”

Sally said “I really thought Dylan had incredible potential, but his way of being in a marriage was so traditional, he would not cook, he wouldn’t do the dishes after we’d eaten. So for me to get him to do the dishes I had to let him do them in his time, which was maybe once a week, maybe every few days. I refused to do it for him so, I learned to live in a kitchen full of mess, hoping he would actually do something around the house.  He wouldn’t do the grocery shopping. I discussed it, I sat him down, I yelled at him, I yelled a lot at him.  I got him to make commitments. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Yes, I agree I will do these things, yes I will cook, yes I will do the groceries once a week, yes we’ll take turns cooking.’ But every time it was his turn to do something, he ended up not doing it, he’d have the most twisted subtle excuses.”

Sally explained the kind of excuses Dylan made for not carrying out responsibilities: “He said he couldn’t cook elaborate dishes like I did, so he wasn’t going to cook. But I’d say, ‘cook whatever you like, I don’t care if you make me a piece of toast.’  Sometimes he would do that, but then he’d stop and revert to the same excuse. Then he said his ex-wife always interfered with him in the kitchen telling him what to do and how to do it so he was put off cooking for life. I told him that I was not into telling him how to do it or what to do in the kitchen and that he could do whatever he liked in whatever way he liked. I tried to prove to him that he could trust me. I thought he had a self-esteem problem and that if I proved to him that I was supportive and loved him he would eventually share the load — but no, he’d continually act as if I was untrustworthy. I despaired.”

Refuses to take responsibility for finances, household duties and for own children

Sally said, “I was continually stuck because of Dylan’s lack of responsibility and my need not to go into debt.  So with financial issues I begged him, argued.  I told him I would show him how to do the books, show him how to do budgets.  He consistently said ‘I already know how to run my own finances, I’ve done it for years as a single man.  It’s not as if I cant do it.’  Then I’d say, ‘Well, do it then.’  So occasionally, I’d let go so he’d do it.  I would let him take full responsibility for the finances, but as usual he did not pay the bills, he didn’t do anything about earning money, he didn’t do anything about making a budget, so that there was no money when it was time to pay the bills. I couldn’t stand being in debt, so I would take over the finances again. I worked very very hard doing things I hated so that I was supporting him.” 

Sally said Dylan “always said ‘we’re a team’. But I would explain to him that team members actually do the ugly tasks as well as the nice tasks and that he had to contribute to doing the ugly tasks. But he insisted I had to do what I was good at, which happened to include all the ugly tasks, and that he would do what he was good at, which happened to be the nice tasks. So that was another seven-year argument and in the last year I finally said, ‘No, I’m not doing it any more’ and I just stopped working for him.”

According to Elsie, the pattern of roles in her relationship with Leon entailed, “around the house was my responsibility, everything inside it and everything outside it. He did nothing. He sat in his chair and that was it. I just did everything. He only had responsibility for the things that he wanted, the things like the finances, the things that mean he was in control.”

Pauline said she and Chris were trying to do up the house but he had no interest in it. So in an attempt to encourage him she’d say to him, “‘I’ll take the kids away for the holidays and you can paint the kitchen ceiling.’ When we came home he hadn’t done a thing. Also the more he eased off fathering the more did. What he dropped I would pick up and I became worn out. I got glandular fever, but didn’t rest up because I had five children.”

Treats her like a servant by overburdening her with responsibility

Donna said, “Frank needed a servant, I started off being a servant and then I became a slave because Frank needed and wanted to have a servant all the time. Everything in his life was about me, me, me, me, me, me and you are there to serve him, that is a woman’s place. I lost my life. My whole life became making him happy, picking up after him. There was no conversation. I served tea to him on a tray, wherever he chose to sit. I also made a joke of it…I was his slave, I used to wash him, I used to dress him, all of which he could do himself, I used to put his boots on for him and take his boots off for him.”

Recent research shows that when men become dependent on their wives’ income, rather than take up the slack and do the housework and child care roles, the tendency is for the man to do less housework than he may have done previously.(6)

Victoria gave one example of the many ways her husband Graham refused to take up the slack when he was not working. “We were on the farm and I also held down a nursing job in town. So I would get up at 4 in the morning and go and milk the cows with him. I would come home and get my breakfast, put his breakfast on so it was on the stove when he got in, put his lunch in the crockpot and get the dinner out ready for tea then I’d go out to work. Then I’d come home after a day of working and I’d tidy up all the dishes, go out and milk the cows, then I’d come in at night and cook his tea and tidy up the dishes and go to bed. I mentioned to him one day how it might be nice if he could do the dishes during the day while I was at work, but not — it was a woman’s job, so it wasn’t his responsibility, it was mine. So then I just shut up and did what I should be doing, but the one that always used to piss me off because I’d be really tired, working from 4 till 10.” Victoria learned throughout her marriage that “there was no point arguing because you’re not going to get anywhere.” This was because whenever Victoria asserted herself, Graham would engage in the disruptive pattern of “disappearing for three days as a way of trying to get his own way”.

Victoria never got respect or recognition from Graham for “working 11 hours a day. He treated her as if she did not matter. In her attempt to hold the relationship together she thought, “if I just cleaned the house a bit better, maybe things would have been a bit better.”

Acts like the ‘King of the castle’

Not only does domestic slavery entail taking responsibility for activities that the controlling person refused to take responsibility for, it also entails telling her how to do it. For example, Heather said, “Luke would be watching TV and I’d go and get our son’s bath ready and put the bath thing in and he’d come and say, ‘Oh you’ve put that in the wrong way,’ and he’d been sitting watching TV, while I’d been running around doing all these things, getting our son’s clothes ready, getting everything all organised and he never seemed to lift a finger.”

Similar to the other women above, Raewyn worked hard in her housewife and mother roles, but Brian “would always say I did nothing around the place. ‘What have you done all day?’ So I would just work harder.”

Untitled-7Enforces rigid gender role expectations — A good wife knows her place!

Elizabeth said when she and David “first got married David worked downstairs. We had a flat above his practice and I had to drive through the traffic to get to work. But I would get up and I would set the table and put wheetbix on his plate, heat the milk up, make the tea, make sure everything was there, make sure his clothes were ironed ready, and rush round and get things ready because that’s what wives did, they looked after their husbands. Then they raced home after work and quickly got a meal together and put the meal on the table for their husband, that’s what they did and they did the washing and they did the housework — even if they were busy with a full time job — doing that stuff, that’s okay because that’s your job.”

Some time later David encouraged Elizabeth to take voluntary redundancy from working at the hospital. David said “‘you don’t really have to work you just stay at home, cook and stuff’. I thought oh yeah, that sounds all right. He was, oh you know, ‘you can run the household basically, cook the meals, iron the shirts, and don’t worry about your job’. My mother was a very dedicated housewife so I thought’ ‘well this is what women are supposed to do’.”

In the 21st century, individuals in the Western world have choices.

Everyone has the right to broaden their choices to extend beyond rigid stereotypes. The problem is not so much whether the man or woman earns the money, or whether the man or woman does the housework and cares for the children — the problem occurs when choices are taken away by an abusive and controlling partner. As stated in the Australian It’s About Time report:(4)

“Equality between men and women is central to resolving conflict between paid work and family/carer responsibilities.”(4)

This requires us all to challenge the idea that it is normal and natural for the man to be in charge of the family and the woman to do as she is told. Men who coercively control their partners often believe it is not masculine to compromise or negotiate with their female partners. These ideas come from society and each of us can resist, challenge and change social messages. One place to start is by changing what healthy masculinity and femininity actually mean — we all have power and we all have times of feeling disempowered. Who decides that caring for a child and a home is not a powerful role? Who decides that earning money gives that person the right to abuse, use, coerce and have power over someone they supposedly love? We are all humans in this boat together — as humans we are all equal. If we all share the care and support of each family member we are valuing ourselves and others, now and in the long term.

References:

  1. Kimmel MS, Aronson A. Men and masculinities: A social, cultural, and historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO; 2003.
  2. Connell R. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin; 2005.
  3. Tichenor V. Maintaining men’s dominance: Negotiating identity and power when she earns more. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 2005;53(3/4):191-205.
  4. Squire S, Tilly J. It’s about time: Women, men, work and family — Final paper 2007. Sydney, Australia: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2007.
  5. Cha Y, Thébaud S. Labor markets, breadwinning, and beliefs: How economic context shapes men’s gender ideology. Gender and Society. 2009;23(2):215-43.
  6. Meisenbach RJ. The female breadwinner: Phenomenological experience and gendered identity in work/family spaces. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 2010;62:2-19.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Isolation
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using Children
Economic abuse
Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse
Symbolic aggression
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.