So many times we hear about sociopathic men controlling women. Typically, it is females who become trapped in emotionally abusive relationships and cannot leave due to financial circumstances. However, there are also many men trapped in similar situations. I know that the term ‘controlling woman’ is a stereotype and yet I recently experienced a situation which made me think about it in-depth.
A dear friend of thirty years recently tried to end his relationships with a sociopathic family member. I had been friends with this man, whom I’ll call Tom, for thirty years. I knew about Tom’s situation with his family member for several years. Several months ago, he came to me because he had decided to cut off ties with this individual, who happened to be his wife.
My friend grew up in a home with a very controlling mother and without knowing it he signed up for the same treatment in his marriage. I met his wife when they first started dating. She struck me as quite immature. She was 21 at the time but seemed more like 11. All that this woman wanted out of life was to have as many babies as possible and to not have to work outside the home. Tom, who was in love with his wife and eager to start a family, agreed that she should stay home with the children but he did not know that he was also signing up to support her financially for the rest of her life.
The number of children seemed to be the first point of struggle. After three children, Tom wanted to stop but she insisted on more. Tom wanted a vasectomy stating that they could not afford more children because his wife was not working and he had a blue-collar profession. After the fourth child arrived, Tom again stated that he wanted no more children. At this time, they had three boys and one girl. His wife insisted that she “needed” another daughter and begged and pleaded. So their second daughter was born. After five children, Tom insisted on a vasectomy.
After the vasectomy there was very little and eventually no sex. Without the possibility of pregnancy, Tom’s wife only used sex as a reward/punishment system, sending him to sleep on the couch so often that he eventually moved to the couch.
In addition to wanting more children than they could afford, Tom’s wife also had expensive habits including wine, clothing, make up and going out to lunch with her friends. She still did not work outside the home. Tom went without to provide her wants and he subsequently ignored his own needs. His wife had been brought up in a wealthy family and she did not seem to understand that her husband was a blue-collar worker with a limited earning potential. Credit card debts ensued, not for necessary items but for luxuries. At one point the finances were strained after Tom was laid off from a manufacturing firm which was moving overseas. Instead of offering to find work herself to help pay the bills (the youngest child at that time being 8), his wife pushed for them to take a second mortgage, which they did, mounting to the debt.
Early on in this marriage, Tom’s wife took the lead of being the boss, of being in charge. He referred to her as a bully. If she did not get her way, then she would punish him with sullen moods, outbursts of anger, and fits of crying. She inflicted her moods on the children, who also responded to her manipulations by acquiescing to their mother’s demands. The entire household revolved around the mother. Anything and everything was done to keep her calm. Tom pressed her to see a psychiatrist but she refused.
With the economic changes after 2008, Tom found that he was unable to make enough money in his career as an industrial tradesman without traveling to remote areas for weeks or months at a time and sending the money back home to his wife. He lived in squalid conditions including musty hotel rooms, shared housing and even campsites to keep his expenses as low as possible. He was incredibly unhappy and yet he felt that he must keep working to support his children, especially as his wife continued to not work outside the home.
As the years went by the type of work Tom had to perform, which involved climbing and lifting for ten to twelve hours a day, began to have a toll on his body. Having inherited a genetic form of arthritis, his limbs became twisted and as he took medications to control the swelling at such high levels that his liver levels were altered. It was at this point that I came into contact with him again, after an absence of several years. He was desperate to change careers and yet he could not afford to. When I suggested that his wife should get a job, he felt thankful to me for saying so. And yet she continued to not work and he continued to tax his body.
During the past couple of years, Tom remarked to me that lately, instead of working five ten to twelve-hour days per week, he needed to work six in order to make enough money to satisfy his wife’s spending habits. He referenced her credit card bills, expensive clothing, trips to the hairdressers, cases of wine, organic food, vitamins. At this point, I interjected, “Organic food! You’ve got five kids and a workingman’s salary! You can’t afford organic food!” He sadly agreed and yet he seemed powerless to stop her from buying it.
Finally, last fall, feeling his body becoming worn out and broken, and with every day of work more painful than the one before, Tom had enough. He decided to call it off. The youngest child was fifteen. He announced his intention for a divorce, and told her that although he would fully support the children and household until the youngest was eighteen, she would need to get a full-time job right away, as he intended to transition to a career which would not destroy his body further.
Tom’s resolve lasted a few months while his wife battered away at him daily. First, after having ignored him sexually for years, she began pursuing him against his will. He felt extremely uncomfortable about her advances and asked her to stop. She did not. Since he was working several hours away, and saw her only occasionally, at first this was not too difficult. But then she began calling him and texting him unceasingly. After having ignored him completely for years, she began a campaign of constant contact, which anyone outside of the situation would consider harassment. She agreed to go to counseling to address her poor behavior, then she missed the appointments. She yelled, screamed, cried, withdrew. She harangued him, argued with him and accused him repeatedly of neglecting his duty. She shamed him. She told him that his children were suffering because of his actions. She upset their teenage and young adult children, whom she drew into her confidence as she designated herself as the victim, suddenly thrown out and forced to get a job, as if doing so were an indignity she could not bear. Soon his young adult children began to call him at work asking, “Why are you making Mom get a job?”
None of Tom’s children seemed to be aware of the breakdown of their father’s body, or how hard he worked, or what that work did to him. All they heard was the deafening yells of this woman who was simply a large child not getting her way. Finally, after several months of harassment, Tom needed unexpected surgery and wound up unemployed and living under the same roof as his wife. Due to pressure from her and his oldest daughter, he finally gave up his intention to get a divorce and agreed to reconcile with his wife. Undoubtedly, he will work six or seven days a week until his body fails, which cannot be too many years from now. (He is currently 50 years old.)
As sad as this story is, I know of several men trapped in similar situations. Their female partners control them by withholding sex, and making them feel ashamed. They accuse them of neglecting their duties and being bad fathers if they consider leaving their wives. My friend Tom knew that it was possible to get divorced and still be a good father and he set out determined to do this and yet his intentions were undermined by his wife convincing him (and the children) that if he left her, he was also leaving the children. This case is particularly sad in that the wife used the children to such an extent that Tom began viewing them as if they were much younger and more helpless than they were. A secondary aspect of this family’s dysfunction is that the adult children were also growing dependent on Tom to be the person who not only made all the money but who solved all of the emotional squabbles in the household. Two of the adult children were still living at home and not contributing anything to the household in terms of either money or labor.
Control and manipulation are gender neutral. Anyone can play in these twisted games. My heart goes out to all persons trapped by controlling partners or family members; may you all find the courage to escape.