• Luke and Ryan Hart

This is my story - 'Stepford Mum'

Below is a story submitted to us. It tells of a mother's daughter being controlled and subjugated by her husband; a victim of sly, covert, masked psychological abuse.

About 13 years ago my beautiful young daughter met a man who seemed like a good dependable sort of chap, decent and reliable. I brought her up as a single parent, and she’d had a tumultuous childhood, so I think he appealed to her as someone who seemed to offer safety and security.

After they’d been together a short while, her dad and I began to worry. We noticed he wasn’t treating her well, she seemed unhappy and less and less like her old self. They both worked full time, but she did all the housework, shopping, household management etc, including heavy work, although he is a big burly rugby build bloke, and she a slip of a girl.

She’s asthmatic, but he had her sanding their floors. She lost use of an arm for a time, yet he walked beside her empty-handed while she carried their groceries. If he blocked the toilet, she unblocked it. She was almost hospitalised with asthma at one point and I visited. She still did everything.   He sat watching TV while she cooked and cleaned.   He seemed to be draining her, exhausting her by making her do absolutely everything and offering zero support.

Alongside this, he belittled her intelligence and her interests. He ridiculed her. Knowing she’d been bullied as a child, he nicknamed her “Piggy”, like the character from Lord of the Rings (though he was always the tubby one).  He lied to her in small ways on trivial things as a matter of course, confusing and befuddling her, making her question and doubt herself.  He called himself an “alpha male”, she was his trophy woman, expected to make him look good in public.

Before long he had taken over control of their finances, and of all decision making. She used to challenge him, or at least tease him. Gradually she stopped and became absolutely subservient to his will. She was really changing. She was thin, pale, quiet and stammering — looking to his face for permission before she spoke. If she talked about books or art (her loves) he scoffed and sneered.

He managed to be intimidating without open threats or actual physical violence. One sharp look would shut her up. He displayed “physical affection” by lifting her bodily up into the air, pinning her arms to her sides, and squeezing her hard. 

He had a loud, loud laugh, hearty and “jolly”, which he would bring out when she was saying something clever or interesting or sensible. His laugh would go on and on, until she fell silent.

He found fault with all her friends, and encouraged her to join in with his criticisms, until gradually she stopped seeing most of them. When her friends persisted, he found small, sly ways to make them unwelcome, and to let them know his disdain. 

Although they spent almost all their free time together with his family, he accused her of having a “two tier family” attitude if ever she sought to see her own family.

After all this had gone on for some time, because we were getting really concerned and trying to find out how we could support her, we came across the concept of emotional/psychological abuse. 

His treatment of my daughter ticked every box on the list of tactics and behaviours: gaslighting, ridiculing, emotional withdrawal, minimising, emotional unkindness, crazymaking, belittling, victim-blaming, power games, denial, mind games, degradation, isolation, domestic slavery, inappropriate restrictions, strictly enforced gender roles (sexism) etc etc.

I was really shocked. I live abroad, and don’t have a lot of money, but I booked a flight and went immediately to see my daughter and talk to her. He was working away, so I was able to tell her my fears. I told her I thought he was a domestic abuser. He has her wonderfully trained though. She self-limits and self-polices. She was loving to me, but absolutely, categorically denied that there was any basis to my fears.

 She hid our conversation from him and asked me never to tell him.

 I went back home.

She wanted children. He didn’t. He engineered a situation where she had to choose — him, or children. She chose children!, which was a huge surprise to his enormous ego, and they split up briefly.

My, how we cheered. But it didn’t last. He begged her for months to take him back, wept, pleaded, sent flowers to her office every day, promised her whatever she wanted — kids, their own place, no more 24 hour sport, no more her doing all the drudgery. 

She took him back.

I was seeing less and less of her. He worked away often, and at weekends and holidays she’d spend all her time with him and his family and his few (old school) friends. She rarely saw her own friends or family. She visited us about twice a year for a few days only. He always decided their travel arrangements and booked their flights.

I came to visit her when I could, but as I work and live abroad and am short of money it wasn’t often possible.

Against my daughters wishes (and she had made this extremely clear), they moved to live near his brother and parents in his home town. Now, when she was not working full time or spending her leisure time with his family and friends, she was expected to work at weekends, and do menial chores, for his brother — unpaid.

 One weekend, she had to lay a floor for him. Other weekends she helped out in their restaurant.

He never helped.

We hadn’t seen her for about 8 months, and were sad and worried, she seemed more and more remote, emotionally as well as physically. Even on the phone she was quiet and withdrawn, not a trace was left of the bubbly character she used to be.

Finally, after years without a proper visit, she announced they were coming for a week long visit to us. She was really looking to it and so were we. But the day of the visit she rang us in floods of tears, desperately upset. Her passport had “disappeared”.

She was unable to visit and in a terrible state. She told us she loved us and missed us terribly. 

We never found out what happened to her passport, but we had our suspicions.  That week my husband and I took a loan to free up some cash and flew over to see my daughter. We were really concerned at the mental state she was in and the way he was treating her. We feared she might have a breakdown or even attempt suicide. Meanwhile he acted utterly unconcerned as usual, and did nothing to support her, and everything he could to grind her down still further.

Against our advice, and much to our regret, they married.

She was miserable, isolated, demoralised, but whenever we tried to talk to her about her husband’s behaviour towards her she defended him like a lioness and wouldn’t hear a word said against him.

My husband and I sought advice from Refuge and Women’s Aid, but they told us if daughter didn’t want to leave all we could do was be there for her when she wanted us. We sought further advice from a specialist counsellor in emotional abuse who advised us to stay close and not allow her husband to estrange us.

We schemed to keep our daughter close, to keep her safe.

Over the course of about a year we managed to persuade the pair of them to move abroad to live near us. He is often away anyway and works from home when not travelling, so can live wherever. She was really unhappy stuck with his family while he was away. He is spoilt, entitled, self aggrandising and lazy, and boringly conventional in his aspirations, so we sold it to him as “living the dream” in sunny California. She was desperate to move here to be close to us, and away from his family, and she actively connived with us behind his back to make it happen. 

To cut a long story short, using wiles and flattery, we persuaded him to move. It worked, and they moved over here.

Once they were here we thought we would be able to support our daughter to leave him. We thought being close by, seeing her every day or so, we’d be able to help her to be strong, support her to stand up to him, and take her out of her isolation. We introduced them to lots of people. We helped them find a place. We cleaned it and decorated it for them! We spoke to her again several times about him as honestly and tactfully as we felt able. Again, we called his treatment of her domestic abuse. I wrote her a long letter about it, with lots of info and sources for support. She wouldn’t listen. She denied everything. She told us never to mention it again.

Nothing changed.

His family were visiting one time. My daughter was brushing her teeth and so was he, beside her. He wanted to rinse his mouth, she was in his way over the sink, so he emptied his mouth over her head, over her hair. She did actually get angry that time (it was a while ago, now I don’t think she would say anything) and blurted it out in front of all of us. His mother defended him (“ it was an accident!”) — they never stand up for her, no matter how obvious his mistreatment of her.

She now has three young children. They all live walking distance from here. Her husband is away often Monday to Friday. My husband and I share the childcare with my daughter while he is away. We also share all the day to day childcare management — medical appointments, documentation, nursery, school, birthday parties, etc.

Their father comes home at weekends to watch TV sport and go out for big lunches or to the beach.

He reserves all his holiday leave to be with his mum/brother/cousin or few friends. This year, he took a week’s holiday with friends, leaving his wife and children at home (they had no holiday at all).

We could not even mention to our daughter how unfair this was, but tried to persuade her to come away with us and the kids for a holiday instead. But she’s far too well trained. She knows he expects her to stay home, and he wants her to know she and the kids aren’t worth a holiday — only he is worth it.

They have a big house and garden— he earns a lot. My daughter manages it all without any help at all from him. He’s happy for her to do all the heavy shopping, lifting, carrying, refuse, garden work, house maintenance etc (even when pregnant). And all the childcare of course.  He was off work this summer for a month. They had a house full of his guests. He cooked meat barbecues daily (she’s vegetarian).

He ignored the kids.

When he’s away we stay till after eight every night to help ( we have our own small business, and work to do at home). When he’s at home, whether working, on holiday, or at weekends, our daughter gets the kids up, breakfasted, to/from school, out of school activities, appointments. She does their meals, she puts them to bed. If they wake, she gets up. We help as much as we can. When she was pregnant we had to help a great deal, for fear she would hurt herself — she had had a miscarriage the previous year. He let us do everything, although we are grandparents and he is 20 years younger. 

He always does as close to nothing as he can get away with.

This was the case even when she was ill with pregnancy complications, in fact at one point he went off to visit his mother and brother and just left her alone (with the toddler), pregnant, in an isolated country house, although she was facing a medical emergency. We stepped in, of course, as usual.

If she’s ill, she still does all the work. If the children are ill, she deals with it. Whether he’s there or not.

He’s happy for my husband and I to help if we’re ill, too. My husband has a back problem and shouldn’t lift or carry. He watches while my husband does just that. Once, when their sewer exploded, he came out of his office in his slippers to hand my husband a bucket to clean it up. 

And he’s let me help my daughter move house no less than 3 times — not once did he help, and when last time, I said they needed paid help as I couldn’t do it alone (my husband cant because of his injury), he and my daughter told me it was not much work. So me and my daughter, she with a 4 week old baby, did it all — packing, lifting, carrying and unpacking the contents of a 3 storey house.

Another time, my daughter admitted she’d been cleaning and making beds up in their guest house for his mother and family to visit (everything has to be perfect for their visits). She’d been working flat out, then had caught him in his office — feet up on the sofa, watching an entire series of The Sopranos on the huge telly he keeps on his desk. We were so outraged we couldn’t hide it, she’s never shared that sort of thing with us again.

When people visit, or when they go to occasions eg weddings, he performs the good father role and convinces everybody. We have had many friends and relatives tell us, after spending a few hours with him and our daughter and grandchildren, what a devoted father he is and how wonderfully he plays with the children (“inseparable!” they tell me).

 He never plays with the children. He never reads to them. He never cuddles his daughter, though he’s kissed his son’s head a few times (he doesn’t like girls). He will occasionally stand next to his daughter while she goes on the slide or swings, but that’s it.

I’ve told people it’s an act, a lie. I’ve told my sister, my cousins, my aunt and uncle, my close friends. But they choose to believe him and not me, on the basis of a few hours in his company.

Meanwhile, at those occasions my daughter is always on her best behaviour — straining (the operative word) to appear the perfect, smiling, charming, happy trophy helpmeet to her “perfect” husband.

 Everyone always swallows it.

So if we ever mention to others the way he uses her and fails to support her, we are not believed. And if we mention anything to her, even tactfully and diplomatically, she is furious. Even if we just try to stand up for ourselves and not be used and taken for granted, that makes her angry too. I think because talking about our struggle to manage the extra workload of looking after her home and children (with her) highlights his complete failure as a husband and father. She’s trained to nip any and all criticism or truth about her relationship in the bud, at once, without the slightest engagement, consideration or even hesitation.

Meanwhile, my husband and I pick up a lot of his slack, we do a lot of the work that he would do if he were a decent father and husband. And we do it alongside our own work. The workload and the childcare take their toll. But the real strain on all of us is maintaining the fiction of him being a “decent bloke” and a good husband and father. 

He is none of those things, but we are forced to stay silent. We know if we speak out we will lose access to our daughter and grandchildren, and we are afraid of what he will do to them if we are not there to protect them.

Unacknowledged, we co-parent with our daughter, and so we are really close to the grandchildren. The oldest girl is 6 years old. Sensibly, she doesn’t much like her dad, who shows zero interest in her, but she adores her mum, and us (the baby is too young yet to be selective), and of course it’s mutual — we love them to bits. But the older girl is already being taught to say how she “misses” her dad. She doesn’t act like she misses him. She acts unhappy in his company, and shrinks from him. 

We think she, like her mother, is afraid of him.

My daughter behaves like a Stepford wife. Smiling, gracious, unruffled, always cooking, cleaning, serving. Never complaining or challenging. Playing host to his family and few friends. Or sitting out of the way with the children while he watches wall-to-wall sport.  To outsiders, apparently, it all seems perfect. Almost without exception, family and friends refuse to believe me when I try to tell them what’s happening. They say: he seems decent, all relationships have their ups and downs, he earns well, he doesn’t beat her, she isn’t complaining, they seem happy. They accuse me of projecting, being bored, or mad, or over-protective, or over-anxious, or just disliking him.

They tell me I’m interfering, and should back out.

I can’t back out! I’m afraid for my daughter and my grandchildren! I can’t desert them and leave them to his (non-existent) mercy!

No one understands. No one listens. Meanwhile my daughter is having palpitations. She is cracking under the strain, and so am I. So is my husband. We are all under desperate strain, while the fat controller 😡 is smug, entitled, relaxed and content.

I am sorry if my story seems trivial, full of small details of behaviours which many families will find familiar — after all, who doesn’t get irritated with their husband when he doesn’t share the housework, and how many parents find fault with their son-in-law? It all seems so commonplace, and that’s the whole problem — that’s why emotional/psychological abusers can get away with it, and even be lauded as great dads and husbands — because their abuse is sly, subtle, devious and covert, and because it rests on the repetition of tactics and behaviours which, taken out of context and on their own, seem pretty innocuous.

I hope that you can see the truth behind my story, because I am very afraid. 

I know I am right, because I am part of the family unit that is being abused on a daily basis. I see the abuse, I experience it, I feel it, I stagger under the weight of it.

 But I can’t call it out, and I can’t walk away from it.

No one can advise me or solve my situation. I just want to be heard and not to have what I’m saying dismissed and denied. And I hope that this will be a useful record — for my daughter, for my grandchildren, for the courts — should it come to that, and for other people who are in similar situations and need to hear it made explicit.

Speak out, if it’s happening to you, or to someone you care about. 

Listen, suspend your disbelief, and — if you can — offer your support if someone tells you it’s happening.

The worst atrocities remain unchallenged because nobody can believe them.

I’ve changed a few minor details to protect my daughter’s confidentiality.

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