Issues of Control in Two Extreme Household Types

ABSTRACT - Family research in consumer behavior has been primarily based on samples in which family members are recruited through Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and churches, resulting in studies of Ahappy@ families. This paper investigates issues of control in two types of household structures: one in disarray resulting from the female leaving the husband after having been physically abused and the other in which the family is intact, but in which the wife contributes many more resources (at least $10,000 per year) to the family’s budget. In-depth interviews were conducted with both sets of wives (over 20 abused wives and 14 wives who earned substantially more than their husbands). The emergent themes indicate very different reactions to the violation of the traditional gender script. In the former case, males appear (at least as described by the wives) to be threatened by the increasing independence of their wives, and they attempt to control their wive by attacking their identities (their physical being as well as symbols of their work and family identities). On the other hand, wives in the latter case try to control the situation by attempting to make their marriages appear Anormal.@


Debra Stephens, Ronald Paul Hill, Suraj Commuri, and James W. Gentry (2001) ,"Issues of Control in Two Extreme Household Types", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 355-361.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 355-361


Debra Stephens, University of Portland, U.S.A.

Ronald Paul Hill, University of Portland, U.S.A.

Suraj Commuri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.A.

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.A.


Family research in consumer behavior has been primarily based on samples in which family members are recruited through Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and churches, resulting in studies of "happy" families. This paper investigates issues of control in two types of household structures: one in disarray resulting from the female leaving the husband after having been physically abused and the other in which the family is intact, but in which the wife contributes many more resources (at least $10,000 per year) to the family’s budget. In-depth interviews were conducted with both sets of wives (over 20 abused wives and 14 wives who earned substantially more than their husbands). The emergent themes indicate very different reactions to the violation of the traditional gender script. In the former case, males appear (at least as described by the wives) to be threatened by the increasing independence of their wives, and they attempt to control their wive by attacking their identities (their physical being as well as symbols of their work and family identities). On the other hand, wives in the latter case try to control the situation by attempting to make their marriages appear "normal."


The American family’s quality of life has not benefited from the improvements in the material quality of life that have been rampant in this last half century. The household is the core of the economy’s purchasing, yet it would appear that the relative abundance available in the US has failed to facilitate the maintenance of harmony within that core. Indeed, it might well be suggested that the increasing abundance along with changing gender norms have helped to generate more, but smaller, households due to the increased frequency of divorce.

This study will look at two household types: dysfunctional families (in which physical abuse of the wife has taken place) and functional middle class families in which the wife earns $10,000 or more per year than the husband. Our intent is to investigate issues of control in depth, contrasting clearly "unhappy" families with "happy" ones, but ones that are happy despite violating traditional gender norms. "Control" here has implications for one’s own choices as well as the possible imposition of the spouse’s will on the female.

To investigate each family type, consumer researchers conducted in-depth interviews with wives. In the former context, the interviews were conducted in a safe house in a large city in the Eastern US, and the females had been abused by their male partners. In the latter situation, wives who were sufficiently happily married to volunteer to talk with a consumer researcher were interviewed. These informants were residents of moderately large cities in the midwestern part of the US (Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri).

In the context of this study, family processes were studied by interviewers who are consumer researchers and who tried to focus informants on the interface of consumer behavior issues with family processes. At times the nature of the circumstances (especially in the case of abused wives) limited the interviewers’ ability to focus specifically on consumption issues. We suggest that consumption issues play a large role in the surrounding circumstances that provide the context for the abusive and healthy relationships. For example, Depret and Fiske (1993, p. 198) noted the failure of the field to acknowledge "the psychological difficulty of exiting a relationship firmly embedded in the social structure." Further, we subscribe to the view provided by Holbrook (1987, p. 131): "almost everything we do involves consumption. Our lives comprise one constant and continual (though not always successful) quest for consummation." Clearly the quest for consummation affects daily family interchanges; this investigation of two distinct household types is intended to yield insights beyond those to be gained from the more common investigation of households who volunteer for altruistic purposes to help a church or PTA obtain donations.

The two studies were not intended to yield comparable data. In general, the wives in the sample of abused women are younger, less educated, and (as is to be expected) less wealthy than the ones in the study of wives who make substantially more than their husbands. The purpose for presenting both groups in this paper is to contrast the nature of the use of control by males and females in households with varying levels of harmony and to investigate the role of consumer issues in those control processes.


"Control" is an increasingly common topic dealing with consumption issues, though much recent work has focused on "self-control" as opposed to "control by others." For example, Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) discussed individual social traps that resulted in time inconsistent preferences, and the conflict between short-run desire and willpower. Walsh and Spiggle (1994) provide in-depth interviews with four informants who play a variety of games with themselves in the (failed, in some cases) attempt to control their spending.

The focus of this study is more the issue of "control by others," which we define as the loss of the freedom to make one’s own consumer choices due to the influence of others. The right to choose for oneself has been found to relate strongly to one’s mental health after a decision of whether to have an abortion (Patterson, Hill, and Maloy 1995). Patterson et al. (1995) found that women were frequently pressured by husbands, lovers, or parents to make decisions that they may or may not have made for themselves. Further, they found that the inability to make one’s own choices exacted a heavy emotional price, whether the woman ultimately chose birth or abortion.

Thompson, Locander, and Pollio (1990) touch on these two types of control in their description of the three themes derived from interviews with ten Tennessee housewives in an investigation of the gestalt meaning of "free choice" in the market place. The first theme (being in control versus being out of control) deals explicitly with issues of self-control. The second theme (being restricted versus being free from restrictions) touches on issues of control by others, but only indirectly, as topics supporting this theme were issues such as budget constraints or time constraints (usually tied to the presence of children). Overt or subvert control by the spouse does not appear explicitly in the Thompson et al. (1990) interpretations of the informants’ stories.

Control by others can indeed take very overt forms, with physical punishment and subsequent fear greatly restricting the wife’s freedom to choose. Often, though, this form of control may take more subtle forms. At the other extreme, power or influence may come from non-actions such as not listening or not responding to what one’s partner is saying (Ball, Cowan, and Cowan 1995). More commonly "others" may influence the wife’s behavior through social norms, as per the Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). Societal, family, and spousal expectations may restrict the wife’s choices profoundly.

A somewhat similar, though possibly conceptually richer, formulation of the role of others is Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan 1991). Deci and Ryan (1991) separate intrinsic motivation into those behaviors which are self-determined (they are done because there is a passion for doing them) and those which are controlled (those which are done voluntarily, but out of obligation). Examples would be one individual who keeps the residence clean in order to meet one’s parents’ expectations (even though they will not visit in the foreseeable future) versus the individual who cleans the residence immaculately because it gives one peace of mind and adds greatly to one’s self-worth. This dichotomy is similar to Thompson et al.’s (1990) third theme (being captivated versus being deliberate). Self-Determination Theory also proposes that controlled behaviors can become self-determined over time; one is probably not born a workaholic, but after a sufficient period working overtime to meet obligations, one may discover that "working" is what gives one passion and peace of mind. Thus, it is possible that some behaviors that were originally controlled by others can become ones chosen freely.

These issues of control by others will be investigated by looking at two household types which should offer strong contrasts in terms of control (physically abused wives as opposed to wives who generate more fiscal resources than their husbands).


Domestic violence against women involves incidents of physical and/or psychological/emotional assaults typically occurring over a period of time (Barnett and LaViolette 1993). Experts estimate that at least 1.8 million American women are abused every year (Hancock 1993); many millions more are abused globally. Indeed, women are more likely to be assaulted, raped, or killed by current or former partners than by strangers (Langan 1986). In other words, for millions of women, home is anything but the safe haven, or the site of blissful domestic consumption, that consumer theory might have us believe. Ironically, the very factors that help create warmth and intimacy in a family such as intensity of involvement, impinging activities, right to influence, and ascribed roles can also contribute to family violence (Straus and Hotaling 1980).

Data Collection

In order to have sustained access to abused women, a female member of the research team volunteered at a local support agency. Located in a large metropolitan area in Eastern U.S., this agency was created and managed by a nonprofit community organization providing free services to abused women and their children. In addition to emergency shelter, services include crisis counseling, support groups, legal advocacy, and referrals to job training programs. Most of the women served by the organization are between the ages of 20 and 35, with two or more children. The safe house, the primary access point of our interviews, serves as temporary refuge to approximately 100 abused women and their 200 children each year.

The researcher/volunteer spent approximately four hours a week at the safe house and agency headquarters over a six-month period, interacting with the women and their children, providing emotional support and, on occasion, advice on parenting. In her capacity as a licensed psychologist, she also served for two years as a child psychotherapist and clinical supervisor of staff members and interns conducting psychotherapy with children and their mothers. The work at the safe house and the agency offices brought her in direct contact with about 40 abused women, and she supervised an additional 30 cases.

Six women at the safe house were formally interviewed; the sessions were audio-recorded, and the tapes transcribed. To gain further insights on developing perspectives and themes, an additional 15 women residing at the safe house were interviewed; detailed written notes on these conversations were kept. These women comprised Caucasians, Hispanics, and African Americans ranging in age from 23 to 45. Some had less than a high school education, while others had attended college. Most had young children with them. Some had no income, while others had steady jobs; all were struggling to meet basic survival needs.

Analysis of these data was consistent with Patterson et al. (1995), and involved working through four successive steps by two additional researchers along with the researcher/volunteer. The first stage required reliving the interview experience with each respondent by reading the transcription of the interview until the researcher felt a sense of "empathetic knowing" of the informant as a victim of domestic violence. The second stage required the summarization of each informant’s experience with an emphasis on the role played by possessions and consumption. To the extent possible, verbatim comments from an informant were used to render this synopsis. The third stage involved searching for themes that were common across informants. The fourth stage required that relationships among the themes be explored in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of domestic violence from a consumer perspective. To this end, each transcript was reviewed in an attempt to discuss the interconnections among themes as well as to look for negative and qualifying evidence that failed to support this gestalt. The findings presented in the next section represent the consensus of the researcher negotiated over the course of ten meetings.

Emergent Themes

While every woman’s situation was different, commonly reported experiences included terror; loss of self, dignity, security, and possessions; physical and emotional pain; and uncertainty about when and how their abuser would strike and what, if anything, they could do about it. Because we interviewed only victims, we know little about individual abusers’ underlying motivations. However, collectively, the theme that supersedes all others and pervaded every interview was the net effect of abuse is control of a woman’s entire self-identity (her extended self; Belk 1988): her thoughts and emotions, her body, her material possessions, and her access to employment. Abusive partners exerted control in numerous ways: by effectively undermining women’s ability to earn an independent livelihood; by convincing women that their behavior was not really abusive; by convincing women that the abuse was deserved; or by destroying her home and/or cherished possessions. These practices are consistent with the findings of Wilson and Daley (1996), who reported that women who had been subjected to "serious violence" at the hands of their husbands, frequently endorsed items such as "he tries to limit your contact with family or friends" (concealment of mate), "he insists on knowing who you are with and where you are at all times" (vigilance), and "he calls you names to put you down or make you feel bad" (derogation of mate). Ironically, during many violent episodes, the perpetrator appears to be totally out-of-control. In the aftermath, this is often used by both him and his victim to excuse his behavior (e.g., Koss et al. 1994). This would seem to suggest that problems with self-control can be seen as reasons for control by others.

Consumption-Related Activities Associated with Abuse. Those informants who could predict their partner’s violence related it to substance abuse and financial strain. For example, abuse was frequently associated with the abusive partner’s being inebriated.

The night that led me to here, he’d been drinking. He started a verbal argument with me, and I tried to leave the house with the kids, and he wouldn’t let me, and he picked me and my younger son up, he told us to obey him. He picked me up and threw us. He threatened to snap my head off.... His drinking got worse over the years. The patterns, his behavior. The patterns increases his behaviors, whatever stresses he was feeling he had stopped communicating to me. If there was something he wanted me to change or do or be or whatever, he wouldn’t talk about it. He would hold it in, and he would go drink, and then it would become "oh, it’s time to explode." (Beatrice)

His behavior improved a lot when he wasn’t drinking, and when he was in therapy. (Julia)

Frank started really drinking and getting physically abusive. He would get drunk every day after work....His five weeks in rehab was wonderful, cuz I was safe. (Isabel)

Our problems started when we made friends with this couple, that's when the drinking started. He’d get violent, he hit me in the head with a tennis racket. (Mary Anne)

Violent episodes also occurred when the illegal substances used by their partners were unavailable. Mary, a 23-year old woman with four young children, came to the safe house to escape her crack-addicted partner. She informed us that he was most violent to her and the children when he ran out of crack. Keely, 29 years old and pregnant, arrived at the safe house with her two-year old son after being beaten by her husband of four years; she told us he smoked pot heavily, and that he was less likel to beat her when he was stoned.

Thus the role played by alcohol and drugs may not be causal, but justificatory. Where there are sociocultural norms, such as in much of North America, that drinking and drug use disinhibit violence, they may be offered as excuses for irresponsible behavior: "I didn’t know what I was doing; I was too drunk" (Barnett and LaViolette 1993; Koss et al. 1994).

Changes in the financial status of either partner also were associated with particular episodes of violence and with the escalation of violence over time, suggesting possible frustration with an external environment that exacerbated feelings of being out-of-control by the abusers (Sabourin and Stamp 1995).

Everything for the first time fell on him. Before he didn’t feel the pressures of rent money 'cause I was the only one working, and everything was in my name anyway. So, if there was a squeeze time, it was me who was feelin’ the pressure. This time, when I went to school, if there was squeeze time, it was "J" who was feelin’ the pressure, "J" that had to worry about where the money was comin’ from. So, the last two years, financially, because he had to deal with the pressure for once, that’s when it got bad. (Beatrice)

We went to the MAC machine, he gave me $20 from the MAC machine. I put a $1000 a month in there too and we paid the mortgage and all the utilities and food bill, we always had money left over in the checking account. All the other money he made was his to do whatever he wanted with. (Laura)

'We’re both putting the same amount of money into the joint checking account, however you’re not allowing me to pay some of the bills from that joint checking account. This is not working.’ And he was paying the bills too. That was something he had to have control of. (Laura)

He would go with me when I put my child support in the bank, and he would take it right out. The money wasn’t there for bills or anything. He would go out drinkin, get tattoos. ... Once I gave him our last $20. He was supposed to get diapers and formula and he left and like 4 hours later never came back.... It was the last $20 we had and he was sittin in the bar having a good time, not even caring.(Karen)

Frank never had a driver’s license. It was suspended for the eight years that we were married. Every car was in my name, and my insurance was sky high cuz I was married to someone whose license was suspended. (Isabel)

The importance of financial circumstances, while seemingly obvious, is frequently overlooked in studies of life-event stress; this is symptomatic of what Thoits (1995, p. 63) called "our puzzling lack of attention to an obvious coping resource: money...We do not consider the possibility that financial resources themselves may serve as stress buffers though everyday observations would suggest that people often draw upon their finances when coping with a variety of problems."

Women’s Possessions as Identity. Women were treated as possessions by their abusers. Situated against the historical backdrop, this is hardly surprising as wife assault was a right rather than an illegal behavior in parts of the U.S. until the 20th century. (See Jones (1994) for a discussion of legislation.) It was also common for our informants’ partners to exert control or punish them by appropriating, systematically damaging, or outright destroying possessions: an attack on our informants’ sense of self. The following excerpts illustrate the abuser’s efforts to prevent their partners from succeeding in the work place, or at least to litter her path with obstacles. These acts may serve to humiliate the victim, possibly an additional means of identity destruction.

He would a lot of times just take everything in the closet and just throw 'em.... started putting some things into my kids’ closet because I don’t have much clothes anyway, and if he was destroying these things.... (I: So he focused on the clothes?) Yes, because he knew it would handicap me..especially, he focused on my work clothes because I work in the nursing field. So, he knew that job meant a lot to me. So, he knew I didn’t have much money. 'She’s got to buy work clothes. She needs that for her job.’ So he would focus on that. (Patricia)

As I started collecting my things to start back to work, when he would have his temper tantrums, he would break them. Like my perfume and my make-up, which would be very expensive for me to replace, so it always kept me in a situation where I would have to replace things, and I wasn’t quite all together to go to my auditions, so it kept me kind of homebound. (Amy)

(I: Did he try to tear up your possessions?) Yes, all of my original birth certificates and stuff. He tore ’em up or he hid 'em somewhere I can’t find 'em. Social Security card, everything. (Joan)

Ken flipped out, and he grabbed a tray of my hand-made ornaments. They took me four months to make. He pulled down the Christmas tree and broke all the lights. (Gloria)

He would not let me buy a dress to go on an interview. And he would not let me take the car to go to the interview. (Carla)

He took, you know, like for some reason he took my Associate’s Degree from Community College which has no, there’s no reason for him to have that....He used to break like everything, like he threw the tv, ripped the phone out of the wall. He just destroyed, like he took my yearbook from high school and got rid of it. (Karen)

Jeff has destroyed most of my possessionsCthere is nothing left. He took all the stuff that was important. (Mary Anne)

Increased Independence. The need to maintain control presented the partners with severe problems when the female started demonstrating more independence, especially financial independence. Okun (1986) found that abused women were more likely to terminate a relationship quickly when they were an equal or greater income producer. The quotes from Patricia, Amy, Joan, and Carla in the previous section indicate examples of the male trying to create barriers to the female’s work life. The female was trying to obtain greater fiscal control over her life, but the male apparently asserted control that attempted to restrict the increasing independence. Rather than appreciating having more resources, female success was seen as threatening. For example, Isabel noted that she was able to get promoted in both jobs. "Frank hated that. He was very threatened by that, he didn’t like it at all."


This group of respondentsCas mentioned earlierCwas made up of 14 women who were currently in a marriage and earned at least $10,000 per year more than their husbands. All interviews were conducted by one of the authors and were conducted either in person or over a telephone. While telephone was a less preferred alternative, such interviews were conducted only in cases where the interviewer could not travel to the respondents’ locations.

The interviews were conducted in some cases at the residence and in some cases at the work place. Depth interviews led by the researcher followed only some broad guidelines and were allowed to shape as the interviews evolved. The inteviews lasted about 70-80 minutes. All interviews were tape recorded and subsequently transcribed. Most respondents were contacted one to two weeks after the interview and asked whether they wanted to add anything to what they had discussed in the interview.

Three respondents were also recruited to participate in the analysis of the data. Co-analysis was undertaken only with the codes (and not the complete transcripts) and with then later with the grounded theory model generated by the researchers. Two respondents were involved at the stage of axial coding. All three participated in the verification stage, in which the grounded theory model was presented individually and the respondents were asked to verify if it represented their marriages and whether it stated anything contrary to their life experiences.

Control Issues in Previous Marriages

Some clear linkages to the first sample of women were noted among the three wives who had been married previously. What was evident was the overt conflict of interest in consumption decisions such that one partner’s choice was explicitly discouraged or condemned by the other.

He just could not take it that I would be getting a Ph.D. He made it very clear that it was either the marriage or the degree.

Why would he have said that?

I guess he was threatened. He just would not be comfortable with a wife that was better educated than he was. (Melissa)

Melissa’s case was not unique. Kara was also married previously. She appeared to have a similar attitude about why some consumption was confrontational.

I am very happy today. I have a masters degree and I can say I earned every bit of it. I would never have been able to get here in my first marriage.

Why do you say that?

It would be impossible for him (Kara’s first husband) to accept a wife that was educated. He had to dominate everything. (Kara)

Melinda’s first husband did not appear to be threatened as in the other two cases reported above. In her case, it appeared to be a conflict of priorities. Melinda reflected that if she stayed on in her first marriage, she would have been a very different person.

I have thirty credits beyond masters. I am proud of would not have been possible with my first husband.


He expected me to stay at home and take care of the children. It is important. But he would have never been able to see anything beyond that. (Melinda)

Communication that appeared to resolve such conflicts in communication appeared to be covert. In many cases, it can even be speculated that the conflict itself was an overt transformation of a message that would have been very covert otherwise. Couples never appeared to talk about such conflicts but merely assumed what was in the partner’s mind.

Did you talk about this?

There was no use. I knew what he was getting at. This was his last attempt to control me....or telling me that we were doing. (Melissa)

Did you talk about this?

It would not have made any difference. I knew it would never work. He would have never agreed to me stepping out (for further education or employment). (Melinda)

The Dyadic Interactions

Unlike in the case of the women who were abused, communication processes reported by the women in the second study did not appear to be very different from those reported in family communication or decision making research in general (Sillars and Kalbflesch 1988). Communication processes did not appear to rise to an overt plane as they appeared to do in the case o the dysfunctional relationships. In fact, the women in the second study appeared to emphasize the similarity between their relationships and those of most other couples. There was much talk about how "normal" the marriage was.

Since control issues did not appear to rise to an overt plane, content analysis in this case focussed on deconstructing patterns in communications so that any implicit control could be detected. The analysis revealed four categories into which communication among couples in the second study fell: verbally-explicit communication with spouse; verbally-restrained communication; symbolic communication with spouse; and symbolic social communication.

Verbally-Explicit Communication: One of the dimensions of communication processes reported by the wives was made up of things that were said by the respondent and her spouse to each other. This dimension was made up of a) routine day-to-day communication under no specific agenda, b) event-related communication such as shifts in careers, purchase decision of house, etc., and c) activity-related communication such as grocery shopping.

I am not sure if we are much different. We discuss everything.....We do everything together. (Melissa)

Verbally-Restrained Communication: This was made up of communication that the respondents refrained from making with their spouses. It constituted what might otherwise be called taboo subjects: one taboo subject was what the husband did with his time.

Sometimes I really wish that I could yell at him because he just decides to do something by himself. I feel like telling him that I work as much as he does. If I ask he will help but I would like him to see that without me telling him.

Any reason why you "wish" you mentioned that but never really did?

It is like a taboo subject. We do not talk about it. It is as if I am telling him that I am earning more than him so he should do the housework. He will understand but I am sure he will not like that...It does not happen everyday, but sometimes. (Joan)

Respondents also appeared to demonstrate a deliberate effort to keep how much they earned out of any discussion. While in some cases such communication appeared to have generated some friction, all the respondents appeared to be aware of a need to restrain such communication. The caution appeared to be triggered by the uncertainty concerning the reaction of the spouse. Under such uncertainty, respondents appeared to lean toward an assumption that it might hurt the sense of self-worth of their spouses.

We might not believe that (a man must earn more than his wife), but the world does. So I guess he might feel unsuccessful in front of the worldmaybe his family. (Mary)

We never talked about it but I can only guess that he will feel a little threatened. After all, all men do. (Cathy)

I don’t know what came over me. I brought up money and I shouldn’t have done that. I hurt him I guess. But he wouldn’t talk about it. (Melissa)

When income and money did appear to emerge into the open, it was often dismissed humorously or restricted to the task at hand.

Sometimes we talk about it and I joke with him that we would actually save if he stayed at home and took care of the babychildcare is very expensive. (Laura)

It (money) comes up only when we have to do our annual budgets. We have to write down how much will come in next year. So we discuss it. But that’s it. (Tammy)

The informants seemed to indicate that they tried to avert any implication of asserting fiscal control in the relationship. While no observational evidence was obtained to verify that what was said was in fact what happened in the relationship, there appared to be a strong perceptual norm that the income differences should be skirted.

Symbolic Interpersonal Communication: These respondents appeared to demonstrate a conscious effort at making their marriages appear "normal" and like any other marriage. Such efforts, at times, appeared to be aimed at themselves and at other times at the spouse. In their attempts to preserve the traditional model of a marriage in their respective relationships, respondents appeared to indulge in various symbolic communication with their spouses.

There is no reason I do that [for her to preserve traditional roles]. I have never questioned it. I guess I don’t know the answer. You are right, I do the cooking and Mike does the yard work. Why is that? (Mary)

I do it [preserve traditional roles] all the time...I make more money but he buys me more gifts. It is my money and I get more gifts. It is silly." (Melissa)

Symbolic Social Communication: Respondents also appeared to indulge in symbolic communication that was aimed at members of their social networks, including kith, kin, and professional associates. The objective of such communication appeared to be the same as in the case of symbolic interpersonal communication discussed aboveCto preserve a semblance of a "normal" marriage.

I know it is silly but when we go out he pays all the time. I guess it makes no difference because it is our joint money. But come to think of it, I rarely pick up the check. (Laura)

He pays usually. Sometimes I do. I guess it is no big deal. Whoever has the cash.

....... who would that be usually?

I think it is him. I guess he reaches for it first. But it makes no difference. (Mary)

I have my own checking account. My salary goes there. I have an ATM card and I manage my credit cards.For mortgage payments, I write a check to Mike and he writes a check to the bank. (Cathy )

Given that several of the wives in this study had been married before, one might expect the couples to maintain separate pots of money. However, most of these couples had at least one joint account, again reflecting the desire for a "normal" marriage.

Control Issues in the Second Study

Though it does not appear that anyone is exercising any explicit control, wives appear to be controlling themselves. For example, verbally-restrained communication is explicit support of this contention. On the other hand, symbolic communication (both interpersonal and social) appears to be an example of extramarital control on these women. Social norms can be argued to be making up this extramarital domain. Finally, symbolic communication can also be interpreted as being a form of implicit control by husbands, through a perpetuation of the expectations of gender norms. The overriding factor is that control issues in this group of informants appear to be implicit to the extent of even appearing self-imposed.

Unlike in the first group where control appears to be of the physical and extended self, control in the second group did not appear to be that of the physical self. Control in the second group appeared to be of communication, symbolism, and norms. Though these elements could be argued to be constituting the extended self, in the second group, such control appeared to be more to protect one of the partners than to hurt the other.


One traditional model of family decision making is Resource Theory (Blood and Wolfe 1960); a crass summary is that the spouse who generates more resources in a household is expected to have more influence indecisions regarding the spending of those resources. To some extent, the story emanating from the abused wives may support that perspective, as many wives were attempting to gain more fiscal independence and may have tried to influence decisions more than in the past. Our interviews did not generate much evidence of the latter supposition, but the perception of the linkage between generating resources and having more influence may have resulted in males seeing growing financial independence as a threat, and subsequently exerting physical control. Since we did not interview husbands, this observation is speculative in nature.

On the other hand, Rogers (1999) found that increases in wives’ incomes do not significantly affect either husbands’ or wives’ perceptions of marital discord but, instead, increases in marital discord contribute significantly to increases in wives’ incomes. Thus, in study one, attempts to achieve financial independence on the part of the female may well have resulted from marital discord, rather than the other way around. The findings of this study are consistent with those of Pyke (1994), who found that power and voice in family decision making rises as incomes rise only if the husband frames the wife’s earnings as a reward. One can speculate that the husbands in the first study did not view an increasing wife’s income as positively as husbands did in the second study.

On the other hand, Resource Theory received little or no support in the second study, where wives demonstrated strong effort to make the marriage egalitarian despite their greater contribution of resources. One possible explanation may relate to the perceived stability of the differences in resource generation. "Resources" have traditionally been associated with continuous generation. However, if current material provision is seen as representing "success," there may be more question as to whether the current state is in equilibrium. Our perception is that the career paths in the vast majority of the households in the second study would not change greatly in the long run; we foresee the wife making substantially more than the husband in ten years as well. However, the traditional gender expectations may make the existence of the resource-generation reversal appear to be more temporary to the couples. The wives’ frequent attempts in the second study to cast the family as "normal" may have been a strategy to dilute the perception of a disequilibrium in resource generation. Again, we are speculating some here as we did not obtain the husbands’ perceptions in either study.

The desire to maintain traditional gender roles (Gillespie 1971) on the part of males in the first group and females in the second group is a more consistent explanation for the stories told in both studies. In many, but not all, cases in the former group, males physically attempted to control females when they perceived the females violating their male-dominated scripts. In the latter case, females discussed control measures they took to make their gender role reversal less visible or appear to be more "normal." From Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder’s (1982) Two Process Model of Perceived Control, it would seem that males in the former case were trying to impose primary behavioral control, whereas females in the latter case seemed to be using (more attitudinal) secondary control processes that made the situation appear normal to them and to their spouses. The attempts to "normalize" the marriage may in fact be attempts to conform to traditional gender norms (Lipman-Blumen 1984). In some cases, it appears that wives learned these processes from unsuccessful prior marriages. The second set of wives focused on avoiding a sense of independence, which they saw as resulting in violation of the "normal" gender script. While they did not seek subservient roles in the marriage, neither did they expect their husbands to do so. Moreover, they frequently "accepted" public displays in which the spouse earning less was the payer.


Issues of control over one’s choices and the imposition of control by others are central to the stories told in the two studies here. Many of the choices involved are easily identifiable as belonging to the domain of consumer behavior. Marketers need to understand the family/household in order to market to this consumption unit more effectively. At the same time, there needs to be much concern as to the role of marketing actions on the nature of the family itself. For example, Berns (1999) found that domestic violence is portrayed in popular women’s magazines as a private problem and usually as the victim’s problem, thus normalizing the idea that victims should be held responsible for solving the problem.

Our interpretation of the two sets of interviews is that gender norms are critical to the communication and consumption processes observed in those two household types. The contrasting studies offer food for thought concerning marketing and gender norms.

One issue of concern is the portrayal of males in ads for products in domains that have traditionally been assigned to the female (cooking, house cleaning, laundry, etc.). Our perspective is that the marketing system in the US is currently far behind actual household trends in terms of the portrayal of the male in such tasks. From the perspective of male physical abuse as a possible reaction to the violation of traditional gender norms, the marketing system should be indicted for the lack of courage shown in portraying household roles in more traditional ways than are observed in actuality. Clearly, commercials do little to help males accept the reality of changing gender norms in society.

On the other hand, our findings offer an alternative perspective as well. The traditional gender norms being portrayed in television commercials may facilitate the higher-resourced female’s attempts to rationalize her marriage as "normal" despite the script-violating differences in income. In the short run, the very traditional gender roles shown in advertisements may facilitate harmonious relationships in a transition period that results in households with wives earning more indeed becoming more "normal."

A second issue raised by our findings is the conjecture that consumer education efforts should be developed to combat existing gender norms concerning the male as provider. More consumer socialization efforts showing egalitarian consumption and payment behavior may have beneficial efforts for future generations. If the potential abuser sees less need for fiscal control, there may also be less perceived need for physical control. At the same time, such education efforts may make less common the "game playing" behaviors we think we observed among wives at the other extreme.


Ball, F. L. Jessica, Philip Cowan, and Carolyn Pape Cowan (1995), "Who’s Got the Power? Gender Differences in Partners’ Perceptions of Influence During Marital Problem Solving Discussions," Family Processes, 34 (September), 303-321.

Barnett, Ola and Alyce D. LaViolette (1993), It Could Happen to Anyone, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-169.

Berns, Nancy (1999), "My Problem and How I Solved It: Domestic Violence in Women’s Magazines," The Sociological Quarterly, 40 (No. 1), 85-108.

Blood, Robert O. and Donald M. Wolfe (1960), Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living, Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Deci, Edward L. and Richard M. Ryan (1991), "A Motivational Approach to Self: Integration in Personality," in Richard Diensbier (Ed.), Perspectives on Motivation: Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 237-288.

Depret, Eric and Susan Fiske (1993), "Social Cognition and Power: Some Cognitive Consequences of Social Structure as a Source of Control Deprivation," G. Weary, F. Gleicher, and K. Marsh (Eds.), Control Motivation and Social Cognition, New York: Springer-Verlag, 176-202.

Fishbein, Martin and Icek Ajzen (1975), Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gillespie, Dair L. (1971), "Who Has the Power? The Marital Struggle," Marriage and the Family, 33 (August), 445-458.

Hancock, LynNell (1995), "Why Batterers So Often Go Free," Newsweek, October 16, 61-62.

Hoch, Stephen J. and George F. Loewenstein (1991), "Time-inconsistent Preferences and Consumer Self-Control," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 492-507.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1987), "What is Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (June), 128-132.

Koss, Mary P., Lisa A. Goodman, Angela Browne, Louise F. Fitzgerald, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, and Nancy Felipe Russo (1994), Male Violence Against Women at Home, at Work, and in the Community, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Langan, Patrick (1986), Preventing Domestic Violence Against Women, Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean (1984), Gender Role and Power, Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall.

Okun, Lewis (1986), Woman Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths, Albany: SUNY Press.

Patterson, Maggie Jones, Ronald Paul Hill, and Kate Maloy (1995), "Abortion in America: A Consumer-Behavior Perspective," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (March), 677-694.

Pyke, Karen (1994), "Women’s Employment as a Gift or Burden? Marital Power across Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage," Gender and Society, 8 (March), 73-91.

Rogers, Stacy J. (1999), "Wives’ Income and Marital Quality: Are There Reciprocal Effects?" Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61 (February), 123-132.

Rothbaum, Fred, John R. Weisz, and Samuel S. Snyder (1982), "Changing the World and Changing the Self: A Two-Process Model of Perceived Control," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42 (No. 1), 5-37.

Sabourin, Theresa Chandler and Glen H. Stamp (1995), "Communication and Experience of Dialectical Tension in Family Life: An Examination of Abusive and Nonabusive Families," Communication Monographs, 62 (September), 213-242.

Sillars, Alan L. and Pam Kalbflesch (1988), "Implicit and Explicit Decision Making Styles in Couples," in David Brinberg and James Jaccard (Eds.), Dyadic Decision Making, New York: Springer-Verlag, 179-214.

Straus, Murray A. and Gerald T. Hotaling (1980), The Social Causes of Husband-Wife Violence in the American Family, Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Thoits, Peggy A. (1995), "Stress, Coping, and Social Support Processes: Where Are We? What Next?" Journal of Health and Social Sciences, (Extra Issue), 53-79.

Thompson, Craig J., William B. Locander, and Howard R. Pollio (1990), "The Lived Meaning of Free Choice: An Existential-Phenomenological Description of Everyday Consumer Experiences of Contemporary Married Women," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (December), 346-361.

Walsh, Patricia Ann and Susan Spiggle (1994), "Consumer Spending Patterns: Dimensions and Dichotomies," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 21, 35-40.

Wilson, M. and M. Daley (1996), "Male Sexual Proprietarines and Violence Against Wives," Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5, 2-7.



Debra Stephens, University of Portland, U.S.A.
Ronald Paul Hill, University of Portland, U.S.A.
Suraj Commuri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.A.
James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.A.,


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


When People Stop Being Nice and Start Getting “Real”: Use of Identity Labels for Stigmatized Groups

Esther Uduehi, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Americus Reed, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Read More


Consumers’ Attribution of Mind to Possessions as an Impediment to Sharing

*Chi Hoang, Norwegian School of Management, Norway
Klemens Knoferle, Norwegian School of Management, Norway
Luk Warlop, Norwegian School of Management, Norway
aradhna krishna, University of Michigan, USA

Read More


I11. Self-Presentation in the Mating Market: The Influence of Gender and Sexual Orientation on Profiles on Tinder and Grindr

Chaim Kuhnreich, Concordia University, Canada
Lilian Carvalho, FGV/EAESP
Gad Saad, Concordia University, Canada

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.