Anne Darwin painted a picture of a 30-year-marriage to a quiet, brooding bully who railroaded her into getting his own way.
But relatives and acquaintances tell a different story, with some suggesting she "wore the trousers" and manipulated her husband.
Her account of life as a dominated wife fell apart in court as well when details of sexy emails they swapped were read out in court.
He was unfaithful, insensitive and bull-headed, she said.
But she still loved him at the time he dreamed up the crazy plan to con the world into thinking he was dead.
That love had now perished, she said, and she wore no wedding ring during the trial.
But their sons Mark, 32, and Anthony, 29, said theirs was an equal partnership, and their parents never argued, or at least not in their earshot.
They had a happy childhood and remembered their father being the boss, but said their mother was able to put her foot down when needed.
Mrs Darwin, in an attempt to make her defence of marital coercion work, said she was made to feel inferior intellectually and inadequate by the former maths, science and RE teacher.
She said he had an affair some years into their marriage - before his disappearance - but she had forgiven him.
In a low voice, she said she did not split up from him "because it was difficult to live with him at times; it would be even more difficult without him".
When she was giving birth to their first son in 1975, Mr Darwin was with her for the labour, until medics said she required an emergency Caesarean, at which point the new father-to-be went home.
She said she begged him to stay, without success.
They first met aged about 11 on the school bus, and after he repeatedly asked her out in their late teens, she finally relented.
He had already been engaged to someone else.
Mrs Darwin said she was a virgin when they met, and had not had any other partner since they wed in December 1973 at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in their home village of Blackhall Colliery, Co Durham.
After the birth of their children, their social life dried up.
Mrs Darwin said: "He used to joke with the neighbours that he only took me out to vote."
But her bleak description of the state of their marriage was undermined by the loving, and sometimes flirty, emails they swapped when they were setting up their new life in Panama.
And she wrote to him, begging "Don't leave me", as he flew back to the UK to hand himself in to police last year.
He wrote to her saucily from Central America when she was still in Seaton Carew: "Love you lots. Get your bum over here fast. I got something here for you and it's hot."
Their neighbour in Panama city, systems engineer Marlin Cruces, 31, said: "They seemed a nice, normal couple."
Car salesman Javier Quiros, from whom the Darwins bought a four-wheel-drive, said: "They were very happy and were talking openly about their plans."
John's father Ronald, 91, was never happy about the union.
He said Anne manipulated John - and was indifferent to his grief over the "death" of his missing son.
"She used to dominate the family and she was very stuck-up. She made John dance to her tune," he said.
Acquaintances' claims that she "wore the trousers" cast doubt on her version of events.
Adrian Meggs remembered showing the couple around their new home before they moved to 3 and 4 The Cliff in Seaton Carew.
"It was she who seemed to run things," Mr Meggs, who owns a pub nearby, said.
He added: "He seemed the quieter of the two."
A police source said: "We believe John and Anne had a row while they were in Panama.
"We think she will have said 'What are you going to do now? You're dead'.
"We think that he gave himself up because he wanted to spite her."
The theory that Darwin might have turned himself in following a row with his wife over money is given credence by his aunt, Margaret Burns, who said the former prison warder was "obsessed" with money.
"John was brought up in an atmosphere of money, money - money matters above everything else," she said.
At an earlier hearing Mr Darwin showed his wife affection, squeezing her hand in court, but she cut him dead.
"If Mrs Darwin were to have her way, she would have nothing to do with him," another police source said.