The Hidden Distress of Financial Abuse
Marie* was with her partner, James*, for 10 years. For most of that time he never hit her, yelled at her or swore at her, but for all 10 years, Marie was in an abusive relationship and she didn’t even know it.
When most people hear about domestic abuse, they usually would think about verbal or physical assault. However, equally present is the case of financial abuse. Marie suffered from financial and emotional abuse for the entirety of her relationship. James didn’t show any physical violence until towards the end of their relationship when Marie tried to leave the first time. However, that doesn’t make all the years of financial strain any less distressing.
What is financial abuse?
According to Money Smart, financial abuse is ‘when someone takes away your access to money, manipulates your financial decisions, or uses your money without consent’. The likely victims are more often women in their relationships and elderly people who receive abuse from other family members. However, don’t exclude men, as they can also be abused by their partners and the extent of which may even be under reported. This graph shows the numbers of financial abuse in Australia alone:
Sometimes financial abuse can occur on its own while other times it occurs alongside other types of abuse. For Marie, financial abuse happened mostly on its own. That’s why it crept up on her and she didn’t realise it was happening. ‘James* never hit me. He never yelled or swore at me. I never felt fearful of him. So I was never actually aware that I was being abused.’ This is often the reason that people stay in financially abusive relationships longer than you would expect, because it is very subtle at the beginning.
Examples of financial abuse
It is easy to find examples of abuse today with the help of social media. Usually people posting in Facebook groups and Reddit forums asking for help with budgeting or finance, only for commenters to point out that their experience is actually abuse. This Reddit thread shows how subtle the financial abuse began for some women.
For Marie it started simply. She met James when she was 21 and after only a few months of dating she fell pregnant accidentally and she moved in with him immediately when she told him the news. ‘It was James’ house, so while we split everything 50/50, he received the bills. I was still working, so he would tell me the amount he needed every month and I just naively transferred the money without questioning it. I did ask him for a joint account, but he said he wanted to have separate finances.’
It wasn’t until she was on maternity leave and not being paid that it became a burden on her. ‘My savings ran out and I didn’t have access to James’ account, so I had to ask him any time I needed money’. Marie would need to ask for money before going to buy groceries, medicine, clothes, things for the kids and other basics. He would set the amount and she wasn’t ever allowed to spend any more. But he only transferred the money to her account if he thought it was important. ‘I once wanted to get my hair cut and coloured but because it was over the usual $30 he spent on his hair, he told me that it was outrageous and a waste of money and he wouldn’t transfer it. From then on I always had to cut my own hair and hope that I did a good job.’
The abuse went hand in hand with emotional abuse and gaslighting. ‘James would tell me that I couldn’t be involved with the family finances because I was stupid and didn’t have a head for finance. He said that if we had a joint account I would just waste his money. It was always HIS money. My friends and family started getting worried about me when I never had money to spend when going out with them, but James just said that’s why they’re poor and we’re wealthy.’
Marie was trapped with James because of the kids. He wanted four kids and expected Marie to stay home to raise the children so she couldn’t earn money for herself. ‘I didn’t even want our fourth child. But he insisted that we have four and he would tell me that I’m depriving him from his wishes. It was always about him and never about me. He nagged me so much and wore me down so I relented’.
Finally about 8 years into our relationship I tried to take the kids with me to my parents to stay and leave him. That was the first time he hit me.
Signs that you’re experiencing financial abuse
- You’re excluded from making your own financial decisions such as taking out loans
- Loans are taken out in your name without permission
- Your signature has been forged on financial documents
- You’re made to feel stupid or incompetent when handling money
- There is no discussion about household budgeting; someone spends your money or shared money without discussing it
- You are shut down when you try to speak about your finances
What should you do?
The first thing that you should do when you fall victim to receiving any kind of abuse is discuss it with a trusted family member or friend. You need to make a plan to leave the situation immediately. It is very common for a victim to not have any family and friends close by as often the abuser will try to separate the victim from loved ones. In this instance, find your local shelter, police station or even a local church for help.
If you are in immediate danger, call your local emergency services. Also, please call the abuse support line for your country, such as:
- Australia: 1800 RESPECT
- USA: 1.800.799.SAFE
Note: names with * have been changed for privacy.