As a society, we focus a lot on physical and emotional abuse, but these aren’t the only abuse that exist in interpersonal relationships. Rather than using their fists and your fear, your partner may also use finances to undermine your happiness and manipulate your decisions. Have you been the victim of financial abuse? This insidious form of injury and oppression is important to be aware of and even more important to stop.
Why we overlook financial abuse.
In general, we’re not taught to look out for financial abuse when it comes to building a relationship with someone else. As a matter of fact, in many sub-sects of society it can be encouraged as a part of a traditional framework. Financial abuse is toxic, though, and extremely dangerous as it removes personal autonomy from our partnerships. If your partner is using money, financial decisions, or the threat of material stability to control you — you may be a victim of financial abuse.
We aren’t taught to see money as a weapon.
In the loosest sense of the term, financial abuse refers to one partner’s use of household monies to manipulate and control the other person. This happens in one of two ways: You may have a partner who takes control of the money and then uses that control to dominate and intimidate. On the other side, your partner may become a total drain on your finances, which allows them to then to assume control of you entirely differently. Are you the victim of ongoing financial abuse? The effects are far more toxic than you could imagine.
The warning signs of financial abuse.
Have you become a victim of financial abuse in your relationship? Is your partner taking advantage of you, or using money as a means of terrorizing and controlling you? There are many warning signs of financial abuse, but they can be tough to spot — especially if you’ve never been confronted with the idea before. Before you can protect yourself, though, you need to arm yourself with understanding.
Getting an allowance
Does your partner or spouse give you an allowance? While this may work to teach small children the important of money management, it’s not effective as a relationship tool. This is a means of controlling you. It’s also often used as an excuse to withhold money from you or guilt you for your “recklessness”. Knowing they haven’t given you enough money to live on, you’re forced to come back to your abusers and ask for more money. Generally this is answered with humiliation, condemnation, and conflict.
Not all financial abuse looks like domination and intimidation. There are other ways our partners can control us by abusing our money. For example, if you are the one with the majority of the cash in the relationship, your partner may choose to take advantage of it or even take our credit in your name. Then, they might refuse to work or contribute to the family’s income in any meaningful way. This leaves you drained and stuck in an earning trap that will destroy you and everything you’ve worked for if you don’t keep up.
The limiting of financial access is one of the most common ways in which our partners use money to abuse us. They may restrict access to accounts so that you neither have the option to access them or see where the money in the family is going. Likewise, they may demand you ask permission before making purchases, or demand that all major accounts or purchases be made in their name. All of this is done in the name of control and ensuring you don’t have the power to leave or control decisions.
Hiding money is another sneaky way in which our partner can abuse us financially. They can hide money from you in secret accounts or even carry on employment that you don’t know about. On the other end of that, however, they demand that you account for every penny that you spend and demand to have access even to your own private accounts. They may also withhold account information, passwords, etc. and hide their spending habits and purchases from you in the worst possible way.
Refusing to pay the bill
Even after a relationship ends, a former partner or spouse can use finances to abuse, control, and manipulate the quality of life that you live. If they are under an order to pay child support, they may refuse to pay child support and make it hard for you and your children to survive. Likewise, they can also manipulate your finances (and therefore your quality of life) by dragging out a divorce proceeding in order to bankrupt you. They can even destroy your credit after the relationship has dwindled to a close.
Perhaps one of the most confusing ways in which someone may abuse us financially is through career sabotage. Has your partner struggled to watch you thrive at work? Do they seem intimidated by your success, or even annoyed by the idea of you carrying on a life outside of your relationship? They may get in the way of that job to prevent you from maintaining it. When you can’t maintain a career, you are easier to control and manipulate (and isolate) from the outside world.
One of the subtle ways our partners abuse us financially is through the use of criticism. Maybe your partner or spouse criticizes the financial decisions you make to the point that you’re scared to make them. Instead of doing what you want to do with your own money, you turn to them to decide and little-by-little they take control of your financial autonomy. If you feel as though your partner is using this tactic against you, it’s important to be on your guard. There’s a difference between giving advice and giving criticism.
When it comes to finances in your relationship — are there a lot of double standards? In other words, your partner holds one set of standards for themselves and a distinct set of standards for you. They may demand that you ask before making any purchases, but don’t do the same for you. As a matter of fact, they probably make ridiculous purchases but punish you for making small financial decisions of your own.
Using money as power
Does your partner use money as a control mechanism? Do they threaten you or terrorize you into complying with what they want by promising to “cut you off” or “put you on the streets”. This is a classic play in the financial abuse handbook. Our partners can dominate us through the control of finances and make it so hard for us to live that it becomes impossible to leave. That’s why financial abuse is so toxic and so dangerous. It’s a shackling of sorts to their whims and wishes.
What you can do about it.
Realizing you have been the victim of financial abuse is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. Accept how precarious your position is, then you slowly have to take action to protect yourself and your future. You literally can’t afford to give your partner financial control of your life. If you want to be happy and free again, find your strength and take action.
1. Accept the reality of what’s happening
There’s a big difference between realization and acceptance. You can realize that something is off, but you may not accept the true depth of the damage that it is causing. In order for you to effectively protect yourself and your wellbeing, you need to accept how you’re being damaged. Are your outside relationships being severed? Is your mental wellness plummeting — it’s time to be radically honest about what’s going on.
Accept what’s happening as reality and accept who your partner really is. Spotting the financial abuse is a powerful first step, but you need to really understand the toll it’s taking on your life and the future opportunities that you’re denying yourself.
Giving your partner financial control over your life is tantamount to taking away your own personal autonomy. To allow them to dominate us with money, we give them permission to tell us who we are and who we can be. They become the ones who decide how we lead our lives. They can deny us the opportunity of personal growth. They can deny us friendships. They can deny us the very right to leave and be happy. Financial abuse is not a game. It’s a very dangerous game of cat and mouse that leaves us more vulnerable than we realize.
2. Open up to people you trust
Escaping a financially abusive relationship is impossible to do without the help and guidance of others — even if they only help in the most fringe of ways. We need their support to help us attain documents, attain jobs, and even prepare to escape. Opening up to people we trust can also provide us with the courage and the insight we need to leave. After all, people on the outside can often see things that we ourselves are too close to see.
Find a handful of trusted friends or family members and let them know what’s going on. Be extremely careful who you open up to, though, and try to avoid anyone with any connection or allegiance to your abuser. Tell them how your partner is weaponizing money in your relationship and express your concern for your long-term opportunities and wellbeing.
It’s a good idea too for you to speak to a professional who can help you form a safety plan that facilitates escape. Finding the right mental health, relationships, or financial professional can take time, though, and building up a rapport with them can also take time to fine-tune. Give yourself that time and take it slow. When you rush things, you can get reckless and that brings attention to your activities. Take it slow and ensure you’re working with people who have your best interests at heart.
3. Collect your important pieces
Getting yourself free of a financially abusive relationship is a long process and one that you have to undergo in steps. When your partner controls your money, or they’ve drained your ability to earn, it’s hard to get away. Have spending power to start over on your own, and have to have the ability to earn money after you leave so that you can maintain your lifestyle (and your safety).
First, you need to slowly and quietly collect all of your important documents, including birth certificates, passports, social security cards, bank statements, income and tax information, ownership titles, etc. These things need to be placed in safe areas where they are inaccessible to your abuser but readily available to you.
If you can’t take the originals, then it’s important that you find a way to make copies — in the event that you need to prove yourself once you can get away. This is when having trusted friends and family members can be invaluable. They can help you make copies and even store these items safely for you. If you don’t have any close loved ones to trust, family law solicitors and even relationship counselors can also help store these items as a part of a plan to get away.
4. Establish a little independence
It’s crucial that you get small bits of independence for yourself, both as a means of empowerment and as a means of preparation. Like it or not, you’re going to have to extract yourself from the relationship, but that’s not a process that’s going to happen overnight. Before you can make a plan, you need to have some sense of the outside world and what you plan to do in it. That takes experience — limited though that may be.
Set out establishing a little financial independence for yourself. Set up a bank account in your own name, or go out on your own to explore what life means away from your relationship. Take an online class in a profession that you’re interested in. Join a local networking group that can inspire you to grow.
Be sure to go slow and try to draw as little attraction to your true intentions as possible. If you have to, convince your partner that you want to learn how you can contribute more to their lifestyle within the relationship. Play on their egos and tell your partner that you want to improve yourself for them. Whatever you decide to do, keep your safety in sight. Find little ways to establish some independence for yourself and empower yourself to get free.
5. Establish a realistic safety plan
As with any abusive relationship, the only way to guarantee your safety and your happiness is to ensure that you get free of it. That’s not always easy to do though, especially in the case of financial abuse. Financial abusers are often dangerous and use threats of violence. Take your time and really calculate your moves to ensure you can get away safely, and one which doesn’t put anyone else you love at risk of danger or of ruin.
It is crucial that you form a safety plan to extract yourself from the relationship once and for all. A partner who abuses you financially is not someone who is concerned about setting you up for the future. They want to dominate your life, and there is nothing you can do to change that.
Break out of the idea that you will love them enough to change who they are. Stop thinking that arguments or the “right job” will cause them to see the light of day. That’s not reality. We cannot change others. The only person we can change is ourselves (and think how hard that is!). Get with people you trust and get with a professional and establish a safety plan. Prepare yourself to go when the moment is right, take what’s most important, and establish a new life that is entirely your own.
Putting it all together…
While we focus a lot of our attention on mental and physical abuse, financial abuse is just as insidious and just as deadly. When one partner assumes all financial control in a relationship, they limit the options of their partner and render them powerless. Likewise, a partner can become a total drain in a way that destroys our lives and our futures ( and whether they’re in it). Realizing you’re the victim of financial abuse is an important first step, but in order to overcome it we have to get real and take serious action.
Accept the reality of what’s happening to you and understand that it is not a reflection of your worth or your ability to choose more loving and compassionate partners. Abusers fool their partners. That’s literally how they operate. Open up to someone that you trust and then try to find a professional who can help you make some plans for independence. You need to start making some financial space for yourself, but that could take time. Get your important documents together and then quietly open up some bank accounts, seek out work — whatever you can do to get some financial freedom safely. Once you’ve done this, you can start to make some plans. Work with your trusted loved ones and professionals to create an escape plan that can get you out and back to freedom. Financial abuse is nothing to ignore. It’s a dangerous way to live and a problem that won’t resolve itself on its own.
- Sharp-Jeffs, N. (2015). Money Matters : Research into the extent and nature of financial abuse within intimate relationships in the UK. London, UK: The Co-operative Bank and Refuge.