There are several questions that can keep women awake at night and some of these may result in nightmares. Whether they are fully aware of the situation they’re in or not, those who are experiencing financial and economic abuse can’t help but ask themselves: “How on earth could this happen to me, and why didn’t I see the signs?”
The effects of financial abuse can be devastating; it can leave you feeling trapped, lonely and isolated. And, with limited access to money or mounting debts, you may feel that you’re unable to leave the partner (family member, friend or carer) who has harmed you. However, with the right help and support, it is possible to move on, regain your financial independence and work towards meeting new financial goals.
What is financial abuse?
Financial abuse is when one party uses control over another’s ability to acquire, access, and maintain finances. Like other forms of abuse, it is a cruel, gradual, and deliberate strategy of control. So much so that many people do not realise that is happening at the time. In fact, in some cases, “offering to take care of the finances” or persuading a partner to quit working “so you can rest while pregnant”, for example, is initially presented as a loving, thoughtful act. Like the frog in the pot of lukewarm water, who was not able to detect the gradual increase in temperature to boiling until it’s too late, victims might not be able to realize someone else have slowly taken their financial power away.
Signs to beware of
Recognising abuse when it is happening to you is a very hard thing to do: people experiencing this may not always detect it as a form of violence. It can masquerade as simply a “traditional” or even supportive gesture in the beginning.
The most common ones
- You have not been included in financial information or decisions. You’re not aware of what accounts you have, the spouse’s compensation structure, or where money is located or spent. This may result in debt in the other partner’s name without their knowledge.
- You have been asked to sign documents without knowing what they are, such as business forms, tax returns, and loan requests, without having a chance to read them.
- Someone uses your money or property without your permission to steal from you to gamble or spend on unauthorized purchases.
- Someone isn’t contributing to the household. You find yourself paying for all of the household expenses. They do not contribute to the family, nor do they make an effort to do so.
- Your spouse is interfering with or prohibiting you from working or advancing your education or career.
- Your partner is refusing to allow you to open a personal bank account.
The emotional toll
Dealing with covert passive-aggressive narcissists, in particular, is very difficult as it’s not so obvious to figure them out. They are not the typically loud, boisterous individuals seeking attention we usually think of. They wear a facade. They will do what they need to do to look like the ‘nice guy’ or ‘nice girl’ to the outside world but they have little to no empathy for others.
Whether you are dealing with an overt and covert narcissist, bear in mind both will always take care of themselves first financially.
For example, while the overt narcissist may intentionally deny financial access to his/her spouse, the covert narcissist may use long periods (sometimes years and a decade or more) of intentional under and unemployment as a tactic for the other spouse to provide support for the family.
Another example is where one spouse may earn significantly less than the other yet is responsible for all the household financial obligations. Meanwhile, the other spouse freely purchases expensive toys such as boats, cars, and the like or secretly removes her name from the title on the cars or the house.
For other women (unless they have mutually agreed that one spouse will be the primary financial provider while the other stays home with the children), this is the case where their career or educational advancement is sabotaged. As she is trying to maintain the household financially and the partner is barely (if at all) providing, she has been denied years of being able to save and invest in becoming economically secure in her own right. As there is no physical violence involved in these situations, most women do not realize they are in an abusive situation. After all, she married the love of her life and trusted him. Didn’t she?
How to protect yourself
If you think you might be experiencing economic abuse, phone the police in the first instance. However, there are numerous organisations that can help with securing your short-term safety as well as setting you on a path to long-term recovery. Do reach out to a local violence support organization in your area for help like Women’s Aid and the Surviving Economic Abuse in the UK or The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the US.
Before it’s too late, have a look at these practical ways to protect yourself financially.
Before getting married
The first step is to decide to keep your financial power during the marriage. You and your partner must have extensive financial conversations about money beliefs and the numbers before walking down the aisle. This means all cards are on the table regarding financial documents, savings, investments, and debt. If living in the States, consider a prenuptial agreement: it does not mean you doubt the marriage will last a lifetime but only that you understand anything can happen, and it’s essential to protect yourself legally. Also, don’t forget that combining finances is not a requirement of marriage unless you realize your partner is on the same page after having extensive money conversations and that solution may make sense for both of you.
If you are married and your spouse has most, or all, control of the finances or has sabotaged your earning ability, the first step is to decide to take back your financial power. This is probably the most difficult task for women in this situation. It is also the most courageous one to start your journey on the right path.
Start by becoming involved with financial decisions. Try to understand the documents that you are asked to sign. Be confident as your intuition will tell you if something seems not quite right. Keep asking questions and don’t make excuses for the abuser or commit yourself to pay their debts. Also, put aside your savings. Consider hiding cash and valuable items in a safe deposit box or opening a new bank account your abuser doesn’t know about. Be aware, though, if there is a divorce, you may be required to file a sworn financial statement to disclose all monies in some instances. Do not let this intimidate you from saving.
Another good piece of advice is to work on ideas towards supporting yourself. Brainstorm ideas on how you can develop the necessary skills to secure a job. Next, check your credit report. Look for fraudulent activity on your account and dispute any errors as soon as possible. Most importantly, keep your personal information. Change passwords, bank pins, access codes, and credit card login information. Consider freezing your credit to make sure no one else can apply for credit or a loan under your name.
Recovering from financial abuse
People recovering from financial abuse may benefit from therapy to rebuild their self-esteem and renew their sense of hope. When creating a healthy relationship with your money, it is essential to start a healing journey from the abuse that caused financial distress. Many people have survived this and gone on to live happy, independent lives. There is no shame in getting the help you need. Depending on how you escape your abusive relationship, you may already have resources on hand to help. If not, look for local churches or groups that offer to help you get back on your feet.