Domestic violence can come in many forms; some of the most recognizable are physical abuse or emotional abuse.
While it’s important to pay attention to those kinds of intimate violence, another kind of abuse is extremely common, but much less talked about: A study by the UK Office of National Statistics found that women are far more likely to experience financial abuse than physical abuse by their partners. The organization Purple Purse explains that 99 percent of domestic abuse situations (which can happen in all kinds of relationships, including family relationships or friendships) are believed to involve financial control and coercion. But what is financial abuse, and how can you recognize the signs?
It’s important to realize that there are not “grades,” or more or less acceptable versions of domestic abuse. The control of finances can be just as demoralizing, terrorizing, and traumatic for people in abusive situations as any other kind of mistreatment. And given how common financial abuse is, it’s on everybody to make sure they know if they’re being financially controlled, be aware of the signals in the relationships of others, and know how to get out if they’re being economically abused. Bustle spoke with Jennifer White-Reid, Vice-President of Domestic Violence Programs at the Urban Resource Institute, about how to recognize financial abuse and stop it.
What is financial abuse?
If you think of the many ways in which money influences a household, you can begin to get a glimmer of just how powerful it can be as a means of control and coercion by an abuser. Often, financial abuse is about “preventing victims from acquiring, using, or maintaining financial resources,”as Purple Purse explains. That may involve having sole access to the money, requiring permission or requests for the partner to access anything; monitoring their spending, including violating privacy by looking at bank statements, PIN numbers, or emails; refusing them access to their bank or credit card; or blocking their ability to work and/or sabotaging their job. Financial abuse by limitation goes far beyond monitoring spending, though; victims can be denied access to anything that the abuser says “they haven’t paid for,” like the car or basic necessities.” Victims may find themselves without a steady source of income or without access to shared assets like bank accounts or mortgage documents, and may feel like escaping the abusive relationship will only result in them becoming homeless and impoverished.”
Financial abuse also involves other elements. Economic abusers may spend their partner’s money without their knowledge; damage items and insist they pay for replacements; isolate them from financial help or outside sources of funds; or force them to work when they don’t want to. They can also impose control in ways that avoid putting financial responsibility on themselves, like insisting that all loans and bills are in their partner’s name. They also use money to ensure that the partners cannot get an education, do activities they don’t like, or be able to leave the relationship safely.
The domestic violence charity Women’s Aid performed a survey of women who’d been survivors of financial abuse in 2015, and found that the impact of the abuse was substantial. 71 percent of the women had to go without essentials, 61 percent were in debt, and 37 percent had a bad credit rating as a direct result of their abuser. 52 percent of the women who were still living with their abuser said that they simply didn’t have the financial resources to leave. The survey also found that women in higher-income households are equally vulnerable to financial abuse and control, but much less likely to be believed, because people tend to think of economic abuse as a “low-income problem,” even though, like all kinds of intimate abuse, it affects everyone.
Another insight into the issue was provided by a study undertaken by the domestic violence charity Refuge and the Cooperative Bank in 2015. 20 percent of all adults, they found, have been a victim of financial abuse in a current relationship, and 60 percent of the victims were women. The most common category, they noted, was of married heterosexual women who were working either full- or part-time, and women were likely to experience economic abuse over a longer period than men.
“Economic abuse can prevent victims from moving forward with their lives even after physically escaping an abusive relationship,” White-Reid tells Bustle. “In fact, victims of financial abuse often end up returning to their abusers because they struggle to maintain financial independence after their abuser has damaged their credit, work history, and access to economic stability.”
How to recognize the signs
The impacts of financial abuse can be vast, White-Reid says. “Economic abuse by an intimate partner can corrode a survivor’s confidence in managing financial resources and one’s ability to achieve long-term safety and security.” “Abusers frequently tell their partners that they are too stupid to manage money effectively. This, in combination with other forms of abuse, leads many survivors to doubt their ability to manage their finances, obtain and maintain employment, or provide for themselves and their children.”
Financial abuse can be hidden from view. If you notice unexplained withdrawals, bills you can’t explain that your partner is unwilling to tell you about, pressure not to open your own bank account or pay attention to financial details, or other signs from this list that spark alarm bells, it might be time to check into your financial affairs carefully. The Refuge study advises that financial abuse against women is most likely to start after a big life event, like having a child or buying a house.
If you need to get out, domestic violence charities recommend that if you can and it’s safe, you try to gather as much ID and financial data as you can, including credit card statements and any documentation proving who owns what. “If it’s not possible — or not safe — to take the originals,” the Money Advisory Service says, “then try making copies, or write down key information such as account numbers.” The Women’s Law Organization advises talking to your bank to change your passwords and PIN, and finding out “how much the abuser earns (including salary, bonuses, money [they] get from any rental properties); how much money is in all accounts: savings, checking, investments, retirement accounts; and how much money is owed on credit cards, the mortgage, car, etc.” Establish your own personal accounts if you can, check your credit, and put your documentation in a safe place where an abuser can’t access it.
It’s recommended that in your preparations to leave, you call your local domestic violence helpline (who will either be trained in helping victims of financial abuse or will be able to connect you to people who can help), and local councils or welfare authorities, who might be able to provide you with financial aid to leave. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has lots of resources for people trying to leave financially abusive relationships, and Purple Purse, which is part of the Allstate Foundation, has online courses for women who’ve been victims of financial abuse to learn financial management skills.
If you have a friend or family member who may be suffering from economic abuse, White-Reid has advice. “There are many ways to help. For example, after fleeing an abusive situation, they will need access to copies of important financial and personal documents such as bank statements, birth or marriage certificates, and ownership documents for shared assets. Offer to keep these important forms, as well as a small amount of extra money if possible, set aside in your own possession where an abuser will not be able to locate them. Encourage them to create a budget outlining the cost of housing, food, and other expenses so that they know what to expect when living on their own. It’s critical that they do this research on a computer outside of the home, or while using incognito mode on a phone or personal computer, to avoid alerting their abuser.”
This form of abuse is much more common than you think, she says: “Economic abuse is present in 98 percent of all abusive relationships.” If you think you or somebody you know might be a target, don’t let it slide; act.
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