When I first heard the term “financial abuse” I immediately thought of elder abuse—the act of taking advantage of an older individual. But then, as I gave it some further thought – I’ll be honest, I Googled it.
The U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline describes financial abuse as “the desire of one partner to have power and control over the other. A partner who chooses to abuse will control their partner’s finances or their ability to provide for themselves through a job or public assistance they receive.” The National Network to End Domestic Violence adds that “Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship. The forms of financial abuse may be subtle or overt, but in general, they include tactics to conceal information, limit the victim’s access to assets, or reduce accessibility to the family finances.”
When most people think of domestic abuse, typically what comes to mind is verbal abuse or physical assault. But research shows that financial abuse occurs just as frequently in unhealthy relationships as other forms of abuse. In fact, a study by the Centers for Financial Security found that 99% of domestic violence cases also involved financial abuse. Financial abuse is often the first sign of dating violence and domestic abuse. Consequently, knowing how to identify financial abuse is critical to the victim’s safety and security.
Sherri Gordon, a bullying prevention expert, states that financial abuse involves controlling a victim’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain financial resources. Those who are victimized financially may be prevented from working. They also may have their own money restricted or stolen by the abuser. And rarely do they have complete access to money and other resources. When they do have money, they often have to account for every penny they spend. Overall, the forms of financial abuse vary from situation to situation. Sometimes an abuser may use subtle tactics like manipulation, while other abusers may be more overt, demanding, and intimidating. In the end, the goal is always the same—to gain power and control in a relationship.
While less commonly talked about than other forms of abuse, it’s easy to understand how financial abuse is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a victim trapped in an abusive relationship. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence research shows that victims are often too concerned about their ability to provide financially for themselves and their children to end the relationship. Victims tend to feel isolated because they’re financially dependent on their abusers. And without resources, they don’t see a way out of their situation.
It’s extremely important to know the signs of financial abuse before it escalates and the victim is stripped of their credit history, employment opportunities, independence, and safety.
There are many ways financial abuse can manifest, and every case is unique. Some abusers may use all the tactics outlined below, while others may only use one or two. Regardless of how many or how few, it’s still considered financial abuse. These tactics may include:
Exploiting Resources: This may look like trying to control how the victim spends or accesses money they have earned or saved, using their assets for their personal benefit without asking, ruining their credit history by running up limits and then not paying bills, borrowing money and not repaying it, or demanding access to paychecks, passwords, and credit cards.
Job Interference: When a partner or spouse attempts to control the other’s ability to earn money or gain assets, it is considered job interference. This may look like pressuring their spouse to quit their job (sometimes even using children as an excuse), trying to dictate where they can and cannot work, harassing them at work, preventing them from going to work or minimizing their choice of career.
Controlling Shared Assets and Resources: This is when a partner or spouse has complete control over the money in the relationship, and the other has little or no access to what they need. Controlling shared assets can look like criticizing every financial decision they make, making large decisions without input, reducing freedom to plan or budget, hiding or taking funds, establishing unrealistic limits or allowances, requiring that large joint purchases be in their name only, or refusing to contribute to the family income. It can also look like dragging out divorce proceedings, becoming enraged over money and then engaging in verbal or physical violence, and refusing to pay child support.
The key is to address financial abuse right away. If you suspect financial abuse, don’t wait to seek help. Financial abuse does not get better over time and often escalates into other types of abuse. Contact an advocate, a counselor, or a religious leader right away. If you do not have a counselor or religious leader who can help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. For more resources, visit Verywell’s National Helpline Database.
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