You’ve heard of physical abuse. You’ve heard of emotional abuse. You’ve heard of sexual abuse. But have you heard of financial abuse? Probably not. It’s just one more way that abusers wield their power to disenfranchise and harm their victims. Financial abuse is when money is used as a weapon. That can mean withholding money, stealing money, restricting the use of money, accruing debt in a partner’s name without their knowledge, or sabotaging a partner’s career. These behaviors make a victim dependent upon their abuser and make it difficult for them to leave the relationship. Victims are often forced to choose between staying in an abusive relationship and poverty or even homelessness. Because of this, financial abuse is more common and more insidious than you might think.
Financial abuse is when money is used as a weapon.
Many Women Have Experienced Domestic Abuse
According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of all women in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner, a quarter of women have experienced physical violence, and almost 10 percent have been raped by an intimate partner. To make matters worse, one-third of women who are murdered in the United States are killed by a current or former male partner. These are sobering numbers. They show that a huge swath of our population has experienced domestic violence of some kind, and domestic violence often escalates to murder. It touches more of us than we might realize.
Most Abuse Victims Have Experienced Financial Abuse
So now we know that up to 50 percent of all women in the United States experience domestic abuse of some kind. But what does that have to do with financial abuse? Well, the two are directly and deeply linked. Financial abuse actually occurs in up to 99 percent of all abusive relationships. That means that in almost all abusive relationships, money is being used as a weapon to make a victim financially reliant on their partner, or financially unable to leave the relationship.
It’s Not About the Money
Just like sexual abuse isn’t about sex, financial abuse isn’t actually about money. It’s about control. Money is essential to getting through our everyday lives. If someone else is controlling that resource, then we would have to be completely dependent on them. If you were an abuse victim, but your abuser controlled all of your finances, you probably wouldn’t be able to afford to leave them. This sort of abuse maintains control over the victim, especially if there are children involved.
It Can Ruin Careers
One of the ways that abusers maintain control over their victims is by sabotaging their jobs and careers. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), between 21 and 60 percent of victims of intimate partner violence lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from the abuse. Abusers do this by preventing their victim from going to work, interfering with their work by making frequent phone calls or showing up at their office, or demanding that they quit. According to the CDC, victims of intimate partner violence “lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year, the equivalent of 32,000 jobs.”
This abuse tactic prevents a victim from being able to earn their own money and have their own sense of independence. It isolates the victim and makes them even more dependent upon their abuser.
It Can Ruin Futures
One of the common tactics of financial abuse is known as coerced debt. This can range from opening accounts in the victim’s name to forcing the victim to sign financial documents. This behavior can trap a victim in crushing debt and destroy their credit history. If you’ve read about why your credit score and credit report matter, you know that they aren’t just numbers. They determine your ability to get a loan for things like buying a home, buying a car, going back to school, etc. They also can determine whether or not you are approved for an apartment or hired for a job. All of these things not only can impact whether someone can successfully leave an abusive partner, but they can make or break a victim’s future.
To hear more personal stories about this sort of destruction, check out this Buzzfeed feature. It took years for this one woman to clean up her credit report after her husband opened credit cards in her name and didn’t pay them off.
It Can Be Hard to Spot
As with a lot of abuse, financial abuse is not necessarily overt from the beginning. It can seem like your partner is just looking out for you. For example, when my husband and I first moved in together, I would ask him how much money he spent on things because I wanted to make sure we were sticking to our household budget. This was a way for me to make sure we were on the same page financially. However, it I started interrogating him about every single purchase he made or limited his access to his or our combined resources, I would be committing financial abuse. Another example could be your partner checking up on you during the day to see how you’re doing. An abusive behavior would be if they contact you so much that they make it difficult or impossible to do your job, putting your job at risk. It’s important to recognize the signs if this behavior begins to escalate and turn into abuse.
Certified Financial Education Instructor. Feminist and financial coach for women. Founder of Money Circle.