Love and Money or Love and Punishment?
Money is a form of emotional currency in relationships. Disappointment and uncertainty are a normal part of any relationship. However, an inability to communicate your underlying emotions often leads to poor coping strategies such as the need to control, enable or punish your partner. In many cases, the urge to punish comes from a place of fear — the fear of creating intimacy. It is one of the ways to gain control of the situation without being vulnerable but doing so in an unhealthy manner.
While money and wealth are not inherently evil, it can be the source of many immoralities, and expose the dark side of our humanity. Interestingly, financial abuse is seen in 99% of domestic violence cases.1 However, it is not as recognized as a form of abuse or violence, compared to physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. Why is that? Why do we have a hard time recognizing and spotting financial abuse in our relationships? The answers to these questions, often asked by many, can be found through understanding the root of financial abuse. Additionally, we see how our traumas from the past can lead to poor and abusive financial behaviours towards ourselves, and sometimes towards others.
Financial abuse is the utilization of money as a tool to control another person.2 It can be seen in many forms: controlling one’s access to money, giving no privacy for financial decisions, giving no social life, or making it impossible for you to leave the relationship with financial stability. By coercing another person into a position where they are not financially stable as an individual, the abuser gains toxic and destructive control in that relationship. Surely, this cycle of abuse is not happening in a vacuum, but rather it is using money as a medium to cause emotional and psychological trauma to another person. Similar to other forms of abuse, the cycle of violence plays a role in perpetuating the hurtful and devastating need for control of the abuser. The four-part cycle consists of: 1. Tension building 2. Abuse or violence 3. Reconciliation and 4. Calm.3 This cycle illuminates certain traits observed in abuse that can be helpful in offering treatment or possible solutions. Though some forms of abuse many not exactly emulate these exact steps, the subtlety of the abuse can also push victims into a corner.
Neuroscience behind it
The perpetuated motion of making it more difficult for the victim to leave the situation behind also lies in the fact that there are neurological changes observed, in addition to the sentiment of fear that the abuser strikes on a variety of occasions. It involves the chemical, oxytocin, normally known as the love drug. Under normal circumstances, it is produced in a brain structure known as amygdala, and it encourages happiness and positive social bonds.4 However, under painful and troublesome conditions, it is produced from the receptors in the lateral septum, triggering a social stress response.4 This stimulates a withdrawing effect of wanting to return to happier times. An example of that could be wanting to go back to times when both people were financially dependent in a healthy way. Although you may think our rational mind can override the decisions made by the neurotransmitters, the emotional effect of this chemical is impactful to the point where it may be very tough to rise up against it.
Such disturbing and traumatic experiences of financial abuse lead to an alteration of our brain pathways and our emotional and decision-making processes. It is utterly crucial to recognize the lasting impact of financial abuse because the solution is not something that is as simple as gluing two pieces back together and pretending that nothing had happened. It is rather a complex situation that requires guidance and support to recover from.
What is Big T and Little T Trauma?
As alluded from above, being financially abused and controlled is a traumatic experience. While one action does not define financial abuse, the characteristics are on a spectrum, similar to how we categorize big T and little T traumas Big T trauma is a reaction towards utterly disturbing or life-threatening incidents, normally associated with PTSD.5,6 Likewise, little T trauma, while these situations may not be life-threatening, is caused by upsetting and distressing situations that do not classify under big T trauma.6 One thing to remember when discussing little T and big T traumas is that it is no math equation. 1 big T trauma does not equal to 3 little T traumas. However, there is a compound effect, also known as the snowball effect, of smaller scale traumas piling up on each other causing extreme emotional and psychological stress and anxiety. An example of that can be how individual money controlling behaviour may not be considered life-threatening; however, the build-up of these experiences and abuses can lead to a much more severe and distressing situation. These lead to the neurological changes in the location of neurotransmitter release and the amount of hormones released.
Interestingly, childhood trauma can lead to poor financial decisions. This can be accredited to the fact that as a child, there were some coping mechanisms that were used during distressing times that are manifesting as an adult. Erica Sandberg writes that irrational and compulsive actions such as excessive spending or excessive saving can be rooted in the fact that the brain is now programmed to overreact to situations due to past experiences7
We see that financial abuse stems from the desire to manipulate and gain control in a relationship in order to assert its dominance over the other person. However, the effect of financial abuse is measureless and unquantifiable — it leaves emotional scars on those who have experienced it.
How to Cope:
Financial abuse is in no way, shape or form a manner to show one’s love. It is just a mask for one’s insecurities or a product of one’s past, which in neither case is acceptable. However, for the victims, it is very important to understand that healing is a process. While one’s perspective may have changed drastically in addition to an altered emotion-based decision-making process, this is not the end of the road. Some steps that may be helpful in this process are:8
- Recognize triggers
- Set boundaries
- Understand that healing is a process
- Seek professional help
Control and abuse are not tolerated. The importance of recognizing self-worth and signs of financial abuse cannot be stressed enough. While you might dismiss some uncomfortable and unwanted actions as trivial, it is important to recognize certain patterns and realize the depth and severity that financial abuse can reach.
Control or punishment, is not synonymous with love and it never will be.
- Barr, A. (2019, January 22). Financial abuse & strategies to stop the cycle. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.aimeebarrlcsw.com/single-post/2019/01/22/Financial-Abuse-Strategies-To-Stop-The-Cycle
- Forms of economic abuse. (2019, October 10). Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/financial-abuse
- He, J. (2019, November 06). Gray matter: Neuroscience reveals why abuse victims can’t just walk away. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://dailytrojan.com/2019/11/05/gray-matter-neuroscience-reveals-why-abuse-victims-cant-just-walk-away/
- Monroe, J. (2020, November 13). Young adult trauma: ‘big t’ and ‘little t’. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/treatment/adolescent-trauma/
- Clancy, C. (2019, December 20). What’s the difference between big “t” and little “t” trauma? Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://journeypureriver.com/big-t-little-t-trauma/
- Sandberg, E. (2014, November 17). How trauma leads to destructive financial choices. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/trauma-destructive-financial-choices-1264/
- Coping with traumatic stress – the snowball effect – kristin cuthriell. (2013, December 16). Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://thesnowballeffect.com/2013/12/16/coping-with-traumatic-stress/