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Let’s be honest: No one likes talking about money and they definitely don’t enjoy talking about abuse. Unfortunately, that means many people don’t even realize financial abuse is an issue we need to discuss. It also leaves victims feeling too ashamed to speak up about it. “In a situation of financial abuse, there’s a power imbalance in the relationship and somebody is leveraging money and resources to control the other person,” explains Brad Klontz, Psy.D., C.F.P., financial psychologist and associate professor at Creighton University.
While one study found that 99% of domestic violence (DV) survivors had experienced some form of economic abuse in their relationships, other research shows that violence doesn’t need to be present for a situation to be abusive. Whereas some abusers might use violence to control another person, financial abusers disempower their victims by cutting off their financial freedom. Even when a victim leaves the relationship, Klontz says they often return because they lack money and the financial literacy to support themselves. If your partner seems controlling about money, but you’re not sure if you’re a victim of abuse, look for any of the warning signs below. Keep in mind, all of these red flags don’t have to be present for you to be in an abusive situation — it only takes one.
1. Your partner withholds financial information.
“It’s okay to set up a system where each person has their own accounts and maybe have a joint account, but you want to listen to the underlying tones of why and how they don’t want to share their finances with you or information about that,” says Alex Melkumian, Psy.D., LMFT, founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. Your partner could want to keep you in the dark because they feel ashamed of the financial choices they’ve made, he says, or they could be trying to maintain control of your financial resources and destroy your ability to escape the relationship.
There are different profiles for abusers, according to Klontz, but they often have very fragile egos and they feel terrible about themselves. “We think of them typically as really strong, but it’s actually the opposite,” he says. “They’re so incredibly emotionally weak that they have to try to bring the other person’s self-esteem down so low because they are so afraid the other person is going to leave.” They may even belittle you and insist you don’t know as much as them about money so you don’t need this info, says Blair Dorosh-Walther, program manager of economic empowerment at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that assists victims of violence in New York City.
2. Your partner discourages you from having a job.
It’s one thing to have an open and honest discussion with your partner and express your desire not to work or, after reviewing your finances together, conclude that it makes the most sense if you don’t work. It’s an entirely different story if your partner won’t allow you to earn income or tries to sabotage your career. “Money is a resource that avails us so much opportunity, right? So when that is cut out of our lives or somebody is controlling it and not giving us access to our finances or limiting it in some way, it becomes very detrimental and then, of course, abusive,” says Melkumian.
In the beginning, an abuser can make the idea of not working seem enticing and they may act as if they are strong and capable and really want to take care of you. “Everyone wants to be taken care of if we’re real honest in some way,” says Klontz. “So that could be attractive.” However, he adds, it can become pathological and as they cut off your sources of income, they may try to cut off your contact with family and friends. “There’s a desire to cut away your sources of support so that you become dependent,” explains Klontz. In some instances, financial abuse can also affect your sexual life, according to Melkumian. For instance, he says, an abuser may expect you to perform specific sexual acts as if they are owed to them as the breadwinner.
3. Your partner limits your spending.
“Is it good for a couple to sit down and look at their finances and come up with an agreed-upon allowance that they both have?” asks Klontz. “Yes, that’s probably a great idea.” But it’s not okay if your partner decides on their own how much money you’re allowed to spend. “That shows that I have power and you have none and I’m being the authority figure here around money,” says Klontz, “and that’s a huge red flag.” In some cases, if a survivor has public benefits, the abuser will take their benefits card and ensure the survivor has no access to the food stamps, says Dorosh-Walther, and they’ll go out and spend that money so the survivor is left with nothing for basic needs.
4. Your partner gets very heated about money.
If you splurge on expensive home furnishings without talking to your partner first, you can probably expect some annoyance on their part, but if they have an explosive or violent reaction to the purchase or an outsized response to something smaller like spending extra money on organic carrots, those are signs of abuse. “They’ll get really upset, they’ll blow up, and maybe even become violent or verbally abusive — and then they sort of melt down and cry, saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll never do it again,’” says Klontz. The problem is that in time, the cycle will repeat itself. If the abuser is more of a narcissist, they might even blame their victim and say things like, “Look at what you made me do. I blew up because you made me blow up and if you were different, I wouldn’t have done that.”
5. Your partner forces you to bail them out.
This practice is usually called “financial enabling,” meaning one person enables another person to make poor financial decisions. It can happen outside abusive relationships (say, a young adult convinces their parents to pay off a credit card they ran up) or within abusive ones, according to Melkumian. In abusive situations, there’s often an aspect of coercion or threats if you don’t follow through with financial support.
For instance, your partner may come to you saying, “I really messed up and made poor choices, but you still have good credit and could fix everything. I promise I will change my behavior, but I need you to pay this bill and get me out of this bind.” In another situation, a partner might refuse to work or help support your family in some way (say, by watching the kids while you work), but expect you to cover all household expenses and threaten you with violence if you protest this arrangement.
6. You see charges you didn’t authorize.
Carefully review all bank statements every month and note any charges that you weren’t responsible for. Yes, they could have been made by an unknown fraudster, but sometimes they’re made by a financially abusive partner or someone else you’re close to. “Financial abuse rarely happens just with the direct abuser,” says Dorosh-Walther. “It tends to happen with more people involved. Maybe they’re living with the abuser’s family and the family is also taking money or forcing the survivor to pay for everybody’s cell phones or utility bills.” Dorosh-Walther requests a credit report for every domestic violence survivor they work with and says, “I don’t think I’ve pulled a credit report without fraud appearing on it yet.”
What you can do:
If someone is using money as a means to control you, they’re putting you in a really difficult position. “The longer you’re in it, the harder it is to get out of it,” says Klontz. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to move forward:
- Prepare to let go of everything. Depending on the specifics of your situation, you may be walking away with less than nothing — as in no cash, destroyed credit and nowhere to live. “Your attempts to become more financially empowered will be met by very strong and fierce resistance from your partner,” says Klontz. “To be quite honest, sometimes it requires you going to a domestic violence shelter to have a shot at getting out of it.” When that happens, survivors often have to give up even more — like childcare if your parent watched your kids during the day and they don’t live near your new housing, Dorosh-Walther points out.
- Pull your credit report. If you don’t pull your credit report (and your children’s credit reports if you have kids), it’s impossible to know how much financial damage has been done — and then how to fix it. When Dorosh-Walther pulls a survivor’s credit report, they review it line by line together to identify which debts might be fraudulent and potentially removed. You are entitled to one free credit report every year from each of the three credit reporting companies, so if you space them out, you could pull one free report every four months. Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to learn more.
- Put security measures in place. When you think fraud has happened, there are ways to prevent it from continuing. “You can put temporary or permanent freezes on your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus,” says Dorosh-Walther. “You can also put alerts on them. The Social Security Administration also has a DV-specific program, although it’s quite a lengthy process.” Dorosh-Walther notes taxes are another common place for financial abuse and fraud, so you can file identity theft affidavits with the Internal Revenue Service and with the Federal Trade Commission. “All of these protections to me seem really important,” says Dorosh-Walther.
- See a therapist. If your partner will talk to a therapist, too, that’s great. Ultimately, though, you’re going to have to make some big decisions and a mental health professional can provide guidance. “It depends on the level of severity of what’s happening and how much the other person is willing to acknowledge the problem,” says Melkumian. “Maybe it’s giving this a chance and seeing if your partner is willing to work on it, but if you’re not seeing results, then you need to also be willing to end such a toxic relationship as well — and that could be extremely difficult.” No matter what you decide, a therapist can also support you in the aftermath of that choice. Not sure how to find a therapist? Check out this Good Housekeeping tip sheet.
- Repair your support system. If you decide to leave an abusive relationship, you’re likely going to have to start from scratch both financially and emotionally. “You have to start to rebuild back what was taken away from you or what you gave up in the relationship,” says Klontz. “You have to start telling people what’s happening in your relationship because there’s usually a lot of shame for the victim. They don’t want to talk about it because they’ve had a lot of family and friends telling them they need to leave that person.” There’s not one single way to rebuild your community because everyone’s scenario is different, but you can search online for local support groups or, if your situation involves violence, you can call, text or chat with someone on the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Strengthen your financial literacy. Nearly everyone could use a refresher on how to manage their finances, but if you haven’t had control of your money for a while, this is crucial. See if your local library or other organizations host free or low-cost courses you can take. Some colleges (including Duke, Brigham Young, Purdue, Illinois, and Missouri State) also offer free online classes about everything from budgeting to building credit to saving for retirement. As you learn more, you’ll be able to get back on your feet. While the emotional aspect of things may take a long time to heal, sometimes you can get fraudulent things taken off your credit report in a month or so. “When we get things removed, it feels really good,” says Dorosh-Walther. Your financial situation may not be perfect, but you’ll be making progress—and that, in itself, is empowering.
Where to turn if you or a loved one are being victimize: Call 911 if physical abuse is happening or imminent. Otherwise, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or log on to thehotline.org. The hotline is open 24/7, 365 days a year — and all calls are anonymous and confidential. If you need more info about the warning signs of domestic or financial abuse, or the best way to reach out to someone, log on to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org.