When we think about domestic abuse, it’s easy to focus on the two most common types: emotional abuse and physical abuse.
But financial abuse is just as common – and it’s typically one of the earliest indicators of a toxic relationship. In fact, researchers discovered that 99% of domestic abuse victims also experienced financial abuse, according to a study published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In a toxic situation, money becomes a weapon rather than an asset.
The end goal of the abuser is always the same: to increase their power and control in the relationship. This includes controlling how money is spent, accessed, and stored. They use many tactics such as manipulation and coercion to control every aspect of life, including finances.
It’s more difficult for the victim to leave. Without money, it’s difficult to provide the basics, such as food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. This is why so many victims return to their abusers – because they don’t have the financial ability to provide for themselves. If there are no nearby family or friends, the situation can get especially dire.
In fact, according to the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse, “lacking financial knowledge or resources is the number one indicator of whether a domestic violence victim will stay, leave, or return to an abusive relationship.”
So what are the signs of financial abuse? And what are the steps you can take to protect yourself and your financial fulfillment?
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5 Signs of Financial Abuse
Financial abuse can be difficult to spot because it doesn’t necessarily leave physical scars or directly cause emotional damage. However, if you understand the patterns of abuse and exploitation, it’s easier to recognize the most common signs of financial abuse. In other words, abusers may use different tactics to control their victims, but the goal is always the same: power and control.
So no matter what tactic is used, if you suspect you are in an abusive situation, ask yourself, “Is the other person trying to bend me to their will to gain power and control?”
Some of the most common signs of financial abuse include, but are not limited to:
1. Having your finances “taken care of.”
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong if someone in your relationship is “in charge” of managing the books and balancing your budget – as long as it is a mutually agreed-upon arrangement. For example, if your spouse loves numbers and you don’t, then there is nothing wrong with jointly agreeing that your partner will be your “relationship CFO.”
However, where things go wrong is if one person unilaterally decides that they are taking care of the finances. Here’s a dangerous sign: instead of simply handling finances, they strip away your financial self-sufficiency.
A sign that this is happening is if one partner gives the other one an “allowance” and blocks off access to credit cards, bank accounts, and cash. Many victims are deceived when this happens because the abuser claims that they are “taking care” of finances. This creates a false sense of financial security and safety, but it’s really just meant to disguise financial abuse.
2. Interfering with your job or career.
Does your partner tell you where you can or can’t work? Has your partner inappropriately called, texted, or shown up at your place of employment? Is there a pattern of “losing” or “misplacing” the car keys so you can’t get to work?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, it could be an indicator that you are potentially in a financially abusive situation. As an adult, your career is your choice and responsibility.
Now, this doesn’t mean that healthy couples can’t discuss their jobs with each other and make decisions together. For example, a person graduating from medical school and entering residency will likely consult their spouse about residency options. In fact, some couples will even make the decision to relocate and move for one spouse’s career, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
Where things go wrong is when one partner tries to take your career into their hands.
3. Financial enabling and bailouts.
It usually goes something like this: “Hey honey… I really messed up and made some bad financial decisions. But you’re so smart. You’re so good with money and you still have great credit. I promise I’ll change my behavior. For you. For us. But right now, I need you to pay this bill for me. I need you to bail me out. If you love me, you’ll do this for me right now.”
Or something like that.
Did you catch the flattery? Many times, abusers will flatter you to get what they want. Furthermore, they promise they’ll change their behavior, luring you into a false sense of security. Finally, they will expect you to follow through on their demands. If you look closely, it’s clear they’re not “asking” for help, but rather, they’re making a demand. In other words, a financial abuser may expect you to enable their poor financial decisions but will get angry if you do anything they consider to be a poor decision.
4. Manipulation and emotional ownership.
In psychology, there’s a concept of reciprocation. When someone does something nice for us, we feel the instinct to reciprocate. We see this all the time in sales situations. There’s a reason car dealerships and real estate brokerages offer “free” gifts, snacks, keychains, and other goodies. A good salesperson knows that humans are wired to reciprocate.
Unfortunately, financial abusers take advantage of this instinct. It may look like a kind gesture, but it’s really just manipulation. Let’s say your partner always pays for your meals, gifts, and travel, but never allows you to pay for anything. Instead, they expect you to repay them with obedience and affection. This is a form of manipulation and emotional ownership. It’s not as obvious as other forms of manipulation, but its effects are just as toxic and damaging.
5. Taking what’s yours.
In a healthy relationship, it’s normal to share. There’s a reason many married couples have joint bank accounts!
But if there’s no communication or respect, it’s easy to cross a very fine red line.
Financial abusers may use your credit cards without permission, try to access your bank account or get your passwords, and feel entitled to your money and assets without talking to you about it. This is financial exploitation and is a major red flag of financial abuse. Again, it comes down to power and control.
Some abusers may use all of these tactics. Others may only use one. Remember to watch out for a pattern of abuse, too. Abusers will promise that they’ll change and put on their good behavior for a little bit, only to strike back with a vengeance.
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Leaving Financial Abuse
It’s never easy to leave an abusive relationship.
While financial abuse might not feel like a big deal, it is.
In fact, it’s almost always a gateway to an escalation towards emotional and physical abuse.
If you suspect that you are a victim of abuse, reach out to an advocate, counselor, or a religious leader at an opportune, safe time. Furthermore, reach out to your family and friends. If you suddenly feel “cut off” from your family and friends – or if you feel like your partner has turned them against you – this may be another sign of financial abuse.
Also, it’s important to recognize that abusers aren’t always your spouse or partner.
Family members can also be financially abusive. For example, parents may take out credit cards and loans in their kids’ names. Or children of aging parents may try to control their parents’ assets when it isn’t warranted or appropriate. Just because spousal abuse is the most common form of abuse, it doesn’t mean it’s the only kind.
If you need help, call the national abuse hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit https://www.thehotline.org/
Remember, you are never alone.