If you summon up a connotation to the term “financial abuse,” chances are you’ll think of someone being deprived by and dependent upon a paternalistic other. It could be a parent, it could be a partner, but this is the person who holds the purse strings, and they make sure you know it. I’ve known victims whose well-off partners wouldn’t give them money to feed their children, buy themselves modest staples, drive a car, or even leave the house. If they tried, they were threatened with divorce, taking the kids, and legal action, even deportation. This is a very common coercive control tactic, and it usually starts, as all abusive relationships do, with love bombing: “Oh honey, let me take care of that. You don’t need to work.” “Just give me your paycheck and I’ll invest it for you and do our taxes.” “Just move in, I’ll take care of you.” “Let’s get married and combine our incomes.”
Of course, with a trustworthy partner, these could be benign statements. But relationships of coercive control have patterns of controlling and abusive behavior, and must be seen in their own context. This is obvious controlling behavior, but also reeks of entitlement: I deserve all the money and all the choices, and you do not. I give and I take away as I see fit.
The other side of the coin of financial abuse is refusing to work or contribute in any way financially, with household chores, and/or parenting. This is otherwise referred to as a parasitic lifestyle. You are then forced into the provider role. They’re just “down on their luck.” They’re just “depressed.” You “make more money than I do.” Because this form is more passive aggressive than the first, it can go unnoticed. But it is abuse nonetheless, because it is controlling of your time, money, and energy, and it also screams entitlement: I deserve to be taken care of. Adulting is tedious. You do it.
Survivors of the first case often look to me like prisoners, trauma bonded to their captors and at the mercy of their whims. The latter, though, creates ghosts were there were once fully fleshed human beings. It is exhausting to do all the work of life and of relationship while also pulling along a perfectly capable but indolent partner. It’s backbreaking labor, and there is no thanks for it. The abuser simply feels entitled to your labor and the fruits thereof. Children need to be taken care of. Adults, unless they are gravely disabled, do not. There is great power in passivity. Abusers know if they are just unmoving, if they are tireless in their sloth, that they will wear you down. They know because they chose you–wonderful, industrious, go-getting you–for your competence and ability to keep things going. But beware if you ever abandon this assigned role. The danger level of my abusive marriage suddenly spiked when I was suddenly laid off and had to go on unemployment for a few months. Because I had been the primary breadwinner, my abuser was really angry that he lost control and suddenly had a bunch of responsibility on his hands. However, this wasn’t reactive abuse but just pure life circumstances, and you’d better believe that I was looking for jobs every day until I found one.
The third type belongs primarily to the class of abusers who are also sociopaths or psychopaths. Their game is to exploit you financially, to manipulate you into giving them large sums of money, or using your credit or information to finance extravagant lifestyles, often behind your back and without your knowledge or consent. In the U.S., this sort of behavior is the only form of financial abuse that is considered criminal. If someone forges your signature on a financial document, withdraws money or uses your credit without your consent, or fails to pay child support, those are criminal activities.
Financial abuse can cripple survivors for many years to come. I’ve seen people declare bankruptcy, move in with families, limp along with ruined credit, have to pay back large sums of money they never spent, lose custody of their children, or even become homeless due to financial abuse. Careers can be lost, opportunities missed, and dreams shattered.
I want to delineate financial abuse from the consensual division of labor that happens in healthy relationships. If two people decide that one person will work and the other will stay home, and they are both happy with that arrangement, I have nothing to say about that. But if a person is bullied, coerced, manipulated, or threatened into any of the above, that’s financial abuse. What distinguishes it is the abuser’s control over the situation (simply meaning, they get exactly what they want) and the victim’s lack of consent.
Financial abuse is also one of those invisible threads that makes it very difficult to leave abusive relationships. But I have observed that it only gets worse, not better. Being poor and having terrible credit for years because of my abusive ex-husband’s financial conduct definitely sucked, but at least I was able to build myself slowly back up to solvency. I also recognize that privilege played some part in that; not everyone can recover from the devastation of financial abuse.
My advice in avoiding this? I think womxn should always have control over some of their own money. It’s just too risky otherwise. I advise womxn to protect themselves financially, to not rush into marriage or legal contracts with a partner they have not vetted for responsibility for some years, and to hold their partners accountable if they abuse or misuse them financially. Sometimes, they only way to hold an abuser accountable for financial abuse is to leave, or lawyer up. Once financial abuse starts happening, I’ve rarely, if ever, seen the trend be reversed or for survivors to be paid back or compensated for giving up their jobs or careers.