May 29, 2023


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Is Your Spouse a Financial Bully? Subtle Signs of Abuse to Watch for

It may come as a surprise to learn that many people who experience domestic abuse in a relationship are dealing with more than just physical and verbal abuse from their significant others. A study conducted by the Center for Financial Security showed that 99{de3fc13d4eb210e6ea91a63b91641ad51ecf4a1f1306988bf846a537e7024eeb} of domestic abuse involves some financial abuse on top of the better-known forms of abuse. The study also found that most domestic abuse cases start with a subtle form of financial abuse and then escalate into physical violence or verbal, emotional or sexual abuse.

Why do most people miss the warning signs or the overt ways that their abuser controls them and creates financial dependency? One main reason is that education around this kind of abuse is not as publicized or shared as other forms of abuse. 

Financial Abuse Can Start in a Subtle Way

It is also likely that some may not be aware of the financial abuse happening to them because it often starts subtly — in ways that can be mistaken for love. Finances can be stressful and tough to manage, and when dismay or frustration is expressed around dealing with bills and money, those looking to take advantage see this as a time to gain control. This can look as benign as, “The bills seem to be stressing you out. Let me take care of it, and I will give you spending money each month to limit your stress.”

This scenario tends to lead to less and less communication around finances, and then less money being provided each month because of an undisclosed or ambiguous reason. When the victim decides it is time to take some control of the finances, the situation tends to intensify, and other forms of abuse may ensue. 

The abuser usually uses intimidation and manipulation to control the financial stability of their victim. Extreme cases have shown abusers threatening violence if the victim tries to make more money by starting to work, getting a better job or furthering their education. Some financial abuse victims have experienced their abuser sabotaging their current career, ruining their credit score, tricking them into writing bad checks, ruining their professional reputation, and keeping money in hidden investments.

New York divorce attorney, Lisa Zeiderman, Esq., often works with spouses who have been financially abused. Perhaps surprisingly, Zeiderman states that financial abuse is not limited to the non-working spouse. She has seen how “sophisticated executives (usually women) are often pressured to hand over their earnings to their spouse in return for an allowance that is doled out by the abuser, with the abuser claiming to manage the money, thereby freeing up more time for the working spouse to work and take care of the children. When the abused spouse decides that enough is enough, the controlling spouse often becomes verbally and physically abusive. It is usually at this point that the abuser changes account passwords, stops or cuts back the allowance and sometimes stops paying the bills.”

Danger Signs of Financial Abuse to Watch Out for

Look for some of these warning signs when trying to understand if you are a victim of financial abuse:

  • Does your spouse require you to tell them about all purchases?
  • Do you find yourself having to ask for more money to pay everyday bills?
  • Has your spouse ever threatened to cut you off from the money?
  • Does your spouse make significant investments without consulting you?
  • Does your spouse discourage you from furthering your career or making more money?
  • Does your spouse forbid you from working?
  • Does your spouse prevent you from having access to account information?
  • Does your spouse make poor decisions involving your credit, causing harm to your score?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may be the victim of financial abuse.

Without financial resources, those who are experiencing financial abuse have difficulty exiting a relationship. In a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 73{de3fc13d4eb210e6ea91a63b91641ad51ecf4a1f1306988bf846a537e7024eeb} of respondents named financial instability as the biggest reason for finding themselves unable to leave their abuser or being forced to return to an abusive relationship.

Standing Up for Victims

Fortunately, victims are not alone, and there are advocates and programs in place to help. In 2005, the Allstate Foundation founded a financial empowerment program called Purple Purse, which has since helped 1.7 million survivors gain financial independence and the knowledge needed to terminate their abusive relationships through grant programs and a phenomenal educational curriculum. 

A longtime advocate and powerful force in stopping financial abuse and domestic abuse as a whole is 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion Serena Williams. Williams is excited to reprise her role, yet again, in 2021, to bring financial abuse out of the shadows and into the public eye. Her work ethic and dedication make her the perfect face of Purple Purse, and her achievements and unapologetic allegiance to her cause make her a role model for children everywhere. She wants to bring awareness to the cause and let people know that they have support in ending an abusive relationship, no matter how bad it is. 

“If you see them trying to handle your accounts, or trying to decide where you should spend money, or asking you for receipts, these are really big signs and red flags,” Williams warns.

What is so crucial for us to remember is that those looking for a way out of an abusive relationship have one need in common … money. Whether it is to buy a bus ticket out of town, secure a new home, or replace everything they are leaving behind, money plays a huge role in starting fresh, out of the grasp of their abuser.

Getting the Help That You Need

It is essential that victims of financial abuse put together a professional team to exit the situation safely. A lawyer can help the survivor obtain orders that give a financially abused spouse independent access to funds to live on and funds to pay a lawyer in the event of a legal separation or divorce. The victim will also want to consult with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to help them gain access to the financial information and get educated about their family’s finances.

Finally, a survivor should also have the assistance of a mental health professional. The divorce process for someone who has been controlled by an abuser can be especially litigious and difficult. Putting a professional support system in place is crucial to recovering and emerging from a divorce or separation emotionally and financially secure. These professionals can help survivors cope with their feelings, re-establish self-confidence and build their financial knowledge for a successful and safe financial future.

If you are in danger, please call 911. If you need immediate support or local referrals, contact a local hotline or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc., which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.