Jessica Neil discusses how financial abuse plays out in relationships and what we can do about it.
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement across the world, we are all becoming more educated on the truth of abuse. Sexual assault is finally being discussed as a power based act: not about sex or desire, but about the need to control and exert power over another human being. Financial abuse is a further tool used by abusers - to control their partners, to ensure that person cannot leave and that they are entirely reliant on the abuser.
"I was given lavish gifts, without having an understanding that in accepting these things, I was essentially entering into an unspoken contract. At the time I wouldn’t have categorised the relationship as abusive, but looking back on it I can see it most certainly was. I wanted so desperately to be ‘loved’ I was blind to what was actually going on."
In the past, financial abuse has been reserved for or associated with older people. Senior citizens who have their pensions and bank accounts emptied by family members or their social security cheques stolen from their mail. While this is absolutely financial abuse and a topic that deserves discussion, I think it’s very important we discuss the other ways this insidious form of abuse shows up in every day life and interpersonal relationships.
I grew up in a very small town. My mother worked two - sometimes three - jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes on our backs. I understood from a very young age that money or lack of money was a major stressor. I wanted desperately to be like all the other kids my age in my town who’s parents both worked one job each, who sometimes only one parent worked one job yet they had a pool and the newest cars, new clothes.
I can see now I was equating money with happiness, with freedom from stress. And while I know now that is not always the case, at the time I just wanted to keep up with the kids down the street.
I don’t remember ever having a class on finances, on debt, on how to manage money and credit. I don’t even remember learning about student loans before heading off to university. We simply weren’t taught these skills.
I think on some level it was thought that we didn’t need to be educated on these things because ideally our parents were supposed to pay for education. We were supposed to get a job and marry and then not worry about money because our partner would be working too. That outdated assumption that one was to go to university or college, land a job immediately and get married: the end.
This belief, when held in the education system, results in a lack of education on something so very important and if we’re not educated on those topics, how can we be expected to know when we are being taken advantage of?
My first experience with financial abuse actually began when I was still in high school and throughout my first year of University. I was dating someone from a very well off family. They would fly me out to visit or to join them on vacation. They even offered at one point to buy me a car.
I was given lavish gifts, without having an understanding that in accepting these things, I was essentially entering into an unspoken contract. At the time I wouldn’t have categorized the relationship as abusive, but looking back on it I can see it most certainly was.
I had no rights in the relationship. I wasn’t entitled to an opinion or to make a decision because at the end of the day it wasn’t me paying the bill or putting petrol in the car or booking the flight. I genuinely felt like I was trading the only thing I had of worth, my body, myself, for him for the relationship.
I wanted so desperately to be ‘loved’ I was blind to what was actually going on. Throughout the relationship I was cheated on, I was pressured to have sex when I did not want to. I felt that was all I had to offer and all I was being kept around for and that if I did say no or speak up in any way he would leave me. He had all of the control.
He could come and go as he pleased, we did whatever it was he wanted to do, everything was on his terms and I belonged to him. When we teach women and girls that their sole purpose is to find a partner who can support them financially we set them up to be abused. We set them up to hand over their body, power and control for access to money, or a specific lifestyle.
There are many ways financial abuse may show up in a relationship and the example above is only one of them. It’s not necessary to be broke with a well off partner for abuse to take place. In some cases it is actually the partner bringing in the most money that is experiencing abuse.
Credit cards and bank accounts
Financial abuse can show up like the experience I described or it can be a partner limiting access to credit cards, adding their name to your bank accounts, limiting your ability to go to work and make money.
If you are experiencing physical abuse quite often the assault can leave you with visible injuries, resulting in the need to take time off work to heal. This would also qualify as financial abuse as your ability to make money, to go to work has been limited by another person.
Sexual harassment in the workplace also affects a person financially. When your workplace condones or fosters this kind of behaviour it can result in lost wages in the form of giving away certain shifts, or not taking a promotion if it means working with a specific person who is harassing you. There are many ways that financial abuse is used as a tool alongside other forms of abuse as a means of control.
If you’ve experienced any of these things - even if you haven’t - I suggest really taking the time to educate yourself on financial matters. This is easier said than done especially if you are currently in an abusive relationship and unable to access support or even search for information safely.
Libraries are a great tool, and easy to access. Some websites even have a tab now that will hide your footsteps so your partner cannot see what you searched or what site you have accessed. Ask to use a friend's phone or laptop to search for information and support.
If you live with your abuser look into getting a PO Box, which is essentially a mailbox that is not tied to your home and would be solely in your name. Get a bank account that has only your name on it, perhaps a different banking institution than the one your partner uses.
If you have someone you trust, a family member or close friend, ask them to be a stand in savings account for you and have them hold onto some emergency funds for you.
Most importantly, understand that what you are experiencing is real and is abuse. Understand that this type of abuse is about control and that means it has nothing to do with your gender, sexual orientation, race or socioeconomic status. Abuse does not discriminate.
Tell someone you trust. Tell your doctor, tell a friend, tell your family (if they are supportive). Let people know this is happening not only for yourself, but to open others' eyes to the more subtle forms of abuse that may exist in their lives as well. All forms of abuse thrive in silence, and those of us who can must use our voices to speak up for those who can’t.