Taking a Closer Look at Economic Abuse

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By: Hillary Waterman, Community Prevention Educator

Denying someone the right to work or have equal access to money is not only mean and unfair, it’s a form of domestic abuse. Economic abuse is usually minimized and misunderstood because talking about domestic violence or money makes people uncomfortable. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a 2014 study reported that 78% of Americans do not recognize financial abuse as a form of domestic abuse. Yet, it remains one of the biggest barriers to survivors’ escaping from abusive partners. Ninety-nine percent of survivors have been systematically denied access to money, prevented from working or sabotaged in their career, or had a partner ruin their credit. Therefore it is vitally important to understand and talk openly about this pernicious form of intimate partner abuse.

Economic abuse doesn’t merely occur alongside other forms of power and control; it “overlaps and reinforces them,” according to researcher Nicola Sharp-Jeffs (2008). Abusers know how to systematically deplete a victim’s economic and financial resources. This wears down resistance to other forms of coercion and maltreatment including physical, emotional, and sexual, which creates layers of dependency and makes it difficult to break free.

Abusive people often gain trust by assuming a “rescuer” role, and then use that trust to   entangle themselves in their partner’s financial affairs. They may offer help with rent or other critical expenses, maybe even cosign for a car or other large essential. This type of “helping” easily masquerades as empowerment–if someone helps you buy a car, it is easy to believe that they want you to have more freedom, not less. However, when abuse is the motivation, that new dependency will inevitably be turned around and used as a form of control. The elderly can be especially vulnerable to this form of abuse, and not just from intimate partners, but also, sadly, from caregivers and family members with fiduciary responsibility and access to their accounts.

The terms economic abuse and financial abuse are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Financial abuse is one type of economic abuse–the part directly having to do with money. For example, abusers often demand their victim account for every penny they spend, not allowing them to have money of their own. They typically empty bank accounts and other joint assets, especially if they sense a partner wanting to leave the relationship. Most victims experience multiple forms of financial abuse, effectively crippling any attempt to leave.

Economic abuse includes financial abuse, but also describes behaviors not directly involving money, such as interfering with a partner’s job (their ability to earn money), making unilateral decisions, refusing to pay court-ordered support, and not allowing a partner to pay for necessary home repairs or personal care. Thus economic abuse encompasses all the related behaviors that aid and abet an abuser in accessing, controlling, or stealing the partner’s money.

Economic abuse can take the forms of control, exploitation, or sabotage. Control often looks like one partner making all decisions about money or not letting the other partner have financial information. Control might also take the form of someone’s partner not allowing them to work. Exploitation might include someone using their partner’s money or credit without their knowledge or consent, or fraudulently using their non-joint personal money. Sabotage is when one partner impedes the other’s work or career by manipulating them or harming their professional credibility. More specifically, abusers might use sabotage as a form of economic abuse by making their partners feel guilty for using childcare in order to work, being disruptive at their partners’ workplace, or engineering family emergencies to summon them away from work.

Some (but not all) economic abuse is gendered and systemic. While anyone of any gender or identity can be a victim or an abuser, societal beliefs and practices around money that specifically disadvantage women are built into our shared understandings of how marriage, families, and households should work. The most obvious example: Women are consistently paid 20% less than men for comparable work. This is an intractable, gender-based, structural form of economic abuse that sets women up to have fewer resources and less personal agency throughout their lives.

How can we identify economic abuse, versus the ordinary disagreements and power struggles around money that characterize most normal relationships? People aren’t perfect, and most of us have emotional baggage around money. However, in an abuse-free relationship, partners try to be respectful and are committed to meeting each other’s needs, even if that means negotiation, compromise, and sometimes not getting what you want or need. Ideally, they talk honestly about money and look for ways to cooperate with a goal of basic responsibility and fairness. If a partner is trying to force or coerce a financial arrangement that feels essentially wrong or unfair, it probably is a sign of abuse. If one partner uses money to control the other in any way, that is economic abuse.

Know that it is okay not to commingle funds with a partner, even if you are married, and that every person is entitled to earn, manage, and control their own money in whatever way they see fit. If someone is trying to convince you that they should have access to your money, that’s a strong indication that it might not be a good idea.

If you have questions about economic abuse, call New Hope Midcoast’s 24-hour Helpline at 800-522-3304. For more information about domestic violence, visit www.newhopemidcoast.org.