Are you being financially abused?

It can be an often hidden aspect of abuse, but one that’s no less damaging. Explore the widespread issue of financial abuse, and how you can protect yourself.

It took less than four years for Gill* to have her life torn apart. The mum-of-two went from owning her own home, with a great job, overseas holidays and savings, to being forced to lodge with her sister, unable to work and with a bad credit rating. Gill’s crime? She fell for the wrong man.

“He just sucked up all my financial independence,” says Gill, 57. “When I met Oliver*, I had $20,000 in the bank, a job that paid $65,000 a year, a car worth about $15,000 and a house. Now I basically live out of a suitcase and I buy $3 jeans from the second-hand shop.”

We’re all familiar with sexual and physical abuse, yet financial abuse – which is thought to be just as prevalent – is an issue which has long been swept under the carpet. Happily, not any more. After years of helping victims of this form of subjugation day-in day-out, Women’s Refuge are now lobbying for it to be more widely recognised for the destructive and debilitating form of abuse that it is.

In the absence of any Kiwi research into the issue, the organisation recently launched a survey to establish the scale and shape of financial abuse in New Zealand. Several years ago, the government added financial abuse into the definition of domestic violence as part of their Family Court reforms. And ahead of presenting her new Family Violence Bill to parliament, Justice Minister Amy Adams says financial abuse is an issue she is taking very seriously, adding she views it as “just as damaging as physical abuse”.

Also known as economic abuse, what exactly does this abuse entail? Adams defines it as, “a form of power and control that can be used to manipulate, intimidate and retaliate against others in a domestic context”.

What it essentially means, as Women’s Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury explains, is that, “one person has control of the household’s finances to such a point that they can use money to control what the other person can do, where they go and how they do it”.

Given money management is both highly individual and very private, by its nature financial abuse can be hard to spot, but overseas reports suggest one in five people are affected – a statistic Jury believes may be on the conservative side. Which means there is every chance you know a victim.

It could be the friend whose partner didn’t tell her about his pay rise – and spent it gambling while he wouldn’t let her replace her broken cellphone. It might be the cousin whose husband insisted if she wanted to work, she had to pay for childcare and half the household bills – leaving her with nothing in her pay packet. Or perhaps it’s the mum at the school gate, whose fiance bought her expensive new boots… but then two days later demanded she pay him back.

“Most relationships that include power and control and are abusive will include some component of control via financial means,” says Jury. “If you can control someone’s access to resources and make them account for every penny they spend, it’s a powerful tool to keep someone in line.”

Early indications from the Women’s Refuge survey suggest it isn’t particular to any socio-economic group or age – affecting young and old, the naïve and financially astute nationwide.

Steven Dromgool, a specialist relationship counsellor at Relate, points out it’s less about the dollars and cents and more about the power.

“You can have financial struggles within relationships where people are on the benefit or when they are billionaires,” he explains. “The issue isn’t necessarily about how much money there is, it’s often the control aspect of it.”

That was the case for Gill. The banking executive met businessman Oliver seven years ago through internet dating, and he immediately swept her off her feet, whisking her off on a European holiday and proposing with a $45,000 engagement ring. So she didn’t think too much of it when she pranged her car, and instead of repairing it, he traded it in for a more flashy model – in his name. Likewise, when he upgraded Gill’s phone, saying he’d put it through his company and would cover her bills, she thought it was a nice gesture.

Moving into Oliver’s rural North Island house less than a year after they met, Gill was reluctant to sell her own home, but Oliver kept telling her it made good financial sense.

“The persuasion got quite heavy,” Gill recalls. “He would wake up in the night and start talking about it, and we’d be awake for two hours. I’d say it didn’t matter because I was the one topping up the mortgage – and he would say it did because I couldn’t contribute to our house; we’d go round and round in circles. In the end I had just had a gutsful, and so we sold it.”

Oliver convinced Gill to invest half the proceeds from her house in a business deal he organised through his mates. Meanwhile, he was starting to manipulate her with money, insisting on paying for things, then becoming angry and demanding sex as repayment days later.

When the dad-of-three had to have surgery, Gill took unpaid leave to look after him, and it was at this point Oliver persuaded her to resign. “He told me he needed me more than the bank did,” says Gill, adding that Oliver gave her an eftpos card and a credit card, but she was too scared to use them – “I always got into trouble for it.”

Soon her savings were eaten up with living costs. On one occasion Gill took her daughter for a medical appointment and forgot her purse, so asked for the bill to be posted to her. But with her “mind so scrambled” from Oliver’s abuse, she forgot about it. Oliver, who insisted on opening all the mail, never handed over the bill or the reminders – meaning Gill and her daughter ended up with bad credit ratings.

“He was a successful man and I trusted him,” says Gill, her voice breaking. “My friend is a counsellor and she told me I was the last person she’d have thought this would be an issue for. But he was so manipulative, he’d play with my head.”

While financial abuse affects both genders, women are more likely to be victims. The 2015 Money Matters survey canvassed 4000 people in the UK and found 60 per cent of those who experience this form of abuse were female.

Anecdotally, Holly Carrington, communications manager at domestic abuse charity Shine, says it’s more likely to be women who are subjugated – often because of historic gender stereotyping, and the fact that when children come along, it’s usually the mother who stops working. At that point she naturally becomes more dependent on her partner.

“It’s really common and way more intense once they have kids,” says Carrington. “And he can kind of get away with it at that point, because she has fewer options of leaving him.”

Natalie Thorburn, a policy adviser at Women’s Refuge, points out how this form of abuse turns back the clock for women.

“It speaks to a huge gendered double standard; it positions women as second-class citizens, and men as owners of joint income.”

It’s a scenario Louise*, now 31, is only too familiar with.

She was 18 and working as an office assistant in Auckland when she met Nick*. She became pregnant very quickly and moved in with him. At first he seemed like the doting dad and partner, so when he said he was going to launch an online business “for our baby’s future”, and make Louise the director of it, she wasn’t too concerned.

“He was IT savvy and I was dealing with some serious pregnancy complications. I didn’t really think about it at the time,” she recalls. “Things were good while I was pregnant, but once I had Hannah*, they got bad pretty quickly.”

Nick used the made-up business to apply for credit cards and store cards, and proceeded to rack up thousands of dollars of debt in both their names – even though his wages brought in around $3000 a week. He was living the lifestyle of a rich playboy, using accounts in Louise’s name to purchase a luxury car and go on drinking binges – while Louise couldn’t even buy tampons without asking him for the cash.

“It was his money, because I wasn’t contributing anything to the family,” she says. “I was a stay-at-home mum and he didn’t want me to get a job, but I had no access to money. I had to ask him for everything.”

And yet, even though Louise knew the way Nick was treating her wasn’t right, she had never heard of financial abuse, and convinced herself his actions weren’t a big deal.

“He would say, ‘You should be grateful, at least I’m not beating you up’. And I would take that, because actually, he could if he wanted to.”

As Nick’s spending got out of control, he decided it was time to put Louise to work.

“He didn’t want me to get a real job, because he wanted to know where I was all the time. So he would drive me to a brothel and say, ‘We’re getting kicked out of our house this morning. I’ve earned my money to pay the bills – you need to contribute now’. He would sit in the carpark, with our baby in the backseat, and wait for me to come out with the cash. All I could think about was, if I didn’t get the money, I’d never see my baby again.”

Louise tried leaving Nick several times, but each time the fear of being saddled with the loans racked up in her name – coupled with his threats that he would take Hannah – made her take him back. When Hannah was three and qualified for free childcare, Louise finally got an office job – though Nick did everything in his power to stop her.

“He would come into my bedroom at night and literally poke me in the chest every few seconds to keep me awake.”

Ultimately it was that job that saved Louise. After months of mind games, which culminated in Nick threatening to kill her – “He said, ‘It’d look like a suicide, you’re so crazy everyone would believe it,’” – she confided in her boss and work colleagues. They contacted Women’s Refuge, and Louise went into hiding for three months. All she had left was Hannah and $70,000 worth of debt.

While Nick was only five years older than Louise, she was an impressionable teen when she met him, and Carrington at Shine points out age difference can be a major trigger for financial abuse.

“We hear lots of stories of young women being told, ‘You don’t know how the world works, you don’t understand money – I need to look after you and protect you’,” she says. “It’s very subtle, and women don’t see it as being controlling, more like being looked after. So it’s years of a very slow transition until they suddenly discover they are trapped.”

At that point many, like Louise, might be forced into work they would never have considered. Thorburn’s initial analysis of the Women’s Refuge survey indicates a worrying trend of labour exploitation by partners.

“Some respondents described things like being forced to work for less than $3 an hour for their partner’s business. Or being forced to work for free for a family business without any recompense other than a roof over their heads and food.”

You might think alarm bells would start ringing long before it’s too late to get out with your bank balance still intact. Not necessarily, according to Dromgool. He says the problem is during the honeymoon period of a relationship; we’re swept along by the wonderful sensation of being in love and “we tend to assume our partner is just like us”.

“You make all these super positive assumptions about your partner – and by the time you bring up the issues, it’s often too late.”

Jury points out that often the victims don’t view what they’re experiencing as abuse. Louise admits “one of the women I worked with tried to convince me it was abuse but I didn’t really believe her because he never actually hit me”.

“So women are perfectly happy to say a smack in the face is abusive,” explains Jury. “But if you ask whether they believe their partner used economic abuse, they’re not so sure. But then they’ll talk about how their partners demanded their wages were given to them and how they had no access to shared cash other than a small housekeeping allowance.”

And even when it becomes clear it isn’t normal behaviour, it can be hard to leave.

“Do you know how much it takes to do something about it?” says Gill. “To unscramble the mess in your head and say ‘this isn’t right, this is wrong’? And I didn’t admit to myself how bad it was. On top of everything, it was so embarrassing.”

What could help the thousands of Kiwis being financially abused is strengthening the laws around it. Women’s Refuge is optimistic about the effects of the Family Violence Bill, as well as the Green Party’s Domestic Violence Victim’s Protection Bill, which had its first reading in parliament in March. The latter would allow abuse victims 10 days of paid leave from work, helping them to remain employed.

“The value of legislation lies within the way it is implemented, and the bill has the potential to compel support for victims that will protect their participation in the workforce,” says Thorburn.

While National did not initially support the Green’s proposal (they announced they would back it on March 8), Amy Adams is confident the Family Violence Bill will make a difference to those affected by financial abuse.

“The changes will further strengthen family violence law… and improve how we respond to keep victims safe,” she says.

Gill and Louise, who have both had lengthy court battles with their abusers, are keen to see further legislation around financial abuse, believing it would have helped them escape sooner, and strengthened their legal cases.

Several years on from their experiences, both are still rebuilding their lives. Gill is chasing Oliver for money through the courts, plus she’s on anti-depressants, but she is counting her blessings that she has escaped the abuse. Louise now has a loving husband and three children, and her focus is on keeping them safe.

“My biggest aim is to make sure my beautiful daughters never go through what I did,” she says. “I want them to know what abuse looks like and have the courage to be able to walk away and know that, in the end, everything will be okay.”

*Names have been changed

You may be a victim of financial abuse if your partner:

  • Won’t give you access to bank accounts or tell you about the state of your finances.
  • Forces you to take out credit cards and loans when you don’t want to.
  • Refuses to provide money for necessities for you or your child.
  • Makes you ask permission to spend money for basic purchases – or demands receipts for all spending.
  • Coerces you into quitting your job, not getting a job or staying home from work.
  • Makes all significant financial decisions and treats you like you are incapable of having equal decision-making power over household expenditure.

How to protect yourself:

  • Set out your expectations for financial decision-making as the relationship progresses.
  • Be mindful of your partner’s behaviour – is he using money to control your actions?
  • Don’t add your signature to debts you have no control over, such as loans and hire purchases.
  • Consider protecting your assets by legal means, such as a trust.
  • Be aware of whose name financial responsibilities such as rent and power are under.
  • Maintain access to your own bank account.

How to protect yourself:

  • Set out your expectations for financial decision-making as the relationship progresses.
  • Be mindful of your partner’s behaviour – is he using money to control your actions?
  • Don’t add your signature to debts you have no control over, such as loans and hire purchases.
  • Consider protecting your assets by legal means, such as a trust.
  • Be aware of whose name financial responsibilities such as rent and power are under.
  • Maintain access to your own bank account.

What to do if you are concerned:

  • Talk to a lawyer to find out what your rights are and what legal avenues are available to you.
  • Get in contact with Women’s Refuge here, or on their free 24-hour crisis line 0800 733 843.
  • You can also call Shine, on their freephone 0508 744 633 between the hours of 9am and 11pm.

Words: Cath Bennett

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