This is the fourth and final post in our series on financial abuse. If suspect you or someone you know is being financially or otherwise abused, please reach out to the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help.
It’s not easy to leave an abusive relationship. Among other variables, there’s the issue of money. And since 99% of domestic violence cases involve financial abuse, that makes it even more difficult. Because without money, there’s no freedom or power.
In fact, that’s why most abusers control the money in a relationship. It takes away their victim’s agency, freewill, and ability to make their own choices. It leaves the victims powerless, which is ultimately what their abusers want. But sometimes a victim decides they’ve had enough and they want to leave. They want to save themselves, their kids, their pets.
They want to GET OUT.
It seems like it should be an easy decision. Often, though, it’s not. It’s ugly, messy, complicated, and terrifying. It’s one of the most difficult decisions they’ve have to make.
But why? And how can we help those wanting to leave prepare themselves?
Financial abuse vs. financial infidelity.
Before we discuss how to prepare, or help a person prepare, to leave a financially abusive relationship, it’s important to distinguish between financial infidelity and financial abuse.
Financial infidelity is when one partner lies to the other about debts, credit cards, keeping cash in a secret account, and otherwise hides or lies about money. There can still be a sharing of money, assets, and financial decisions.
Financial abuse is a tactic used by one person in a relationship to gain power and control by limiting access to money, assets, and family finances.
While they can be linked, they are two separate behaviors. Many relationships can survive financial infidelity; most cannot survive financial abuse. In fact, the only way to solve the problem of financial abuse is for one party to leave.
And, when we’re talking about a victim with limited or no access to means, it becomes virtually impossible for them to make that choice.
Preparing to leave.
If you or someone you know is looking to leave an abusive relationship (any type of abusive relationship), it’s important to protect your safety and your finances. Yes, there are instances where leaving right now is the safest and most practical thing to do. If your life, or your kids’ lives, are in imminent danger, leave and sort out the rest later.
However, if you start to notice red flags, there are steps you can take ahead of time to prepare and leave the situation with money in your wallet and a plan in your hand.
Steps to take.
The most important piece here is that you retain some sort of financial independence. While this is not easy to do, especially in a financially abusive situation where a partner is likely to interfere with your ability to work, here are a few things to consider:
- Find a support group. The survivors in there will provide you the encouragement and support you need and often know of resources like a lawyer or victim advocate to help you. They might also be able to provide you with a safe place to stay for a few nights.
- Make copies of important documents. Things like your social security card, marriage license, driver’s license, bank cards… anything you think you might need to get reestablished and stand on your own two feet. It’s also important that, after you do this, you put the copies in a safe, locked place. If nothing like that exists in your home, ask a trusted friend, family member, or co-worker.
- Establish accounts in your own name. Bank account, credit card, savings account. Anything you think you might need to pay for things. With technology, this is a little easier to do, especially if you have a secret email address for communications with these institutions and use someone else’s mailing address for your written communication.
- Maintain professional contacts. While you might not be working, you can still keep in touch with former colleagues, bosses, and contacts via LinkedIn, Facebook, or other forms of networking. You might have to do this from a public library or a friend’s home, but it’s still important to do.
- Create your own income stream. This is key to protecting your financial independence. You have to have your own money set aside that your partner can’t access. If you’re working, it might be funneling money into a secret savings account. If you’re not working, it might include doing work under the table for cash from your home while your partner is at work.
This is not an exhaustive list; it’s a place to start if you’re not sure where to begin. There are dozens of resources and posts available that can point you in the direction of ways to make money.
However, be careful. Take precautions to protect your actions from your abuser and if you fear that you’re in danger, call the police. Have a safety plan and a go-bag packed in the event you need to flee immediately.
Why it’s so difficult.
Leaving a financially abusive relationship seems like it should be simple–just walk out. End it. But it’s not that simple. Someone who’s been financially abused doesn’t have the means, the confidence, or maybe even the support system to walk away.
This is primarily due to the fact that financial abuse is often not the only form of abuse occurring in a relationship. It’s typically coupled with mental, emotional, and/or physical abuse. Victims are isolated, made to feel incompetent, and unable to provide for themselves or their children. The are told they can’t do anything without their abuser, they’ll never be anything, and, in many cases, the abuser will threaten to ruin the victim’s career.
It is terrifying to think that someone has the power to completely ruin your livelihood.
And, even more, if there’s kids involved, it’s a disruption to their lives. Leaving the abuser is uprooting their kids’ lives, even if it’s for their own protection. They don’t want their kids to live in poverty or a shelter or their grandmother’s basement. They don’t want to be on public assistance or beg for hand-me-downs. They fear their kids are going to be taken from them.
It’s mortifying and demoralizing, and it only reinforces what they’ve been told for so long–that without their abuser, they can’t do anything or provide for their kids.
This is unlike financial infidelity, where couples can go to therapy to work through their issues and attempt to build trust.
There’s something else.
But there’s also this. All of the advice we give about how to leave a financially abusive relationship is exactly the same advice we say is financial infidelity. How does an abuse victim, or anyone for that matter, reconcile that?
How do they reconcile that lying, “cheating”, and dishonesty–which are morally and inherently bad–are the right things to do in this situation? How does hiding money, lying about accounts, or sneaking contact with former co-workers make them any different from their abuser?
It is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.
Here’s the difference: In an abusive situation, financial infidelity is a matter of self-preservation and survival. It is the only way to get out of a potentially life-threatening situation, and sometimes, you need to do whatever you need to do to survive.
This is not hiding money for a divorce because your marriage has simply dissolved.
In fact, a study by creditcards.com found that, among other things, divorce is so common that people are setting aside money just in case. Financial infidelity is viewed as a “premeditated crime” because hiding or lying about money takes active and deliberate planning. And many people view it as worse than cheating, physically, on a partner.
In the case of abuse, this is a completely justifiable “crime.”
The same study cited the reason for this is that “money brings up primal feelings such as survival and safety, as well as the power to create the material lives we want”. When you look at that statement, it’s painfully obvious that this is precisely what those in financially abusive relationships have lost.
And it’s precisely why we need to help, encourage, and educate those in financially abusive relationships to reclaim their lives.
Neither financial infidelity or financial abuse should be taken lightly. Both violate trust, confidence, security, and safety, and destroy relationships. Both are all too prevalent. And both come with a hefty emotional price.
But if you find yourself in a financially abusive situation, remember that you need to protect yourself, and if you have to do things that seem counter-intuitive to do so, it’s okay.