Are You in a Financially Abusive Relationship?

He (or she) who controls the purse strings has the power.

Financial abuse is one of the most powerful tools for keeping someone trapped in an abusive relationship. It occurs when an abuser uses coercive tactics to take control of a victim’s finances, such as restricting access to bank accounts or dictating how all money is spent. An abuser may gain control by making it difficult, or refusing to allow their partner to work.

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse is experienced in 98% of abusive relationships and crosses all socio-economic, educational, ethnic and racial groups. Here’s what you need to know about why financial abuse occurs, what the warnings signs are and how to get help.

The Abuser’s Mindset

Sometimes financial abuse doesn’t occur until a partner decides to leave a relationship while other times it occurs throughout a relationship. No matter when it happens, the reason is always the same, power and control.

“Money is about having power, and there’s always a power and control aspect in abusive relationships,” says Susan Feingold, a licensed clinical psychologist based in the Chicago area who specializes in women’s issues and couple relationship issues.

Many abusers are hiding their own shortcomings by bullying their partner.

“As in other abusive relationships, it’s a facade for a seriously insecure person who feels inadequate and uses another person to feel better about themselves,” Feingold says. “It can also be a sign of an individual with character problems like explosive personality, or perhaps a personality disorder.”

The Warning Signs

Because financial abusive can start out subtle and escalate over time, the warnings signs might be overlooked. The abuser might charm the victim into thinking that they are only looking out for their best interest by controlling the purse strings to make life easier and less stressful for them. They pay the bills and give the victim an allowance.

Sadly, by the time the victim realizes what is happening and tries to take back financial control, she might discover that she no longer has access to her family’s bank accounts or that debt has been run up in her name.

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, some other tactics abusers use to control a victim financially include hiding assets; stealing the victim’s identity, property or inheritance; not including the victim in investment or banking decisions; and sabotaging work or employment opportunities by stalking or harassing the victim at a workplace or stressing her out before important meetings or interviews.

If you suspect you might be experiencing financial abuse, ask yourself whether you feel fear toward your partner when it comes to spending money and seeking information about your family’s finances.

“I think a clear indicator is having to answer to someone else for even minor expenditures, as well as [engaging in] lying or secrecy for fear of your partner’s reaction,” says Feingold.

How to Get Help

Far too many victims remain in financially abusive relationships because they view their situation as hopeless. They may have limited access to funds, a mountain of debt created by their abuser and a ruined credit score. They often fear they won’t be able to find affordable housing or financially support themselves or their children if they leave. Many feel their only option is to stay in an abusive relationship. However, it is possible to break free from a financially abusive relationship.

Consider calling the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 to speak with a trained advocate, who can provide advice, resources and information, and connect you with programs and shelters across the country for victims of abuse.

If you’re able to find a way to support yourself and earn your own money, that can be a positive step toward regaining financial independence.

There are also many free resources available that can help you better understand and manage your own finances. For instance, Allstate has created a financial education curriculum for victims of financial abuse through its Allstate Foundation. Called “Moving Ahead through Financial Management,” the curriculum is provided to domestic violence programs around the country and can also be downloaded online.

Pamela Morris, an Allstate spokesperson, says the Allstate Foundation also works with local domestic violence organizations to help get victims on their feet by providing them with matched savings programs, no- or low-interest loans, and other credit-building services.

Therapy is also an important step in overcoming financial abuse. Although therapy isn’t always easily affordable and accessible to everyone, if you have health insurance, mental health services might be covered under your plan. Otherwise, check to see if your community offers free clinics or support groups.

“Being in an abusive relationship leads to poor self-esteem,” says Feingold. “Work on feeling better about yourself and empowered.” Lisa P.