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Why financial abuse is domestic violence

Felicity Hannah

It’s easy to assume that domestic violence refers to just that – violence. Physical harm caused to one partner in a relationship, most often the woman.

But actually the official definition recognises a wide number of abuses as domestic violence, including psychological, emotional – and financial.

In some ways, financial abuse is even easier for attackers to hide; there are no tell-tale bruises provoking awkward questions.

Not only that, we’re notoriously touchy when it comes to discussing finances in the UK, even with our friends or family. That can make it even harder for victims to reach out for support, or question whether a situation is normal.

So what is financial abuse?

If a partner is preventing someone from having financial independence then they could be considered financially abusive.

The way this abuse manifests itself can vary, but often includes controlling their partner’s bank account or benefits; demanding to see receipts accounting for all spending; stealing or demanding money; making their partner ask others for money; and preventing their victim from spending money on themselves or their children.

So at one extreme, abusers don’t allow their partners to have any say in the household finances and control every penny. At the other extreme, they trap their partners with mountains of debt, putting all the household bills in their name.

Victims can become trapped in a cycle of poverty, causing physical and mental ill-health, a lack of confidence and feelings of isolation.

Is it really as bad as physical violence?

Financial abuse can leave victims feeling unable to escape unhappy and physically violent relationships, by trapping them with debts or limited funds. Women are most often the victims, and may feel unable to leave abusive partners because of their financial insecurity, particularly if they have children to think about.

According to Walby & Allen’s British Crime Survey 2004, 41% of women who’ve experienced domestic force have also suffered financial abuse. When you consider that one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, you can see that the problem of financial abuse is bigger than you might initially think.

However, financial abuse isn’t restricted to women experiencing physical violence. Research from the YWCA, now renamed Platform 51, shows that some women suffering financial abuse don’t recognise that they’re being mistreated because they are not being hit.

According to this charity, the average age of women experiencing financial abuse is 20. That’s an age where many people have not yet formed sound financial judgement, making them even more vulnerable to manipulation.

For example, Gabriella was with her partner for nine months and escaped a financially abusive relationship with the help of Platform 51. She described what happened: “My boyfriend constantly asked me for money, which he spent on booze, and I'd have no money for myself. When I told him I didn't have any money left he called me a liar and checked my bank statements. He insulted me until my self-esteem was at rock bottom.”

Escaping financial abuse

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that people experiencing financial abuse are reading this article. Someone experiencing such extreme economic control isn’t likely to spend time browsing a website dedicated to making the most of their money.

That’s why it’s so important for people to be aware of this issue, to watch out for the signs, and to have information on how victims can escape and rebuild their lives. The charity Refuge, in conjunction with HBOS, has published a useful financial guide (opens as a pdf) for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Sadly, escaping an abusive partner is rarely as simple as packing a bag and walking out, especially if the victim is experiencing money worries. Here are three things to bear in mind:

  • Build an escape fund. This can be tricky if the abuser is very controlling over money but aim to put small amounts of cash aside over a period of time.

  • Set up a new bank account that your partner doesn’t have access to, requesting that the bank doesn’t send bank statements to the shared home.

  • You can simply walk out in a crisis. Your local benefits office can issue a crisis loan in an emergency, even if you don’t receive benefits. If violence escalates and you need to run then there is financial help available.

What to take

It will be easier to rebuild your finances if you manage to take a few key documents with you when you go. Of course, if you don’t manage to take these with you, you can get copies, but you’ll find your feet faster with these to hand.

Documents to try and take with you include pay slips and other tax documents, such as P45 forms; passports; your National Insurance number; bank statements; documents proving ownership of any belongings; details of credit cards and bills that are shared or in your name; your birth certificate and the birth certificates of your children.

If it’s not safe to take the original documents then try making copies, or simply scribbling down key information such as account numbers.

Getting free from your ex’s debts

Once you’ve escaped, it can feel daunting to start disentangling your financial affairs from your ex’s. The most important thing to remember is that they will also be able to see your bank statements from joint accounts, which can include locations of cash machines that you’ve used. If you’re lying low then consider setting up a new account and transferring money into it instead.

Remember that if you share a bank account, you are jointly liable for any overdraft, even if your ex has spent the money. If the account is in credit then talk to the bank about closing it down; some banks allow you to do so without your partner’s consent.

If the account is already overdrawn then the bank will allow you to freeze it, after which you should seek legal advice. Talk to a charity like Women’s Aid or Refuge if you’re not sure how to access help.

Dealing with debt can feel overwhelming but you can’t ignore it. The biggest priority is making sure your partner can’t run up any further debt. Then you can start regaining control of your credit. Unfortunately you will be jointly responsible for any shared debt and if the creditors can’t chase your ex, they’ll come to you. It may not be fair but it is the law.

Seek help

There are many organisations out there that can help you plan, discuss your options or simply listen.

Women’s Aid and Refuge jointly run a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline. It’s free to call on 0808 2000 247, and won’t show up on BT bills.