by E.J. Smith, M.S., Guest Contributor
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence and abuse over the course of their lifetimes. As a counselor and advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, I rarely encounter anyone who is completely unaware that domestic violence is an issue in our society. That’s a good thing. Awareness is the first step in creating social and cultural change. That being said, I do find that many of us hold a somewhat narrow view of what domestic violence actually in entails.
Nickel and Dimed: Domestic Violence Beyond the Bruises
When I have the opportunity to speak to a group— be it a gathering of students, law enforcement or other professionals, I ask this question:
What counts as abuse?
Typically, most people identify physical abuse (i.e. punching, slapping or restraining) quite readily. Frequently, audience members will also talk about verbal abuse (i.e. name calling, threatening or humiliation tactics); sometimes they’ll even mention emotional abuse (i.e. emotional manipulation, withholding love or affection).
But the one form of abuse that rarely anyone mentions voluntarily is that of financial abuse.
Even though The National Network to End Domestic Violence lists financial abuse as present in some form among 98% of all domestic abuse scenarios, our collective consciousness has not become as attuned to it as other forms.
What Is Financial Abuse?
Before we get to the specifics of financial abuse—let’s remember that the goal of all abuse is gaining power and control over another person. The specifics of the abuse–whether it’s physical or sexual assault, verbal, emotional, reproductive coercion or financial–is not nearly as important as that underlying driving goal: dominance and privilege.
Now that we’ve got that firmly established, let’s talk specifics.
Obviously financial abuse has to do with money. And more specifically, financial abuse has to do with the way money is used by one party to wield power or exert control over another party.
After all, finances are intimately connected to quality of life, so exercising dominance in this area extends well-beyond who gets to balance the checkbook at the end of the month.
The power to make financial choices in a relationship involves having direct influence over purchases and expenditures, savings for the future and retirement, travel and recreation activities, as well as a decent amount of parenting and educational decisions.
Some of the common behaviors associated with financial abuse are:
- Suppressing or restricting access to financial assets
- Purposely excluding one party from all financial decisions or bank accounts
- Forbidding the person to work
- Taking a person’s check and restricting/preventing access to it
- Creating toxic scenarios that sabotage the person’s current employment. Like if one person is a bartender and their boyfriend or spouse comes in every night, gets obscenely drunk and fights with other customers causing the employee to lose her job. (True story).
What Does Financial Abuse Look Like in Real Life?
A major problem with financial abuse is that it is so under-recognized.
For context, let’s compare financial abuse to physical abuse. When it comes to the latter, I’m not sure if there is even one scenario I can think up where a partner would be justified for punching, slapping or hitting their spouse.
With finances however, if I were to go out shopping and completely blow through not only our “fun money” but also the money we needed to buy groceries and pay our mortgage—trust and believe that my husband would be beyond ticked off. And I would venture to guess that most people (myself included) would think he was absolutely justified.
But let’s say that any time I wanted to go out to buy a coffee at Starbucks or a cute pair of shoes at DSW, that he demanded I ask his permission prior to purchasing or that I needed to “work off” my expenditure through chores or other means—that would be a different story entirely.
A more common and subtle financial tactic used by abusers, according to Lundy Bancroft, a renowned expert on the subject of male batterers, is to make sure that all large purchases and assets (i.e. house, car, investments, etc…) are titled in the abuser’s name only or as joint-owner with his spouse.
Not only does this tactic create more barriers to leaving, but it also puts the abuser in an elevated financial position.
It can be significantly more difficult for a woman to leave the relationship and establish herself independently if there is little in her name. And when children are involved, an abuser can use his elevated economic position to threaten drawn-out divorces and custody battles.
Finally, financial abuse can also be easily overshadowed by other abuses that occur concurrently. Physical, sexual, emotional, financial and verbal abuses rarely mutually exclusive, but rather interwoven. We may focus more on the verbal arguments that recur about money— in which shame, guilt, name-calling are the primary assaults— rather than consider the conditions of the money itself.
For a more complete listing of behaviors associated with financial abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Why Should Military Spouses be Aware of Financial Abuse?
Well for one thing, military spouses may be more susceptible to financial abuse as they are often uprooted from established support networks.
Even in completely healthy relationships, the results of a 2013 collaborated study between Syracuse University, The Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families showed that military spouses tend to experience higher rates of unemployment or underemployment due to frequent PCS moves when compared with their non-military affiliated counterparts.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I know at first glance my resume looks like I’m allergic to holding a job for more than a year or two.
This employment reality can lead to greater financial dependence on the service member.
Allowing oneself to become completely financially dependent on another person, even in a healthy scenario, requires a great deal of vulnerability. If there are red flags in that the relationship that point to an imbalance, then it’s imperative to consider the costs and benefits of such a move.
In your evaluation, please keep in mind that one of the major barriers in leaving an abusive relationship (should you ever decide to do so) is the impending financial hardship, potential homelessness and lack of access to resources. This is often compounded by the threat of the service member losing his or her livelihood should the command become aware that a service member is involved in a domestic violence scenario.
When the service member’s salary keeps the family afloat, many spouses may feel reluctant to risk losing their family’s one reliable source of income— even at the expense of their personal safety and well-being.
It’s also not just about the money itself. One of the ways abusive partners can perpetuate financial dependence is by hiding or even destroying critical documents necessary for employment or other means of independence.
I’ve heard of abusive partners hiding and/or destroying birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, driver’s licenses and more.
Losing one of the documents can create a horrible inconvenience, but losing all of them when you’re hundreds or even thousands of miles away from family?
Without these documents, it can be incredibly difficult to gain employment, find housing, open a new bank account or even drive a car.
Financial Abuse Is Abuse
If there’s anything you take away from this article, please understand that financial abuse is abuse. Through my work with sexual and domestic abuse survivors, I’ve learned there is a tendency to “rate” or “rank” certain forms of abuse, as if one must reach a certain threshold of suffering before speaking out.
And if someone discloses abuse to you, please believe them. Leave investigation up to the appropriate authorities. Start by believing. Finish with compassion, lack of judgement and offering to help find resources.
Financial Abuse Resources
If there’s one thing I love about my job—second to working with clients face to face in therapy—it’s loading people down with tons of fantastic resources to help them empower themselves and others with knowledge and services.
The Power and Control Wheel. This tool is one of the most comprehensive models ever designed to explain the complicated dynamics of abuse. Take a look and see how these various methods of power and control can work together to perpetuate a cycle of fettered dependency.
Safety Plan. Should you discover or otherwise conclude that a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, it’s always good to have an exit plan. Your local domestic violence shelter or sexual assault resource center should have staff available to help you create a plan.
In the meantime, I always think it’s good to have a general idea of what leaving an abusive relationship entails— even if your own relationship is healthy. As military spouses, we often live far away from family and come to rely on the wisdom and kindness of fellow military spouses. Being able to assist another spouse with resources or just a realistic/grounded conversation about the subject can be a fantastic gift.
Lastly, find out about your local resources by calling National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or doing an online search. Additionally, author Kim Rabb (writing for the Huffington Post) lists the following as resources for accessing emergency housing, groceries, communication (i.e. phone cards) and even attorneys who will represent spouses pro bono: The Red Cross, Swords to Plowshares, Operation Care and local YMCAs.
By the way, for the sake of simplicity, I choose to use male pronouns when referring to the abuser and female pronouns when referring to the victim. But do not mistake these roles of abuser and victim as being exclusively tied to one gender or even limited to heterosexual relationships.
E.J. Smith is a counselor, speaker, writer and Marine wife. She currently works as a counselor and certified advocate for sexual assault survivors at a local rape crisis center and serves on the Brazos County Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). Her philosophy is centered in empowering clients to find their individual purpose, and to create fulfilling, authentic lives and relationships from the inside out. Born in New Jersey, and currently living in Texas, this self-professed holistic health nut enjoys a wide variety of athletics, reading and cooking. You can follow EJ on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook.