This article features descriptions of financial abuse and economic abuse.
“Why didn’t she leave sooner?” is a question that many people ask when someone is in an abusive relationship. The question reveals an overwhelming misunderstanding when it comes to domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, both of which affect women disproportionately. While there are many complex reasons why it takes women attempting to leave up to seven times before they leave for good, one massive one is money and other resources.
Recent data from a survey undertaken by YouGov is revealing, showing that “over a third of women in a relationship (35%) are financially dependent on their partner,” which is only the case among 11% of men. Over a third of women also say that they would not cope well financially if they were to split. While this can be the case even in relationships that are not abusive, for those under the hold of a partner who uses household finances as a means of control, it can get far more complicated. Christina Govier, Head of Specialist Team at Surviving Economic Abuse, told us that, “Without access to the economic resources required to leave and live independently, victims stay with abusers for longer and experience more harm as a result."
Here, we break down the complexities of financial abuse, economic abuse and what women can do to escape, speaking to survivors and experts.
What is financial abuse?
Image credit: Cosmopolitan UK
While “economic abuse” and “financial abuse” may be used interchangeably, it’s important to note that they are very different. Christina Govier, Head of Specialist Team at Surviving Economic Abuse said that financial abuse includes things like coercing a partner into debt, whereas economic abuse is broader, covering key resources such as housing, food and employment, all of which are intertwined.
What is economic abuse?
Economic abuse is misunderstood and its effects are often underestimated, but many people are working hard to change that. Refuge recently campaigned alongside others in the violence against women and girls sector for economic abuse to be recognised as domestic abuse. They run a campaign in partnership with The Co-Operative Bank, “Know Economic Abuse”, showing that 39% of adults in the UK have experienced this behaviour, but only 16% recognise it as abuse.
Economically abusive behaviour can include, “Restriction of a person’s income, prohibiting access to their bank accounts or interfering with their ability to work, misuse of personal or joint funds, controlling someone’s spending or incurring debts on a person’s behalf without consent,” says Ruth Davison, the Chief Executive Officer at Refuge, adding that, “If you are experiencing any behaviour which makes you feel you are being denied financial independence by your partner, then it’s likely you are experiencing economic abuse.”
Has economic abuse gotten more prevalent?
During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a rise in domestic abuse worldwide, with calls to hotlines in the UK “spiking” over the first year of the pandemic. As the strain of economic pressures has also been placed on many households, these issues have coalesced to create a surge in economic abuse, too. According to Davison, “1.6 million adults saw economic abuse begin during the COVID-19 pandemic with redundancies and furlough putting pressure on people’s finances. This on top of existing issues such as the gender pay gap, issues around accessing universal credit and little support for women with no recourse to public funds put many in a vulnerable position.”
Image credit: Cosmopolitan UK
What are the signs of economic abuse?
Economic abuse is complex and multi-faceted, which is part of the reason why women might not spot it immediately. Govier told us that, "Economic abuse is the control of a person’s economic resources through restriction, exploitation or sabotage.” This is about more than just money and finances, extending to other resources such as food, housing and employment. According to Govier, “It commonly occurs alongside other forms of abuse and is part of a pattern of behaviour called coercive control, which limits a person’s choices and ability to access safety.”
This could mean many things, including, “A perpetrator controlling what money a victim can access, how much food they have in the fridge or what toiletries they are ‘allowed’ to buy. Another tactic used by perpetrators is to force victims into debt – an effective and lasting trap that drains what money a victim does have available, reducing their space to act.” There are further resources on the Surviving Economic Abuse website here explaining what it might look like. The CEO and Deputy CEO of abuse charity Ann Craft Trust adds that it can often be a way of forcing someone to stay in a relationship.
What does economic abuse look like?
Economic abuse can take many forms. Sarah*, 34, was in an economically abusive relationship with a partner for five years. She was in £12k of debt from ill health and unable to work, leaving her vulnerable. A man she hadn’t known very well coerced her into a relationship, promising that she could move in with him while she found a job to avoid filing bankruptcy. However, when she found a job, he quit his and made her pay all of the bills, so that she couldn’t save any money to leave.
"As I was the one earning, it didn't feel (at first) like I wasn't in control of it"
Eventually, Sarah got an inheritance and managed to pay off her remaining debt in secret. While she finally got out, it took her a while to realise what was happening. “People tend to assume financial abuse is withholding money. As I was the one earning, it didn't feel (at first) like I wasn't in control of it,” she says, adding that her partner was able to manipulate her early on by not working, by putting all of the bills in her name, and by telling her repeatedly that she was “living rent free”. Sarah is self-deprecating, saying that she feels stupid for what happened, but abusers are manipulative: it’s never your fault when someone takes advantage of your situation.
For women who have children with their partner, leaving can become even more complicated. Tia*, 32, told me that it took around five years to realise that her and her husband’s joint savings account was dwindling despite her depositing money in it regularly. “He would take my credit cards and use them or take cash out from them. When I found the transactions he would deny them to the extent of even signing statements for the banks to investigate the transactions,” she tells me, adding that when she asked what was happening, he just lied.
Tia researched her options and support payments for two years before deciding to leave for good. She and her husband had two very young children at this point, aged 1.5 years and six months, which motivated her to leave. “I couldn’t keep going the way we were, it wasn’t healthy for my kids to see this as an example of a marriage, I had to stop the cycle,” she says. Luckily, Tia’s parents were supportive, but they did try to make her stay in order to have a “complete” family, particularly as she was pregnant with their third child.
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How does economic abuse continue to affect women even after leaving?
As Tia didn’t want to declare bankruptcy, she received free services from a community legal team for her separation, but she is still paying off the debts and hasn’t been able to receive any child support from her ex. They have been officially separated since March 2016 and he has made zero attempts to contact Tia or their children since 2017, so the courts hold him 75% responsible for the debts. But Tia still has another four years left of paying, which affects her ability to get a house loan and a credit card.
However, Tia says that leaving him was the best decision she ever made, and she is proud of having paid a great deal of the debt off alone. “I’ve been able to take my kids on holidays every year, and most importantly, provide a happy and healthy home for them,” she says, adding, “I am strong, I am resilient, and my girls see that. Yes it is hard, but we love our little family, and there is no doubt in my mind that I made the right decision.” Tia offers advice to women in all abusive relationships, “It will not get better. Get out before it’s too late and stop the cycle.”
How can women escape the cycle of economic abuse?
The Domestic Abuse Act recently received Royal Assent, and economic abuse is recognised in law in the UK for the first time ever. If you are experiencing financial or economic abuse, you should never be ashamed of asking for support from family or friends. In addition to that, or in the unfortunate event that you are cut off from your support system, there are always other resources out there.