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Let's Talk About Financial Abuse

Most conversations about domestic violence include the physical and emotional components, as they are the most observable and recognizable to the outside world. However, I'd argue that financial abuse deserves an equal seat at the table in these discussions. I am fully aware that domestic violence happens in all different dynamics and that women can and are perpetrators in some cases. But for the sake of this topic, we're going to focus on the impact of financial abuse on women and how women are more affected by this type of abuse--especially in long-term marriages or relationships.

If you haven't considered financial abuse before, you may be making some assumptions about what it looks like: the husband works, and controls all the money--he gives her an "allowance" and dictates what she can spend the money on. Pretty obvious, right? But that's the thing that makes this component of abuse so much trickier to identify and consider--it's rarely that cut and dry.

Especially in marriages or long-term relationships, it can be much more nuanced and isn't necessarily one thing that's being done, but a pattern over the years that leaves women financially vulnerable, and less likely to be able to leave an abusive situation. Early in my own marriage, I was enrolled in some classes at a local community college, while I was working full-time as a retail manager. I was taking some drawing classes and a psychology class--both things that I would have loved to pursue as a career. But his job (also retail management) gave him an opportunity in another city--so we moved and I quit my classes. I also did some inquiry about attending The Art Institute in Dallas--but then he got an opportunity to be an assistant buyer for the company that he was with--in Houston. So I didn't do that either.

These weren't conscious decisions about choosing his future over mine--they were just what seemed at the time to be the best option--getting the promotion, more money to support our family, etc. I felt very fortunate to be able to stay home once my kids were born. I did a variety of things to bring in money--sold Tupperware, trained dogs, even did some airbrush tattoos at a local waterpark one summer. But I wasn't working in a career--I wasn't climbing the corporate ladder, or contributing to a 401k. Years later, when divorce was on the horizon, I had nothing to fall back on--no college degree, no career history, no 401k.

And here's the kicker: I paid all the bills. I was technically "in charge" of the money. But having the responsibility of paying bills and managing the finances doesn't mean you are in control. Here's what it felt like: Imagine you're in a canoe, surrounded by hungry alligators and the canoe has a small hole in the bottom. You've got to keep bailing the water, so you don't sink, but you've also got to figure out how to row to shore--all while making dinner for your kids, who are also in the canoe. Now imagine that while you're in this canoe with your kids, your husband comes home from a work meeting, where he got a really nice bonus, and instead of buying a new canoe, or coming to help you bail and paddle to shore, he shows up with a $2500 dune buggy that he stopped and bought on the way home. And then gets mad at you when you're upset that he didn't even think about you and the kids out in a sinking canoe surrounded by alligators.

There are so many ways financial abuse happens. Sometimes it's overt, sometimes it's not so much. More often than not, it's about control. I can rack up a $600 cell phone bill one month (oops) and you can figure out how to pay that, but you can't take the kids to pick out a $5 gift for their teachers at the end of the year. They need to ride the bus to school because we can't afford the gas but check out this new gun I just got--it was such a deal I had to buy it. When I finally made the call to end the marriage, the very exact day that I told him I wanted a divorce, he shut off my cell phone and took me off of our joint bank account. I had nothing except for the paycheck I was about to receive for the job I had literally just started.

Financial Abuse is also one of the spokes on the Post Separation Abuse Wheel--because abusers will often use the courts to further inflict financial abuse and control. I know women who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees and court costs, fighting ridiculous or made-up accusations and false claims. Abusers will fight for custody, not because they want their children, but because they don't want to have to pay child support. Or sometimes, simply because they have the means and they know that you do not and that keeping you in court, paying lawyers, mediators, GALs, etc. will eventually break you--and not just financially.

The very broken Family Court system also plays a role in allowing the post-separation financial abuse to continue. There are little to no consequences for using the court as a tool to inflict financial pain on another. Change is coming. But it's coming slowly and if you're considering divorce, or already in the middle of the process, it's not fast enough.

If you are currently in an abusive situation and planning to leave, there are resources out there with some specific steps to protect yourself financially. You can find some of them here, on my resources page. There are also some links with specific information about what financial abuse is, and a broader-scope resource for women regarding financial literacy from an organization called

Being in and choosing to leave an abusive situation is already a very difficult place to be. If you're financially dependent on your abuser, it creates a barrier to leaving that can seem insurmountable. But it doesn't have to be. Looking back on that time in my life, a lot of it is a blur. Most days I was reminding myself that I just needed to make the next right decision--not all of them. One day, one moment, one situation at a time. My ex spent the better part of 10 years after we were divorced using money to manipulate and cause conflict. He routinely brought my kids into financial issues, claiming he was broke and couldn't pay his taxes because of the child support he paid me every month, all the while he was taking vacations to Mexico and telling the kids I wasn't using the child support the way I was supposed to. I learned later, after having dinner one night with his second ex-wife, that he was making easily 3x what he had been making when we divorced. It was never about the money. It never is.

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