Approximate read time: 7 minutes
What are some signs of financial abuse?
The very first time I meet with a couple, or a person considering or in the process of leaving a relationship I’m looking for signs of financial abuse. Why do I care? Because financial abuse can be a predictor of not only divorce or separation, but physical abuse. As I’m not a therapist or clinician, I’m also not qualified to work with people who are being actively abused, and I choose not to work with abusers. To be respectful and accepting of where a person is in their life, I must respect that the best thing for them may be to NOT work with me.
One or two of these red flags isn’t enough to label something as abuse, and in this article we’ll cover several. If you are being abused there is help. In the United States, call 800-799-7233.
An imbalance of control/power/discomfort:
Most (ok, EVERY) couple has in imbalance of income, which can lead to some discomfort and conflict as the partners struggle to suss out the division of labor and responsibilities. But that conflict in and of itself is actually a good sign. Both partners feel the ground wobble beneath them, both feel unseen and unheard, both may even feel unsafe, and ya I realize how this sounds, but that’s a good sign. Both partners feeling uncertain means they are both at least somewhere on the spectrum of being ready to work.
If one partner is struggling, and the other isn’t, then we may have a problem. One partner is certain, the other is full of doubt, and the first red flag starts waving.
I just mentioned this, but this bears repeating. Salvador Minuchin said “certainty is the enemy of change.” Certainty is not just the opposite of change, it’s the opposite of acceptance. And as counterintuitive as it may sound, if you want change in your life, you’ll have to start with accepting where you are now.
Narcissists and abusers, with their overly-high sense of self importance cannot allow any internal or external doubt of themselves, while simultaneously making sure everyone around them feels uncertain, unstable, and unsafe… which is where our next red flag comes in.
This is crazy-making. The fast-and-dirty on gaslighting is that your abuser intentionally sets out to convince you that you’re crazy. They may leverage other people (children) in this endeavor, and while convincing the in-laws that you’re the crazy one is great, what they really want is for YOU to internalize it.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the problem, you’re going to do all of the hard work for them. You’ll cycle through layers of self-doubt, find blame in yourself, and know deep in your heart that no matter what they do to you, you deserve it.
I need to make it abundantly clear here that financial abuse does not fall along gender lines. Men are frequently given fewer community and familial tools to identify, avoid and recover from financial abuse because the societal expectation that the man is in charge is so powerful that they’d never consider that they COULD be abused. It’s a blind spot female financial abusers readily take advantage of.
Women, for our part, have different expectations, especially those of us of a certain age. The assumption is that husband will run things, and sister if that hurts, you must be doing something wrong.
In both cases if you are miserable it’s a reflection on YOU, not your partner or the relationship.
(Ok, back to red flags)
I’m no dog trainer. I can’t really tell the difference between an aggressive dog and a fear aggressive dog.
But just like scared dogs who lash out, we’ll choose fight if we can’t flee or freeze. (In an upcoming article I’ll discuss the threat/protection cycle) There’s a difference between getting angry if you’ve been hurt by someone you love and getting angry if you’re a fragile fucking abuser weaponizing anger.
When we are hurt and angry there is desperation: “Why won’t he just LISTEN!?”, “Why can’t she see how important this is?!”
When we are angry and blaming there are accusations: “You always…”, “I told you not to…”, “That’s what you get for…”
Moving the goal posts
They asked or demanded something of you, then when you reached that they moved that goal again. And again. Like gaslighting this is meant to unsettle you, fill you full of doubt, and keep you off balance. This isn’t about pivoting as situations change, which is part of life, it’s about changing the threshold at which you are enough. The underlying lie here is that you will NEVER be enough.
Weaponizing the children
Using the children to pass messages or demands for money, seeding the children with ready-made guilt trips, and using them as props during settlements or disagreements are all standard fare for something called financial incest (also called financial enmeshment). Not only is this abusive to the other partner, it’s abusive for the children, and sets those children up for a lifetime of not trusting themselves with money. Financial incest is very often a person’s first financial trauma.
It started slow
Early on in your relationship, your partner may have offered to take the finances off your plate. And then it got a little worse every month or every year.
“You’ve got a lot going on, I’ll do the bills this time.”
“No really, I enjoy doing the budgeting and, come on, I’m better at it than you are.”
“What do you think about us each getting an allowance?”
“Don’t worry about it hon, I paid that bill, it must have just crossed the late notice in the mail.”
When I’m working with someone in recovery from financial abuse I’ll invariably hear this:
“Before I met/married them, I actually enjoyed doing my finances. It wasn’t great, I mean I didn’t have a bunch saved, but I had some. There were a lot fewer responsibilities back then, but I actually enjoyed seeing where the money was going.”
One upon a time you trusted yourself with your finances, and now you can’t. And the transition from being self-assured and self-sufficient was so gradual and gentle you might not have noticed it at atll.
A lack of transparency
As the the finances got less and less transparent, the responsibilities, stress, and demands grew and grew. Understanding and having clarity on where our money is going feels good. It’s an accomplishment. Financial abusers will look for any opportunity to remove what feels good, from limiting who you have contact with, to your understanding of where the money is going. All of this is an effort to…
Remove or reduce your sense of autonomy/ reduce your choices
This does nothing less than make you less of a person. On occasion I’ll ask a person in recovery from financial abuse to rate themselves on a scale from 0-100. 0 being you are not yourself and have no idea who you are, 100 is you could not be more yourself and you know who you are.
Just for giggles, where would you rate yourself right now? How do you think most people who are in active financial abuse or just coming out of it rate themselves? It’s typically below 20 in my experience. And every one of those people thinks they deserve to feel that way.
Which leads us to the last two red flags we’ll talk about today, although there are more.
Financial conversations are associated with pain and toxicity
If your partner has made sure that financial conversations (no matter how small) end in fights, they may be attempting to dissuade you from broaching financial subjects. Essentially financial abusers can make any money-related topic so painful that eventually you’ll stop bringing up money, asking for transparency, or holding a financial boundary.
You’ve internalized all of this
“Oh but you don’t understand, Hanna, I’m really not good at handling the money/ don’t make good decisions on my own/ should be working harder.”
The abuser has done their work and you will continue on internalizing the messaging they put into your head long after your exposure to them is over. Abusers (financial or otherwise) do a great job of changing the way our brains work… essentially building the mechanism of control and manipulation right into your nervous system. But that also means you can be de-programmed! Be patient with yourself as you begin the process of recovery from this.
Financial abuse IS abuse
So you’ve identified that you’re being financially abused or have been. What do you do next?
If you’re still living with your financial abuser but want to leave:
Now is not the time for financial coaching. Begin to gather whatever resources you can, and call 800-799-7233 in the United States. Whatever your gender, the process of leaving an abusive relationship is dangerous and might take a few tries. If it is safe for you to reach out, you can text me anonymously at 503-908-3425 and I will try to support you in whatever limited way I can. Be gentle with yourself!
If you’re still living with your financial abuser but aren’t ready to leave:
That’s ok. Whatever you choose to do, I would recommend finding a couple’s therapist. If your partner is not interested in therapy, therapy for yourself is still a worthwhile endeavor!
You’re not living with your abuser and are ready to start recovery:
Trauma-informed, holistic financial coaching might be your best option (full disclosure, that’s what I do), but therapy might be a better first step. My suggestion is to find a therapist you connect with deeply. A therapist who has worked with other people recovering from intimate partner violence is always a good idea.
The one thing you can do as you begin your recovery process is to be patient and gentle with yourself. The slower you go, the more grace you give yourself the faster your recovery goes!
Next Recommended Article: Top Financial Reasons for Divorce