When Money is the Weapon: Understanding Intimate Partner Financial Abuse

When Money is the Weapon: Understanding Intimate Partner Financial Abuse

Content warning: abuse.

Our culture’s view of domestic abuse lacks imagination.

A quick Google image search for the term shows image after image in the same composition: sad, broken-looking women with bruised faces and smeared mascara. There’s often a menacing figure looming somewhere in the foreground or background. A hand—either her own, or the abuser’s—covers their mouths, preventing them from speaking.

These images are certainly evocative. They’ve been burned into our cultural brain by many years of prevention campaigns.

And they work. Maybe not exactly how they’re meant to, but they certainly influence behavior. I’ve injured my face a few times—a split lip from accidentally head-butting the dog, a black eye from a too-quick turn near my own woodworking project. Every time that’s happened, I’ve felt the concern of acquaintances and strangers in full force. There’s skepticism in their eyes when I explain about the dog or the two-by-four. I can feel them watching me for other signs. It’s both annoying and affirming. The world is full of people with good intentions, and it’s nice to remember that.

But I don’t know how helpful these kinds of images are. There are a lot of people who are in abusive relationships and genuinely don’t know it. When there’s such a codified cultural idea of what an abuse victim looks like and you don’t look like her, it makes it easier to silence your own suspicions that there’s something very wrong in your relationship.

It’s hard to look at a staged photo of a cringing, weeping, blood-splattered woman and say “I think I deserve access to the resources set aside for her.”

There’s a huge spectrum of abusive behaviors and relationships that isn’t captured in this simplistic picture. Abusive relationships aren’t an exclusive plague upon heterosexual relationships. Victims aren’t always women. Abusers aren’t always violent, and the damage often doesn’t leave a mark. And we’re going to talk about one of the most prevalent kinds of abuse today: financial abuse.

Types of abuse

When we think of “domestic abuse,” we tend to reach for two things:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse

Both of these are violent. But the unifying factor of intimate partner abuse isn’t violence. Most kinds of intimate partner abuse are nonviolent. Unlike a bloodied face, there is no horrifying external marker of the abuse. Some fruits need to be cut open to find the rot. You have to pry open the contents of bank accounts or calendars or whispered conversations in bed to see their wrongness…

  • Verbal abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Social abuse
  • Passive abuse
  • Intimidation
  • Stalking
  • Gaslighting
  • Deprivation
  • Neglect
  • Blackmail

Prioritizing the violent abuse above the nonviolent abuse is counterproductive. They are different strategies employed for the same purpose: to gain and maintain power and control over another human being. The physical pain of violent abuse, while certainly very serious, is a passing discomfort compared to the real damage: teaching another human to distrust themselves and others, training them to fear intimacy, blurring their concept of self, subverting and erasing their will.

Financial abuse

Financial abuse is defined as “behavior that seeks to control a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy.”

In abusive relationships, it’s frighteningly common. One study suggests that 99% of domestic violence cases include aspects of financial abuse.

A lot of people wonder why victims of abuse stay with their abuser. It’s an understandable point of confusion to someone on the outside. And there are quite a fucking lot of reasons. (Fear of violence is a strong one—75% of women murdered by their partners are killed after they leave.) But there are also practical complications, which is where many aspects of financial abuse come into play.

What are the warning signs of financial abuse?

Draining you dry

A reading from the book of Saints Chilli, T-Boz, and Lovely Lisa Left-Eye Lopez…

A scrub is an individual who thinks they’re fly.* They’re always talking about what they want, yet just sit on their broke ass. So—no.

*Also known as a “busta.”

In a long term relationship, sharing funds is completely normal. But it’s a gradient of behaviors (from normal, to mooch, to vampire) that’s completely subjective, according to the values of each individual.

Hardcore romantic types may find it distasteful to track, exchange, or even discuss money. They may also feel selfish or uncaring if they decline to help their partner with their financial problems. It’s frighteningly easy for a toxic person to identify and exploit these anxieties.

It’s generally fine for your partner to…

  • Know basic details about your financial health
  • Ask you to cover for them on small, infrequent expenses
  • Pay you back, or return the favor in kind in a reasonable timeframe
  • Express genuine gratitude for small financial considerations
  • Share financial concerns, budget limitations
  • Ask to pool resources on shared expenses at a reasonable point in the relationship
  • Agree, in writing, to a plan for how to divide a shared asset
  • Make helpful, respectful suggestions about money
  • Meet your generosity in a similar degree

Squint real long and hard at them if they…

  • Show persistent curiosity about how much money you have, when you get paid
  • Ask to borrow money frequently or in large sums
  • Borrow money and miss the deadline for repaying it
  • Seem to take your generosity for granted
  • Ignore, claim to forget, or excuse past borrowing
  • Insist on sharing expenses too early in a relationship
  • Resist formal agreements on how to divide expenses
  • Initiate excessive, prolonged complaints on the topic of their bills and obligations
  • Use your personal assets for their benefit

Run for the goddamn fucking hills if they…

  • Demand all or part of your money the moment they know it’s available
  • Fail to repay borrowed money
  • Take money or use your cards without permission, even if they later pay it back
  • Attempt to use guilt, shame, or gaslighting to convince you to give them more
  • Respond to financial discussions with rage, coldness, or other negative emotions
  • Leverage real or imagined personal crises to justify one-sided spending
  • Reneg or refuse to honor agreements on how to divide expenses
  • Frame their bills and obligations as your fault
  • Insist you share your income, but refuse to share theirs

Devaluing your career

The percentage of dual-income households has doubled in the last forty years. It’s very common for both members of a couple to have full-time schooling or work. And work is a significant portion of a person’s life. You spend eight hours a day doing it; ideally they’re meaningful and rewarding, but they’re often petty and stressful. If you haven’t already Had Words over each other’s jobs, just wait—you will.

Figuring that shit out is hard. And it’s absolutely not possible to do unless both partners respect the role of work in their shared lives.

It’s generally fine for your partner to…

  • Take pride in your professional successes and accomplishments
  • Be a source of supportive, constructive observations on each other’s careers
  • Accommodate your work schedule and career ambitions
  • Stop by your workplace occasionally in socially appropriate situations
  • Help pick up slack around the household during particularly demanding work cycles
  • Check in with you about the amount of stress you feel at work
  • Respect the contributions of a stay-at-home partner

Squint real long and hard at them if they…

  • Ignore or minimize your career successes
  • Fail to express any active interest in your career
  • Complain about your regular schedule or workload
  • Call with undue frequency, or visit your workplace unannounced
  • Lack flexibility and understanding during demanding work cycles
  • Express incredulity or exasperation at normal work stress
  • Ignore or devalue the contributions of a stay-at-home partner

Run for the goddamn fucking hills if they…

  • Express jealousy, anger, or humiliation over your career successes
  • Criticize or belittle your career, or lack thereof
  • Pressure you to change your career or quit your job
  • Ambush you at work with calls, texts, or uninvited in-person visits
  • Sabotage your work responsibilities or ability to get to work
  • Demand that you stay in a job or career that makes you unhappy
  • Shame, guilt, or punish a partner for choosing (or needing) to stay at home

Keeping you in the dark

Scientia potentia est—knowledge is power. The opposite is also true. Ignorance is vulnerability.

Abusive people love to keep their victims guessing. When you’re in the dark about your financial health, you don’t know what your options are. It prevents you from contributing to decisions that should be mutual—or planning an escape.

This is why we’ve said before: never, never, never cede all financial responsibilities to just one partner. Even if one person tends to be The One Who Likes Handling Money, the other person should always be involved and informed.

A big part of this is verification. I have heard horror stories of seemingly trustworthy romantic partners stealing money, stealing identities, faking work schedules, and lying about major assets. Sometimes those people can become violent when finally cornered or caught. Part of establishing a rock-solid trust is verifying the stories you hear for yourself.

It’s generally fine for your partner to…

  • Discuss your overall financial picture as a couple
  • Offer solid proofs of employment and financial information on request
  • Co-sign together on major purchases and agreements
  • Decline to share passwords on private accounts, but allow you to look over their shoulder as needed
  • Make most financial decisions together
  • Open shared accounts as needed
  • Encourage you to plan and budget

Squint real long and hard at them if they…

  • Evade or avoid discussing details of your overall financial picture
  • Hide financial documents or claim to not have them
  • Prefer that only one partner sign for major purchases and agreements
  • Deny all access to their financial portals
  • Make many financial decisions without asking for your input
  • Hesitate to open or use a shared account when needed
  • Reduce your ability to plan or budget

Run for the goddamn fucking hills if they…

  • Limit your knowledge of your overall financial picture
  • Intercept, hide, or destroy financial mail
  • Force you to sign documents without explanations
  • Refuse to share account logins for shared accounts
  • Make large financial decisions without you
  • Hide or take funds from shared accounts
  • Prevent you from planning or budgeting for yourself

Eroding your autonomy

In the personal finance community, it’s common for people to get really deep into the details of how they spend their money. Like, all of their money. And we love sharing our sorta-solicited opinions on those expenditures. Ahem, ahem, latte factor, ahem, ahem.

This is something those people need to hear. If you’re more frugal than your romantic partner, it doesn’t make you more right.Saving money is a desire; supporting your partner’s financial autonomy is an obligation. If you cannot put your obligations before your desires, you should not be in a relationship with anyone.

Obsessively tracking and criticizing your partner’s spending can be abusive. If you’re both like, rah-rah FIRE, and it makes you feel empowered and happy to challenge each other, do it! But having the noble goal of being financially stable or retiring early isn’t carte blanche on controlling behaviors.

It’s generally fine for your partner to…

  • Encourage you to be financially healthy and autonomous
  • Provide steady access to both private and shared funds
  • Allow you to use your own paycheck or allowance at your own discretion
  • Encourage you to pursue a healthy amount of spending on yourself
  • Understand and forgive normal budget overages
  • Ask you how you spend your money
  • Give you appropriate gifts at appropriate times

Squint real long and hard at them if they…

  • Insist on “helping” you with your finances when you don’t want or need it
  • Make accessing money independently troublesome
  • Threaten to cut you off financially when displeased
  • Hold a double standard around your spending versus theirs
  • Get upset about unexpected, unavoidable expenses
  • Ask for an unhelpfully detailed account of how you spend your money
  • Remind you often of their past generosity

Run for the goddamn fucking hills if they…

  • Denigrate your ability to control your own finances
  • Deny you access to money
  • Confiscate your paycheck or allowance, cut you off from all access to funds
  • Criticize every financial decision you make
  • Set unrealistic budget expectations and punish you for failing to meet them
  • Demand tracking of expenses down to the penny
  • Hold past gifts or kindnesses over your head

A good partner

Based on this, I’m prepared to offer a view of what a good partner looks like.

A good partner would never ask you to overextend yourself beyond your ability, comfort, or commitment level. They want to do things fairly and share freely.

A good partner respects the important role that work plays in both of your lives as individuals. They’re happy when you’re successful, and helpful when you’re not.

A good partner is willing to talk honestly and make financial decisions collaboratively. Even if they’re not great with money, they are honest and brave enough to talk about it.

A good partner loves you for the individual you are. They want you to have as many choices as you can have, and they trust you to make decisions wisely.

Absolutely everyone deserves a partner who meets these four baseline criteria.

If you think you’re being financially abused

If you’re not yet completely linked to someone, but you’ve started to see warning signs, DTMFA is the easiest advice I’ve given all day. Don’t allow the sunk cost fallacy to convince you to throw good time after bad.

Obviously the situation is a lot trickier if your lives are enmeshed, or they’re already showing a proclivity for other forms of abuse. We are not experts in how to handle this, but thankfully, these people are. Also, youths and introverts, get ready! You don’t even have to make traditional phone calls anymore!

If you’re ready to talk to someone who can help

  • Love is Respect has lovely people available to help you via phone, text, or over chat
  • RAINN has great resources for people experiencing sexual abuse, available via phone or chat
  • IMAlive has volunteers trained in crisis intervention for anyone experiencing a crisis
  • 7 Cups of Tea has active listeners via text, if you just need to have someone actively listen
  • Call your ride-or-die—no matter what terms you left on, we’re here
  • If you’re in danger, call the police

If you’re not quite to the talking stage yet

And some of our best mental healthy articles, for good measure

Please remember that there is a big, beautiful community of warm-hearted people who love putting their financial nosiness to good work. I hope y’all make some noise in the comments below.

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14 thoughts to “When Money is the Weapon: Understanding Intimate Partner Financial Abuse”

  1. “In abusive relationships, it’s frighteningly common. One study suggests that 99% of domestic violence cases include aspects of financial abuse.”

    Jesus. I suppose this makes a ton of sense in the context that this sort of abuse is really about control, and money is a fucking fantastic means of control. It permeates nearly every aspect of one’s life.

    Great, great read.

  2. It’s hard for me to talk about because he’s the love of my life, but my husband did nearly everything on the “Squint real long and hard at them if they…” devaluing your career list. He still doesn’t understand how I make a career out of freelance writing, and his childhood history of financial abuse within his family shaped him to be super controlly about career stuff. Anything other than a steady paycheck for a sum greater than $40K a year is “wildly irresponsible” in his estimation, and so my leap into freelance writing seemed like a ridiculous risk. Though he has finally come around (amazing what four books, including a best-seller, will do for convincing people that my career is legit), he still second-guesses my career choices and is unreasonably risk averse about anything to do with my career.

    I know he’s uncomfortable with me talking about his reaction. But I’ve decided to be upfront about it for two reasons:
    1. If he wanted to look better in my stories about him, he should have acted differently. I only talk about objective facts.
    2. We need to shine a light on just how pervasive this kind of behavior is, even in otherwise healthy relationships and even among those who have successful careers.

    1. I think it’s incredibly important to be able to discuss the things we’re not good at, or are reactionary about, because how else will we learn? Even when it means we’re vulnerable, that is an opportunity to learn. For others among us who don’t realize that their partners are on that list and can and should learn until we see it, it’s valuable to see amazing women like you, Emily, sharing and discussing what can and will be done within a relationship (to the extent that you feel comfortable sharing) to rectify the less comfortable bits of your relationship.

      I think that makes it much clearer that we CAN address issues when they’re the squinty variety, and that we don’t have to just grin and bear it. It’s healthy to grow!

    2. GIRL, I FREAKIN’ LOVES YA. I love your bravery in discussing this, and your fortitude in forging ahead with your career goals regardless of the lack of support.

      I thought that it was important to acknowledge that there’s a HUGE territory of no-mans land between Acceptable Behavior and Unacceptable Behavior. I truly do not know a single couple who hasn’t had a tearful conflict over each other’s jobs. They are both the main tool of acquiring resources AND the main competition for time, energy, and attention. Them’s some fucking stakes, man!

      I relate so much to your comments, and in other ways I feel I’ve lived the opposite experience. I made a (sorry, gonna say it) selfless choice to enable my husband to work full time on his childhood dream. Some of our friends did not understand why he suddenly quit his job and tapered off support for their own creative projects. To this day, I have ex-friends who would eagerly tell you that Mr. Kitty’s mean, controlling wife locked him away in a fucking tower. (Nobody asked him, because they forgot that good listeners *also like to occasionally be listened to.*) Sometimes you just can’t fucking win.

      Nobody really knows what goes on in a relationship. That’s why it’s really, really important to talk openly about those grey areas. Those are the most context-sensitive. Are they controlling out of a desire to control–or because they recognize that you need help and they don’t know how else to give it? Is it controlling out of a deep sense of anxiety for your future–or for theirs? Are they being critical because they care–or are they just being a big ol’ bag of dicks? Honestly, it depends on the person and the relationship.

      I know I’ve done many of the behaviors in the mid-range shady category, for which my partner has either given me permission or forgiveness. I would permit and/or forgive many of them from him as well. But we’d have to have Some Fucking Discussions to establish they were coming from a place of love, not control.

      I can’t tell you how much I respect and commend your candor. All hail EGB.

      1. Seriously this has to be one of my favorite comments ever – as I saw mine, and my husband’s, behaviors on various lists above, it made me wonder. But I think the key is the “because they care – or are they just a bag of dicks.”

        And I do many things in the name of a future plan and, um, hello…a BUDGET that he probably hates. But by the same token, he totally needs the help in this area…and will tell you that.

  3. It’s fascinating/terrible how the abuse and control changes shape as the technology available shifts; products like Personal Capital and Venmo make controlling other people’s money a lot easier, I imagine. I recently read about how people are starting to use smart devices for monitoring, stalking, control, and revenge, which wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. Ceding control completely to one’s partner, in anything, seems like a recipe for disaster if the relationship takes a turn for the worst.

    Sigh. I wise we could all just be compassionate and responsible.

    1. I forgot to mention that I was super excited about biometric password technology for this very reason! It’s fairly easy for an abuser to guess or creep on a person’s 4-digit phone unlock code. If I wanted to, I could wait until Mr. Kitty was in the shower, snatch his phone, request password changes to major accounts, delete the evidence, and have access to everything in 5-10 minutes. That’s fucking scary.

      But I have some accounts that now let me log in with my thumb print. That added layer of security feels like it might be a real game-changer. Obviously an abuser can still use violence or manipulation to get you to unlock it for them… But it eliminates a lot of opportunities for sneaky, shady, stealth financial attacks.

  4. PSA: If you leave, don’t forget to take your personal records (birth certificate, social security card, etc) work you.

  5. I came from an emotionally abusive household, and while I don’t know whether there was financial abuse, I do know that the dynamic was pretty screwed up. No, let’s call it was it was: fucked up. She saved and scrimped so that he could spend however he wanted. I’m definitely guilty of some of that in my own marriage. Monkey see, monkey do, I suppose. Though I put a lot more limits on Tim than she ever did with my dad.

    Anyway, people underestimate just how strong a hold finances have on a partnership (or alleged one). And they really underestimate just how dependent many domestic abuse victims are financially on their abusers because those abusers insist on controlling every part of their lives, including finances. Glad you wrote this.

  6. An ex-boyfriend actually tried to convince me to sell my house and buy a new one in a better location for him. He worked from home and wanted to be closer to places he could go out to have fun, and me being 5 minutes from my work (as breadwinner since he was still in school and applying for medical school) wasn’t nearly as important. He was basically living with me for free (I had no mortgage anyway and property tax was only $2k/year) and just paid half of utilities, or ~$100/month. Most people would have appreciated a living situation like that. Needless to say, my stepdad was over at 8am to help move him out the day after we broke up.

  7. Very well done article! I am passing this along to my 20-something daughter.
    Please don’t ask me to leave the group because I’m older than a millennial! I respect all age groups!
    PS: LOVE your sense of humour ladies! You’re my new fav bloggers!

  8. This is a really important topic, and I think you do a great job in your introduction discussing how financial abuse is “invisible” and not acknowledged enough. I grew up in a household were there was a lot of financial abuse (in conjunction with other types of abuse), and I was hoping to see some other indicators on this list, especially in the context of families that experience financial abuse. I am going to add some things I saw in my family, in the hopes that it resonates with others.

    -Intentional manipulation of resources (my dad was sole income earner and intentionally only had one car so my mom was reliant on public transportation for everything. He also refused to let her use the car to get groceries and other necessities, and instead insisted on doing anything that required use of the car by himself. The only time my mom really got out of the house was when she took the bus to and from my elementary school 6 times a day when I was in school full-day and my sister was in half-day kindergarten.)
    -Making some moral high ground claims about refusing to “talk finances in front of the kids” (my dad would ice my mom out when she would try to have conversations about money, sometimes by using us kids as an excuse not to have the conversation. I think a healthy family attitude toward money could be talking openly about budgeting, even bringing kids into the conversation, but he used it as a wedge)
    -Money issues often continue after divorce (while my parents divorced when I was in middle school, money issues between my dad and my mom, and later my dad and myself, did not end until I graduated college and was “on my own” fully)
    -Financial abuse can happen to children (I went to pick up a prescription in college when I was 20 and found out I had been kicked off my dad’s insurance because my prescription was dramatically more expensive and I no longer could afford it. He never contacted me about being removed from his insurance, I simply found out from the pharmacist.
    -Financial abuse can be used to manipulate familial relationships (While my dad kicked me off of his insurance without warning, my sister was allowed to stay on my dad’s insurance until she was 26. Luckily, my sister and I have always had a great relationship and still do, but my dad has always used money to reward those that continue having a relationship with him and use money to punish those that cut ties.)

    Some tips that I have for people facing financial abuse:
    – My mom contacted the National Organization of Women to get a pro-bono lawyer so she could divorce my dad. Without a car and without her own income, this was the sole lifeline that ultimately helped her out of the various levels of abuse she was facing.
    – Document everything if possible. Being in a situation of financial abuse makes you feel so powerless because it is ultimately an attack on resources. I understand that feeling, and it seems like you have no where to go and no ground to run on. Try to document as much as you can- this helped my mom when she was going through her divorce.
    -Growing up in a situation of financial abuse will shape the way you see money as an adult. I think I have a scarcity mindset, but also a pre-occupation with financial independence (as in, not combining finances with my partner, not necessarily the FIRE meaning) due to my experiences growing up.

    Thanks again for addressing this important topic. I hope that this helps people out there who might be experiencing financial abuse, especially families.

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