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- Financial abuse is when somebody controls how and when you spend money.
- Sometimes, they are the breadwinner and withhold or hide their money.
- Other times, they are a financial leech.
- Shannon Thomas tells the stories of many victims of financial abuse in her new book “Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon.”
- She spoke to Business Insider about the signs of financial abuse, and how it manifests in people’s lives.
If someone is able to withhold your finances it is a sign you are completely under their control. One woman who Shannon Thomas spoke to for her new book “Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon” was so financially controlled by her partner, she had to eat green beans out of a tin because it was all she could afford.
Another had to sleep on a mattress for her entire pregnancy because she was told they couldn’t afford a bed – despite her husband making $8,000 a month.
When Thomas started out on her research for the book, she was coming at it from a therapist’s perspective of what she thought financial abuse looked like. But after more than 450 people responded with their stories, she realised how broad the topic actually is, and how insidious the abuse can really be.
“I think I asked the question about the lies and the threats and the basic needs, because I had a feeling there were going to be some common themes, but I was surprised at how many different ways financial abuse showed up,” she said. “I also thought I would hear more about entrepreneurs and business partners, and financial abuse in the workplace. And I didn’t, the majority of responses were personal.”
Thomas wanted her book to be a platform for all the stories, which is why they are printed in raw, unedited detail from the people who wrote them. Their tales range from the bizarre to the downright frightening, as they highlight some of the most deceitful aspects of controlling, abusive relationships – and just how far that mistreatment can go.
A financial abuser isn’t always the breadwinner
Something that surprised Thomas about financial abusers was how many of them operated in a covert way. There were many cases with the traditional head of the household controlling all the money, such as a man who pretended the family was in poverty when really he had $200,000 in the bank, or the ones who would withhold funds for bills and living expenses unless they submitted sexually.
But in other stories, the abuser didn’t keep regular employment, and lied about trying to find work. Some even stole from their partner or their children.
“We think of a financial abuser as somebody who dominates and controls all this money,” Thomas said. “But I think there’s also this behind the scenes way – keeping people in debt, and keeping family in debt, so the partner doesn’t feel like there’s money to live on.”
For example, one abuser kept all financial information from their partner, so she would have to leave all of their shopping at the till when her cards were declined. They were overdrawn and she was none the wiser.
On the other end of the spectrum was the high end socioeconomic abuse, where women in families considered to be in the higher income bracket were actually scraping by, never treating themselves to clothes, and struggling to pay bills.
- Naluenai Pimu / Shutterstock
One woman was denied access to the joint bank account, and had to ask for free lunches for her children, all while living in a big house in an affluent neighbourhood. Others experienced similar things, like not being able to afford a coffee, even though from the outside, their lifestyles were enviable.
“The money is used by the abuser for the billboard of the lifestyle, but they have no problem having their family really live within marginal means,” Thomas said. “It’s a form of gaslighting for sure.”
The abuser essentially warps their victim’s reality, Thomas said, because it’s a way of taking away their humanity. When the victim tries to complain or get their needs met, the abuser will say things like “look at this house, look at the car you drive, look at the trip we just took.” They make the victim feel guilty for not appreciating what they have, even though they have no control over their own life.
“It’s very hidden, and I think people in those situations suffer more than anyone realises because nobody knows,” Thomas said. “Nobody knows what’s happening. It’s very hard to talk about it.”
The cruelty knows no bounds
Some of the stories were incredibly cruel. One man drained his partner’s checking account so she couldn’t even afford feminine hygiene products. Another man refused to buy another car for the family, even though he always took the only one to work, while their daughter had a heart defect and would need to be taken to the hospital. Meanwhile, he would have no issue with spending money on his own hobbies and interests.
Most of the experiences were with male abusers, but Thomas said men and women can both be financial abusers. For instance, one woman wrote her partner down as the sole person to pay for her plastic surgery, and he was left having to pay for it – even after she left him. Another woman would become physically abusive if her partner ever bought anything for himself.
In one case, an abuser used a cheque scam to commit fraud. Others took out credit in their partner’s name. One stole from his own child to pay for an Ashley Madison account – the website where married people go to have affairs. Some people, Thomas said, would rather go through convoluted illegal schemes than simply get a job.
“I think it’s hard for some people just to show up every day and be disciplined and go to work,” she said. “Because they’re selfish and they want to do what they want when they want. It’s very narcissistic thinking. And so for them, a lot of times their ego gets in the way of being able to maintain employment.”
It’s almost easier for them on some level to be a con artist and be a criminal than to actually have the interpersonal skills and the employment skills to thrive in a job, she said, because there is a massive sense of entitlement.
They’ll have no issue with forging documents to make it seem like they make less money than they do, and they won’t think twice about taking their former partners to court and taking everything they have left.
It’s all about control
Some financial abuse does occur as a result of mental health problems like addiction. But Thomas said in the majority of stories she heard, it was paralleled with emotional and psychological abuse too.
“The parallel between the financial and emotional is the degrading of the victim,” she said. “Because the financial just cuts to people’s everyday life and lifestyle… It’s that overwhelming breakdown of another person. And controlling their finances… that’s a huge lever for brainwashing.”
It’s the ultimate control over somebody, because they essentially have power over your everyday decisions. By controlling your money, they keep you right on the edge, and take away your humanity. This can be seen in how some of the abusers would treat their victims.
One man wouldn’t allow his partner to buy even a new bra or pajamas, so they would fall apart. Then he would shame her for her looks, and tell her nobody would want her when she was a single mother on welfare – even though he was the one who manufactured the situation. He set her up to fail because he enjoyed seeing her life crumble.
“I think the financial abuse is perhaps the most insidious, because it starts off very, very slow,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like a spectrum where the financial control comes in really towards the end. The grooming, the self esteem, the emotional abuse, and controlling how somebody looks, how they dress, what they do, how much they spend… Once they get to the point of controlling the money, they’ve got all the control.”
It doesn’t happen early on, because you tend to be in a long term committed relationship to share your finances with someone. For this reason it can be difficult to spot the red flags in the early stages. In fact, Thomas said there may be so much other chaos going on in the victim’s life, they don’t see the financial abuse happening until it starts to spin out of control.
But there are signs you can look out for, she added, such as how someone manages their money, or whether they always seem to be hard off, or borrowing from other people. Basically, behaving inappropriately for someone who is out of that stage in their 20s where they are still figuring out their finances.
Going through abuse can reveal your strength
There is an inner strength to be found from going through financial abuse, Thomas said. The people who told their stories went through truly cruel treatment from people who were supposed to love them, but somehow, many came out the other side knowing just how much strength they really have.
“They know they can persevere and they trust themselves better,” said Thomas. “And I think they learn to celebrate the small victories. So paying that bill is a victory, going to bed at night, or having all of their needs met that day is a victory.”
They also learned to be more more hopeful in the moment. Often, we look at the whole picture to see if we’re successful, whereas survivors of financial abuse and exploitation learn to be grateful for the small victories.
“I think when you’ve gone through something like this, and the whole picture is too overwhelming, they have to train themselves to look at the small moments that are good,” said Thomas. “I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘I know I can survive a lot now.’ There is that inner trust. Like, I can handle a lot.”
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the realisation that there’s no coming back from being financially abused. When someone has controlled you to that level, or even stolen from you, there’s just no way to rationalise that.
“Gaslighting and love bombing and devaluing and discarding, and all of that can be murky,” said Thomas. “When it gets to the financial abuse, sometimes it’s painfully clear.”