Limited access to accounts concept

When you think of an abusive marriage, what is the image that comes to mind? If you are like most people, you imagine one spouse (probably a man) physically harming or threatening the other (probably a woman). Physical violence is certainly a major aspect of domestic abuse, but it is not usually the first or only type of abuse to emerge. At its root, domestic violence is about control, and there are many ways that abusers exercise control over their victims. One of those is financial abuse.

What is Financial Abuse?

Unlike the unmistakable violence of a slap or a punch, many people who experience financial abuse in marriage may not immediately recognize it as such. Marriage financial abuse typically involves, among other things, one spouse being in charge of the finances. Not every marriage in which one spouse is primarily responsible for financial matters is abusive, of course. Partners may discuss household responsibilities and make a mutual decision for one spouse to pay the bills, balance the checkbook, and prepare tax returns. However, if one spouse is controlling the other’s access to the couple’s money or to knowledge about the family finances, that could be a sign of financial abuse.

Financial abuse is one of many mechanisms by which an individual exercises power and control over a partner. Not all financially abusive relationships become physically abusive, but about 98% of physically abusive relationships also involve financial abuse. This makes sense if you think about it; a partner who is being physically abused is much more likely to leave their abuser if they have the financial resources to do so. If a victim’s access to funds, or even knowledge about financial matters, has been cut off, they are more likely to be trapped in a relationship.

Limiting Access to Financial Information

Like other types of abuse, financial abuse in marriage often develops and escalates over time. Here are some examples:

  • Controlling all of the couple’s money
  • Concealing assets
  • Making the other spouse turn over their paycheck or government benefits
  • Giving the other spouse an “allowance”
  • Withholding access to bank accounts, even to the point that the spouse without access cannot pay for their basic needs or those of the couple’s children
  • Not allowing the other spouse to be involved in decisions about banking, investments, or taking on debt
  • Not allowing the other spouse to have a credit card
  • Demanding to see receipts for all purchases to make sure the other spouse isn’t keeping any money for him- or herself
  • Insisting the other spouse sign financial documents without reading or understanding them
  • Forcing the other spouse to commit financial crimes (such as passing bad checks)
  • Committing identity theft against a spouse
  • Forbidding the other spouse from working
  • Sabotaging the other spouse’s opportunities for employment
  • Preventing the other spouse from getting education or training that might allow them to become self-supporting
  • Harassing the other spouse at work, often to the point of causing their employment to be terminated
  • Refusing to work, deliberately being underemployed, or working under the table to avoid paying child support
  • Failing to pay child support that has been ordered

Additional Considerations

Financial abuse often happens in conjunction with other aspects of abuse, like emotional abuse, intimidation, and isolation from family and friends. And, as mentioned previously, it can be a precursor to physical violence.

It’s also important to point out that financial abuse does not just happen in families with limited resources. Just because a family is wealthy doesn’t mean that access to (or control of) that wealth is shared. Marriage financial abuse can take place in the wealthiest families, the poorest ones, and those in between. And while this type of abuse is mostly perpetrated by men against women, women can be abusers, too. This type abuse takes place in same-sex marriages and marriages of opposite-sex couples, and among all ethnicities, races, and cultures.

Ending a Marriage with Financial Abuse

The first step to escaping financial abuse in a marriage is to recognize it. You may think it is normal to turn over your paycheck to a spouse or to have them give you an allowance, but that is not typical, especially if you have no say in the matter.

If you believe you are being financially abused, you may be able to gradually save small amounts from what you are given and keep it with a trusted friend for your eventual escape. However, this might not be possible if your spouse has cut you off from your social support systems. Also, if threats to your physical safety or that of your children are escalating, you may not have time to put aside money.

Your safety is paramount. Even if you are not being physically abused at the present, it’s important to recognize that financial abuse in marriage can escalate to physical violence. You should immediately reach out to a family law attorney who has experience in cases involving domestic violence and financial abuse.

Likewise, if your spouse is accusing you of financial abuse and seeking a divorce first, you need to be represented by an attorney who understands these issues and can advocate effectively for your interests.