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Financial abuse impacts millions: warning signs, ways to escape, and navigating the road to recovery

'My hope is that at some point we can really have a culture where women and children in particular actually feel safe and supported.'
The impact of domestic violence
Posted at 10:38 AM, Feb 28, 2024

When you hear the word abuse, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably physical violence or maybe verbal or emotional attacks, but what's not talked about as often is financial abuse.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, this kind of abuse surged during the pandemic, cutting women off from resources, options, and freedom. While intimate partner violence isn't exclusive to women, 85% of domestic violence survivors in the U.S. are women according to the latest government research.

Julie is one of those survivors. She hopes that by sharing her story with others, she can pave the way for future generations of American women.

"It isn't that long ago that, you know, women have been fighting to even have equality, to have a vote, to be able to get an account in their own name."

Consider the timeline. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, became law in 1920. Women couldn't get a credit card without their husband's permission until the 1970s.

In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act passed, creating resources for domestic violence survivors, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline. While the hotline took its first call in 1996, the phone rang a million more times in the first seven years of operation.

While there were no legal consequences of any kind for domestic abuse until the 19th century, it's still a modern reality for 12 million Americans each year according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Americans like Julie. "I got married at nineteen into the abusive relationship and was in it for a long time," Julie said. "When I needed to leave, I didn't have anything in my name."

As a stay-at-home mom with four children to care for, Julie says her ex took control of all her spending, leaving her trapped, confused, and unsure about her options. "It can feel very isolating, and it can feel very disorienting because a lot of it doesn't make sense," she said.

That's an issue Carmen Pitre sees often at Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. "We hear from many women who say, 'I'm not leaving because I don't know where I'm going to live or how I'm gonna feed my kids,'" the president and CEO of the Wisconsin-based organization said.

"I always think of violence as a continuum."
Carmen Pitre

In her work at Sojourner, Pitre meets people from all socio-economic backgrounds and demographics who are being controlled by a partner who weaponizes the family finances. "Subtle messages like, 'You're so stupid. You can't do the money. You don't know how to balance the checkbook. Why would I let you have access?'" Pitre said.

Emily Ector-Volman, a licensed professional counselor based in Williamson County, Tennessee, specializes in working with couples and domestic violence survivors. The kind of gaslighting and bullying Pitre pointed out is something Ector-Volman advises women of all ages to watch out for in both dating and long-term relationships.

"When you ask questions about finances, they respond like you're overreacting or you're being paranoid," Ector-Volman said, explaining that in most abusive relationships, one partner will deliberately make the other believe that there is no hope or way to survive if the relationship ends.

Money is one of the toughest topics that any couple will ever tackle according to the Tennessee-based therapist, who often sees it create friction, even in otherwise healthy relationships.

So how can you tell when a line has been crossed?

"The big difference between financial abuse and financial struggles within a relationship is that power and control aspect."
Emily Ector-Volman

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. While financial abuse can be the only type of abuse present in a relationship, Ector-Volman says it's most-often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse as well.

She points to the power and control wheel, a tool used in therapy and at domestic violence shelters to identify abusive behaviors. While economic abuse is a key part of the wheel, it can be difficult to recognize.

Even if the abuse is obvious, Pitre says it's difficult for many survivors to take the first steps to leave. "It's frightening to think, I'm being hurt in this way, and what do I do about it?" That's why Pitre and Ector-Volman emphasize the importance of creating a safety plan.

1) Talk to someone you trust

If you think you're being financially abused, Pitre encourages you to confide in someone you can trust, whether that's a family member, a friend, or someone you know at church or through a community program.

2) Assess your financial resources

Next, you'll need to do a financially inventory of your resources. "Start to look at your accounts," Pitre said. "What you have access to, what you don't have access to, think about your safety."

3) Create a safe space

If you suspect your loved one is trapped in an unsafe or unhealthy situation, Ector-Volman urges you to create a safe space for them to talk to you, without pushing. "Try not to be frustrated if they don't heed your warning and do something about it immediately," she said. "The best thing you can do is give them information."

As for Julie, she says it's important to trust your feelings, even if your partner tells you otherwise. "No matter what anyone else might consider normal or whether they label it as abuse or unhealthy or whatever it is," Julie said. "If you don't feel comfortable, that's the first step."

Safety and recovery resources

For immediate access to help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can do that by texting "START" to 88788 or calling 1-800-799-SAFE. The hotline is staffed 24/7, with resources available online to help you identify abuse, build a safety plan, and support others.

One unfortunate side-effect of financial abuse can be long-term damage to your credit, but there are ways to recover. Allstate operates a free financial literacy education program, which helps domestic abuse survivors rebuild their damaged credit and put healthy money habits in place going forward.

Another resource to consider is an emergency savings account. Secure Save is an employer-sponsored account women who work for many major U.S. companies can contribute to without leaving a paper trail.

Suze Orman co-founded the program after seeing how money could became a barrier to freedom and safety. "For women who are in a financially abusive relationship there's no way the spouse or the abuser knows that she has this money," Orman said. "If she leaves with a push of a button, it's her money. It doesn't cost her anything."

Forward progress

As for Ector-Volman and Pitre, they hope to see positive change in the future, where warnings, escape plans, recovery resources, and stories like this are no longer needed.

"I don't believe anybody's born violent," Pitre said. "I think we learn violence and we live out into that legacy."

Julie tells us that when she's overwhelmed or discouraged, she thinks about how far women have come, even in the last few decades. Ultimately, she dreams that her daughter and other young girls can live a life free of fear. "My hope is that at some point we can really have a culture where women and children in particular actually feel safe and supported."