When we hear about domestic abuse, most of us think about emotional or physical mistreatment. But there’s another type of coercive control that’s rarely talked about: economic abuse.
More than one in six people have experienced economically abusive behaviour in a current or previous relationship, according to research by women’s aid charity Refuge and The Co-operative Bank. Further, research found that 39 per cent of people surveyed said they’d experienced economic abuse once they realised what that can mean. "We are very concerned that such a low percentage of people recognise the signs of economic abuse. It means they won’t realise if it is happening to them and they won’t seek help," says Refuge’s director of communications Lisa King.
Economic abuse can include everything from a perpetrator scrutinising every penny their partner spends to taking out credit in their partner’s name. "Economic abuse can happen to anyone, no matter their age or background. It’s not just about money; it involves a partner or ex-partner controlling someone’s ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources," says Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, founder of charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).
HOW IT STARTS
Like other types of abuse, it often creeps in slowly. "It can be the case that many women aren’t even aware they’re being controlled," says Nicola. "The controlling behaviour is often presented as caring. Someone might say: 'You’re so busy, why don’t I look after your finances for you?' or 'Why don’t you stay at home and I’ll look after you?' Economic and emotional abuse can also be an early sign of behaviour that could escalate into physical or sexual abuse."
While it’s not uncommon for one person in a couple to manage joint finances, it tips over into economic abuse if the other partner is not allowed visibility of bank accounts, doesn’t have access to money or is made to ask permission before spending.
A RISE IN CASES
There’s been an increase in the number of economic abuse cases in the last couple of years due to the pandemic and the more recent cost-of-living crisis. Refuge’s research found that since March 2020, a further 1.6m people are having their finances controlled by someone else. As happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, SEA is hearing reports of perpetrators using the cost-of-living crisis as a tool for abuse, to push victims further into debt and sabotage their economic security.
"Victim-survivors already face control and manipulation of their economic resources at the hands of abusers; they are plunged into debt, forced to live in poverty and/or exist in a constant state of economic insecurity and instability," says Nicola. "The rising cost of living presents abusers with an excuse to exercise even more control, which means the repercussions are greater as money doesn’t stretch as far. Increasing financial pressures will further limit options, even trapping victims with an abuser."
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
The key advice is to maintain economic independence; even if you do choose to open a joint account with a partner, keep an account in your own name that no one else can access. Talking to your partner about money is crucial, and so is not handing over complete control of shared finances. It’s also important to be aware of the implications of joint financial products, such as mortgages, and the liabilities involved, such as the fact you’re jointly liable for any debt.
3 WARNING SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR
Never having enough money
The person regularly leaves their purse ‘at home’; they’re often short of money or unable to buy inexpensive items even if they work; they often ask to borrow money for essential items such as food.
CONFLICT OVER JOINT FINANCES
They’re often in conflict with their partner about money; they say their partner deals with all money matters; they have no knowledge of service providers or how much things cost; they don’t have access to the joint bank account; their wages or benefits are paid into their partner’s account.
UNUSUAL SHOPPING HABITS
They always use cash rather than a card; they count pennies and make lengthy decisions when shopping; they always buy the cheapest items; they seek their partner’s permission before making any purchases; they say things like: ‘He won’t let me spend money on that’; there’s a notable contrast in their spending habits and lifestyle compared with their partner.
This piece originally appeared in the March 2023 print edition of Harper's Bazaar UK