When I first realized that I had been a victim of financial abuse at the hands of my husband, my first reaction was fear. How in the world would I be able to survive, much less rebuild, with the accounts bled dry and the debt growing by the day?
That was followed by anger. How dare he lie to me about our finances for years, pretending to have our best interests at heart while he simultaneously stole my hard-earned money from behind my trusting back? And why was I responsible for cleaning up the mess he made?
But the emotion that persisted throughout? That would be shame.
I berated myself for being stupid, for trusting too much and verifying too little. I felt ashamed at having to consider bankruptcy and embarrassed when I had to ask for financial help from others. I blamed myself for my situation. It was only later that I realized that it was abuse.
Financial abuse is real. Yet it’s rarely discussed or understood, leaving people vulnerable to its impact and furthering the harm that the victims of this type of abuse face when they try to speak out. As with any abuse, understanding is power.
What is financial abuse?
Any abuse is ultimately about control and manipulation. Financial abuse is no different, only it uses money as a tool to exploit and exert power.
Financial abuse can be overt or covert. Overt financial abuse often occurs alongside physical and/or emotional abuse. In this situation, access to money is knowingly restricted in an attempt to limit the victim’s options. The abuser may limit the other’s ability to earn money or may insist that they control all of the finances.
In covert abuse, the financial manipulations are done in secret. This can take the form of hidden assets that are intentionally withheld from the partner or can appear as concealed debts that are accumulated without the other’s knowledge. The abuser may use marital status to access shared accounts or may take out lines of credit in their spouse’s name. Covert financial abuse is a type of betrayal; lying and hiding become the norm as the person carefully covers their tracks.
As with other types of abuse, the abuser may use gaslighting and projection in an attempt to shift the focus off of themselves. They claim that their spouse is an extravagant spender or they may pretend that they have had a new purchase for a long time. In some cases (raising my hand here), the abuser may even go so far as to create false documentation to match their claims about money.
What does the law say about financial abuse?
When I first discovered that I was the victim of financial abuse at the hands of my husband one day after he left me via text, I assumed that the courts would protect me. After all, taking money from somebody without their consent is fraud, right?
At least in the eyes of the law when you’re married. I learned the hard way that I was the one responsible for all of the debt that he incurred in my name. It didn’t matter that he lied. Nobody seemed concerned that he forged my name for the benefit of others and documents to cover his tracks with me. Because we were married, his financial actions were yoked to my consequences.
From some people I received sympathy. But I never found justice, with one notable exception – the IRS. Without my knowledge, my husband had made changes to our tax returns prior to filing, falsely claiming medical and charitable deductions. Days after he left, I received certified letters from the IRS demanding over $6,000. I used money from a family member to settle the debt and assumed that it was simply another financial hit that I would have to absorb.
And then I learned about Innocent Spouse Relief, a special IRS program designed specifically for the victims of domestic financial abuse that includes tax deception. That letter marking me “innocent” was perhaps even more important than the subsequent checks reimbursing me for his fraud. It felt so good to be believed and absolved of at least some of the consequences.
How does financial abuse affect you?
Financial abuse does not end when the relationship does. In a very real sense, it may take years to rebuild financial security and to shore up a flagging credit score. More subtle, but no less difficult, is the accompanying emotional abuse that stays with you in the form of internalized beliefs and negative self-talk.
Money is about so much more than money.
We equate credit scores with trustworthiness and financial status with social worth. Add to that the embarrassment that comes from being conned and the sense of betrayal stemming from the lies, and financial abuse leads to some pretty difficult emotions.
Interactions with others often feed into the shame and negativity. There was the bankruptcy counselor that chided me for buying healthy food, even after I told her that my husband ran up the debt in my name and kale was certainly not the reason behind the $40,000 in credit card debt that I had been “gifted.” Then there was the rental specialist at the apartment complex that had the power to approve or deny my lease application. When a check revealed unpaid utility bills (another surprise parting gift), he thought it appropriate to lecture me. Again, this was after he knew about my situation. The truth is that most people don’t understand financial abuse and so they have a tendency to blame the victim.
Even ten years out, I still struggle with my relationship to money. I feel guilty when I spend it (even though it’s now within my means), hearing my ex husband’s voice claiming that I am irresponsible. There is an insecurity that I now possess around money; I need a certain amount available to calm my sense of panic.
Financial abuse is complex. It impacts both your bank account and your brain and both require time and sustained effort to recover.
How can you recover from financial abuse?
When it comes to recovery from financial abuse, time is your biggest ally. Your first priority has to be your financial health. Start by taking a critical look at your situation. If this is too much right now (as it was for me in the beginning), ask for help from a trusted friend or family member. Set your priorities – What do you need to pay right now? What alerts can you put on your accounts to protect you from further fraud? What companies do you need to contact to arrange a payment plan? What bills can be ignored for now?
I know it’s hard to face this when it should not be your mess to clean up. Yet facing it is the only way to remove it from your life. One trick I used in the five years it took for me to pay off his parting debts was to jot down a little note of gratitude every time I paid a bill.
I decided to view these debts he left me with as a down payment on a better life. It was then up to me to ensure that it was money well spent.
For me, the emotional recovery trailed behind the financial recuperation. As long as I was still making payments, I found it difficult to shed the shame and the anger. Once the debts were settled and the savings began to build again, I found that I was able to find some peace with the past. I made mistakes that put me in the position where I could be financially controlled. I can’t go back and change those, but I can certainly learn from them going forward.
How can you protect yourself from financial abuse?
Limit the damage that someone can cause. Have some money that only you have access to and maintain some credit only in your name. Use a credit monitoring service or download a credit app on your phone and check it weekly to make sure there aren’t any unauthorized accounts in your name. Check periodically to ensure that you still have access to any joint accounts and that passwords have not been changed.
Pay attention to any discrepancies between lifestyle and income. Ask questions and don’t be too quick to believe answers that don’t read as truth. Check for evidence that money is going where it is supposed to and that it is not being funneled a different direction.
Be aware of attempts at gaslighting, where your spouse denies reality, perhaps claiming that money wasn’t spent when the evidence points to the contrary. Also, look for situations where you’re falsely accused of spending too much. This may be an indication that your partner is the one burning through funds.
If you have a tendency to be avoidant about financial stressors, be extra cautious. Your difficulty confronting money challenges makes it easier for someone to manipulate you. Work on resolving your own relationship with money so that you’re more comfortable discussing it.
And finally, if you see something, say something. I know it’s scary to face the truth. But once you know what you’re dealing with, you can take action to deal with it.