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The Real Reason She Hasn’t Left Him

Financial abuse — when an intimate partner controls the money to keep their mate in dependency and bondage — is the shockingly common sign of domestic violence hiding in plain sight.

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Noopur Choksi
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Early in Bria Jackson’s* marriage, she started noticing troubling signs. When she asked her husband for help around the house because she was working, taking care of the kids and going to school full time, he suggested that she drop out of school. “He told me he didn't support my being in school because I was just trying to better myself to get into a better financial position and leave him,” she says.

Eventually Jackson quit her job because she couldn’t juggle everything. “The minute he became the only one in the home that had an income, it became a weapon that was used against me,” she says. “I would say or do things that he didn't like and, as a means of punishment, he would drain the bank account and stick money into accounts that I didn't have access to.”

Throughout the relationship, Jackson never felt like she was in control of her own destiny.  “Despite the fact that we were married and we were supposed to be a team, money was the one area where we were just never on the same playing field. It was never ours. It was always his.”

There are many women who get to the point where enough is enough, but then reality sets in and they think, ‘How am I going to fill the car up with gas?’
—Nicole Garner Scott, financial coach

It wasn’t until years later that Jackson, now 33, realized she was experiencing a form of domestic abuse. “He never actually hit me, and that's the picture that I always had in my head of what domestic violence looks like,” she says.

This type of coercive control is shockingly common, affecting daughters, girlfriends, sisters and people from all genders, faiths and walks of life. A bank balance of twenty-three cents isn’t as obvious as a black eye; the people who care about a victim and could offer support usually have no idea, says Nicole Garner Scott, a financial coach with offices in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Atlanta. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) estimates that 99 percent of domestic violence cases involve some type of financial abuse.

“We're talking about financial abuse as a controlling tactic — using threats, using emotional abuse and using intimidation,” says Shanita Brown, a licensed professional counselor based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It's that pattern of behavior by one partner to maintain power and control over the other partner.”

Because those impacted, like Jackson, don’t always understand that they are being victimized, it never occurs to many of them to seek help. Would you recognize this dynamic in your own relationship or that of someone you care about?

Recognizing financial abuse can be tricky. Among the signs:

•    Your partner makes financial decisions without consulting you.
•    Your partner runs up credit card debt and refuses to pay the bills.
•    Your partner prohibits you from having access to a bank account or credit cards in your name.
•    Your partner forces you to file false or fraudulent tax forms or other legal documents.
•    Your partner forces you to sign assets over to a power of attorney.
•    Your partner prevents you from working or stalks or harasses you at work.
•    Your partner controls how much money you can have at any given time.

Since the pandemic, the risk of domestic violence has increased, according to the NNEDV, with victims spending more time in their homes with their abusers. The pandemic has also created new opportunities for financial abuse, such as an abuser blocking access to a victim’s stimulus check.

A bank balance of twenty-three cents isn’t as obvious as a black eye; the people who care about a victim and could offer support usually have no idea.

Garner Scott works regularly with domestic violence survivors and has helped women rebuild their financial lives after a financial abuse situation. Among the cases that stand out to her are those of boomers shut out of the family finances until their partners died. “I’ve seen cases of grandfathers passing away and the grandmother not knowing that the family was actually broke,” she says.

Financial abuse can prevent a woman from leaving an abusive partner even if she wants to.

“There are many women who get to the point where enough is enough but then reality sets in and they think, ‘How am I going to fill the car up with gas?’” Garner Scott says.

Finding a path to freedom and financial empowerment

While leaving a situation where there is financial abuse is not easy, there are steps that can smooth the way, whether it’s you who is impacted or you’re supporting someone else through these steps during their transition. Keep in mind that each situation is different and it’s paramount to evaluate the safety of any measure you plan to take.

• Find a source of emotional support. A domestic violence support group can offer financial and emotional help. Reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or you can find resources for your particular state.
Save some cash. If you’re working or have access to income, stash some money aside in a separate account or ask a trusted friend or relative to hold it for you, Garner Scott suggests. 
Guard your personal information. If it’s safe to do so, change any debit or credit card PINS or passwords you use to get into your financial accounts. Also, if you’re planning to leave the relationship make sure you secure your important documents and those of your children, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards.
Protect your credit. Put a freeze on your credit, which will prevent someone from easily opening new credit accounts in your name.

In 2016, Jackson left her husband to start over with her three children who were 3, 4 and 8 at the time. With no money, she maxed out her credit cards and applied for government assistance. She also reached out to a domestic violence agency that provided financial assistance and emotional support. “The financial assistance was great, but getting that mental health care and unlearning a lot of the things that I learned while I was in that relationship probably gave me the strength to do all the things that I've done since then,” she says.

Today she’s passionate about raising awareness about financial abuse. Domestic violence looks different to different people, Jackson says. For those in a marriage or relationship, she has this advice: If you feel like something is wrong, pay attention to that.

*Name changed