Speaking Out on Financial Domestic Abuse

A Reflection on Financial Domestic Abuse

by Christine Palmer Hennigan

Financial Frequency. myWellness

October 15, 2019 . 3 min read

According to experts around the world, the most dangerous place for a woman is in her home -- a chilling statement and hard to believe in 2019.

October marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. Of these women, 99% of those cases will experience some form of financial domestic abuse.

What is the difference between financial domestic abuse and domestic violence? 

Domestic violence is when a person tries to control a relationship by taking physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial control over their partner. Financial abuse is when one party limits or threatens financial funds or resources as a means to control the other party. 

Described another way, financial abuse is behavior that seeks to control a person’s ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy. These financial controls are often why one cannot leave an abusive relationship.

Financial abuse does not often make headlines, as it is a subtle method of control. Often, parties do not even realize that they are being controlled. Some dismiss it because it is not as “bad” as physical abuse and others don’t realize the “unhealthy” nature of the behavior because they fail to realize that it is not customary in relationships.

The first important step is the ability to recognize that there is underlying abuse. Identifying examples can be as simple as being put “on a budget” with no access to marital accounts, and as complex as being forced to sign or file fraudulent documents, or having your identity stolen from a partner.

Who are victims of financial domestic abuse?

Unfortunately, in my 29 years of practice, I have observed no boundaries. It is even immune to socioeconomic boundaries, as I have seen both ends of the spectrum -- pro bono work where only debt is present and estates in the tens of millions where properties were purchased without the knowledge of both parties.

How does this impact women over time? 

Financial abuse has very long-term implications for a woman’s financial security. Sometimes there is dissipation of assets without the spouse’s knowledge, ruined credit, preventing them from obtaining employment, or illegal activities now on the record. 

I have seen examples like a spouse draining millions of dollars without the other's consent, a spouse withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars of children’s college funds, and spouses not allowing the other to know the location of the marital assets and how to access them.

What do I do if I feel that I may be a victim of abuse? 

First and foremost, don’t make excuses for the abuser or their behavior. So often, women will stay with their abusers because of their fear of losing economic stability. In my practice, I have seen far more cases of improved financial stability post-divorce from an abuser than before. 

It may be hard to imagine, especially if the victim has been led to believe that they cannot “understand” their finances. The main focus should be finding financial partners to help you regain control. They will help you with all of the important documents to gather, the things you should be thinking about, and how to gain financial knowledge in a non-intimidating manner.

The question is often asked, “Where does all of this behavior start?” 

The roots of abusive behavior and the roots of one's vulnerability are often in our upbringing. We all need to pay attention to how we are raising our daughters and our sons, and certainly how we treat one another. Many financial behaviors and beliefs about money stem from our early years. We also can do so much to empower our young girls, through education and leading by example.

On an everyday regular basis, I spread the “Knowledge is Power” message. I have been blessed with the opportunity to do this through speaking engagements at events, contributing to articles in various publications, and through private practice. I firmly believe that as women, we have the unique ability in our relationships to recognize the needs of other women and to help them. Take this time to think about what you need from a financial security standpoint and how you can reach out to help other women in need of the same.

If we help each other embrace economic and financial security, it doesn’t have to be as intimidating as you may think and may even be a little exciting! 

All that being said, if you feel that you are in serious danger, please make sure you reach out to your local or national resources. There is a National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. In my area of Chester County, PA there is DVCCC (Domestic Violence Center of Chester County) at 1-888-711-6270. You can always get help in a confidential manner.