What is economic abuse?

What is economic abuse?

Economic and financial abuse are both types of abuse that often form part of a pattern of coercive control. These abusive behaviours are rarely found in isolation, and are typically connected to a wider pattern of control and manipulation. 

Financial abuse is specifically connected to how an abuser uses money. Perhaps they insist that all money earned by both partners goes into a joint account – but then they spend all that money themselves on things that deprive the victim and any children of essential resources. Or perhaps they use a victim’s credit card without permission. Financial abusers can also manipulate victims into paying for everything in the relationship, or paying for more than their fair share of it. Underlying this abuse is the fact that it gives an abuser control over a victim, and significantly reduces the victim’s chances of independence. 

Economic abuse is generally a broader term referring not just to monetary privations or misdemeanours, but also to controlling behaviours which hamper a victim’s economic status. For example, if an abusive partner refuses to allow a victim to go to work, this is a common feature of economic abuse. If an abusive partner prevents a victim from gaining qualifications which may allow them to be promoted, this would also be categorised as economic abuse. 

Economic and financial abuse are common aspects of abusive relationships; 39% of UK adults have experienced economic abuse in a current or former relationship. 

39% UK adults economic abuse
So how exactly does economic abuse feed into a wider pattern of coercive control?

Roughly 85% of those who have experienced economic abuse have experienced it in conjunction with other forms of domestic abuse – whether that be physical, emotional and/or sexual. Economic abuse is usually a method deployed by perpetrators to increase the victim’s dependence on them and reduce their ability to leave the relationship. Here are some key ways that this happens:

  • If the victim lacks economic independence, the victim can’t leave. Perpetrators of abuse often seek to control a victim by making them totally dependent on them. By restricting a victim’s access to money or employment, or by deliberately squandering all the money in a household, an abuser makes it far less easy for a victim to find the resources to exit the abusive situation. Couple this with the impact of financial deprivation on children; many victims with children who find that their abuser is cutting off access to finances will use whatever money they can get to ensure that their children are fed and clothed – this then leaves little for their own independent use. 
  • A lack of economic independence is a barrier to self-confidence. Financial independence is often linked to positive mental health outcomes. A lack of economic capability is typically associated with worse mental health and strain and stress. If a victim is deprived of the ability to be financially and economically independent, their confidence and mental health may both suffer. When a victim’s mental health suffers, they may become more dependent on their abuser. Their mental health may make them feel less capable as a result, and thus push them into a situation where they feel wholly reliant on their abuser, both financially and emotionally. Additionally, without self-confidence, it becomes still harder for a victim to leave an abusive situation. If victims are made to feel that their lack of financial capacity is their fault, then they may struggle to see themselves as capable of living independently at all. 
  • Economic abuse can trap victims in a cycle of difficult and desperate situations. A Women’s Aid report on the economics of abuse found that 43.1% of abuse survivors were in debt directly as a result of the abuse they’d experienced. A quarter regularly lost sleep through worrying about the debt. Financial problems open up victims to a whole range of issues in addition to debt – such as housing insecurity and food insecurity. These issues in turn have negative impacts on a victim’s mental health and are likely to drain a victim of much energy. If a victim is consumed with anxiety over their financial status, they will have less time and ability to put together a plan for leaving their abusive situation; in fact doing this may simply be something they cannot countenance. 
43% of abuse survivors are in debt

Economic abuse is not something we hear much about, but we all should be talking about it much more. Even in the early stages of an abusive relationship, economic abuse can become apparent. One partner may gaslight the other into believing they owe them money all the time, or may convince them not to go for a promotion at work. These things happen, and victims may not realise that they are in abusive situations. But is only through these behaviours that abusers ultimately manage to have such a significant hold over the financial and economic situations of their victims. 

We need to remember that economic abuse is simply a behaviour that feeds into a wider pattern of control. Money is often what gives an individual freedom and independence in this world; we should not underestimate the power that economic abusers hold. 

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