Tactic #12 — Economic Abuse

This is the twelfth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Economic Abuse.

Power & control wheel #12 Clare Murphy PhD

Economic abuse is one of the most common forms of intimate partner abuse. Children’s needs and standard of living are negatively impacted by their father’s economic abuse. This type of abuse leads to poverty, to having a bad credit rating and can even lead to bankruptcy. This all holds women back from succeeding economically and materially, which leads to being financially dependent on their partner — a major obstacle to leaving. Even if she tried to leave, the cost of moving house and of being able to afford accommodation becomes out of reach. And many women who do leave their controlling partner end up experiencing further economic abuse by him.

Here’s some examples of the wide range of ways that men who coercively control their partners do so by devastating women’s financial and material wellbeing. . . .

Uses his economic status

Attitudes about roles relating to paid and unpaid work are often shaped by stereotypes. For example, Brendan, a man I interviewed for my PhD research, said that women should allow “the man to have the final financial decision and the final direction for the family.” Other men said as Chris did that, “Guys think they earn the money, they keep the money”, and similarly David said, “Blokes like to control money, their money.”

Similarly, women are socialised to believe as Elizabeth did that: “I didn’t really feel that I had any rights over money, part of me did, but it was only a little tiny part and it wasn’t enough to be assertive about anything to do with the money.”

Pauline also felt this way. She said, “I always felt guilty that I didn’t contribute with work. It was the whole of our marriage that I felt like that. Although on one hand it was ‘a good wife and mother stays home and cooks and cleans’ I wanted to contribute even if it was $20 a week. It’s like I would really like to have something to be able to earn a little bit of money coz I used to hate buying him Christmas or birthday presents out of his money.”

Many coercively controlling men who have economic status, or status as the provider, believe they are entitled to determine his and her relationship roles. Others give her everything she wants, but constantly remind her she couldn’t have such a lifestyle without him.

Our society has given credibility, legitimacy and worth to those who earn money and has not given equal credibility, legitimacy and worth to those who do unpaid voluntary work.

The male breadwinner role

Prior to the industrial revolution most members of the family contributed to generating an income. Whereas after the industrial revolution the breadwinner role became primarily the man’s role — especially in the middle and upper classes where there was less necessity for all family members to work. The idea of sharing economic responsibilities morphed into the man taking on the role as financial provider and the woman as stay-at-home mother. (Kimmel & Aronson, 2003)

This role was granted decision-making power over the income and economic authority over the family. For some men, if they fail at the provider role, or their female partners take on the provider role or earn more than he does, this can be perceived as their failure as a man. As you will see throughout this blog post, whether the man who uses coercive control fulfils the breadwinner role or not, he draws from his status as a man to back up his demands.

He makes all the financial decisions and holds all the financial information

Some men misuse their provider role, and its accompanying social standing, by withholding, or refusing her access to information about their financial situation and level of family income. Some men lie about financial assets and lie about debts. They exclude their partner from important financial decisions.

Elizabeth was married to a high-earning professional man. She was quite bothered by the fact that she didn’t have any control over any of the financial decisions. She said that “After having the two boys we decided to do some major renovations on the house and at the same time he bought a new car, went on a trip to South Africa because one of his friends over there was getting married. Up to that point I had tried to keep track of what and where the money was going, but at that stage I was then having my third child and I just couldn’t handle it any more, tracking where the money went was just way out of what I could manage because I felt it was slipping away from me. It was like I had no control over it all. He bought this $47,000 car and I thought, ‘what do we need that for? we don’t need that.’ I just felt like I had no say about the money.”

Interferes with her education and employment

Some men control women by preventing her from working and earning money. Alternatively, if she is working, he may harass her in ways that jeopardise her ability to stay in her job, for example ill-treating her co-workers, hiding the car keys, leaving no petrol in the car, or preventing access to money for public transport so she can get to work. Some men more forcefully just tell her she is not allowed to have a job — end of discussion! Or he may tell her that she has to quit her job so she can do what he expects of women, that is care for him, the children, the cooking and the housework.

Also, some men prevent their partner from getting education or they may sabotage any attempts at up-skilling, by for example not babysitting after promising to do so, or by destroying her school books or written assignments.

Karen wanted to go to university, but Felix was emotionally abusive when she began university. She said “I did not feel safe because I wouldn’t know whether Felix would take all my money and blow it.”

Controls what she does with money and possessions

Some men force their partner to hand over receipts to show how she spends money. Then if  she cannot prove what the money was spent on he punishes her in some way. He controls her purchase of necessities such as clothes, food, or sanitary products by allocating a specific amount of money (or no money at all). He makes her ask permission to have, or spend money and monitors how much and what she spends money on.

Sally said Dylan “wouldn’t earn any money, so we lived on income I’d received that was supposed to care for my health because I had been sick, but he wouldn’t really let me use it for that.”

Controls access to economic resources

Some women are forbidden to handle money. He denies her access to all financial resources including bank accounts, credit or debit cards and cheque books (joint, or her own personal ones). He takes away her property, her money, her credit cards and only provides a small amount of money. Or he withholds, or minimally provides her basic necessities such as food and vital medications. Other men force her to beg for money or always ask permission for access to it.

Raewyn said, “we didn’t have a joint account so he’d be earning and I would have to go and ask Brian for the cheque every week, to pay for bills. He had superiority over me because I had to ask for that cheque it was always a big deal. I used to ask him just as he was leaving so that he wouldn’t have time to blow me up saying, ‘Oh you spend too much money,’ or, ‘Again, I have to give you a cheque?’ He hated me asking him just as he was leaving, but I knew I did it to protect myself because he couldn’t take time to think ‘does she deserve this or not?’ or ‘damn I can’t get stuck into her’, or whatever.” Raewyn tried for some time to get a joint account. She got it eventually, but even then Brian would say, ‘You are spending too much money.’ Which I didn’t!”

Pauline describes the slippery slope of Chris making it more and more difficult for her to access money for basic needs: “In those early days it wasn’t like ‘no you’re not going to town,’ but Chris would get out the cheque book, just as I was getting ready to go, and pay off all the bills, even though they wouldn’t be due for a few weeks. Then he would hand me the cheque book and at first it was just a joke and I used to laugh and say, ‘You tight ass’ . . .

And then as the years went on it wasn’t a joke. Near the end of our marriage he used to hand me the book in overdraft so it was giving me the message of, ‘You’re not going shopping’ . . .

Then at the very end of our marriage he started taking the cheque book to work. He worked just out of town so I’d have to bundle the kids up in the car if we ran out of milk or whatever, and I really just wanted to pop down to the supermarket for a couple of things I’d have to take the kids all the way out to his work, which was not a place you want to take children to, or ring him up and ask him to pick something up on the way home. I never realised at the time what he was actually doing until I looked back.”

Prevents acquisition of economic resources

Coercive control can entail keeping her name off any joint assets such as property titles or car ownership papers. It can include preventing her from receiving other income such as child support or government benefits — and also preventing her from bringing in her own income. The exploitation and degradation of women’s economic resources is one of the most common reasons it is difficult to leave a controlling partner.

Prevents use of her own resources

Many women have their own income and economic savings and other resources when they enter relationship. But, for many of those women, their controlling partner prevents her from using her own resources. He takes money out of her wallet or steals her possessions and sells them. Or he confiscates her financial and property assets, or forces her to hand them over. It is extremely common for him to claim that her money is actually ‘his’ money. Some men force their partner to make him power-of-attorney so he has the ability to sign legal documents. Other men force their partner to work in the family business for little or no pay.

Elizabeth said she was pretty reasonable with any financial expenditure. “It wouldn’t occur to me to go out and buy a stereo, or buy new furniture, or buy something expensive because that was what he did. He would do it without talking to me about it, but I would never do it without talking to him about it because it was ‘his’ money. Even though I had this thing that really it was our money because he was doing his part of the bargain and I was doing mine — he was doing the working and I was doing the running of the household and looking after the children. So part of me felt I had a right to this money, but really it was his money. Okay yes I ran the household and it was in our joint names, but really it was his house, it was his car, I got to drive it but it was really ‘his’ car.”

Sally said, “Even though I contributed a hell of a lot of labouring to the house renovations he always said that I didn’t and that it was all ‘his’ money.”

Donna said that, “once we sold my property and used my money to buy our property the rules changed. It changed to . . . . . it was now Frank’s house, Frank’s everything and Frank was in control of everything.” So now Donna felt torn: “I couldn’t do all my jobs at home. I never even touched the cheque book, I had no money whatsoever and no access to any money.” Donna added:

“The bit that hurt the most was the years and years and years I’d contributed to the family and my contribution had then became worth nothing.”

Victoria said when she entered her relationship with Graham, “any money I had diminished, all the resources started to disappear. It no longer was my property, it became our property that he would spend. He would have the most amazing tantrums if I didn’t buy him what he wanted.”

Elsie said Leon “took over my car more or less as soon as I met him. He pushed and pushed until he’d spent all my money. He just took everything really…. He definitely used taking my financial independence away as a tool to keep me in place.”

Refuses to contribute

Many coercively controlling men refuse to meet their financial obligations, by for example refusing to contribute to economic costs including the mortgage or rent, household expenses, shared bills, raising the children, and paying off debts he has incurred. He refuses to work to earn income or withholds his earnings if he does work.

Karen said, “Felix didn’t mind so much if I spent my money, but if I got any money out of his coffers it was a completely different story. I was paying all the power bills, the rent, the phone, so I didn’t have much left so he was doing us a ‘favour’ when he put money into the car.”

Makes her be in charge of the money — but he spends the money and blows the budget

He makes her work because he is unwilling to work and he takes away her ability to have control over the money she earns. He does this by manipulatively or forcefully demanding that she hand over her income. He makes her responsible for running the accounts, then demands she give him money for anything he wants, when he wants, over and above the budget . . . . . Then he blames her if there is not enough money.

Nicola Sharp (2008) undertook research in the UK to find out women’s experience of economic abuse. She found that, of those women who had a paid job while they were in the relationship, just under half of the women reported not having access to their wages.

Susan, Pauline and Victoria’s husbands all spent money on unnecessary cars. This type of expenditure, for men, is linked to proving their masculinity, hence one of the reasons for this type of economic abuse.

Victoria said, “I was made to be in charge of the money, but he spent the money, so it was never his problem. It was always my problem. I always had to find the money if he wanted something. One of our near-the-end arguments was about a car that he wanted. We were just in debt forever. He spotted a car on the weekend that he wanted to buy. He’d been offered a promotion as an animal stock manager for the next season, but he said he ‘couldn’t possibly take that job with the car we had’. He said he’d have to decline the job — knowing that that would upset me because it was all about more money and lack of security. ‘No I can’t take the job if I don’t have this particular car so you’ll just have to find the money to buy that car.’ When I got up in the morning he was looking in the phone book at finance companies to borrow more money.”

Before Susan lived with Anthony, she saved $25 a week. However, once they started living together she said, “that money just went. We each had a car. He sold both cars and bought a different car. He always wanted the newest. So we always upgraded, but of course that meant that money had to come from somewhere. He was always going to the pub so that meant I was the person who had to go and work and get the money in.”

Sally said, “I was in charge of the finances because he wouldn’t take any responsibility for them. I would be really strict about a budget so there was always money to pay the bills and so any savings that were there ready for the bills to come up he would use and I would feel nauseous in my stomach and we’d have discussions about the fact that that money was to pay bills. But somehow he’d always twist it around so that I gave in and I was always so stressed that we were never having enough money and he would spend the money on something for himself.”

Sally said Dylan “consistently said ‘I already know how to run my own finances, I’ve done it for years as a single man.  It’s not as if I can’t do it.’  So then I would say, ‘Well, do it then.’  So occasionally, I would let him take full responsibility for the finances, but as usual he did not pay the bills, he didn’t do anything about earning money, he didn’t do anything about making a budget to pay the bills. I couldn’t stand being in debt, so I would take over the finances again.”

Generates economic costs

Some men who coercively control their partner purposefully generate economic costs, which results in the woman having to pick up the pieces and leads to depleting her economic resources, and sometimes bankruptcy.  They inappropriately use family funds, force her to bail him out of self-inflicted financial difficulties and refuse to work, creating extreme financial hardship. Some men break women’s favourite or sentimental possessions such as heirloom crockery or gifts. Whilst others damage or destroy her clothes, household appliances, or car. Yet other men coerce her into taking out loans or overdrafts so he can use the money in any way he pleases.

Susan said “Anthony decided we were going to buy a house, but I’m the person who did all the work towards getting a house. I approached my dad for the money for the deposit. I had to do all the running around and he just sat there. When we bought the house we were on the dole, and I can’t handle that, so I went out and got a job. He didn’t mind that at all because he still didn’t have to work and stayed at home. He wouldn’t look after our first daughter so I had to pay for a babysitter. We had no money and he’d still go out and book things up.”

Susan said “We were really really short of money. We had no groceries. Instead of saving money, we were paying the bills that had accumulated because Anthony had bought a new car when I was pregnant. We got $500 for our old car, the new car was $9,000. I was saying, ‘Far out, now we’ve got to pay for this!!’ We didn’t have cash to buy the car but Anthony just would lie, lie, lie and I had to sit there with a straight face when the man delivered the car. I just felt sick, absolutely sick.” Susan didn’t feel she could speak up and say ‘take the car back’, because it was in Anthony’s name.”

Some men generate debts in her name by, for instance, stealing or by buying something then putting her name on the bill. He sells off her property or their shared property, gets her to sign away her possessions for example, lying about why he needs her signature on a particular document. Some men give away, pawn, or sell her possessions. Some men use her money without permission, or overuse her credit cards, or outright steal money, credit cards or cheques from her or her family.  Other men refuse to pay or contribute towards any bills. He racks up debts without her knowledge then makes her pay for his habits, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling or unnecessary exorbitant expenditure on things like cars. Or he makes her solely responsible for household and family debts such as water, electricity, plumbing, and house maintenance bills.

Of the women who responded to Nicola Sharp’s (2008) research in the UK, those who had debts when they were in their relationship, 80% of them said those debts were a consequence of the economic abuse perpetrated by their partner.

Susan’s husband squandered all the money that was required for running the house and caring for the children. She was constantly finding practical ways to deal with financial problems that Anthony created. She “rang the finance company for the Nissan Bluebird. We sold all of our furniture out of the lounge, kitchen, dining room, everything we could to get $250, which is half the payment for the month for the car. The car got repossessed anyway.”

As a result of carrying the responsibility, while Anthony frittered the money away, Susan was getting really tired. She “had to handle all the money. He would still go out and buy things. When I said I want to give up work, he’d buy something else so that I couldn’t give up work. In the end I got really sick.”

Victoria said that “financially, and in terms of possessions, he just wanted everything, but it was never for the benefit of the family unit. So I could never trust his judgement and I thought about handing over the money sometimes. I’d panic at the mere thought of what he’d do with it, because I couldn’t trust his decisions to be about what was best for us. It was only ever what was best for him. He kept us so financially in debt I would work my ass off to try and make sure we didn’t get into too much more trouble. I think he knew right up until the last that I wouldn’t do anything to rock the boat so it gave him that power, because the fear of what was going to happen next was really frightening and he knew I didn’t believe in divorce, so that was a really strong point for him.”

Victoria said, “I was always the one that had to say ‘no’ and of course when I said ‘no’ then Graham would have a tantrum and the whole bloody circle would go around again. So I was forever trying to find money to borrow because I knew he’d want something else. And money would burn a hole in his pocket. It was like a kid putting his fingers in his ears going, ‘Aaaah I can’t hear you I can’t hear you!’ And I’m trying to say, ‘Look at the book!’ I used to keep an accounting book so he could see where the money was going, but he refused to even look at the book. I’m saying, ‘there’s no money.’ He’d say, ‘well find it, I want that car.’ So only when it came down to the crunch I would have a decision in saying, we just can’t do this!”

Karen said she, “did a lot of trying, I did far too much of trying to get him to pull his socks up and get it together. I became like his mother. ‘Hey you just spent $600 on an unnecessary weekend, we needed that money for the kids, what are you doing?’ He would lie down on the couch on his side with his face pointing to the wall and then get a blanket and pull it right up over his head and hum. I felt absolute blind fury. ‘Come on, the power’s going to be cut off, you’ve spent all that money what’s going on and we’ve got to do something about this!’ Every now and then he’d grunt or say something that was enough to hook me back in. He did not contribute money to the household regularly so I did not feel safe and secure with my finances.”

Victoria also “saved Graham again and again and again. We moved towns for his job and then he wanted to buy a stock car. We had no bloody money to buy a stock car, so he disappeared for three days, so of course, he lost his job. I didn’t know where he was. When he was away I packed the house and then he came back and then we moved to another town. And then something else happened there and he disappeared for three days. I’d pack up the house because when he’d come back we’d move again and this was the pattern. This was one of the most disruptive things he’d do if he didn’t get his own way. He would throw away his responsibilities, he just wouldn’t turn up to work, I would try and save the situation and try and help him keep his job if I could, but that was usually impossible.”

Victoria said Graham’s irresponsibility with finances “was his biggest tool, because he knew I was always worried about money because we were so incredibly in debt. How we even managed to breathe I have no idea. But he would still want — ‘I want this, I want that, I want this.’ But I would say ‘we can’t afford it’ and because I was always left in charge of the money, even when I tried to give it to him he didn’t want responsibility for the money because he knew he’d have to take blame for it and be accountable. It wasn’t open to discussion, he wasn’t open to change.”

Incriminates her or causes her to commit benefit or tax fraud

All too often, coercively controlling men accuse her of, say, stealing or damaging property to get her into trouble, or some men’s chronic irresponsibility and abuse forces women to commit social security or tax fraud.

Karen said, “Felix was never into building a financially secure situation for us. Instead I ended up basically prostituting myself by getting myself into fraud shit with the social welfare, which was a big thing for me. Felix diminished my safety in my home, because I was on a government benefit because he wouldn’t pay me money. That made me officially a criminal for having him in my home. I was really really paranoid and insecure because I didn’t want to get busted. I kept on asking him not to come, ‘you either be part of this family, commit yourself, or stay away. I can’t have half of you like this. You stagger in the door at night so exhausted you can’t even look or talk to me and then fall asleep on my couch and I’m at risk of having you here’.”

Susan was also accused of benefit fraud. She said, “After one of the times we separated, before I had the car, Anthony used to take me to do the groceries. My sewing machine was no good. He took it into town and he came home and said, ‘It’s not worth fixing, but they’ll give you so much for a trade-in if you want to buy a new one’. So I said, ‘Oh yeah, ok.’ I mean this is how naïve and trusting I was. He brought me home a new sewing machine. It was in his name. He put me down as being his spouse. He put my address as being his address. When he got his cell phone he did the same thing. He put me down as being his spouse. Unfortunately for me, the government agency that was paying my single parent benefit contacted me saying, ‘You know you’ve been living with Anthony while you’ve been on the benefit.’ They had all this evidence that said I was with him because he’d put me down as being his spouse. I said ‘I wasn’t with him’. But they said, ‘He used to take you to town. You used to drive his car.’ ‘Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we’re together.’ Anyway, I didn’t know the sewing machine was in his name until the last time we split up and I got done for fraud by the government department. Anthony was telling everybody that we were a couple. That really hurts. I thought I’d got out from him, but he’s still doing these things. I hated him. I hated the things he’d done to us, to the low level that he’d brought us down to.”

Economic abuse post-separation

Economic abuse does not stop if she leaves. Some men attempt to exploit her economic base by pursuing legal matters without sufficient grounds, or they use the children as pawns aimed at manipulating her to back down from pursuit of her property and financial rights.

Some men threaten to give no financial support to her if she leaves. Whilst other men intimidate their partner by destroying household property, and claiming they have the right to do that because they, and they alone, own that property. Brendan, a man I interviewed for my PhD research, said that one time when his partner was telling him to leave: “I just threw the display cabinet on the ground and said ‘stuff this’, I’m going…. I broke my own property”.

Teresa said that once the relationship ended, “Patrick tried to diminish my financial resources, but he didn’t try to do that in the course of the relationship because he had a financial interest in maintaining them. I had a pretty pathetic response really. He still had a lot of control over me once the relationship had ended and I still would take what he said to heart and think that I was useless and didn’t deserve money. I believed the things that he’d been telling me.” Teresa continued:

“There was a lot of abuse after the relationship ended. I went into the relationship with some money saved but I came out with nothing, including what I put into the house when I was living there. Once I left the relationship there were some things that I never got back again in terms of possessions, that he made it difficult for me to get and it was just easier to walk away from it and cut my losses.”

When Elizabeth divorced David she said she, “ended up with this little piddly sum of money” and that David “drove around in a car that was worth more than the money that I ended up with in my hand. He got the house and the business and all the stuff in the house. I took a few things out of it that were like spares, or the old towels, old extra stuff that I’d think ‘he won’t miss this’. I wanted to keep things intact for him, God knows why now. I just didn’t look at the practical aspects of it at all and then two years down the track I was swearing and cursing because he’s got the vacuum cleaner, he’s got the iron, he’s got all the gardening tools, he’s got all that stuff, and the abuse was still continuing!”

Elizabeth said, “I didn’t go on the single parent benefit for the first couple of years that I was separated. I just thought the benefit wasn’t for people like me, like I had been married to a professional person. He was still, I thought, financially responsible for his children. I was at that stage responsible for myself, so I didn’t see that I was somebody that was entitled to the benefit. So that first couple of years I just worked my guts out, just to survive financially.”

Elsie said “When I left Leon, by then I had no bank account, my dad gave me $5 to start an account and that’s what I left with $5 and my baby’s things.”

After separation, coercively controlling men often refuse to comply with orders to pay child support

Elizabeth said that at one point after leaving she would “have the kids delivered to my house at eight o’clock in the morning. I would have them until six o’clock at night. He wouldn’t allow them to bring their change of clothes because I might keep it — this is a three year old who is into three sets of clothes a day. At that stage, because I was entitled to child support, it was through the solicitor that he agreed that he would give me $50 to $100 a fortnight towards just food and stuff. But he wouldn’t pay me. He’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it to you.’ And of course he wouldn’t. At one stage I was desperate because I had no money I went up to his business and walked in. I had rung, but he used to hang up on me. I just stormed in, I said, ‘Hey I want the money I need to buy some food’. He called the police and set up a trespass thing so I couldn’t go into his work.”

Elizabeth had been on the single parent benefit, then did some training at a polytechnic then she got a job. She said that, “within a couple of weeks I get a phone call from David coz we don’t have contact, ‘I hear you’ve got a job. Now that you have got a job I want to stop paying child support.’ He said, ‘I get really angry and frustrated when I hear that you’re using my money to redecorate your house.’ This is probably a good five years since we separated and I’ve spent two hundred dollars on some paint sorting out my kitchen. He said, ‘I don’t want to be subsidising and paying for your lifestyle.”

Men who coercively control their female partner believe they are top dog and that women and children are possessions. So it is not surprising that James, one of the men I interviewed, said:

“many men who refuse to pay child support believe “they’re controlled by a government agency over the kids that maybe they feel they own themselves and that it’s a loss of control thing, their own personal property.”

Max said that while he was married he used to have pride in being a provider, but now that he had separated from the woman he had abused, he had no masculine pride in paying child support. And Brendan was angry because he believed his self-appointed role as decision maker for his child was removed from him by the government agency. Max said the difference between providing for the children while living with his partner, as opposed to no longer living with her, was that, “someone else is taking control of my finances, they’re presuming how much that child needs.”

Henry said many men “don’t see it as paying money for their children, they see it as paying money for her.”

Economic exploitation, in its many forms, is a debilitating power and control tactic that often creates poverty and homelessness for women and children. It is one of the most common reasons that women find it difficult to leave a controlling partner. And economic abuse often continues or increases if she does leave.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using Children
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse


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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.