When money controls everything: exposing financial abuse

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

Dealing with money in a relationship is often a challenge, but sometimes the financial control one partner imposes on the other can lead to financial abuse. According to Shannon Thomas, a licensed therapist and the author of “Exposing Financial Abuse,” using money as a form of control or power is very common — and very damaging.

“Financial abuse involves the exploitation and control and management of finances,” Thomas says. “It’s really about a psychologically abusive relationship where one person, through their lack of attachment and really through a lack of empathy for their partner, is getting everything that they can out of that relationship.”

As a therapist, Thomas has treated victims of all kinds of abuse and estimates that 95% of abuse survivors have dealt with financial abuse. In her research for her book, Thomas heard from almost 2,000 people who shared stories of manipulation, emotional distress, financial control, and even financial ruin. Thomas says the stories shocked her.

“I’ve been a trauma-informed therapist for a number of years, and I was completely stunned by the bone-chilling and very raw stories that came out of it,” she says.

Warning signs

When it comes to identifying financial abuse, Thomas says it can be of a covert nature, in which subtle, deceitful behaviors are used to gain power in a relationship. Thomas says these behaviors are warning signs, and people should consider how much control their partner is asking for, and what their reaction is when money comes up in conversation.

“Is the person becoming a bully or defensive? Ask, am I afraid to talk about money because it will start a fight?” she advises.

Many times, there are red flags early on in the relationship that go ignored and the abuse will continue for years, she says. “There’s just a lot of underpinnings of psychological games that get played with financial abuse,” Thomas says. “When we’re getting to know someone new, we will see red flags early on, like asking for passwords of asking for full financial access.”

More extreme examples of financial abuse include when your partner is explicitly controlling the finances—like moving money from a joint account into an individual account, taking out lines of credit and racking up debt in your name without your knowledge or moving large assets into individual accounts before a divorce.

Thomas says the deception is often a surprise to the person exposed to financial abuse. “A lot of survivors are very deep within the financial abuse before they have any sense that it’s actually going on, and unfortunately they are so deep that their credit has been very damaged,” Thomas says.

One anonymous victim shared her story in Thomas’s book, illustrating how extreme the deception can become.

“They didn’t even know what was going on until the person had been arrested, because that abuser was able to manage all of the money coming in, all of the mail coming in, and all of the phone calls coming in,” Thomas says. “It wasn’t until they were physically removed through an arrest for fraud that the survivor was able to get the full picture of what had been happening.”

Being able to spot the signs will help lead to the road to recovery, but Thomas cautions it can be a difficult path.

“This is one of the abuses in the hidden abuse spectrum that is the hardest to overcome,” Thomas says. “The relationship can be long gone and the financial debt lasts much longer than the relationship.”

Thomas says the first step to stop the abuse is to get new bank accounts and credit cards in order to manage the damage and rebuild credit.

“It’s really about putting that hedge of protection up and rebuilding your credit,” Thomas says.  “People have to be really prepared to take it as a marathon.”

Visit the Office of Women’s Health or the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) for more information and resources on financial abuse. 

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