'Covert violence': The hidden cost of financial abuse

Economic abuse is recognised as a form of domestic violence in many, but not all, Australian states.

"I was financially independent prior to marriage and electing to stay at home to raise children has made me extremely financially dependent and vulnerable. I now get an allowance – barely enough for groceries."

"I worked full-time and I paid for everything – rent, car, all the bills, you name it. My partner paid for the food, but that was all."

"My husband used to put the bills in my name. When I was in hospital, he came in and got me to sign over the electricity and everything in my name. You're not questioning at the time, you are just doing what you're told."

"I thought the mortgage was about $110,000 but it turned out to be $180,000. When I asked how this happened, my partner said: 'Don't you remember? I consolidated the loans.' When I sought clarification, my partner questioned my trust."

If these statements seem alien to you, count yourself lucky. Chances are for at least one of every 10 people reading this, it will be familiar terrain.

They are a small snapshot of financial abuse that research from RMIT confirms is prevalent in Australia.

"Our research revealed that 16% of women and 7% of men had experienced economic abuse in their lifetimes," RMIT's lead researcher Jozica Kutin says.

"Economic abuse is systematic behaviour, not just poor financial decision making, and it's used as a tactic to gain control of another person."

Kutin's research found nearly two in three women who were experiencing high financial stress and nearly one in four women with a disability or long-term health condition had a history of economic abuse, compared with the population average of about one in six.

Money is a powerful proxy with which to exercise control in relationships: curtailing a person's financial independence curtails their autonomy. It renders victims – predominantly women – extremely vulnerable.

"First and foremost, financial abuse is a form of family violence and it's to do with power and control," says Julie Kun, the chief executive of WIRE, a support network for women.

"It is another tactic in a perpetrator's repertoire to dominate and control a partner."

Officially economic abuse is defined as "controlling a person's ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources, thus threatening economic security and potential for self-sufficiency".

In real life, Kun and Kutin say it manifests in a number of ways. It might be taking over or blocking access to a person's bank accounts, or sabotaging their ability to study or work.

It can involve debt being incurred in – or transferred to – another person's name, forcing someone to account for every dollar they spend, or withholding funds so a person struggles to cover the basic costs of living.

Economic abuse is recognised as a form of domestic violence in many states, though not in NSW.

"It is a profound issue women face, and being trapped financially is a key reason people can't leave an abusive relationship," Kutin says.

Like other types of abuse, it presents as a repeated pattern of behaviour rather than isolated incidents, and often begins gradually.

"It's not as obvious as physical or emotional abuse, so the financial stuff can be insidious. It starts out very subtly," Kutin says. "Research from the UK shows the critical touchpoints are when a couple first move in or have their first baby."

The suggestion, seemingly innocent, that a woman leave her job can be a red flag, according to domestic violence survivor and advocate Kay Schubach.

"Often it's couched in language of love – 'Sweetheart, you don't need to work. I don't want you to have to work' – where it is actually a way to control their movements," she says.

"A classic example we see often is that the credit card is under surveillance and the victim is answerable for every cent."

On its own, she says, that might not seem too bad but having someone check how and where you spend money can be part of a bigger problem. "Financial abuse is the most prevalent form of covert violence we see," Schubach says.

Kun sees it daily at WIRE and, like other forms of abuse, she says it doesn't discriminate. "It affects women of all cultures, all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds," Kun says.

"It's a myth that women are financially abused because they are financially stupid or they don't care – that's not the case. They have had their confidence eroded because of the abusive relationship and they are told they are not competent enough to manage money."

What to do if you are in a financially abusive situation

  • Seek advice & support: There is help available for people who decide to leave financially abusive relationships. For information, support and referrals there is a 24 hour Domestic Violence Line which is 1800 656 463 in NSW and in Victoria 1800 015 188. The Money problems with your partner booklet also has practical tips. 
  • You can also contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or WIRE on 1300 134 130.
  • Before you communicate your intention to leave, consider putting aside small amounts of money over time.
  • Consider the capacity of friends/family to look after money and/or assist financially.
  • Gather important documents like bank statements, Centrelink details, birth certificates, marriage certificates (or copies or photographs of these documents).
  • If possible, open a bank account.


This article was originally published by they Sydney Morning Herald on 10 March 2017. It represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily reflect the views of AMP.

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