Financial Abuse: A Silent Form of Domestic Violence

By: JM Oran

“Talk about finances before you get married. Find out if you have the same financial goals. When you’re in love, you don’t think about that. You don’t ever think that you’re going to be with somebody who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.”

These are the wise words of Marie Watts, a domestic violence survivor who experienced financial abuse in each of her previous marriages. Now that she’s happily single and on the path to healing, she wants to make sure that other women recognize the signs of financial abuse in their relationships and are able to leave their partners safely.

Financial abuse is an aspect of domestic violence that doesn’t often make it into the headlines because it is such a subtle method of control. However, it is a phenomenon that rears its ugly head in 98 percent of domestic violence cases, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Many women are not aware that they are being abused financially or, if they are, they dismiss it since they believe that it’s not “as bad” as physical violence. However, financial abuse can deprive a woman of the very financial resources she needs in order to leave an abusive relationship permanently.


Obsessive penny pinching

Watts’ partners would often get angry and verbally abusive if they felt that she had spent “too much” on groceries or other household necessities, or if they thought she didn’t need something she bought. One of her husbands would punish her by not talking to her for a week. Despite this, these men often splurged on items they wanted for themselves. After her final marriage, she had to adopt a whole new attitude toward shopping.

“I had to retrain myself so that I could do what I wanted, buy something that I needed, instead of having to buy the cheapest thing I could get,” she said. “I had to retrain myself to realize that I deserved what I wanted, and that I was worth it.”

Putting all bills into the woman’s name

Most of the bills were in Watts’ name so when they were not paid, her credit was ruined. One of her husbands refused to tell her his salary so she couldn’t contradict him when he said he couldn’t pay his share of the bills. Her poor credit score made more difficult to leave that relationship and re-establish herself financially.

Forcing the woman to be the sole breadwinner

She was responsible for supporting both herself and her husband during one of her marriages. She struggled so much that her car was eventually repossessed.

Forcing the woman to work long hours

Her first husband had a good job, and she was also working, but this wasn’t enough. Her husband forced her to work holidays and lots of overtime.

Making excuses to get access to the woman’s earnings

One husband claimed his bank wouldn’t let him open a checking account so Watts’ salary went into a joint account to which he had access. He squandered their money so she wasn’t able to pay bills.


Many women who are being financially abused are too scared to leave the relationship because they have poor credit and no money, and they don’t know how to start all over again from scratch. Watts left her marriages with only very basic items that were easy to carry, like clothes. The thought of this can be daunting, but there are usually a lot more resources than you realize in your local community.

Domestic Violence Shelters

Many domestic violence shelters are able to offer some assistance to women who want to get settled in a new home. The type of assistance varies, but shelters often offer pots and pans, and other cooking utensils. Some shelters are even able to provide furniture or gift cards that can be used to purchase new clothes. Remember that some shelters can also serve as temporary housing, if there is space open, until you have someplace else to go.

Local Churches

Some churches are able to offer financial assistance or furniture. Members of the congregation are often happy to pass along unwanted pieces of furniture to survivors along with grocery, household supply needs.

Friends and Family Members

Survivors of financial abuse are often too ashamed to talk about their experiences, but friends and family are often an incredible source of support. Watts’ aunt offered her a place to stay for free after she left one partner and, on another occasion, a friend she confided in started putting money in a secret bank account for her. As a result, she was finally able to sneak out of the house while her husband was sleeping to start a new life.

Social Media

Some women may live in rural communities with fewer resources, or their partners may monitor their movements too much for them to be able to leave the house to explore their options. In such cases, social media can be a good way to connect with domestic violence organizations or other survivors.


Leaving a financially abusive relationship can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to know how to heal yourself and improve your finances.

Start with Self Care

Realize that your emotions will be raw, and be patient with yourself while you heal. Try to discover techniques that will help you feel better. In the beginning of her recovery, Watts would often cry every other night for three or four hours, and not be able to stop. She eventually discovered that listening to calming music helped her self-soothe. She also recommends counseling and support groups for survivors, which can often be found for free at domestic violence shelters or local churches.

Start building your credit immediately

You might be overwhelmed with debt, but don’t bury your head in the sand. Creditors will be happy if you start paying anything toward your debt, even if it’s the minimum monthly payments. If you contact them, they may also be willing to discuss the possibility of a payment plan.

Take classes on how to manage your finances

Many domestic violence shelters and nonprofit organizations offer classes on financial planning, such as Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence’s Financial Freedom classes in June.

If you’re not able to attend a class in person, you can find similar classes online.

Open your own bank account

When you’re in an financially abusive relationship and you recognize it, it’s important to open your own bank account, if you don’t already have one, immediately. Make sure you’re careful about setting up the account, putting money into it and how often you visit the bank whether in person or online. You want to be able to keep it a secret from your abuser so they can’t take the money and can’t use it against you.


If your poor credit affects your ability to get a job, or if your partner would not allow you to work, consider volunteering. This will allow you to learn new skills, make connections with people who can act as references and increase your confidence in the workplace.

Watts has been single for the last six years, and she is happy that she has had time to get back to, what she calls,  her “happy place.” She’s currently volunteering as a carer, spending time with family and looking forward to exploring new job possibilities in the future. You can hear the happiness in her voice when she explains how it feels to be a financially empowered woman.

“I can decide what I want to do, and whenever I want to do it,” she said. “If I want to have ice cream for breakfast, I can! I can spoil myself!”

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