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What I Learned (and Had to Unlearn) from Witnessing Financial Abuse

Even the women in his family didn’t think women should be treated equally.  When I later married, they mocked my wife for not taking my last name.  This didn’t come from the men in the family.  It came from the women.  The patriarchal family structure was comforting to all of them, as a protection from a scary world.  Even if that structure suppressed them, it provided a feeling of safety.

by Rick Dougherty


What We See

I grew up in a house in which the threat of violence was omnipresent.  It wouldn’t happen all of the time.  It wouldn’t even happen most of the time.  The physical violence was just a small part of what my mother and I had to endure, especially in my teenaged years.  In no way do I want to diminish the trauma associated with the physical violence my father directed at my mother and at me, but I often feel that the physical violence hasn’t had the lasting effect of the other forms of abuse. 

Here at Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, we are spending all of October highlighting financial abuse, because it is so misunderstood by the general public.  Part of the problem with it being misunderstood, is that people don’t notice some of the long-lasting effects of the abuse on those who suffer through it.  According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 99% of domestic violence situations contained some form of financial abuse.  Even with that staggering number, 78% of people don’t consider financial abuse to be a form of domestic violence (NNEDV, 2016).   This means they probably don’t understand how it looks when it is happening, and what is does to those who experience it. 

My father did not want my mother to have a job.  He wanted her to be completely and totally financially dependent on him.  When she would have a job, he would try to turn me against her.  He would tell me that she didn’t need to work for our finances, and she was doing it because she didn’t want to spend time with me.  My father was very cliché, being raised in a small, depressed town with very regressive views on gender roles, race, and religion.  His family of origin had very strict views on how the family should look.  I recall being in the wedding parties when my aunts and uncles got married and how the wedding officials would preach about women being subservient to their husbands. 

Even the women in his family didn’t think women should be treated equally.  When I later married, they mocked my wife for not taking my last name.  This didn’t come from the men in the family.  It came from the women.  The patriarchal family structure was comforting to all of them, as a protection from a scary world.  Even if that structure suppressed them, it provided a feeling of safety.

My mother, on the other hand, was raised in a family of high-academic achievement.  While her Irish-Catholic father was certainly working-class, he carried himself with dignity.  He didn’t believe that being a man who showered at the end of a day’s work meant that you had to act in toxic ways.  As the father of five daughters, he also wasn’t too keen on the sexist tropes so common to his era.  All of my aunts who survived to adulthood are strong women.  While they all eventually married, they all also had success in the work world before and after settling down with a spouse.  My father could see that women in my mother’s family didn’t need men to support them.  That tortured him.  He knew that she didn’t need him.

The Inevitable Conclusion

For a few years while I was in high school, my family hit a big financial crunch.  This was a time that a healthy couple would hunker down to handle the situation.  My father was having a hard time finding steady work that paid enough money.  When there was an opening for waitresses at a restaurant in town, my mother took the job.  It made my father furious.  He hated it.  I believe what angered him the most was that he needed the money.  No longer was he in a situation financially that he could claim she didn’t need to work.  The more he lost the ability to financially abuse her, the more he would physically abuse both of us.  The abuse got worse-and-worse. 

At the time, I had a “job” mowing my great-aunt’s lawn.  I put the word “job” in quotes, because a lot of the time I didn’t have to do the labor.  My maternal grandfather really was a great guy.  I had basketball and baseball practice, and I was going to dances and meeting girls.  Most of the time, he would mow her lawn for me, but I still got the $20 per-week.  As strange as it sounds, my father hated this.  Even $20 per-week was giving me too much financial independence for him.  By this point, he was overweight and out-of-shape.  I was getting to the point at sixteen where I was taller than him, and the coaches had me in the weight room three times per-week.  His window for intimidating me physically was closing, and now I was starting to have a little pocket cash. 

One day, he picked me up from the mall, I had just bought an album I was waiting to be released for months.  Instead of spending the $13 to get the CD, I bought the cassette version for $9.  I knew money was tight, and I was willing to save money where it was possible.  He screamed at me the entire ride for wasting my money.  It was his mission to let me know that even when I was making the money, I had to go through him.  He wanted control. 

He hollered, “I don’t have a job right now, and I can’t be wasting $9.”

To this day, I am not sure if any accomplishment I have had or will have in the future will live up to the feeling I had when I responded.  “Well, it’s a good thing I have a job, and I can spend the $9.”

I put him in his place.  I didn’t need him.  My mother was working.  I was working, and the money was coming from my mother’s side of the family.  His entire web of control was showing itself to be a house of cards. 

The irony of the situation is that, despite the abuse, my mother and father did one thing the right way.  My father started working again, and my mother worked her job.  Eventually, they got enough money to buy a nice car, and move to a nice home.  Had my father not been so focused on being the one controlling the income, he would have been able to take real pride in providing for his family.  If he didn’t need the woman in his life to be subservient to him, he would have been able to take solace in a positive masculine accomplishment.  He could have thrown toxic masculinity to the side, and worked with his partner as an equal.  They dug themselves out of the hole, but the marriage didn’t survive it.

Decades of trying to keep her blind to the fact that she could leave, made it an inevitability when she saw that light. 

It Didn’t Stop There

Even after my parent’s divorced, the financial abuse continued.  While a normal father who leaves his child would have to pay child support, my mother wanted to prove that she could do it on her own.  The years of being told she couldn’t do it made her determined to do it out of spite. 

Occasionally, we would need money for something, or we would need his signature on a financial document.  It always came with some sort of quid-pro-quo.  We had to go get pizza with him.  I would have to hang out with him for a few hours.  He was still using the absolute bare-minimum of his responsibility as an excuse to claim we owed him.  The money was nothing more than a form of control. 


The most pathetic of these transactions came on his last Christmas on this planet.  The holidays are an expensive time, and my mother needed money.  Because of that, my father would only agree to it, if I would go with him to see his family.  My mother begged me to do it, and used the fact that I would get some presents to grease the wheels.  The only other thing she asked was that I got him a present.  I went to Sears, and purchased a $5 wallet.  With tax, it came to $5.30.

After he dropped me off at my car, he looked at me with pain in his eyes.  “Um, I didn’t know we were doing presents.”  He handed me a $5 bill.  I had spent more than that on his stupid wallet.  Even Christmas gift giving was an excuse to use money as a symbol of his lack of respect. 

The Final Insult

That Christmas was his last Christmas, because he would be dead the following November.  By this point, he had regained his footing, and was making very good money at a job he loved.  He was thriving so much, that he was offered a promotion across the country. 

It was a Saturday in the first week of November.  Once again, my mother thought that it would be a good idea to be there when he left.  I told him that a full-time job was opening up where I had been working since I was sixteen.  This was going to my chance to start climbing the latter in my career.  In retrospect, it was fitting that the last thing I told my father was that I was becoming more independent.  He got in the car, and started driving towards I-80.

The following Saturday, when I arrived to start a part-time shift at work (one that would give me another chance to impress my bosses), I got the phone call that my father was dead.  My bosses wouldn’t let me work after getting the news, even though I was so determined to get this job, that I was still prepping my day after answering the call. 

It wasn’t until he was dead, however, that I learned about his one last attempt at financial abuse.  To him, money was control.  Behind my back, with the assistance of that entire side of the family, he had gotten married one week before he died.  He also signed over all of his money and assets to his new wife.  He threatened to take this promotion at the other end of the country, expecting us to stop him.  He thought we needed his money, and wouldn’t be able to survive without him.  When we told him that he should go, and do what was best for his career, he had to find some way to get revenge.  Instead of providing his son with a little financial security while that son was trying to make a name for himself in his chosen profession, he found a way to use the money against us one more time.

The Aftermath

I was nineteen when my father died.  That was well over twenty years ago.  I have lived more of my life following my father’s abuse, than I lived experiencing his abuse.  That being said, as every survivor knows, I still live with the ramifications of that abuse. 

My father wanted my mother and me to rely on him in all aspects of finances.  While some parents would teach a child how to do taxes; how to start a bank account; or how to apply for a credit card, my father didn’t want me to know how to do that.  On a day-to-day basis, I didn’t see why things were going well for us financially.  Still, I did see the ramifications of the bad economic times.  This gave me a fear of credit.  Some of the most impressive things I have done in my adult life are because of the financial ignorance I developed from his controlling nature.  In 2015, I bought a brand-new Toyota Prius.  I walked right into the dealership, and wrote out a check for $27,000.  My fear of having a car repossessed was so strong, that I waited until I saved enough money to buy a new car to own one.

The trauma I experienced due to financial abuse lingers to this very day.  Two weeks ago, I was in a theme park, when I saw a t-shirt that I really liked.  Standing in the middle of the theme park, I texted my wife, who was at work.  I asked her if I was allowed to buy the t-shirt.  It wasn’t until she was at lunch, and told me that I had permission to buy it, that I went back to the store to and purchased it.

That is a very common interaction with my wife.  I am so afraid of someone yelling at me for spending money, that I feel that I have to get permission.  If I make a bad financial decision, I will have an anxiety attack.  If I wait to get gas, and find myself forced to fill up where gas is more expensive, I will constantly apologize…even when I am the one who is losing money. 

On a positive note, I did develop one positive habit from witnessing and experiencing financial abuse in my youth.  My father wanted to use money to trap my mother.  He didn’t want her to feel she could survive on her own if she left.  That seemed so pathetic to me.  As an adult, I have always wanted to make sure that my significant others are able to earn their own money.  My wife makes substantially more money that I make at this point in both of our careers.  Some men tease me about this, but I take pride in it.  If my wife makes enough money to live on her own, that means she is staying with me, because she wants to stay with me.      

I do not mooch off of her, which would be a completely different form of financial abuse.  I never want her to feel she has to justify purchases to me.  We trust each other to understand our financial big picture, and that neither of us would do anything to jeopardize it.

Moving Forward

While this is a personal anecdote, I do think there is something to be gained from everybody reading this.  If my story makes one woman realize that her children may be witnessing behavior that will make it harder for them to function financially as adults, maybe she will get out of that relationship.  Even if she can’t escape at the moment, maybe she will think to have financial conversations with her children.  While kids need to understand the value of money, they also shouldn’t grow up in fear of it.  They shouldn’t view financial security as a justifiable reason to stay in an abusive relationship.  Most importantly, your children will learn better financial habits by watching you struggle to survive financially, than by watching you stay in an abusive relationship to have your needs met.           

Reference

NNEDV, 2016, Financial Abuse Fact Sheet, https://nnedv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Library_EJ_Financial_Abuse_Fact_Sheet.pdf

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