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‘I realised I was being financially abused when she asked me for a flat deposit’

Financial abuse
Financial abuse

If your partner controls you by keeping a tight hold of the purse strings, it may be a sign you are being financially abused.

But it can come in many forms. Financial abuse can involve limiting someone’s access to money, refusing to pay joint bills, running up debt in the victim’s name, or stopping them from going to work.

It often traps victims with the abuser, leaving them at risk of further harm and depriving them of the ability to rebuild their lives when they escape.

Most victims are women, 5.5 million of whom have experienced financial abuse in the last year, according to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).

Men are estimated to account for around 29pc of all victims. However, Mark Brooks, chair of men’s abuse charity The Mankind Initiative, says men find it more difficult to recognise and report it.

“Male victims of domestic abuse or economic abuse don’t believe that this sort of thing happens to men, or if it does, that it must be their fault.”

Sarah Coles, a financial expert with Hargreaves Lansdown, was financially abused by an ex-partner. She says that while her job may have made her an unlikely victim, financial abuse can happen to anyone.

“It’s not really about how much you know or how much you earn, or any part of your life, it comes down to the relationship and the situation you find yourself in.”

Here, Telegraph Money sets out how to spot the signs of financial abuse, and where to go for help.

“I was asked for £5,000. I never saw it again.”

‘Peter’, who is in his 40s and wishes to remain anonymous, describes how he was financially abused by an ex-partner, who he left 18 months ago.

“I met my ex-partner at work 10 years ago. She was the life and soul of the organisation where I worked in Lancashire. She made a beeline for me and, despite my reluctance, we started a relationship.

“In some ways I realised the relationship was not right at the start. I felt ‘love bombed’ and was drawn to her ‘angel’ side. This was infectious and made me so happy.

“However, soon after, her ‘devil’ side emerged with terrible abusive behaviour which I was then blamed for. She said [I was at] fault for the way she behaved towards me and that she could not look after herself without me. I believed her.

“I was becoming isolated, being cut off from my friends and family, constantly told I was not worthy of her affection, but then being told soon after how wonderful I was.

“The economic abuse was all part of this, too. I was asked to buy her everything all the time – her travel, food, luxury items like electronic goods – even though she was also working and had more money than I did.

“I felt I was being conditioned. ‘If you really loved me, then you would buy me this’ was a constant refrain. I always gave in, even if the presents or goods were never appreciated or even used.

“It led to some awkward situations if I was reluctant. This stepped up when I was asked to ‘lend’ money to her family, which I did, to the tune of £5,000 or more. I never saw it again.

“This escalated to things like a flat deposit – which in the end I refused.

“It had reached a point where I looked in the mirror and I knew things had to change.

“I came to my senses in the end and ended the relationship, but that was not immediate. I had to block her from social media and other aspects of my life.

“The outcome though is I am not sure, many years after, that I can trust going into another relationship.”

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Different forms of abuse

Financial abuse is understood as a form of domestic abuse, which 1.4 million women and 750,000 men fell victim to last year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Yet despite men making up one in three of all those affected, only around one in 20 people supported by a local council-funded domestic abuse service are men.

When it comes to financial abuse, Mr Brooks said the sense of shame that some men feel makes them reluctant to report it.

“They fear a real sense of shame and embarrassment. They feel that they’re not in control and fear that other people will ridicule them and laugh at them.

“Some perpetrators will leverage old-fashioned stereotypes about what it means to be a man – breadwinner, provider, protector, etc – and use that as a way of controlling and abusing a man psychologically.

“If you’re from a traditional background and mentality and have a controlling partner, then criticisms like ‘why can’t you keep the heating on’, ‘why can’t you keep a job?’ are going to hit home.”

While there are subtle differences in the form that abuse takes depending on whether the victim is male or female, the patterns are mostly the same, according to Mr Brooks.

“Women tend to suffer more economic abuse post-break up, particularly when the former partner withholds child support, which is used to control the woman.

“More men talk about being forced to keep going back to family courts in order to maintain a relationship with their children, and the legal fees that come with that.”

He adds that slightly more men report having had their employment interfered with, which often means being prevented from doing their job, sometimes when a partner turns up at their work.

“There are slight differences, but generally the issues female victims face are the same as men. There’s this myth that it’s chalk and cheese, and it’s not.”

“I had to pretend Christmas presents were from a charity shop”

Ms Coles’ ex-partner used emotional manipulation to control her spending habits and make her work 16-hour days over the course of a four-year relationship.

She said: “I didn’t really notice to start with, it seemed like incidental throwaway comments. If I was going out to meet a friend at the shops he would say ‘Oh you don’t really need to buy anything’.

“If I spent money that he wasn’t happy with, a DVD for example, he would stop talking to me or simply leave the flat we were sharing with the children, and wouldn’t answer his phone. I wouldn’t know where they were and they were sometimes gone overnight.

“The price I paid when I broke his strict rules wasn’t worth it, so I immediately started to do what he wanted, to please everyone and not upset the apple cart.

“Because the reactions were so extreme and over such small things, your behaviour changes over time without you really noticing it.”

Ms Coles’ ex-partner chose to stop working “to set up a business” just as she started maternity leave, putting her in a position where she felt compelled to work three jobs from 6am to 10pm.

“I ended up working these ridiculous hours while he was refusing to work, but I never saw any movement towards getting his projects started.

“We had quite a big mortgage at the time. We had lots of financial pressures. He used the fact I was a strong person who wanted to be in control of our finances against me.

“On one occasion, my daughter grew out of her coat, and was going to nursery in this coat that completely didn’t fit down her arms. And I was not permitted to buy a new one.

“I had to pretend that a friend had accidentally bought a coat that was too large for her daughter and gave it to me.”

One Christmas, her partner said the children had enough toys already, and banned her from buying any more.

“I ended up repackaging presents delivered to the office and saying they were from a charity shop and hardly cost a penny.”

Eventually, one of Ms Coles’ friends spotted that her clothes didn’t fit her any more, and she explained the level of control her partner exerted over her. Talking about it out loud prompted her to realise that she was the victim of abuse.

“It’s difficult to understand unless you’re in it. You spend so much time and energy trying to keep the peace that you don’t have the breathing space to step back and see what’s happened to you since you started making all these crazy compromises. But I was lucky that I still had access to my money, which many victims don’t.”

Ms Coles says that her job as a financial expert didn’t protect her from being manipulated.

“When we think of financial abuse, it’s easy to make assumptions about the sort of people who might fall victim. It’s useful to know that it can happen to anyone.”

Signs of financial abuse

Sara D’Arcy, of SEA, says abuse can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways.

“It’s about an abuser controlling a partner or ex-partner’s access to money, but also the things money can buy, like a mobile phone or transportation, food and clothing,” she said.

“Economic abuse often occurs within the context of intimate partner violence. It goes on alongside emotional and psychological abuse, threats of violence, blackmailing and gaslighting, so it’s often quite difficult to spot.

“It can start quite small. Often victim-survivors say it was there from day one, but they didn’t recognise it because the behaviours were quite subtle.

“Through the cost of living crisis we’ve seen abusers using higher costs to justify why a partner can’t spend money – you can’t buy that iPhone or new things for you and the kids, or go for lunch with family and friends because we need to save money. It can lead to isolation.

“Abusers can create a financial imbalance and instability which makes it difficult for victims to leave, and harder to rebuild their life after.”

An abuser might do any of the following, according to SEA

Sabotage your income and access to money, such as by:  

  • Preventing you from being in education or employment

  • Limiting your working hours

  • Taking your pay

  • Refusing to let you claim benefits

  • Taking children’s savings or birthday money

  • Refusing to let you access a bank account

 Restrict how you use money and the things that you own, for example: 

  • Controlling when and how money is spent

  • Dictating what you can buy

  • Making you ask for money or provide an allowance

  • Checking your receipts

  • Making you keep a spending diary

  • Making you justify every purchase made

  • Controlling the use of property, such as a mobile phone or car

  • Insisting all economic assets (eg savings, house) are in their name

  • Keeping financial information secret

Exploit your economic situation, including:  

  • Stealing your money or property

  • Causing damage to your property

  • Refusing to contribute to household costs

  • Spending money needed for household items and bills

  • Misusing money in joint bank accounts

  • Insisting all bills, credit cards and loans are in your name and making you pay them

  • Building up debt in your name, sometimes without your knowledge

What to do to help someone

The isolation many financial abuse victims feel makes maintaining contact especially important.

Ms Coles said: “One of the really big challenges is that an abuser will try to cut you off from friends and family, and stop you talking to them.

“The first thing you might notice is that your friend isn’t calling you back or coming out with you. It’s really easy just to think they’re just being flaky.

“But actually this could be the first sign that something is going wrong in their life. They might not come out if it involves spending money.

“Another big thing is in their language. Your thinking about money gets altered – ‘I’m not allowed to do that’, ‘I need to ask permission to buy this’ starts creeping in.

“Do reach out to them, even if you think you’re needlessly contacting someone who’s dropped you.

“Stay in touch so that when they’re ready they know they can talk to you.”

Victims will often be told by the perpetrator that if they reach out for help they won’t be believed, or that they’re “making a mountain out of a molehill”, Ms D’Arcy said.

“If you are worried about a family member or a friend, express your concern, talk to them about it and create that space so that they feel they’re not alone.

“Let them know that you recognise that what they’re experiencing is not acceptable.

“It’s also important to let them know that they have options, because often economic abuse is about shutting down options and limiting freedom.

“You can offer practical help, like a place to stay if they’re at risk of becoming homeless if they leave the abuser, or offer to look after children.”

When financial abuse becomes a crime

Financial abuse has been given a firmer statutory footing as awareness of the issue has grown.

Economic abuse was included in the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, while financially abusive behaviours are cited in prosecutions under the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

However, this does not mean economic abuse is classed as a crime in its own right. Instead, its inclusion is designed to raise the police and other agencies’ awareness of the issue, and make them more likely to recognise a pattern of financial abuse as controlling or coercive behaviour.

Economic abuse is prosecuted under the controlling or coercive behaviour offence.

To be classed as coercive and controlling behaviour, the following conditions need to be met, according to the Crown Prosecution Service:

  • The controlling or coercive behaviour takes place repeatedly (on two or more occasions) or continuously (on an ongoing basis)

  • The victim and perpetrator are “personally connected” at the time of the behaviour

  • The behaviour has a serious effect on the victim

  • The perpetrator knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on the victim

How to get help

Anyone experiencing financial hardship trying to flee their abusers can apply for up to £500 from the charity Women’s Aid, via a £300,000 fund launched in March.

Your bank may also be able to help. For example, TSB launched an Emergency Flee Fund last year to provide up to £500 to assist victims with the cost of essentials like food and transport.

If you still have a joint current account with your abuser then you should speak to the bank or building society about closing these down – the requirement for both parties to confirm in writing that they want it closed has been eased since the Domestic Abuse bill.

Credit reference agencies Experian, Equifax and TransUnion allow you to add a credit report password, helping to prevent an abuser from applying for credit in your name.

The SEA website has a telephone support line in partnership with Money Advice Plus (freephone 0808 1968845) and a survivors’ forum that offers support and guidance.

The Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, is 0808 2000 247.

The Men’s Advice Line, run by Respect, is 0808 8010 327.

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