Look around you. If there are five women in the room, then the chances are one of them has been the victim of economic abuse. To make matters worse, even if she’s going through it right now, there’s a good chance you’ll never know about it.
Some 5.5 million women have fallen victim to economic abuse, research from the Surviving Economic Abuse charity shows, but one in three didn’t feel they could ask for help or support. Despite this form of abuse being a widespread issue, if you’re going through it, you can feel completely alone.
While the victims are most commonly women, men can be targeted too. Anyone can find themselves in this position. Despite being a financial expert, I was a victim of economic abuse around 18 years ago.
In my case, my partner at the time controlled my spending, leaving me unable to buy new toys or clothes for my young children. He would punish any spending he disapproved of by leaving, sometimes taking the children, and on his return the spending restrictions would become harsher.
He also gave up work after the birth of my second child, forcing me to sacrifice my maternity leave and take three jobs to pay the mortgage and keep our heads above water. He tried to cut me off from my family, so I wouldn’t have any support dealing with the incredible pressure this put me under.
I didn’t have any burning desire to tell my story for years. However, after my ex-partner died, I realised that it put me in a very different position to the vast majority of victims. Most people are too afraid of the repercussions if they say anything about the abuse, especially if they share children with their abuser, so I had a responsibility to talk about it.
Once I spoke out, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who got in touch to share their own experiences and ask for help and advice – either for themselves, or for someone they were worried about. In the months since first talking about the abuse, I’ve heard some heart-rending stories.
Each one is very different, but what they share is that the abuser uses coercive behaviour involving the control of money, the ability to earn it, or the things money can buy, to harm their victim.
It’s frankly devastating. Lives have been ruined. People have lost everything and spent decades trying to rebuild. Some have been left trying to hold everything together, sometimes paying the bills and mortgage of their ex for years after they left.
Others have been evicted from the home they shared because their ex won’t pay their share of the mortgage and yet refuses to be taken off the paperwork. In some cases, victims feel that without any money, they’re trapped with the abuser. In others, rebuilding their life outside the relationship becomes so difficult that they feel they have no choice but to return to the abuser.
Many have had their confidence shattered by the experience. Those who have had their access to things like food restricted will carry the scars of their experiences long after their finances have recovered.
It can feel hopeless but there are things you can do if you or someone you care about is being abused.
The first step for any victim is to tell someone you trust. It can feel like a mountain to climb, because you may be worried about judgement or blame. It means for many people it starts with the fundamental fact that this is not your fault. You have been the victim of a crime. All you did was love and trust, which is the basis of any relationship, so you have no reason to feel ashamed.
You need to hold on to the fact that it’s your strength that is enabling you to do something about the abuse now, so try to feel proud of yourself for what you’re doing, not ashamed of what someone else has done to you.
For me, the support of my family, especially my sister, was life-changing, but for others, it can be more difficult to find the right person to talk to. The abuser might have cut you off from family and friends so you don’t feel you can speak to them. Sometimes, a couple will share so many friends that you won’t know who to trust. Even if you don’t feel you can turn to your loved ones, you don’t have to do this alone.
It comes as the Government is now offering hundreds of abuse victims lifeline payments to help them escape their abusers. From 31 January, victims of domestic abuse who do not have the financial means to leave their abusers will be able to apply for a one-off payment of up to £500 via one of over 470 support services, for essential items such as groceries, nappies or support with new accommodation to help them and their children flee to safety.
Victims can also apply for a further one-off payment of up to £2,500 to help secure a sustainable independent future, such as putting down a deposit for rental accommodation.
Domestic abuse charities like Refuge and Surviving Economic Abuse can also help. There will also be local charities and specialists, so you may be able to get help in person.
It’s worth being aware that plenty of the high street banks have set up support for victims. Lots of them offer “safe spaces” for people experiencing domestic abuse, where you can go into your branch and have somewhere private to make phone calls and reach out for help.
But it doesn’t stop there: some banks, including TSB, have a “flee fund”, which is a grant of money to help you do things like find a place to stay – which you will never have to repay. There’s a Banking Support Directory on the Surviving Economic Abuse website which covers all the help available from your bank.
If you’re trying to support someone who is going through this, the first hurdle you’ll face is that they may not be ready to talk about it, or do anything just yet. It can feel frustrating when you are on the outside, but living through abuse can give you a laser focus on surviving day to day and make you feel as if you have no strength to deal with the broader issue itself.
If this is the case, all you can do is ask how they are, push gently to encourage them to talk to you and if they don’t feel they can, let them know that whenever they’re ready, you’ll be there to support them without judgement.
Once they’re ready to leave, you may be in a position to offer practical help. Often having somewhere to stay in the first few days can make all the difference, as can having someone who is prepared to hold on to a flee fund for you. But you don’t have to offer this sort of hands-on help in order to be supportive.
If you contact the charities, read up on what your loved one is going through and find the resources that may be able to help them, that can make all the difference to someone who doesn’t know where to turn.
I’ll make no bones about it. Leaving a financial abuser is incredibly difficult and supporting someone who is going through it can be frustrating and heart-rending. But staying is harder. Those who stay know that every day will get worse.
Once you’ve made the momentous decision to leave, you know that in the short term life will be really tough but in the long run, every day you’re free from the abuse offers the chance for life to keep getting better.