My 'love’ or your money? Red flags of financial abuse in relationships


WHEN Nadia* agreed to an arranged marriage with her ex-husband, it marked the beginning of five years of anguish.

Even before the marriage, Nadia’s ex-husband’s family demanded that Nadia’s family provide a house as a “dowry”. During her marriage, Nadia says she was abused financially, with the right to spend her own money taken away from her.

“My ex-husband used my money for our daily expenses. All of my earnings were used by him and his family to pay for expenses and for my in-laws’ bills, ” she says, adding that she was also abused verbally, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Six months into their marriage, her ex-husband lost his job and borrowed money from Nadia to pay his loans. He also had trouble keeping a job after that because he often got into disagreements with other people.

“He has threatened me many times, asking for my bank card which solely had my money and savings from my late father’s contributions, ” she says.

“He had bipolar disorder and anger problems so I usually give in. He took my cards by force but I had no choice because he was violent. I didn’t allow it, but I had to let go and choose my marriage or money, ” adds Nadia, who also paid for her ex-husband’s mental health treatment.

Apart from taking Nadia’s money, her ex-husband also controlled how she spent her own income and would often prohibit her from buying items for herself, even if it was cheap.

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“I became really depressed and I stopped looking at anything in shops, ” says Nadia.

And if she did buy any items for herself, Nadia’s former mother-in-law had to inspect the purchases before Nadia brought it into her room.

“My ex-husband didn’t allow me to speak to anyone about my challenges, I didn’t even have freedom to sit in my room with the doors closed. I didn’t know that I should reach out to people about it, ” she said.

Although the marriage was strained and the two eventually separated, Nadia’s ex-husband refused to divorce as he did not want to pay for it. The Syariah court eventually granted the divorce, but the large sums of money Nadia’s ex-husband borrowed from her still had not been returned.

Now in her thirties, Nadia has since remarried and finally found happiness.

“It took a lot of courage to move on (but I had) the moral support of my late father. I want to share my story so that other women can learn from my experience, ” says Nadia, who now helps women who face domestic abuse.

“I’m now remarried to a wonderful man. It is good to finally know how a normal marriage should be.”

A form of domestic violence

Financial or economic abuse is one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify, says the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

“It often happens gradually and subtly until survivors find themselves in situations of financial dependence quite suddenly, ” says WAO services director Charlene Murray.

In 2020, more than 70% of WAO’s domestic violence shelter residents were recorded as having experienced financial abuse. Out of 224 clients involved in face to face consultations with WAO’s social workers and case managers, 37.1% had shared instances of financial abuse.

Financial abuse is one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify as it often starts gradually and subtly, says Murray. Financial abuse is one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify as it often starts gradually and subtly, says Murray.

Some scenarios of abuse are if you are an adult but have limited to no control over assets and money which belong to you, adds Murray.

“It would also be the case if your money is controlled by a third party, you are guilt-tripped into spending on things you do not want, or are made to feel bad for spending money on items you want, ” she explains.

Another example of abuse is if your partner or family member restricts your finances based on an allowance or a limited budget, and you are made to justify the details of every expenditure.

“Sometimes, it can also take on the form of a partner or family member preventing you from earning an income or seriously jeopardising your career and retention of your job. It could reach a point of demanding that you stop working altogether, thus cutting you off from your source of income, ” says Murray.

Other forms of financial abuse as described by Murray include repeatedly using your money for expenses against your wishes or without your knowledge. This can include a partner or family member taking out your savings, insisting all expenditures are paid by you, using your name or identity to undertake personal loans illegally, or putting you in a predicament of financial distress.

Power and control

Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship, says United States-based National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).

“The forms of financial abuse may be subtle or overt but in general, include tactics to conceal information, limit the victim’s access to assets, or reduce accessibility to the family finances, ” the NNEDV explains.

In fact, the NNEDV points out that financial abuse is cited as the main reason survivors stay with or return to an abusive partner. This is because many survivors find it difficult to provide for themselves or their children due to the economic strain imposed by their partners. This kind of abuse can happen to anyone and anyone can be a pernd petrator. However, Australian-based Women’s Information and Referral Exchange Inc (Wire), found that the vast majority of financial abuse is perpetrated by men against women.

A 2008 study by Michigan State University found that 99% of domestic violence cases also involved financial abuse. Another 2011 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that abusers use “physical, psychological, and economic tactics to isolate, control, exploit, and terrorise their partners.”

It is hard to measure the prevalence of financial abuse in relationships because according to United Kingdom based advocacy group and charity Women’s Aid, financial abuse is underreported and poorly recognised. Contrary to most presumptions, it affects women of all income groups.

In their 2015 study, Unequal, Trapped & Controlled, it was found that the mental health of many survivors had been affected due to financial abuse. Some survivors landed in debt and lost confidence in budgeting because of it. Even more worryingly, financial abuse rarely happens in isolation.

The report found that in most cases, “perpetrators use other abusive behaviours to threaten and reinforce the financial abuse they are conducting”.

Because survivors cannot access money or the financial means of escaping harmful environments, many are trapped and have no choice but to continue living with their abusers.

* Not her real name.

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