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When Talking About Money Is Taboo, Domestic Abuse Thrives

flickr/Kevin Dooley

Keeping silent about money means giving up our power and financial autonomy — that’s a dangerous practice.

It’s a familiar story. Girl meets boy. Boy starts abusing girl. Boy cuts girl off from her family and friends and takes away any financial power she has, making it feel impossible for her to escape.

Dr. Ludy Green, author of Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom, knows the tale all too well. As a child, she saw how her mother became trapped in an abusive relationship. “She couldn’t leave the relationship because she couldn’t provide us with education, a comfortable home, and care in the house,” says Dr. Green. After the death of her mother, she left South America and immigrated to the U.S. to go to college. She ended up volunteering at My Sister’s Place, a women’s shelter in Washington, D.C., to help women overcome domestic violence.

Her volunteer work uncovered a disturbing pattern: Like her mother, these women felt that they couldn’t escape their situations because they didn’t have the means to support themselves. Not only had their abusers taken away their ability to feel safe and worthy, they had also taken away their ability to act with autonomy.

This pattern came to be known as economic abuse, which is when abusers use money as a way to further shift the balance of power in their favor. That’s why, in 2001, after years of working and saving her money, Dr. Green founded Second Chance Employment Services, an organization that serves women at risk of financial abuse by helping them get jobs and learn about personal finance. It’s a rewarding line of work. Unfortunately, it’s also a necessary one.

“I meet people on a daily basis, and what I see is very devastating. It is a cancer on society, we need to combat it,” says Dr. Green. About 1 in 3 women will experience some form of domestic abuse at some point in their lives. And the rate is higher for certain demographics, like non-Hispanic Black women (43.7%), Native American and Alaskan Native women (46%), multi-racial, non-Hispanic women (53.8%), bisexual women (61%), and disabled women, who are 40% more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women without a disability. And where physical abuse exists, economic (or financial) abuse is usually there. It occurs in 94–99% of domestic violence cases. And like domestic abuse, financial abuse is contingent upon isolation and silence.

Money is a taboo subject in many cultures. And when personal finance is seen as a private matter, it’s more difficult to have healthy conversations about money, which perpetuates financial abuse. To make it harder for abusers to achieve that all-encompassing kind of control that leaves people feeling trapped by their circumstances, we need to remove the money taboo, and make finance more accessible and equitable for all.

Financial abuse is a slow, destructive burn. It often comes on gradually, and it can take many forms, like strict limitations on work or spending, outright seizure of earnings, using the other person’s credit without their knowledge, and more. The specifics may differ from case to case, but one thing remains the same — domestic abuse is about power and control, and economic abuse ensures the abuser has control over how the victim accesses and spends money. Over time, the results can be devastating.

“[Abusers] don’t just destroy a woman, they destroy the children, they destroy the whole family. When it starts, it may be small things. But by the time they open their eyes, they realize it was all a trick,” says Dr. Green.

Christine Hennigan, a certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst based out of West Chester, Pennsylvania, knows the impact of long-term financial abuse, too. After 10 years as a CFP, she added her second practice after seeing the devastating effects of legal strategy without financial strategy.

Hennigan recalls one client who was separated from her husband and living in the family home with their children one winter. “He waited till the night of a snowstorm and decided to shut off the heat and electricity. Her kids were in the next room saying, ‘are we poor now?’ [The house] was still in his name and he thought that would be a riot,” she says. “He wasn’t necessarily withholding or hiding money from her, but he was financially abusive. And the way he made her feel, and the way he made her kids feel about her… It was one of the worst nights of her entire life.”

“In every group within our culture, domestic violence occurs. But those who are able to get out of those situations more readily are those who have economic power because they have more choices,” says Angela Schultz, program director at Redevelopment Opportunities for Women (ROW), which provides financial literacy services to women who’ve been impacted by domestic violence, poverty, and homelessness.

Part of the problem of financial abuse is that it’s difficult to detect. Many victims don’t even know it’s happening, and when they do realize it, they feel ashamed that they don’t know enough about money to get themselves out. ROW’s Economic Action Program (REAP) exists in part to repair the damage wrought by financial abuse, partially through classes that focus on starting a dialogue about finances in a safe, group setting populated by survivors and led by a group facilitator.

“A lot of people will come to the classes and they will not even recognize that they experienced some part of economic abuse,” says Schultz.

The classes are dependent on creating an atmosphere of trust — not only because participants come from abusive situations, but also because the topic at hand, while vital to the process of rebuilding, is treated as taboo in most societies.

“You don’t talk about how much you make, you don’t talk about your credit score. You’re not going to talk about abuse in the first place, so you’re not going to talk about your financial situation because that’s like a double layer,” explains Schultz.

Part of the problem of financial abuse is that it’s difficult to detect. Click To Tweet

In REAP classes, the group structure is designed to break down the barriers of isolation that abusers have built. Unlike the power structure employed by traditional financial literacy programs, which operate according to a teacher-student model, REAP classes empower participants by creating a level playing field and tapping into the strength that comes from community and shared experience.

“There’s a huge difference if [financial education is] delivered by someone who’s a banker versus a group facilitator,” says Schultz. “The facilitator is not there as the expert in the room. Everyone brings their skill set and knowledge to the table.”

This educational model subverts the experience of domestic abuse by giving financial power and autonomy back to the people who’ve been robbed of it. Money may seem secondary compared to the emotional impact of domestic violence, but it’s the number one factor in determining whether a survivor will have to go back to their abuser. And confronting that element of abuse is a vital part of the healing process.

Money isn’t just a means to power, it is power. It dictates everything from the place you live and the food you eat to the education you get and opportunities you’re exposed to. Our culture of silence around money effectively cuts us off from that power by making it harder for us to have empowering conversations about this thing that is so vital to our lives. This limits our autonomy because without unhindered access to that power, we cannot freely make choices about how we live, how we relate to the world and how we move through it. Removing the money taboo is vital to ending domestic abuse.

But changes to cultural norms are always met with resistance. And the status quo has made navigating our financial lives within the context of the money taboo tricky. On one hand, speaking up about our salary can be detrimental if it’s in the context of a job interview. (A fact which several cities and states have recently recognized by banning such questions during interviews.) On the other hand, staying silent at work can perpetuate gender-, race-, and ability-based pay gaps between our peers and coworkers.

Our culture of silence around money makes it harder for us to have empowering conversations. Click To Tweet

But rather than walk the fine line between silence and disclosure, the cultural tendency is to shy away from the realities of our finances and keep quiet. Talking about your salary is still awkward, and invites scrutiny, comparison, and jealousy. Beyond that, finance itself can also be confusing, and there’s a social expectation that everyone has a certain level of financial literacy, which obscures the fact that most people have a hard time navigating money.

“Someone will come into my office and their body language is passive, apologetic, and embarrassed; they’re coming for help. I try to dispel that by reassuring them that they are the majority, not the minority,” says CFP Hennigan. “They think that all their girlfriends and all their colleagues at work have all their stuff together and understand everything. In reality they’re in the same boat. They just don’t realize it.”

In classifying finance as a private matter, we are robbed of the strength that comes from a collective knowledge base, and we are cut off from vital support.

Abolishing the money taboo wouldn’t require full disclosure of every detail of our finances, like the specifics of our salary or the size of our retirement accounts. It’s about creating a society that allows people to ask for help, creating safe spaces for discussion, and demystifying financial topics, which are often shrouded by industry jargon.

“I think women in general should openly discuss finances and their concerns about finances more. I think it’s healthy to have general discussions about finances,” says Hennigan, adding: There’s definitely a thirst for knowledge.”

In a way, the structure of our financial system mimics the tactics employed by abusers. The weapon of choice is language, which is used to shift the balance of power away from the masses toward select gatekeepers. This is, of course, by design. But that collective silence perpetuates this power imbalance and clears the way for both the wage gap and economic abuse.

We can remove the barrier of economic abuse — which is vital to the fight against domestic abuse — by speaking up, by sharing our knowledge, and by normalizing financial conversations. And for those who are caught up in the cycle of domestic violence, it could pave the way toward freedom.

“Regardless of how manipulated or controlled they feel about their situation or their finances, there is always a way out. There are professionals out there that can help,” says Hennigan. “If I had a dollar for every time a woman said, ‘I wish I had met you five or 10 years ago’ — it just breaks my heart. They’re not stuck, they’re not.”

There is a way out of financial abuse. The first step is talking about it.