Economic abuse is an insidious form of abuse that often continues long after the relationship has ended. It has been recognised by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 as any behaviour that has a substantial and adverse effect on an individual’s ability to acquire, use or maintain money or other property or obtain goods or services. Economic abuse is used to punish, trap, isolate, manipulate, humiliate and hold power and control over women – it is a form of coercive control. Separation provides an abusive man with many additional opportunities to sabotage his former partner’s finances.
Being in debt can be frightening and depressing. It can damage credit scores, restrict a woman’s ability to get a mortgage or other finance agreements and lead to poverty. This is a very common form of economic abuse. Coerced debt is sometimes seen during the relationship but also after it has ended. An abusive man will sometimes use fraud or coercion to obtain credit in his former partner’s name. He may force her into taking out loans that she’ll be unable to pay back, or to purchase large items with the sole intention of sabotaging her finances and putting her in debt. He may refuse to pay child maintenance due, forcing his former partner into a position where she needs to take out a credit card loan to pay for absolute essentials. Women who are coerced into debt will face barriers to accessing housing and employment which are essential to self-sufficiency. Changes in technology make it easier to coerce someone to take out credit because it’s harder for the lender to know when coercion is happening when credit is gained remotely.
“He frog marched me into a car dealership soon after we’d agreed to separate. My car needed replacing and I only wanted a small cheap one because I was very conscious of the bills I’d need to manage on my own. I had thought we could cash buy a small car from money in the joint account, I didn’t want to be stuck with a finance agreement. The kids were playing up which took away my attention and he was controlling the situation anyway. He suggested I took the kids to wait in the car while he sorted out the details, I didn’t feel I had a choice. Twenty minutes later he called me to come back in and when he instructed me to sign on the dotted line, I did.
“I am now paying £400 a month for a car that I never wanted. I’m massively limited now on the mortgage I can get because the car represents such a huge chunk of my income. I know he did this quite deliberately to mess up my finances and punish me. I’m stuck with the car loan for the next four years. I asked him recently for half the money towards a school trip. He refused and told me that if I hadn’t been so selfish and bought such a ‘fucking expensive car’ I’d be able to pay for school trips. I haven’t bothered asking him again.”
There may be opportunities to defraud post-separation when abusive men have their former partner’s personal details, bank account details and sometimes computer and banking passwords. Fraudulently making purchases using her details can be difficult to prove. He may also take out credit cards in her name, she may only become aware when she is being chased because payments are late on the accounts. Running up gambling debts in her name is not uncommon either. When these fraudulent debts come to her attention, it can be shocking and distressing for her and it’s often difficult for her to prove that it wasn’t she who ran up these debts.
“Paul has a terrible gambling habit, this was partly why I needed to end the relationship, that and his bullying intimidation of me. A month after we’d separated, I realised with horror that he had run up a debt of over £5,000 on my credit card. All this money was spent on online gambling. He had my card details so it was easy for him. I reported the fraud to the police but they’re doing little to progress it. I’m still trying to negotiate with my credit card company who are insisting the debt needs paying. Everything feels like a battle.”
False accusations of benefit fraud
Making malicious allegations of benefit fraud to financially abuse may mean that women accused of this may be asked to attend a formal interview and might have their benefits suspended while the matter is investigated. Much financial disruption and stress can be caused by this. On rare occasions malicious allegations may result in criminal convictions.
“On three occasions I’ve been contacted by someone from the DWP following an anonymous allegation that I’ve been working full time while claiming Universal Credit. Thankfully I’ve been able to prove my innocence, but the stress it’s caused me is horrible. I just know it was him, he’ll do anything to punish me for leaving him. I sometimes wonder if he’ll ever stop.”
Unwanted payments of perpetrator’s benefit
Perpetrators sometimes arrange to have their benefits paid into the survivor’s account against her will in order to maintain contact with her. This behaviour has caused women problems because banks are unable to stop incoming payments. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) generally cite data protection rules as the reason for being unable to stop the payments being paid into the survivor’s account, since the claim in question is the perpetrator’s. In these cases, the Survivors Welfare Advice Project (SWAP), part of the Child Poverty Action Group will liaise with the DWP on the survivor’s behalf to resolve this issue. They can be contacted on 020 7837 7979 or email@example.com
“Having his benefits paid into my account was just a cynical move on his part to remain in contact with me. My bank refused to help, they told me there was nothing they could do. He’d contact me on a regular basis about his money. I felt intimidated. Sometimes he’d come to my door demanding cash, or force me to go with him to the cash point. It was his excuse to see me on a regular basis and harass me to renew the relationship.”
Economic abuse through court
What I’ve learned in my work supporting survivors is that abusive men absolutely cannot be trusted to be honest in financial disclosures. They will almost invariably do all that they can to limit what they pay in financial settlements, even when their actions negatively affect their children too. Hiding assets, asking friends to hold assets and minimising earnings are all tactics used. If he’s self-employed he will invariably manipulate figures to hide his earnings. He will commonly do everything he can to ‘drag out’ court proceedings to frustrate his former partner and exhaust her savings by maximising her legal fees. Intimidation tactics such as threatening to take the children from her are also used to force her to agree to an unfair settlement. He might be perfectly happy to damage his own finances in the process, so long as he achieves his end goal of damaging her finances too.
“If I’d still been in the same house as him I’m sure I would have given in to his manipulative and bullying tactics and agreed to an unfair financial deal. He started off pretending to be nice, telling me he’d looked at the figures and could offer to buy me out and he keep the house. Of course his figure wasn’t reasonable so when I refused he began his bullying tactics. Suggesting the kids stayed with him worried me but I knew he didn’t mean it so I held my ground. Next came threats that if I didn’t accept his proposal, he would stop being reasonable and take me for everything that he could. I felt properly intimidated but I had to trust that my solicitor would do his best for me. Ultimately our finances were decided by a judge as my ex refused all reasonable offers. Although my legal fees were huge, I was awarded significantly more than his offer so holding my nerve and not backing down to him worked for me.”
Giving up work to avoid paying towards his children
Such is some men’s determination to limit what they’re liable to pay towards their own children post-separation, they will cynically surrender their jobs and render themselves unemployed. Following this, he may do ‘cash in hand’ work but will carefully avoid any legitimate employment.
“He threatened to do it but I didn’t believe him until it happened. He jacked in his well-paid job as a skilled fork lift truck driver just so that he could dodge paying towards his own kids. This was to spite me and mess up my finances, that the kids would suffer too didn’t appear to factor into his decision making. Now he’s claiming Universal Credit and paying me a pathetic £20 a month for two children. I’ve been told he’s doing cash in hand work but there is no way I can prove this. Before he did this we had enough money to get by. Now I’m having to rely on charity shops and food banks, he knows this and he thinks that he’s won.”
Strategies to reduce child maintenance payments
Insisting on 50/50 contact with children is such a common ploy by fathers who have previously been disinterested in their children. This is often a cynical and manipulative attempt to reduce any child maintenance payments due. If he secures and agreement for 50/50 contact, he may then fail to have his children on all the occasions he promised to leaving the mother with the majority of child contact but a reduced child maintenance payment.
Abusive men may also refuse to make child maintenance payments that are due, pay less than they should or make payments late. The government have brought in new powers so that survivors of domestic abuse can allow the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to collect and make payments on their behalf – without the consent of an abusive partner. The CMS also have powers to report suspected financial abuse to the Crown Prosecution Service to bring abusers to justice.
“I struggle to manage on the little he pays me towards the children. He pretends to have 50/50 contact but the reality is that he is full of excuses when it comes to it. Always pretending to be ill or to have an unexpected work meeting. When I ask for more money to reflect the additional days I have the children he maintains he still has a 50/50 arrangement. He told me I was petty minded for wanting money for the odd day he’s been ill.”
Stealing from children
Stealing from children’s savings accounts, emptying their piggy banks and spending money intended for school trips are all common tactics used. Many times, women have told me that following separation, their children’s saving account money has been stolen by the father. This money is generally impossible to recover and many mothers feel forced to re-pay the children from their own money.
“We’d been saving all of the family allowance money for Olivia since she’d been born. Although this money was paid into my account, Derek insisted that he took over the investment of it. He always controlled the money. When we divorced, he refused to put it into an account for Olivia even though she is now 16. He tells us both that he’s getting a good rate of interest and it would be stupid to withdraw it now. I know he’s spent it. I can’t prove this but I just know he has. It’s worth thousands. I lie awake worrying and feeling terrible for Olivia. I’ve started saving to try to pay her back but I don’t think I will be able to save enough.”
Forcing her out of work by refusing to keep to child arrangements schedules
Meddling with child arrangement schedules, whether mutually agreed or court ordered is something that he may do to upset, frustrate, cause her to incur additional expenses and on occasions force her out of work. I have come across various such cases. He may have sounded very genuine when he said he would help with childcare so that she could work, only to maliciously withdraw all cooperation at the earliest opportunity. Having a Child Arrangements Order in place doesn’t seem to offer much protection from this type of economic sabotage.
“Trying to amicably negotiate child contact with my former husband who was a controlling narcissist had proved impossible. He had agreed to have the kids when I was at work every other weekend, but then deliberately let me down on countless occasions. He would feign illness, tell me his car had broken down so he couldn’t collect the kids, invent some sort of crisis with his boiler and use the excuse that the house would be too cold. He was never unpleasant in his manner or tone, always the charming and lying manipulator. This happened so often that I was ultimately forced to give up my weekend job.
“This caused me financial loss but it didn’t stop there. The children were booked into a gymnastics class on Fridays. Scott would promise to take them when he had them on a Friday but there was invariably a last minute reason as to why they didn’t go. Eva felt too unwell to go, he couldn’t find their gym equipment, his mother had just popped ’round so it would be rude to go out – the list of excuses went on. This wasted me £10 every time he failed to take them and I felt certain he was doing it to punish me, seemingly not caring that the kids were missing out.”
‘Losing’ children’s clothing
In my experience this is such a common tactic. Abusive fathers seemingly derive satisfaction from knowing how much additional expense they are causing their children’s mother by habitually ‘losing’ items of clothing, particularly school uniform and shoes as he knows these items must be replaced. He will often feign innocence, pretending the items were genuinely lost. He may tend to choose the expensive items to ‘lose’, like the recently purchased school shoes. When mothers are determined to send their children to school with the correct equipment and clothing, they may have little option but to keep replacing these ‘lost’ items.
He may also buy items for the children but refuse to allow them to take these items to their mother’s house. She will be left having to pay for all of their essential equipment and clothing so they at least have one set to use when at her house. Not only is this financially burdening for the mother, it is also likely to be upsetting for the children too.
“First it was Sophia’s school shoes. He seemed genuinely sorry when he told me his dog had chewed them. I was really irritated but believed him. Then it was Tom’s football boots, they were expensive and new – the dog excuse again. He told me he would like to replace them but just couldn’t afford to. Following this, there were various ‘lost’ items of clothing, nothing as expensive as the shoes but annoying all the same. Every month there will be something. It’s getting quite expensive but I try not to react, he’s doing it to financially punish me and he would badly like a response. I won’t give him that satisfaction and I know it would encourage him to do more.”
Refusing to pay what’s owed
Abusive fathers often refuse to pay child maintenance, spousal maintenance or other payments due to their former partner. Sometimes nothing is paid, at other times part payments or late payments are made. Although there might be options to force payment through the Child Maintenance Service or the courts, chasing payments will be time consuming and burdening. Often, there will be intimidation involved and women may feel unable to force their former partner to make the payments for fear of him being vengeful. On other occasions, men may pay child maintenance but pay it directly into the child’s account so that the mother has no control over it.
“He plays games with child maintenance payments. The amount he’s due to pay was established during our financial settlement at court. The money should be paid on the first day of each month. Rather than set up a standing order as most people would, he will pay me on random different days, sometimes keeping me waiting until the last day of the month. Now he has started paying a bit less. He may deduct between £10 and £30, but sometimes make the full payment. This is annoying and I know he does it to frustrate me. He will know that being £30 short won’t warrant me doing anything official to chase it up. I’m not sure I could risk that anyway because he still frightens me.”
Failing to adequately feed the children so she is forced to send food
Some mothers feel forced to send their children to their father’s house with food, because unless they do, the children are either not fed or inadequately fed. This is obviously an unfair financial burden on the mother. He may have 50/50 contact and with this comes the expectation to provide some of their clothes, he may choose not to do this, again putting the financial burden on the mother. There is often little women can do about this situation when they’re not prepared to see their children go without and suffer.
“The kids used to come back from their dad’s starving and behaved like a swarm of locusts as soon as they got in. Now I send them with food. I can barely afford to but I don’t feel I have a choice.”
Damage to her property
Financial abuse post separation sometimes takes the form of criminal offences. Abusers may cause criminal damage to their former partner’s property, often her car because it’s high value and generally easily accessible. Damaging her car may give him the added satisfaction of inconveniencing her further when she’s unable to drive to work or take the children to school.
He may cause damage to jointly owned property, including the house prior to financial separation. It can be dangerous if she has moved out of a jointly owned property leaving him to turn it into a hovel prior to sale. It may financially hurt him too when the house is sold for less than it might have been, but he may consider it worth it if she is distressed in the process. Damage to jointly owned property is not a criminal offence.
“I knew it was him, but proving this was impossible. Slashing my tyres on two occasions was bad, but tyres aren’t too expensive to replace. The worst incident was when I went to my car one morning to find it had been covered in paint stripper. That was shockingly expensive, the whole car needed re-painting. I felt very nervous knowing he could just do this again. I’ve installed CCTV that points to the drive – another expense. Nothing has happened now for 6 weeks, but I’m just watching and waiting, any little noise and I dash to look out of the window.”
Emotionally abusing her around finances
When his financially abusive tactics leave his former partner in poverty, he may exploit her situation further and shame her by making nasty comments to her and others. He may cite her poverty as evidence of her laziness and tell others that she can’t be bothered to get a job. He may sneer at her cheap clothing and her inability to afford to take the children on holiday. Telling the children she’s letting them down by not being able to pay for nice things for them while withholding child maintenance payments is fairly normal behaviour in abusive men. Women are often successfully shamed by these tactics and feel stigmatised by the poverty he has helped to cause.
“He did everything he could to financially abuse me. During divorce and financial settlement, he didn’t disclose much of his wealth and being self-employed, he made sure he minimised his earnings too. He dragged the proceedings out which maxed out my legal bill, I’m certain he did this deliberately. He also insisted on 50/50 contact with the kids to minimise what he paid me. He played every trick he thought he could get away with. So when I was living in a council house and struggling to make ends meet, he constantly shamed and humiliated me. Telling the kids that I didn’t take them on holiday because I couldn’t be bothered to work was upsetting. I was always feeling bad about what I wasn’t able to afford for them, he just intensified my guilt. I also felt terrible about not working, but I was so depressed and anxious due to the abuse that I wasn’t really fit for work. The last time he dropped the kids off he looked at me with an arrogant sneer and said “You look like a tramp Laura, can’t you be bothered to wear anything nice?” I felt mortified and so ashamed.”
Tips for surviving the financial abuser
- When in debt and financial crisis, it’s common to avoid dealing with the problem. If you’ve escaped an economically abusive relationship, it is very likely you may be in serious confusion over your financial situation and the extent of your debts because of the deception of your perpetrator. Your post may have been intercepted over a significant period so that you may not have access to details of your debts and this can seem frightening.
- Do what you can to assess the damage. Check your bank statements and collect all details of assets and debts. Try to establish what has happened with your finances. Get a credit report, they are easily obtained and generally free.
- Consider ways that you can future proof your finances. You might add a ‘notice of correction’ on your credit report to explain that you were economically abused. You might apply for a ‘financial dissociation’ – credit reference agencies are able to remove a former financial associate such as your former partner from your credit report.
- Consider reporting fraud to the police. There may be enough evidence to progress an investigation but even if not, it can be helpful to have police crime numbers because this adds credibility if, for instance, credit cards are taken out in your name and you claim that you shouldn’t be liable for the debt.
- Seek professional help – it’s essential. Much can be done to clear debts and build financial independence. Citizens Advice (CA) debt advisors will provide free support and guidance. There are other organisations (such as Payplan) that offer free debt advice that could look at various debt solutions, such as supervised plans, other forms of insolvency and even look to have debts written off in certain circumstances. Government schemes such as Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs), help those with unmanageable debts to get part of the debt written off so they can then make manageable repayments. Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) is a charity supporting survivors of economic abuse. (survivingeconomicabuse.org)
- Ensure you change relevant passwords so your perpetrator is unable to access your accounts. If debts were built up by him, let creditors know what the situation is.
- Make peace with what you have lost if you’re unlikely to get it back. This can be difficult but it’s essential for recovery. Women will particularly blame themselves when their children have suffered financial hardship. This is not your fault and if you can mentally let go of the losses and the misplaced guilt, you will be free to recover.
- Overcoming economic abuse is not just about sorting out your finances. You will also need to recover from the emotional impact of the coercive control and other forms of abuse you’ve been subjected to. But there is now hope for a better future. Don’t suffer alone – access the support that’s available to you.
Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) www.survivingeconomicabuse.org (Provides advice and information for survivors of economic abuse).
The Financial Support Line Tel. 0808 196 8845 (Free financial support and advice).
Citizen’s Advice (CA) www.citizensadvice.org.uk (Provides free online and face to face advice around debt solutions and benefits).
Payplan www.payplan.com Tel. 0800 2802816 (Free debt advice and debt solutions).
Written by Sandra Reddish
If you found this article helpful, you might like to purchase one of Sandra’s books –
One in Four Women – understanding men’s domestic abuse and violence against women. Link to purchase the book below. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1739647912
Beyond the Break-up – understanding and surviving men’s domestic abuse and violence against women post-separation. Link to purchase the book below.
Published 21 January 2024