The Insidious Form Of Domestic Violence That No One Talks About

10/21/2014 05:55 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014
Riitta Supperi via Getty Images

Imagine you're in an abusive relationship and you desperately want to leave. But your husband controls the family finances, and he doles out only a small amount of cash for necessities each week. You lost your last job because he kept harassing you at work, calling repeatedly and showing up without warning. Now, you're struggling to find new employment. In the meantime, your kids are hungry and you have literally nowhere to go. The idea of leaving is so far out of reach.

We often think of domestic violence in terms of physical abuse, the most visible and easily understood form. A black eye isn't ambiguous. But experts agree that economic abuse, where one partner controls the other's access to finances, plays a pivotal role in trapping women in abusive relationships.

In her new book, author Ludy Green argues that economic abuse is the core reason why women don't leave abusive partners. "Depriving the victim of control over her own economic well-being is a despotic and confining element of domestic violence," she writes in Ending Domestic Violence Captivity: A Guide to Economic Freedom. "Why does she stay? Despite appearances to the contrary, the decision to stay is not a decision at all. She stays because she lacks the power to leave."

Green has worked with domestic violence survivors for more than 20 years. In 2001, she started Second Chance Employment Services, the first employment agency in the U.S. for domestic violence survivors. "Second Chance was started solely to provide financial independence for women who were victims of economic abuse," Green said. In Ending Domestic Violence Captivity, she examines the economic conditions that abusers manipulate to systematically disempower women. As she explains, economic abuse is highly effective at creating physical and psychological barriers to leaving.

Below are four economic tactics abusers use to control and isolate their victims:

SABOTAGING EMPLOYMENT

There are a number of ways an abuser can prevent a victim from holding a job. He may cause physical injuries to her face or body, so that she's embarrassed to go to work. He may keep her from getting enough sleep, or show up at the workplace and harass the victim, disrupting her duties. He may refuse to provide child care, forcing the woman to stay home with the kids, or he might not allow the victim to have a car, depriving her of reliable transportation.

"Maybe he says 'You don't need to drive anymore, I can drive you,' and then he stops taking you," Green said. "A big part of domestic abuse is isolating the person, separating her from her friends, from the family, from other people."

CONTROLLING THE FINANCES

In some relationships, the abuser may begin to take full control of the finances. He may prevent the victim from having access to joint bank accounts, so that he is the only one who can use family funds. He may withhold access to cash, forcing the victim to be dependent on him for all expenses.

"I had a client who was only given $10 a week for lunches," said Green. "They do it on purpose to humiliate them, to hurt them more, to make them feel like they have no control in their lives."

Without financial independence, a victim may fear losing custody of her children if she flees. Is a judge more likely to give custody to a man with a house and a job, or an unemployed woman living in a domestic violence shelter? An abuser may play on these fears, telling the victim he will sue for full custody if she leaves.

STEALING MONEY OR CAUSING DEBT

Some abusers steal from their victims, robbing them of key resources. They may also rack up costs -- breaking the victim's possessions and forcing her to buy replacements. Another tactic that is becoming more common is identity fraud. The abuser may take out a credit card account in the victim's name and pile up debt, destroying her credit rating.

"It's very frightening," said Green. "Women get to the point where they have nothing and no way to get control of the money again."

Ruined credit can be a devastating burden once a woman attempts to leave. She may have trouble renting an apartment or may need a co-signer for any financial commitment.

USING ECONOMIC UNPREDICTABILITY

Another tactic that helps an abuser undermine a victim's sense of safety and security is to offer access to money and resources in an inconsistent, unpredictable way, leaving the victim in a constant state of heightened stress.

"Imagine the amount of anxiety and the depression that is triggered when you have no idea if you are going to have money for food or not," said Green. "Or for medicine."

Victims may feel increasingly isolated and powerless over time.

"Arbitrary shifts in economic behavior take oppression to a more painful level," Green writes in her book. "The victim is made to feel she and her children are not only at the mercy of the one who has assumed control over the finances, but that there is no way to predict or have any influence over whether he will provide for the family's material needs."

Green hopes her book will encourage advocates and domestic violence organizations to place more emphasis on financial empowerment.

"When someone is in an abusive relationship, they are basically deprived of power -- they are in a state of domestic captivity," she said. "If women have some financial security, they are much more empowered and are more likely to be able to escape."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Related:

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'I Couldn't Afford The Life We Had Established By Myself. I Was Drowning.'
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