Mamamia has launched a new campaign called #ItWasInvisible to shine a light on the unseen stories and signs of financial abuse, along with finance and community partners.
This article contains references to domestic abuse and may be triggering for some readers. If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity. All images used are stock images, via Getty.
Throughout her 10 year marriage, Nicole Lee experienced harrowing physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse.
But for a long time, she didn’t see herself as a victim.
While she had heard and read and seen stories about domestic and family violence, none of the victims she’d come across looked like her. Nicole has a physical disability, and her husband, her abuser, was also her carer.
Despite the fact that women with a disability are 40 per cent more likely than able bodied women to experience family violence, they’re not prominent in our depiction of what victims look like. Neither are people of colour, or people from culturally and linguistically diverse populations, or members of the LGBTIQ+ community.
Our narrow depiction of what domestic and family violence is, and who its victims are, is deadly. It stops people who are affected from being believed, and crucially prevents them from seeking help.
In the last 12 months of her marriage, Nicole Lee says things had become “drastic” in her home.
For years, the abuse from her husband Matthew* had been building gradually. “It’s this slow, breaking you down and breaking your confidence down,” Nicole tells Mamamia.
“For me it started off as sexual violence, then it became physical, financial, and all that emotional abuse was there, kind of breaking you down so that when things got worse, you blamed yourself and internalised it.”
For a long time, she tried to justify what was going on, thinking “he needs counselling, he needs some help, maybe I need to be more sexually active”.
“It’s very hard to take it on board while you’re living with it,” she says. “I don’t think I would have coped if I had allowed myself to recognise what was happening.”
Very early on in the relationship, Matthew took control of the finances. The couple moved in together in the early 2000s, just as it was becoming more common to pay your bills online. “He had the computer and he had the smartphone, and he took over paying all the bills… to the point where I didn’t have a clue how to pay an electricity bill by the end of that 10 years,” Nicole explains.
Matthew was always telling her how broke they were, and to this day, Nicole wonders where all the money went. “It’s unaccounted for,” she says. “We were in so much debt.”
One of the clearest instances of financial abuse, Nicole recalls, happened while she was unwell in hospital.
She had inherited her great grandmother’s property from her mother, so that she and her children would always have somewhere to live. But in hospital, Nicole was sent paperwork to sign to sell the house. Matthew had put a deposit on another property, putting Nicole in an impossible situation. “I was in a position where if I don’t go through with this, then we owe money over there that we just don’t have,” Nicole says. “I just don’t have any choice, I have to sell and I have to move.”
Nicole saw that house for the first time the day they moved in.
To make matters more complicated, the sale of one house hadn’t cancelled out the cost of the other, which was Nicole’s “worst nightmare”.
Even as the physical and sexual abuse increased, Nicole says the thought of leaving was terrifying.
“I didn’t think I was capable of doing [the finances].
“I thought if he’s not here then everything is going to fall into a heap. I’m not going to be able to do this, I’m going to lose my children, I’m going to lose my house. I’d been made so reliant on him, so the thought of leaving him wasn’t just scary and difficult, I actually honestly didn’t think I could survive.
“My biggest fear was that the kids would end up with him because he was seen as the more capable parent, because I’d been broken down so much. A lot of what goes hand in hand with the physical, the sexual, the financial and the emotional [abuse] is the breaking down of somebody and their mental health. So your mental health starts to deteriorate, and they say, it’s your fault. You’re the one with problems. You’re crazy. You can’t do this.”
Nicole’s abuser had created a world of control, and without financial resources, she couldn’t see a way out.
“What happens to you and your children? Do you all end up homeless? Do you lose them?
“You need money to buy a bus ticket or rent a hotel or put fuel in your car to get away. And if you don’t have that, then how do you do that?”
It took a suicide attempt for Nicole to get the help she had needed for a decade.
Speaking to hospital workers, Nicole explained what was going on at home: She had been raped four times in the past week.
Still, her husband was called to take her home from the hospital. But child protection had been notified, and it didn’t take long before police came knocking. Matthew confessed to everything, and was taken away, with an intervention order put in place.
Nicole was shocked that Matthew had told police the truth about his abuse.
“Hearing him say those things to child protection, and knowing oh my God I can’t protect you… I can’t save you,” she recalls. “These are real, legitimate crimes. You’re going to get in trouble. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
“He seemed to have this belief that all men do it, they just don’t talk about it. I think he thought he could justify his actions by blaming my mental health.”
Nicole finds it confronting, however, that the only reason anyone stepped in was because they were worried about the children. “At what point do we step in for women who don't have children in the house?” she asks. “I was never going to be capable of leaving, I needed someone to come in and help me get out.”
People with disabilities face serious challenges when trying to leave abusive relationships, Nicole explains. After already experiencing discrimination and disadvantage in so many areas of their lives, she says it’s unrealistic to expect “a completely disempowered person to all of a sudden make an empowered move”.
“We do lots in the community around domestic and family violence, but we need women with disabilities to understand and get those messages that what they are living with is domestic violence,” she says. “It can be from a support worker, it can be from an intimate partner, it can be from another person in shared residential accommodation.”
One of the biggest barriers to marginalised groups, Nicole says, is a lack of social connection.
“Connections mean someone notices something isn’t right.
“I look at myself and I’ve only just started to rebuild connections and friendship networks… it’s not okay for a woman my age to not really have any close friends I could call and have a chat with.”
Nicole, who is a wheelchair user, says it’s important to hear diverse stories about abuse, so people can draw parallels to their own experience.
“If you’re only hearing stories about one type of victim and their experience, it doesn’t quite connect and resonate with yours,” she says.
“If I had heard someone else’s story of financial abuse, maybe that would have resonated with my experience.
“Hearing other stories that are similar to yours... it helps to make all those things you’re feeling inside, become real.”
Throughout her 14 year marriage, Priya never saw herself as being in an abusive relationship, until the night she tried to leave.
That night, her husband physically abused her. But for over a decade prior, she was manipulated, coerced and exploited financially.
Priya, who is now in her 60s, was in her early 20s when she met David*. She says he came with “baggage,” but for the first few years of their marriage, things were okay. Then slowly, his work became spasmodic.
His attitude appeared to be that ‘family supported each other’. So Priya obliged, rearing three children David had from a previous marriage. When one of those children went to live with his mother, Priya had to pay David’s child support.
Once they had kids of their own, David said he’d be a stay-at-home father - but that’s not what happened. He was a drug user, and that gradually got worse over time. “Any money he got, he was always behind because he owed the people who were supplying him,” Priya says.
“He would take my credit card out of my wallet and buy whatever he needed, for his car or for alcohol. He was writing cheques all over town on a joint bank account, but there was no money in the account to cover these cheques, so the debts racked up.”
Throughout their marriage, Priya estimates she lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. She was always furiously budgeting, despite having a relatively well paying job.
They were living in rural North Queensland, which posed a secondary barrier of being far away from Priya’s family and friends. She had no social support, and no one around her to notice what was happening.
But even at work, Priya didn’t feel she could talk to anyone about the circumstances within her marriage.
“It’s a shame thing and an embarrassment thing, that I’m in a situation where I’m financially strapped,” she says. “That’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing. I’m a state trainer for a company, and I do not have $5 to have a coffee.”
It was the debt, Priya explains, that stopped her from leaving. “Everything is tied up together. The house is tied up… he had personal loans, and my name is on those too.
“It’s not easy to get out of it because I know when I go, everything is in both names. I realised I was going to have to pay everything to get out. If he doesn’t pay something, they just come to me - that’s all that happens.”
Looking back, Priya says there was emotional and sexual abuse, as well as financial abuse, in her marriage. But the night David put his hands around her throat was the night she left.
“I had no money. It was 11 o'clock at night and I went, I have $100 on my credit card. I went to a hotel with three children and $100.
“The next day a friend let me stay, and they paid for me to buy clothes, underpants… they had to lend me money to buy all the items I needed.”
For six months, Priya worked to pay off the debts. Even the lawyer she hired to get an intervention order cost $8000.
Once their divorce was finalised, and David had to pay child support, he was dishonest about his work. He was paid cash in hand, so underreported his earnings and ultimately paid Priya just $11 a fortnight.
“His thinking about money… it wasn’t normal thinking,” Priya says. “It was twisted.” He never seemed to understand the costs associated with raising children, she explains.
It’s been decades since Priya’s marriage to David, but she says she has never fully recovered financially.
“I was so far behind the eight ball, I had no savings,” she recalls.
“I’m in my 60s now, and everyone I know is well ahead of me. I still don’t own my house. I’ll never have my super where it should be, because I’ve never been able to contribute extra.”
Her advice to anyone in a relationship, “whether it’s a good one, a bad one, a happy one,” is to have your own bank account.
“You can’t just have joint bank accounts,” she says. “And in your own bank account, you need to deposit money regularly. Otherwise you can’t get out. You have nowhere to go.
“A personal bank account allows you to go if things become dangerous.”
Priya believes we need more conversations about financial abuse, and what it looks like, so victims can recognise it in their own relationships.
She also challenges the cultural construct that encouraged her to see herself as the ‘support person’ in her marriage. She thought it was her role to emotionally and financially support David, despite the crippling impact it was having on her.
“You think you’re there to support each other - that’s what you do in a marriage,” she says. But, as Nicole echoed to Mamamia, “‘fixing’ him was never my responsibility in the first place”.
Why representation matters
Both Nicole and Priya’s stories show how marginalisation, whether it be as a result of disability, living rurally or deeply embedded cultural beliefs, can create additional barriers for victims of domestic and family violence.
It’s for this reason we need diverse narratives and resources available for people who might be experiencing different forms of abuse.
Financial abuse, in particular, often goes unrecognised because it might be seen as ‘acceptable’ within some contexts.
“Financial abuse can involve some very complex family dynamics,” Sian Lewis, a Group Executive at Commonwealth Bank, tells Mamamia.
“Cultural backgrounds, family traditions, assumptions about relationships, societal expectations that couples will share their financial resources for the good of the family, and stereotypical gender roles can make some people feel that it is normal for their partner to control their financial affairs, spend their money and make all financial decisions.”
For some marginalised communities, it may also be difficult to access help.
“Marginalised communities face a number of barriers to accessing support for financial abuse including discrimination and the fear of discrimination,” says Renata Field from Domestic Violence NSW.
“For LGBTIQ people, a lack of specialist LGBTIQ domestic violence services makes it difficult to ask for support, as well as potential homophobia or transphobia. It is important that services are resourced to be culturally safe for culturally and linguistically diverse people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples so that they can safely access the support they need.”
Speaking more openly and candidly about domestic and family violence - including the ‘invisible’ parts of it, like financial abuse - is crucial to tackling the problem, says Lewis.
“We need to continue to have conversations at a community level, within our families and with our friends,” she explains.
Those conversations might allow victims, just like Nicole and Priya, to recognise themselves in narratives of intimate partner abuse. To see their own struggles, thoughts and barriers validated. Then, ultimately, to have a clearer pathway to help
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.
Instances of domestic and family violence often increase in times of disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be no exception, with financial abuse also likely to increase. If you’re looking for helpful information about financial abuse, pathways to support, and useful suggestions to help you get back on your feet, CommBank has produced this helpful guide: Financial Abuse, Recognise and Recover.