real life

He’s rich, successful – and only lets his wife have $50 cash at a time.

“It’s not just about words and it’s not just about money.”

We can see what domestic abuse against women looks like, right? She looks really frightened or uncomfortable, diminished, chaotic, scared, defeated, suffering, black and blue if we want to be literal.

But what if domestic abuse turns up on your doorstep wearing a Stella McCartney blazer and holding an outstretched bottle of Dom?

I know, from afar, a woman like this. She is a woman with two houses, the latest clothes and shoes, great haircut, always handing over some beautiful French cheeses from an upmarket deli when she “drops around”, but she never has more than $50 cash on her and she has no access to cash. Everything is bought with a credit card.

On the surface it could seem AbFab, but it’s not. It’s much more sinister than that. It goes to the foundation of a woman’s independence and her feeling of safety and security. She can buy designer, she just has no ability to book a hotel room if she wants to leave (and she has tried, and he talked her back around, and the cycle began again).

That’s the way her husband likes it. She can buy what she wants, he can see everything she buys, and he can cancel her card whenever he likes (which he did when she was very late coming home one night). He dominates and demands and checks his Visa statement online during the day. He knows exactly what she does or what she wants to do. She is stressed and anxious all the time, pretending to be the happy, “generous” guest.

She walks on eggshells and is so used to walking on eggshells she thinks that is what the ground is made from. But she can buy a great bottle of vino and fabulous cheeses to take around to a friends’ house.

As Associate Professor in Sociology at Flinders University, Kristin Natalier, said in The Conversation this week Australia is making overdue moves to tackle domestic violence (the Federal Government has announced a $100 million package and NSW government a $65 million package), but there is a less obvious form of abuse that damages a woman’s well-being: economic abuse.

Economic abuse, she says, includes behaviours that “limit a person’s ability to acquire and use economic resources. Women are more likely than men to be victims of this form of abuse”.

“These are not the equivalent of disagreements over money,” Associate Professor Natalier said. “They are controlling and humiliating behaviours, which abusers use to undercut women’s economic security and independence.”

“Economic abuse, she says, includes behaviours that “limit a person’s ability to acquire and use economic resources. Women are more likely than men to be victims of this form of abuse”.”

Usually economic abuse is linked to psychological, emotional and often physical abuse, she says, “although women may experience economic abuse even when they are not physically hurt by their partner”.

When the kids were little, I volunteered at a women’s refuge one day a month (I wrote the newsletter) and I saw many women who did not fit the stereotype of victims of domestic abuse. There were women who, from afar, looked as though they were heading off to a nice lunch. But when you watched them in the waiting room, they were frightened and anxious, unable to concentrate, fidgety, small.

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There was a woman who, in the process of divorcing a wealthy banker husband, had to raid her children’s piggy banks to get petrol money. She was there to put her children into emergency day care (a service this refuge offered) so she could try to get herself organised in terms of her divorce.

The children had never been looked after by anyone than her, as her husband didn’t believe in childcare. She’d always had to ask for “housekeeping” money and now the “housekeeping” money was even less. Her credit cards had been cancelled. She had access to one bank account that was dry. She was humiliated and stressed. Worse, the withholding of money (plus his temper) made her not want to make him mad in case he withheld more money or increased his demands in the divorce negotiation process.

There was a woman whose long term partner made her write every purchase (from kids’ swimmers to her undies, not including groceries) plus its price down on a piece of paper and he would tick which purchases she was allowed. She was given cash once a week for groceries and if she had to ask for more money she was called stupid and “no wonder he couldn’t trust her with money”. She didn’t know what his annual income was.

There was a woman who came to put her children in care for the morning because they were struggling financially and her husband controlled the money. She didn’t know what to do.Some women took the bus or walked to the centre, some drove their 4WDs. A common factor these women had was that they didn’t work themselves. They were the primary caregiver in the family.I’ve heard other stories, friends of friends, that get thrown around in a “can-you-believe-this” conversation. There’s the woman who has to put every item she buys in a spread sheet (including her morning coffee) for her husband to check weekly. Presumably time is not money in this relationship. Another whose self-employed husband dropped his income to $65,000 during divorce proceedings so he paid only minimal child support. Studies (and life) show that economic abuse contributes to a lifetime of financial struggle for women. It also makes them anxious, frightened and stressed. It takes away their independence and they become reliant on their partner.Ask any woman. She will be able to tell you a story of a friend, or a friend of a friend, who has some strange arrangement with her partner about the finances. An arrangement that sends a cold tingle up the skin. Because we’ve seen it before; soon, that strange arrangement turns dangerous.

Combating domestic abuse can’t stop at domestic violence. It needs to acknowledge emotional, psychological and economic abuse against women too. These forms of abuse diminish a woman, scare her, strip her of her self-esteem and independence and cause immense pain and suffering in families.

It’s not just words and it’s not just money.

This article originally appeared over on Debrief Daily.

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