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At 19, Emily was married. 7 years later, she left with just $17.50 in her account.

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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). 

The feature image used is a stock photo.

Emily* still remembers the day she bought the blue dress.

She had just lost her baby weight, and hadn’t spent any money on herself in a long time, when she came across the dress on a sales rack.

She was excited to have picked up such a good bargain; a beautiful maxi dress for everyday wear. At the time she was a married woman, with kids of her own, but Emily was still wearing a lot of the same clothes she wore as a teenager, living under her parents’ roof.

When she arrived home and showed the dress to her husband, his response was swift and brutal.

Emily is just one of thousands of people who have experienced domestic and financial abuse.

“I came home and I showed it to him and he was so angry,” she told Mamamia. “He told me I had to return it and I told him I couldn’t. So, he took the dress to the shop and abused the sales lady.”

When the saleswoman explained to Emily’s now ex-husband that she couldn’t give him a refund for a sales item, he threatened to attack the store manager’s car.

“You see that car outside? Do you think your manager would be more upset if you gave me $100 or if I demolished that car?” he asked.

“So that’s how he got his money back and I didn’t get the dress in the end,” Emily explained.

Emily was just 19 when she got married. She was studying graphic design at the time, but her new husband quickly convinced her to give up her studies.

“The first thing that happened – which I didn’t even recognise as abuse – he told me to quit my studies,” she explained. “I was studying graphic design and his exact words to me were ‘I will provide, you will not have to work a day in your life’.”

As a 19-year-old TAFE student, going straight from her parents’ home to her father-in-law’s house, Emily said this seemed too good to be true. At that age, she says, you’re not thinking about your future, about savings and superannuation, about the fact that one day you may have to escape your current situation.

Emily’s husband set them up with a joint account and she was given a weekly allowance. As they went on to have three kids together, that allowance did not increase.

“I still had to cover the childcare service with it, and whatever food we needed, and whatever clothes they needed,” she explained.

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Emily found that asking for any extra money would just lead to an argument, so she would spend less and less on herself to be able to cover the kids’ expenses.

“For childcare I had to pay cash. So I would take a little more than what I needed and put that aside for little bits and pieces here and there,” she said.

If Emily ever bought anything for herself, she would ask her friends to pretend they’d given it to her as a gift, or she would downplay how much it actually cost. When she was desperate for something, like nappies for her kids, she would ask her mum for money.

“If I bought something I would tell my friends not to tell him how much it was. I would say it was on sale and it was a lot cheaper,” she said.

“I couldn’t buy anything because he would think it was a gift from a man and get all jealous,” she added.

Emily’s husband constantly complained that they had no money because she didn’t work, but when she tried to earn an income so she could contribute to the family’s budget, he quickly shut it down.

“I did try to work once selling Tupperware, and in one week I made more than he made in a week, and he told me to stop straight away,” she explained.

“I just remember how excited I was when I got paid. And he said ‘nope, you can’t do it again’.”

Emily says that money immediately went into the joint account and she never got to spend it.

Unlike most people in their late teens and early 20s, Emily very rarely got to hang out with her friends. She never travelled, she rarely went to the movies, she didn’t get to wear the latest trends.

“I only had two friends that were approved, that I could be friends with,” she explained. “One I knew from before I met him. And one lived across the road, and he knew her better. They grew up together, so I couldn’t say anything bad about him to her.”

Emily could only meet her friend for a coffee, if the friend paid. Even then, she would tell her husband that she didn’t order anything.

The people in her life – her parents and that friend she’d meet for a coffee – had no idea what was really going on. They just thought the young couple were being frugal, putting away as much as they could so they could one day buy their own home and move out of the father-in-law’s house.

Emily says for the first few years she downplayed the situation. She was young and didn’t really understand what was happening and had been brought up to believe that the man looked after the finances.

As she got a little bit older, she began to open up to the people around her, but they didn’t really see her situation as abuse.

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“I remember I went to my parents crying one time after we’d had a fight and my dad told me to go home and apologise to my husband.”

signs of financial abuse
"My dad told me to go home and apologise to my husband." Image: Getty.

Emily says she stayed in the relationship because he would constantly promise her that things would get better. If he would get a promotion, they would finally have more money. They would eventually buy their own home and things would improve. Things will be easier when the kids are older. One day his father would die and they would get the house.

Even if she did want to leave, Emily didn't know where to start.

"How was I going to provide for my kids? I not only don't have any money or savings, but I also don't have any qualifications," she explained.

"I can't afford to work because the kids are so little. I can't afford rent. I don't even know where to start. How would I feed them. What kind of job would I be able to get having no experience whatsoever."

When Emily eventually left, she had only $17.50 in her bank account.

Her husband wouldn't let her take anything with her - not even the kids' beds. She got an apprenticeship which paid $7.50 an hour and started to rebuild their lives from scratch.

"In the end, money didn't matter. I just had to get out of there because I wasn't sure if I was going to get out alive," she explained.

"Even with $17.50 and taking on an apprenticeship for $7.50 an hour, I still managed to get through it and come out the other end."

After Emily left, her husband convinced her to meet with him. When she did, he attacked her. He bashed and stabbed her and kidnapped the kids. It was only then the people in Emily's life realised how dangerous the situation had been for her.

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"Once in a while I would bring it up with my dad and he would tear up," she said. "He would tear up and say 'I had no idea what it was like. I just assumed everything was fine and he was just saving and controlling the money so you guys could buy a house of your own'."

Emily says the warning signs were there, but because financial abuse is such an invisible form of abuse, her friends and family didn't know what to look for.

She says the fact that she couldn't meet her friends or family for a cup of coffee was a huge red flag.

"Living as I am now, everyone can afford a small cup of coffee," she says.

Wearing the same clothes all the time, not inviting people over, hiding her purchases, and having to lie about where she'd been and who she'd been with, were all warning signs.

Emily hopes that her story will encourage people to speak up if they think something isn't right.

"Don't be afraid because you could be saving a life. If it doesn't sit right with you, then it probably isn't right," she said. "Asking a question doesn't hurt. Let them know that you care and that they can talk to you."

"Make her feel comfortable by starting the conversation rather than waiting for her to start it."

It's been 13 years since Emily left her abusive marriage. While it took years for her to build up her confidence and let someone into her life again, she's now in a loving, equal partnership.

She says she'll never have a joint account again and is now more prepared for her own future.

"There's a lot of fear. Basically I want to make sure I'm never in that situation again."

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.

Feature image: Getty.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Instances of domestic and family violence often increase in times of disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be no exception globally, with financial abuse also likely to increase. To people experiencing domestic and financial abuse, CommBank has produced a guide about the impact of the coronavirus and domestic and family violence; with helpful information about financial abuse, pathways to support and useful suggestions about staying safe and staying connected. To find out more about financial abuse, please visit commbank.com.au/financialabuse

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