Couple arguing

Abusive behaviour of any kind is unacceptable in a relationship. 

However, financial abuse can be damaging as the practical consequences can be very serious - in the most extreme cases, involving people being denied access to funds, losing thousands of pounds, getting into severe debt or even being declared bankrupt. 

What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse is any circumstance where someone’s treatment of their partner’s finances (or their shared finances) results in their partner feeling controlled, trapped or undermined.

This kind of abuse can be conscious or unconscious. It might be part of a pattern of behaviour designed to keep someone from having too much independence and making decisions for themselves or this may be the unintended consequence of generally damaging behaviour. However, irrespective of intention, as with any other form of abuse - including physical or emotional - it’s the effects, rather than the intent, that define the behaviour as abusive. 

Financial abuse can vary in terms of seriousness. At one end of the spectrum, it might simply be habitually unhelpful or inconsiderate behaviour, such as occasionally spending money from the joint account without talking about it first. There’s room for debate here around whether the behaviour is abusive or simply unproductive. However, the way in which the other person is affected is crucial. If their self-esteem or ability to control their finances is seriously impacted, then it’s likely that an abusive pattern has formed. 

At the more serious end of the spectrum, financial abuse might involve things like not allowing someone to access money as a way of limiting their ability to do things for themselves, repeatedly taking significant amounts of money from a joint account without thinking about the consequences or taking big risks with shared money without talking about it. 

Gambling addiction is a common cause of financial abuse. This kind of addiction can cause people to spend significant amounts of shared money with little thought about the consequences. This can often be accompanied by a lot of secrecy: the gambler may try to conceal what they’re doing by hiding statements or letters. This kind of situation can also develop when someone takes risks with finances in order to start or maintain a business.

Similarly, partners experiencing drug or alcohol addiction can wreak havoc on a relationship, spending shared money to support their (often) secretive habits.

What effects does this have on a relationship?

The primary effect on a relationship is likely to be a deterioration of trust. The person on the receiving end of abusive behaviour may lose faith that their partner will always act in their best interests – often having accumulated plenty of evidence to support this. The behaviour degrades the sense of ‘team’ in the relationship and increases feelings of isolation and resentment.

It’s not just the fact that money has been taken or spent, but that their partner has been dishonest about it, sometimes repeatedly or for long periods of time. This breakdown of trust can lead to long-term resentment - especially if the other person doesn’t recognise their actions, take responsibility for them or even apologise. 

If one person is being seriously or deliberately abusive when it comes to finances, then the other person’s self-esteem, self-worth and confidence are likely to be seriously affected. If financial abuse has been taking place for a long time, this person is likely to feel like they’re trapped in the relationship with no way out. 

On a practical level, if the financial abuse has led to a significant amount of money being lost, the practical consequences can be massive: the family home might be lost, businesses may have to close, they may end up in serious debt, bills may go unpaid and so on. At this point, the feeling may be that the person who has been spending has torn apart their lives in a very real way - a perception likely to be much worse if there are children involved. 

Dealing with financial abuse

With financially abusive behaviour, the most important first step is to address the practical side of what’s happening. 

You’ll need to understand the extent of what’s going on before you’re able to tackle it. In cases where there has been a lot of secrecy surrounding finances, it can be difficult to fully know how much has been spent. If you’re able, try to take account of your finances: what’s been spent and when, and how much debt has been accumulated.

You may need to speak to a financial expert. Advice on this, as well as links to a number of free online resources, can be found in our article about debt

With most relationship issues, we would always recommend trying to get to a point where you and your partner are able to talk openly and honestly about what’s happening. 

However, this is only advisable if you think you’ll be able to do this without compromising your safety. If you feel like attempting to broach this topic could put you in danger, you may want to seek professional advice before proceeding. The National Domestic Violence Helpline is a 24/7 freephone number staffed by volunteers who can talk you through your options and help you think about next steps.  

You may also want to consider forming a safety plan. This involves thinking, in detail, about what you would need to do if your partner were to react in a threatening manner, including: 

  • Where you would talk, and where the exits are in the room. 
  • Who you could go to in order to be safe - this could be family, friends, colleagues or someone else you trust.
  • Practical arrangements such as travel and having clean clothes and money. 

If you feel that the situation doesn’t warrant this level of precaution, you may instead like to read our communication tips to try with your partner. This article will help you think about ways to broach difficult topics so that you and your partner are able to talk about what’s happening with the conversation turning into a big argument. 

How we can help

You may like to speak to one of our counsellors about financial abuse. Our Live Chat service allows you to speak to a counsellor online for free. 

And if you think it would be appropriate for your situation, you may like to think about attending Relationship Counselling. This can be a very useful way of discussing any issues in your relationship - even serious ones like this - and can be a great way of learning techniques for more effectively communication.