Theresa May recently announced her intention to strengthen domestic violence laws around coercive and controlling behaviour that leads victims to doubt themselves, following the death of 28-year-old Natalie Lewis-Hoyle, the daughter of the House of Commons' deputy speaker, who had been in a "toxic" coercive relationship before she died.
The domestic violence charity Women's Aid routinely calls on the government to focus on raising awareness of the different types of violence that goes on behind closed doors, which can include controlling behaviour, emotional manipulation, psychological abuse and financial control. Gaslighting has been in the headlines a lot recently (in reference to 'Love Island' and the Claire Foy film 'Unsane'), but we tend to hear less about financial abuse in relationships.
"Economic abuse can take many forms and often survivors don’t recognise it until it has escalated to the point when the barriers to leaving seem insurmountable," Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, told Refinery29 UK. "Economic abuse is the exploitation of a survivor’s income and time: from forcing them to pay wages into the abuser’s bank account, or preventing the survivor from going to work or completing their studies. It can also include using or misusing their money, withholding or denying access to money and financial monitoring." A report by the charity in 2015 found that 77% of financial abuse survivors' mental health had suffered, almost three-quarters (71%) of financial abuse survivors went without essentials and 61% were in debt.
But 'professional' women in employment can also be financially abused. One such survivor is 29-year-old Sophie, 29, whose ex-boyfriend of nearly five years used coercive control, physical and sexual violence and financial abuse tactics to control her. Her ex, whom she met at university, didn't work for much of their relationship and she gave him whatever money he asked for to pacify him and prevent further abuse. Here, she shares her story with Refinery29 UK.
My ex was my first serious relationship and he hadn't been in a relationship before at the time we got together, so neither of us really knew what was acceptable in a relationship. He had a difficult relationship with his mum and didn't have anywhere else to go, so he moved in with me after six months. I wasn't keen on the idea as it was so soon but didn't want him to be homeless, so I let it happen. In retrospect there were red flags I could have seen, like his anger and stress over minor things. The abuse started within three months of him moving in and built up from there. He'd push and hit me, and he raped me twice as a punishment, which I didn't recognise as rape at the time. The abuse was also emotional and psychological – he'd use things I'd told him in confidence against me to ensure I let him stay. He'd also blame me for his anger and would say things like "You're winding me up".
I was financially supporting him in some way for five years and for the last six months of the relationship, he was unemployed or doing low-wage work. We were in a joint contract for our flat, so I'd have to pay all the rent or else we'd get evicted and I'd get a bad reference from my landlord. He should've been getting statutory sick pay but there was an admin error with his work so he wasn't receiving it and it was a thing he'd have to chase up, but he refused; after that I suggested he sign up for jobseeker's allowance, which would've meant not having to live on zero income. But he refused that as well and it was really frustrating knowing the statutory sick pay was just sitting there unclaimed. I was about 25 at the time and on a recent graduate income, so it was difficult supporting both of us while he wasn't at work.
If I gave him £50 or £100 and he went out with that money at least I could spend that time by myself and he wouldn't be at home threatening me.
During this time he was very depressed and really difficult to live with, so often I'd just give him money to buy what he wanted because I knew that would make him calmer. If I gave him £50 or £100 and he went out with that money at least I could spend that time by myself and he wouldn't be at home threatening me. He relied on drink and drugs to calm himself down, both of which are expensive, so there were times when he'd ask for money to go out for drinks or pick up drugs, and again it was easier for me to just give him the money. Ultimately I knew if I did that and he went out, had a good time and felt calm, then my evening would be safe.
It's good that financial abuse is now being labelled and talked about as a separate form of abuse, but most of the examples given at the moment are in a family setting with a woman who doesn't have a job or has kids and is reliant on her husband or a male partner, and that's seen as a reason why she might be reluctant to leave. But in my relationship I was the main breadwinner, I made more money than my partner and he didn't have control over my bank account or have any direct hold over me financially.
It's made me more cautious – even over-cautious – about financial arrangements with partners.
The impact of the relationship on me has been good and bad. Obviously I'd rather it hadn't happened but it made me aware that so many people have experienced domestic abuse and it's given me a drive to go and change. I regret the fact that it happened in my early 20s. I'm 30 this year but sometimes I feel quite a lot younger because I missed out on the typical 20s experience of just having fun. I was incredibly stressed and worried about what was going to happen when I got home a lot of the time, which affected my career and every decision I made. In a way what happened was good for my career as I'm now a campaigner but previously I was working in a completely different sector and didn't feel able to talk about what had happened.
The experience also affected my relationship with money. I regret financially supporting my ex for a large chunk of my adult life and it's made me more cautious – even over-cautious – about financial arrangements with partners. I used to be very open to sharing money with my family and partner and I used to think people in a relationship should share stuff like that, but now I think I was just naive.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.