Nicole* was 16 when she met Ian*. He was 21 and her manager at her part-time job. Immediately, she was smitten. After a turbulent childhood, Ian offered her the stability she so desperately craved. He was charming and attentive, and showered her with gifts. Like many of us of a certain age, Nicole was brought up on a diet of '90s rom-coms, where big romantic gestures were held up as the hallmark of a good relationship. When Ian proposed just a few weeks after they met, it was a dream come true; this was her happily ever after.
Unless you happen to be a millionaire, the fantasy of falling in love with a rich person – or at the very least, someone richer than yourself – has probably entered your consciousness at some point or another. Maybe it was at the beginning of a particularly crappy shift after a beautiful bank holiday weekend in the sun, or as you watched all your hard-earned cash leave your bank account at the end of the month to pay for rent. It’s a 'dream' scenario for many people, second only to the idea of winning the lottery. Wouldn’t it make everything so much easier? we think.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but...probably not. The main problem is that where there’s money, there’s almost always power. In the context of a relationship, this means that either one partner is inherently more powerful than the other or that the other party may find it hard to disentangle themselves should things go sour, which creates a fertile ground for abuse. This is not to say that all relationships where one partner earns more than the other are abusive – the majority of couples navigate these circumstances in a healthy way. But when you factor in the existence of the gender pay gap, whereby institutional discrimination against women limits their earning potential compared with their male colleagues – and the fact that women are far more likely than men to fall victim to domestic abuse – these facts start to look more like cause and effect.
New research released in May by YouGov paints a grim picture: around a third of all women with a partner are entirely (6%) or somewhat (29%) financially dependent on their other half. Perhaps more surprisingly, the survey found that one in five women in full-time work say they are financially dependent on their partner – and a staggering three in five say they wouldn’t cope well financially in a break-up.
"He seemed so mature," Nicole reflects in a Twitter DM. "He created an illusion of wealth; he had a nice car, no regard for how much he spent on meals out, a luxe lifestyle and expensive clothes. He also appeared to have the 'perfect' family who welcomed me with open arms." Young and with little family support, Nicole had never been taught financial literacy or how to manage money. No one had ever told her about red flags. So when she returned to work after having their first child a year or so into the relationship and Ian arranged for her wages to be paid into his account, she thought nothing of it. "My mum did the same thing with my dad's wages. I thought it was normal for one partner to assume total control of the household finances, and what most couples did."
Soon, though, cracks began to form in the relationship as Ian showed more signs of controlling behaviour. He would impose harsh rules on who Nicole could spend time with, when and how – even at work – and she lost a string of jobs as a result. In the meantime, Ian was taking out loans in Nicole’s name, including a mortgage. "I didn't have an allowance, and would have to ask him if I needed money for bus fares or baby clothes," she says. With two kids, no income, a quickly deteriorating relationship and no family money to fall back on, Nicole was stuck.
There’s a name for what Nicole suffered: economic abuse. According to Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at Refuge, more needs to be done to raise awareness about it. "From our Know Economic Abuse 2020 Report with The Co-operative Bank we know that two out of five adults in the UK (39%) have experienced economically abusive behaviour from a current or former partner," she explains. "However, only 16% of people recognise their experiences as domestic abuse," she continues, identifying a need for people to be made aware that this is a form of domestic abuse and is a crime.
It took Nicole a long time to come to terms with the fact that her relationship had been abusive. Flattened mentally from years of abuse, she finally broke one day and left. She soon discovered that Ian had defaulted on thousands of pounds worth of debt in her name, which had a seriously negative impact on her credit rating so borrowing money wasn’t an option. "I looked at my options and was told by our local authorities that I was facing a seven to eight-year wait for social housing," she explains. "I ended up getting a minimum wage part-time job and staying at my dad’s for two and a half years. Eventually the girls and I privately rented a tiny house in poor condition."
"The effects of economic abuse can be devastating and long-lasting," says King, "often including large debts, bad credit ratings and housing problems alongside the impact on physical and mental health." This, she says, can continue long after leaving a perpetrator.
It took a decade for Nicole to pay off all her debt. "I wish I'd known how important it can be to retain financial independence before all of this," she says.
The latest available data on the gender pay gap from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is from April 2020 – just as the pandemic was really starting to bite. Among all employees, the gender pay gap fell from 17.4% in 2019 to 15.5% in 2020. As a measurement tool used to analyse inequality, it is calculated by taking the difference between the average hourly earnings of men and women in full-time work as a proportion of the average hourly earnings of men, and does not compare people working in the same position. Despite previous forecasts that the pay gap would continue to narrow over the course of 2020, we all know what happened next. Evidence abounds that the economic repercussions of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on women, with UN Women last year warning that a year living in the pandemic could wipe out 25 years of progress on gender equality globally.
In such a context, women are more vulnerable than ever when it comes to falling into (and getting out of) economically abusive relationships, says King. "We expect it to be a growing problem as the financial impact of the pandemic continues to take its toll on the country," she explains. "We know that 1.6 million adults have seen economic abuse begin during the COVID-19 pandemic, with redundancies and furlough putting pressure on people’s finances." What exactly qualifies as economically abusive behaviour? "It can include the restriction of a person’s income, prohibiting access to their bank accounts or interfering with their ability to work, misuse of personal or joint funds, controlling someone’s spending or incurring debts on a person’s behalf without their consent or knowledge."
Lacking the financial capital to be able to leave a relationship doesn’t always mean that you’re in an abusive situation, of course. It does limit your freedom, though, which carries its own negative consequences, such as feelings of fear and anxiety. Agathi* is in what she considers to be a happy relationship but says she could not afford to leave her partner if anything changed. "We actually earn about the same," she tells me but because they are tied into a 12-month rental contract, she knows they would incur fees if they had to break it. "I have no leftover income to afford much between my train and my rent, so there’s little scope for back-up savings," she says. "The only way [out] would be to use credit cards but I’ve lived with credit card debt before and it took a magnificent toll on my mental health." It makes her feel scared, she says. "My parents are currently going through a very nasty divorce because they didn’t have the opportunity to go their separate ways when they started realising it wasn’t meant to be," she explains. "Obviously I’m happy at the moment but I worry we could end up like them, resenting each other, trapped in a life that makes us miserable."
So what can be done? Ellie Austin-Williams is a financial coach and runs Instagram account This Girl Talks Money, where she aims to break down the taboo that often stops women from openly discussing money, thereby empowering them to gain financial independence. "One of the major factors inhibiting women is a lack of financial education," she explains. "Along with the gender pay gap and wealth gap, studies have also highlighted a financial literacy gap." She believes that "understanding how to manage your money and make the best financial decisions for your situation is key to empowering women financially."
Austin-Williams advises women to "face up to the numbers and where you are at right now," adding that it’s never too late to start learning. "The financial services landscape is confusing. Remember that financial wellbeing isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing journey and it looks different at each stage of your life." Nicole, now happily married and in a much healthier position with regards to her financial management, agrees. "I now use a budgeting spreadsheet, have my own savings and no joint account – and we pay 50/50 into all bills and family holidays," she says. She is also careful to speak openly with her daughters about money to teach them better habits. "I encourage them to always have a small pot of savings just for them."
The most important thing is to be aware of your financial situation and what can be done to get into better shape if you struggle. On Instagram alone, there are hundreds of accounts that offer tips and tricks on how to manage your finances. Just be sure to follow the guidance of qualified professionals only. "If you are experiencing behaviour which makes you feel you are being denied financial independence by your partner then it’s likely you are suffering economic abuse," says King. Nicole wishes she’d learned more when she was young about how money can increase or diminish your independence. "I had no idea about how much money can also be connected to power and control," she concludes. "Without either of those, your options and freedom can become incredibly limited."
If you are affected by domestic abuse, you are not alone. You can access free and confidential support from Refuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and digital support via live chat, Monday to Friday, 3-10pm via nationaldahelpline.org.uk. To find out more about economic abuse, visit charity Surviving Economic Abuse for help and information.
*Name has been changed to protect identity