The Power of the Purse: Financial Abuse in Marriage

The Power of the Purse Financial Abuse in Marriage by Fabienne Swartz

{5:05 minutes to read} In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of knowing what you are signing when filing a joint tax return. While devastating, and potentially life altering, tax fraud is only one facet of financial abuse. In a large context, financial abuse can be found in every demographic, in every socioeconomic stratum. 

Put simply, financial abuse is the attempt of the abuser to control the victim by various financial means. Victims can be male or female but trend heavily toward stay-at-home moms who gave up their highest earning years to raise their children. 

Abusers often start their work with a smile. They may appear very caring as they offer some help to their victim, perhaps with balancing her checkbook or making a car payment. Over time, the charm attack develops into real attacksfinancial, verbal, or physical. 

Note: 98% of survivors of domestic violence were also victims of financial abuse. 

Further down I will present you with two fictional case studies—but before you read their stories, take in the following list of common tactics used by financial abusers: 

Forbidding the Victim to Work 

  • Sabotaging work or employment opportunities
  • Battering before meetings or interviews that are vital to the victim’s job
  • Forbidding the victim from attending job training or advancement opportunities 

Controlling the Money 

  • Not allowing the victim to access bank accounts; withholding money
  • Giving “an allowance,” and demanding the receipt from every purchase
  • Not including the victim in investment or banking decisions
  • Running up large amounts of debt on joint accounts
  • Withholding funds for the victim or children to obtain basic needs such as food and medicine 


  • Hiding assets
  • Taking bad credit loans
  • Forcing the victim to write bad checks or file fraudulent tax returns
  • Stealing the victim’s identity, property, or inheritance
  • Forcing the victim to work in a family business without pay
  • Forcing the victim to turn over public benefits or threatening to turn the victim in for “cheating” or misusing benefits
  • Filing false insurance claims 

Shirking Basic Responsibilities 

  • Refusing to work or contribute to the family income
  • Refusing to pay or evading child support or manipulating the divorce process by drawing it out by hiding or not disclosing assets
  • Refusing to pay bills and ruining the victim’s credit score 

Credit: National Network to End Domestic Violence 

Case Study 1 

Let’s take the case of Jay and Norah. Norah gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom seven years ago. Over that time, Jay has consolidated Norah’s “allowance” into one credit card with a $2,000 limit. The joint bank account they share has less than $100 in it, yet Jay is driving a BMW and recently bought a boat. When tax season came, Norah was surprised at how little money Jay had earned from his cash business, but she signed the forms anyway.  

A few months later, it was revealed that Jay underreported his income by $75,000. Norah was now held liable for the taxes on that income. She decided she could no longer stand being lied to and made a move to see a divorce attorney. Unfortunately, the going rate for retainers is $10,000, and her card has a limit of $2,000—and Jay would see the charge anyway, making it nearly impossible to prepare for divorce without him knowing. Norah feels trapped, with no income and no place to go. 

Case Study 2 

Financial abuse often goes hand in hand with psychological abuse. Angie and Kevin are divorcing after a 10-year marriage. Like Norah, Angie is completely dependent on her spouse financially. When she stated her desire for a divorce, Kevin indicated that he would question her sanity and fitness as a mother to the judge. Since then he has been trying to make Angie think she was crazy and unfit as a mother. This is sometimes referred to as gaslighting. 

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. 

He also taunts her with the fact that she has no money, and that a judge would never give her custody of their children because of it. 

Women like Norah and Angie have very few options to free themselves of their abuse. In both cases, child support would almost certainly be ordered, and possibly spousal support as well. But in order to receive any support, a lawyer needs to get involved. It is a significant hurdle to overcome, and unfortunately, borrowing money from friends and family may be the only way to accomplish it. 

Legal aid societies and women’s shelters are bursting at the seams with women in crisis. Much more needs to be done to fill the “donut hole” in support—that is, women who are not homeless or in physical danger, but are completely and utterly trapped in their marriages to monsters. 

Join me next time when I discuss how to avoid being financially dependent, and what steps you can take to dig yourself out of a relationship you fear may be sinking to untenable depths.

Fabienne Swartz JD (Belgium) CDFATM
Certified Divorce Financial AnalystTM
500 Mamaroneck Av.
Suite 320
Harrison, NY 10528
(914) 798-6940

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