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How do I know if I'm experiencing financial abuse?

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This blog article is by Dr. Becky Davenport with the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement in San Antonio, a mental health professional who works with the Law Office of Lisa A. Vance on select cases.

In over 20 years of working with couples, I have seen many couples in conflict over money and spending. In the vast majority of these couples, communication and interactions about money and spending mirror their communication and interactions about other topics, such as parenting, sex, sharing household tasks, extended family relationships and other common conflict areas. Working through conflicts about money is done through the development of healthy, effective communication that allows both partners to be heard, respected, and secure in the relationship and navigate decision making together.

However, some couples who present with financial conflict as a key concern are not simply stuck in negative communication- one partner is actually using money and access to resources as a means of control and manipulation in the relationship.

What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse is occurring when one partner withholds information about the couple's finances or allows access to minimal funds in order to perpetuate dependence and control. This abusive behavior may be driven by fear instead of a desire to harm, but the consequences on the partner and relationship remain the same. It is important to note that under some circumstances, such as active addictions, limiting access to money and resources can be appropriate and would not constitute financial abuse.

Let's first start with some basics about marriage and money.

Although it is common for couples to have one spouse who takes more responsibility for paying bills, making investment decisions, and monitoring bank balances, both people in a relationship should have access to information and shared management of joint bank accounts, credit card accounts, and other information regarding their shared assets and debts. Since Texas is considered a community property state, the money that each person in a married couple makes is considered a shared asset. And, since tensions and disagreements about money are one of the biggest issues that lead couples to divorce, it's better to talk about money than not talk about it. These are important conversations for couples to learn how to have together- the earlier in the relationship the better.

If a couple is willing to work on a marriage where financial abuse is potentially an issue, it obviously has to start with the person who is controlling the financial access to understand what is driving the behavior and this individual hearing from his or her partner that the abusive behavior is not acceptable and must stop. It's very possible that a person engaging in financial abuse might not think of himself or herself as an abuser. In some cases, the person might be controlling access out of anxiety and fear, thinking along the lines of, "If I don't have control over this, I don't know how to trust that things are going to be okay." Money, by definition, is a limited resource in our lives, which means it is very easy for a scarcity mindset to dominate, and any spending behavior be perceived as a threat to financial security.

Addressing this underlying anxiety, alongside clear boundaries for behavior in the relationship, is an important part of healthy change. In order to be capable of setting boundaries in the relationship, the partner who had been abused financially may likely benefit from therapeutic support to recover (or even discover) his or her voice and confidence in himself or herself.

It is not uncommon for abuse victims, including those who experience financial abuse, to have been affected by their partner's narrative to justify the abuse. For example, they may not believe they are smart enough to understand information about banking account activity or bills. Trust in self is a fundamental necessity for a healthy relationship and for trust and security to be created in the relationship between the partners.

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