It's common for couples to occasionally argue about money or bicker over bills. But if your partner is controlling when it comes to spending, discourages you from earning more money, or has begun controlling all the income in your relationship, it may be a sign of financial abuse.
"Financial abuse is the withholding of funds or refusing access to funds to a responsible partner," Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT, a therapist at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis, LLC, tells Bustle. "The aim of it is to gain control and dominance over one's partner or one's own fear and anxiety of losing money."
If you have a disagreement, and are able to work it out, then you likely have nothing to worry about. That said, "it's important to watch out for financial abuse because financial abuse is often symptomatic of other types of abuse, such as emotional and verbal," Williamson says. "It gives one partner power over the other, which leads to loss of trust, authenticity, and emotional intimacy in the relationship."
While talking to your partner may be helpful, if this is just one more thing in a trend of abuse, keep your safety in mind. And seek help. "I recommend seeking counseling, individual or marital counseling, with a therapist who specializes in financial abuse," Williamson says. "This can help to not only ensure each partner's safety and seek to restore the relationship, but also to address the underlying issues regarding one person's withholding of funds from the other, as well as empower the non-offending partner to advocate for themselves and set healthy boundaries." Or, if need be, speak with people you trust who can help you to leave the relationship. Here are a few signs of financial abuse, according to experts.
1. They Control All The Credit Cards
Some couples agree to have one person handle financial responsibilities, while the other does something equally important — and everything remains fair and balanced as a result. When it comes to financial abuse, though, it's common for one partner to control all the money (income, credit cards, etc.) in an unhealthy and manipulative way.
"If your partner is refusing to allow you access to credit cards or bank accounts, it's financial abuse," Williamson says. "This is financial abuse because your partner is seizing authority over you and not viewing you as an equal, nor trusting you enough to spend money in a healthy manner."
It may also be their way of ensuring you're totally dependent on them, so you can't leave the relationship. If you think this is happening to you, find the right time to reach out to someone for help.
2. They Get Weirdly Upset When You Spend Money
If your partner gets upset whenever you spend money — whether it's their money, your own money, or shared "couple" money — take it as a sign, especially if you've begun to live in fear of their reaction.
"If you fear your partner ... seeking retribution for a purchase you made, this is financial abuse," Williamson says. "You may feel tempted to hide purchases, use cash instead of credit, etc. for fear that you will be punished for making a purchase without your partner's approval."
While many couples create a budget and agree upon what's worth spending money on and what isn't, it's not healthy for one person to call all the shots — or get extremely angry or upset whenever money is spent.
3. They Control All Your Income
If your paycheck goes directly to your partner, or directly into their bank account without your consent, that's definitely financial abuse. This is true even if they paint it as a way of "helping" you learn how to control you finances, and if they say it's their way of helping you be organized.
"When one person has sole control over the finances it creates an unhealthy control element," Angel M. Hoodye, MS, LPCS, CART, owner of Flourishing Hope Counseling, tells Bustle. "The person that manages all of the finances has freedom and independence financially while the other person is dependent. This arrangement discourages independence for the person being financially abused."
4. They Have Too Much Say In Your Career
It's completely fine to chat about your career choices — especially if you're planning on getting married, and want to be financially stable down the road. (You might, for example, both agree not to go to grad school until you've purchased a house.) But there's a big difference between making joint plans, and your partner telling you what to do.
"A partner can take advantage of the money a partner earns, or they can employ tactics to prevent their partner from developing their own financial independence," Ashley Bendiksen, an abuse prevention educator, tells Bustle. One example, she says, includes a partner influencing your career in a way that would keep you dependent on them, possibly by discouraging you to go back to school.
5. They Harass You At Work
Another way to restrict financial freedom is by ruining your prospects at work, which may include them showing up at your place of employment to cause problems, make you look bad, etc.
"This often causes [people] to lose their jobs or causes major disruption when pursuing an education," Deborah J. Cohan, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, tells Bustle. "When [people] who are abusive violate their partners at work, they violate their partner's independence and restrict [their] movement in organizations in which [they] could have access to power and resources." And that's not OK.
6. They Spend Money Behind Your Back
Financial abuse can also be rooted in secretiveness. "Many times I hear from people looking for my advice, who find secret credit card accounts that their partner has opened and used without their knowledge or consent," New York–based relationship expert and author April Masini tells Bustle.
While it's fine for people to spend their own money, and buy things without telling their significant other, secretiveness can become a problem. Keeping secrets about joint funds can be abusive, Masini says. And you shouldn't have to go through that.
7. They Give You An Allowance
All couples are different in terms of how they divvy up money, who earns what, and so on. But if your partner controls all the money, and only provides access to an "allowance," it's likely an unhealthy situation — especially if your partner tells you how and when to spend it.
As Hoodye says, "A person experiencing financial abuse is under complete financial dependence on the provider of funds. If [they do] need money they may receive an allowance. They also may have to follow a strict protocol for spending. If additional funds are needed they may need to provide justification and provide each receipt for purchases." None of which is healthy.
8. They Keep You In The Dark
As far as bills, credit cards, and debts go, a financially abusive partner may intentionally keep you in the dark as a form of control. "When a person has no information about any of the financial inter-workings of their life they are not able to practice financial independence," Hoodye says. "Financial stability is a key element of a well-balanced life. When this element is unbalanced, additional worries arise."
9. They Often "Play Games"
There's a healthy way to split financial responsibilities in a relationship, and then there's the abusive way that involves games and manipulation.
"The overt financial abuser puts themselves in the role of gatekeeper of all the money," Shannon Thomas, therapist and author of Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon, tells Bustle. "Access is granted through them and often involves games of manipulation. The overt financial abuser is looking for power and domination in their relationship."
Games differ from person to person, but the goal is always the same. "The purpose of financial abuse is the abuser creating a world that meets their needs and is about their comfort," Thomas says. "Financial abusers lack empathy and true attachment to those around them. It is critical that people are aware of this form of harm because it has long-term devastating consequences for its victims, both emotionally [and] financially as well."
10. They're Hiding A Large Debt
Money issues can be difficult to talk about. But in healthy, long-term relationships, it's super important to open up and be honest with each other.
Without that honesty, it's possible to cross over into what's often called "financial infidelity," where one person lies about their money, or hides something important from their partner. For example, "you may discover debt you didn’t know about," psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, LMFT, PhD, tells Bustle, which can have a negative impact on your relationship.
Unlike other abusive situations, if they can learn to be more honest with you about debts going forward, the relationship can be salvaged. Therapy may be key here, as you both work through financial problems, and learn to be more transparent.
11. They Take Advantage Of Your Generosity
In financially abusive relationships, it's not uncommon for one or both partners to take advantage of each other's generosity. So take it as a sign if your partner seems to be using you for money.
"It’s OK to support your partner through school, or be the main support while your partner is child-rearing or temporarily out of a job, but [they] should be doing something to compensate," Dr. Tessina says. "Partners who are immature may see the relationship as financial support and do nothing to support themselves," which can lead one person to feel used.
Financial issues can take many forms, and not all of them are toxic in an unfixable way. But in general, "if your partner wants to control all the money, it’s a warning sign [of financial abuse]," Dr. Tessina says.
If it's to the point where it's no longer possible to talk to your partner about it — and your life is being negatively impacted — it may be a good idea to reach out to a therapist, and find a healthy way to exit the relationship.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.