Economic abuse. What is it, what are its affects and how could you protect yourself from it?

  • 21 December 2020
  • 15 minute read
  • Economic abuse has been formally recognised as a form of domestic abuse

  • It can have devastating consequences, but help is available

  • Maintaining some financial independence could help women become less vulnerable

The bruises of physical abuse are there for everyone to see. Or at least they would be. But as Healthy Place reported in May of 2019, the abused can go to a lot of trouble to hide them out of shame, or fear of further consequences if someone asked awkward questions. In December 2016, US broadcaster NPR carried a report about a Moroccan TV news article on how to do it. But there’s another type of domestic abuse, bringing similar feelings of shame that you may not have heard of: economic abuse.

What is economic abuse?

The new draft legislation defines economic abuse as any behaviour that has a “substantial adverse effect” on the victim’s ability to “acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or … obtain goods or services.” In non-legal speak it’s essentially domestic abuse that’s carried out by controlling someone’s money or other financial assets.

Is economic abuse the same as financial abuse?

The difference between economic abuse and financial abuse is very subtle. The underlying characteristic of both types of abuse is coercive control, however, economic abuse encompasses more than financial abuse. Signs of economic abuse can include impeding access to everyday essentials such as clothing or food, or limiting a person’s ability to improve their economic status through further education or employment.

How widespread is it?

The Cooperative Bank and the charity Refuge researched economic domestic abuse in 2015 and published the results in a report entitled Money Matters. It found that one in five adults in the UK has been the victim of economic abuse. It affects men and women of all ages, income levels and sexual orientations. Like all forms of domestic abuse, more women suffer than men, and they suffer more long-term economic abuse.

Examples of economic abuse

Economic abuse is often used as a controlling mechanism as part of a larger pattern of domestic abuse, which may include verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. By restricting the victim's access to economic resources, the offender has limited recourses to exit the abusive or violent relationship.

The charity Surviving Domestic Abuse explains that the abuse can be through control, exploitation or sabotage. This could be:

  • restricting someone’s access to money, work or education,

  • taking or using money without permission, or

  • borrowing in the victim’s name.

It can include not just money but the things that it can buy like food, clothing, transport and somewhere to live.

Whilst we might think of abuse in terms of physically or verbally threatening behaviour, many abusers are more subtle and use coercion and manipulation to control their partners as reported in May of this year by the website verywellmind.

Is economic abuse a crime?

In January 2019, the UK government included economic abuse within its legal definition of domestic abuse, and is in the process of updating legislation relating to it. This formal recognition will hopefully increase awareness, help address the problem, and enable the police to intervene and investigate.

What are the effects of economic abuse?

Economic abuse can have devastating consequences. As well as financial loss, women often experience hardship. In the 2019 report The Economics of Abuse, Women’s Aid said that nearly half of the women they spoke to said they didn’t have enough money to pay for basic essentials, like food and bills, while they were with their abusive partner.

Many women end up using their savings for daily essentials, relying on family members, and sometimes walking away from their own money in order to end the relationship. The Women’s Aid report also found that a third of respondents had to give up their home as a direct result of the abuse they had suffered, or to allow them to leave the relationship. And nearly one in five were prevented by their abusive partner from having paid employment or studying.

Debt can play a central role in economic abuse with some abusers taking money from the victim to pay their own debts, or running up debts in their victim’s name. And the report shines a light on the many women who have been forced to use credit to survive.

What are the signs of economic abuse?

Economic abuse can affect every aspect of a victim’s life and may be experienced in different ways. The traditional vision of economic abuse is of a dominant partner who takes total control of the joint finances, never sharing what’s going on, and leaving their other half feeling ignorant and vulnerable. But also think about an elderly wife who would like to downsize to gain a more comfortable lifestyle, but her partner insists on staying in their larger home, scraping by.

Or consider the seemingly successful businessman who managed to take out loans secured against the family home by manipulating his wife into signing remortgage papers, and putting her in a highly unsecure position.

By removing victims’ financial freedom, abusers leave them dependent and often feeling unable to leave the relationship.

This in turn can affect a victim’s mental health making them feel isolated, trapped, and lacking in confidence.

What should you do about it?

Take it seriously. Women taking part in the Women’s Aid Survivor Voice Survey said that above everything else, they wanted to be listened to, believed, and taken seriously.

Report it to the police . If you’re in immediate danger call 999 for the police. If you can’t speak safely and want to make a silent emergency call, dial 999 and when you’re prompted, dial 55. Report every incident of abuse so the police can keep a record.

Seek help and support from organisations . There are organisations that can help you access money, daily essentials, financial, legal and debt advice, and benefits.

Refuge runs a 24-hour free national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 Women’s Aid offers advice and local support services.

Money Advice Plus and Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) run a support line for victims on 01323 635 987. The SEA website has details of other organisations that can help.

Protecting yourself from economic abuse

You don’t have to put up with economic abuse. There are a number of things you can do that can help to untangle yourself from the situation.

Seek legal and financial advice . Professional advice can prove reassuring and help you move forward. You may need legal advice to apply for a non-molestation order or an occupation order, legal aid or arrange separation or divorce. A financial adviser could help put your finances in order and plan for the future.

Locate important documents and keep them safe . Having key documents on hand like passports, driving licence, birth and marriage certificates, bank and credit card statements, tax and national insurance documents, bills and any documents showing ownership will make sorting out your finances easier. If you can’t keep the originals make copies, or note account numbers.

Keep evidence . Keep notes about each incident and take photos of anything relevant, as long as it’s safe to do so.

Talk to your financial organisations . Banks, building societies, pension and mortgage companies and other financial providers may be able to help you. For example, you can ask your bank to only take joint instructions from all account holders, or the main account holder on a joint credit card. Change your passwords.

Doing a free online credit report can show your financial connections and what credit has been taken out in your name.

How can you avoid economic abuse?

Be aware. Just knowing that this kind of thing goes on, and can happen to anyone, is really important.

Take care in your relationships. Be cautious and watch for early signs of controlling behaviour. Make sure you feel really confident before you combine your finances in any way. Not just in terms of joint accounts, but moving in together and, especially, having children. That has huge financial implications.

Maintain a level of independence. Even if you’re happy that things are fine, keep some degree of ‘separateness’ in your finances. You could, for example, keep separate main bank accounts, and pay an agreed sum into a joint household account. Keep some savings in your name only. Protect access to your phone, email and other accounts.

Consider carefully before giving up your work or financial independence completely. Usually it’s appropriate to make sure your name is on key shared owned items like your home, so it’s clear that the asset also belongs to you.

Know what’s going on. Have a good level of awareness about how your joint finances are organised, so that if you do decide to split, you know what needs to be shared out. It’s not unreasonable to insist that you know what’s going on and that you’re happy it’s being appropriately managed.

Recognise what’s reasonable. The British are generally reticent to talk about money with each other, finding it harder than talking about than our mental health. But we could all benefit from being a bit more comfortable talking about our financial situation. If everyone develops an understanding of what a “normal” financial relationship looks like, it could help us avoid and recognise abusive situations. Either in our own relationship or in that of our friends and relatives.

Cutting the ties that bind: divorce is getting easier

According to, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 gained Royal Assent and passed into law in June 2020. This aims to make it easier for couples to divorce. It removes two historical issues.

According to a Ministry of Justice report from May 2019, it removes the requirement for one party to be shown to be at fault, paving the way for “no-blame” divorces.

It will also no longer be possible for one of the parties to contest a divorce brought on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. As the Justice department puts it:

“Marriages are not saved by the ability of one spouse to ‘contest’ a divorce in court. Very few divorces are contested but this practice is known to be misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour.”


Economic abuse is a form of control that leave its victim powerless to leave a relationship. It can cause stress, anxiety and a sense of low self esteem. By learning to recognise the symptoms we might be able to rescue ourselves or others from its grasp.

Having control of your financial situation – rather than having it controlled for you – is one aspect of healthy financial wellbeing. Every one of us deserves to feel secure in our financial futures. Taking control of our personal wealth means we can budget for the present and plan the future life we want to lead.

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