At its most basic, economic abuse is any form of abuse involving money. The classic example is in domestic violence situations, where one partner may make a point of controlling the family’s money so that nobody can leave. Besides neglect, economic abuse may be the least visible form of abuse. There are no public service announcements about it. There are no helpful pamphlets detailing signs that economic abuse is taking place. So let’s start out by naming a few here, in the context of an adult relationship.

If one partner is....

  • not "allowed" to get a job or go back to school, or not allowed to choose their own job or area of study;
  • kept in the dark about how much income their partner has;
  • denied access to information like account numbers and payment arrangements;
  • given no part in decisions about how the family’s money is spent;
  • consistently dependent on their partner for their financial needs;
  • loaning their partner money and never seeing it again;
  • entirely responsible for their partner’s financial needs;
  • unable to get credit because their partner has defaulted on household loans or expenses;
  • losing or never seeing income or personal belongings that their partner is stealing from them, whether silently, openly, or through binge-spending;
  • disturbed at work by calls or visits against their will from their partner;
  • at risk of losing their job because their partner threatens to share inappropriate information or lies about them with their employer;
  • required to ask for any money they need;
  • required account to their partner for everything they spend even though their partner does not do the same;

...then they are being economically abused.

Like most forms of abuse, economic abuse is often but not always paired with emotional abuse. It is easy to say, “I would never let someone tell me I couldn’t take whatever job I wanted or keep me out of financial decisions!”, but rarely is the setup that blatant. It may even seem kind to begin with. Perhaps you don’t have as much income, and your partner generously handles all the bills. Maybe you naturally defer to them on big purchases because after all, it is their money. Maybe you start out on even footing but slide into this position of unequal power as one partner stays home to take care of children, becomes disabled, goes back to school, or is laid off. Perhaps you are the one who makes more, and extend your hospitality to your partner, covering their rent or their utilities or even food - "just for a while." Or it may seem minor, even natural, next to the other abuse which has become an intrinsic part of the relationship.

The first step in ending abuse is to recognize it, and the effects it has. We will be examining the effects of abuse later on, but there is one which is important here: anger, which can manifest as defensiveness and even denial. If you feel angry and defensive when reading these lists, grumbling to yourself that I don’t know you or your partner, or that there were special circumstances that made everything on that list perfectly reasonable, or that you can’t call this abuse, you may want to be aware that that is not the reaction of someone who has never been abused.

Economic abuse can occur in adult/child relationships as well. Some simple examples of economic child abuse include:

  • having to pay for your own food, clothing, housing, medicine, health care, or other basic needs;
  • missing school in order to work;
  • being required to work either in a family business or to earn outside income for the family;
  • being unpaid or underpaid for such work;
  • losing money as a result of broken agreements around chores, allowance, and other financial matters;
  • being asked to loan money to your parents or other adults;
  • never seeing that money again;
  • not having your physical needs for food, clothing, housing, medicine, health care, or other basic needs met at all;
  • losing money as a result of your parents or other adults stealing it;
  • being forced into sex work to earn money for the family.

Many of us will look at that list and protest that sometimes parents simply can’t help not being able to meet their children’s needs. It is certainly true that sometimes parents feel trapped in low-income situations. Sometimes adults make a series of bad decisions, or find themselves thrust into bad situations as a result of natural disasters and other emergencies. Sometimes a government’s way of handling these situations seems to trap the victims or make things worse. However, placing the burden of these situations on children is always abuse and always wrong.

Handling traumatic situations is very much like writing a sonnet. In sonnets and other formally structured poems, the limits that we place on the situation paradoxically give us tremendous freedom. As we accept a few specific rules, we become able to see all the options that we are not restricted from using. At the opposite extreme, when writing free verse, poets often end up using the same few tricks and making the same sets of mistakes over and over; their apparent complete freedom can bewilder them. Having principles of our own choosing guides us toward experimentation, while having no set rules leaves us wandering in confusion and giving ourselves rules that don’t work.

It is the same with trauma. We always have a very large number of options available to us, but all too often we are sure that we are stuck in the situation at hand. We may even put tremendous amounts of energy into finding reasons that no other option will work. However, if we are determined to do anything to prevent our children from being adversely affected, we begin to be able to see that the choices we had rejected before might actually work. When we are willing to put our energy into preventing any harm to them, we start looking more closely at our options, gathering information on resources we never knew existed, pressing points that we had formerly given up on, and trying things we had never before been willing to consider.

If we have children, we must also be willing to put our energy into refusing abuse to ourselves. Abusive acts never happen in a vacuum. If we are abusing ourselves by not making sure our needs are met, whether physically, emotionally, or otherwise, then we are not fully available to support, nurture, and love our children. If we are staying in an abusive relationship at home, work, or elsewhere in our lives, we are not just teaching our children that it is reasonable to expect and accept abuse; we are also exposing them to abusive people and depleting the emotional resources that we have to offer them. In that spirit, let’s take a moment to look at another kind of economic abuse: abuse which occurs at work.

Abuse in the workplace may look like simple emotional abuse, but it carries one of the clearest hallmarks of economic abuse: the abuser has economic power over the victim such that they may seem to be unable to meet their needs if they leave the abusive relationship. Often it does not look so clear. Workplace abuse can come from co-workers at any level, from subordinates to CEOs, and might involve:

  • performance pressure, in which the expectations for an employee’s performance rise as far as they can, without recognition or reward, until the employee is punished for not being able to exceed the final set of expectations;
  • shaming or punishing employees who make mistakes;
  • sexual harassment;
  • discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, sexuality, physical or mental abilities, et cetera;
  • refusal to pay for work performed, including overtime;
  • threats of violence, whether joking or serious;
  • threats of any kind, such as using the threat of layoffs to demand that employees work harder or longer, especially without a commensurate increase in pay;
  • pay that is below a living wage for its area;
  • pay that is considerably below the standard for the work performed;
  • refusal to communicate clearly about expectations;
  • denial of benefits for any reason, including forcing employees to work fewer hours than they are able to in order to avoid paying them benefits;
  • requiring employees to lie on behalf of the company or their supervisors or other co-workers;
  • yelling or insults;
  • outsourcing departments.

None of the items on these lists are options. If we are to truly face abuse, we have to accept that as our most basic premise. There is no situation which can justify any of the above acts. As adults, we have a double responsibility: we have to refuse to abuse others, and we have to refuse to condone abuse against ourselves.

It has only been perhaps twenty-five years since people began talking openly about any kind of abuse and sharing what they did to recover from it. We do not have a very large pool of information from which to draw. But one of the lessons that people have discovered over and over in that time has been that no matter how limited our options seem, no matter how little we know about what else can happen for us, it is not until we refuse to get involved with even potentially harmful acts that the cycle of abuse ends. It is only then that we are truly free to heal; it is only then that we can end abuse completely.

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