Early in our marriage, my husband and I worked cooperatively on budgeting and saving. We came to an understanding that neither of us would make any major purchases until we discussed them and agreed upon them. But as the years passed, something shifted – and not in a good way.
When balancing our checkbook virtually every month, I would discover significant cash withdrawals that my husband had made, but with nothing material to show for them. When asked where the money was going, he would reply, “Good things. All good things.”
On many evenings, as I paid the bills and tried to budget the little that remained, I had to will myself not to cry. My husband would walk by me sitting there, pat me on the shoulder and say patronizingly, “You’ll figure it out.” And, yes, I always found a way to make ends meet, but barely. I suppose he knew I would, which only substantiated his increasingly spend-aholic ways.
Then there were the times later in our marriage when I found large sums of money stashed away in a drawer or the linen closet. When confronted, he would say that that was his money, perhaps from a bonus he said he had received at work. Not only did I not believe him, but it didn’t matter to me where the money came from when our household had legitimate needs. I reminded him that he had a wife and children who should be a priority, but he usually dismissed me and affirmed that he had more important things in mind – like buying a new shotgun or saving for a new set of conga drums. Month after month money continued to mysteriously disappear from our bank account.
After the divorce, it became apparent that at least a portion of those funds had been spent at local strip clubs. But even that couldn’t account for one-tenth of the financial – and emotional – damage the man had done to me and our children.
Recognizing that the abuser’s desire for power and control are at the core of the abusive relationship, it should come as no surprise that finances will likely be impacted as well.
No matter how conscientious and forbearing the abuser’s* spouse may be, she may be faced with the painful understanding that her mate’s needs and desires tend to be of greater import than those of his wife and children. It is another aspect of the dynamic that we as hyper-responsible victims attempt to reason away, trying to assume that the man has good intentions and just needs to be educated, as it were, on good financial management and responsibility. We believe that by setting a good example we will ultimately incite our spouse to adopt a more balanced financial approach.
Unfortunately, however, the primary principles that govern the abuser’s thought process with regard to finances seem to be these:
- Money is another form of power he intends to utilize for his own benefit.
- He doesn’t care how his monetary decisions affect anyone else.
Let’s look at some of the underlying principles and practices within the abuse dynamic.
The Insatiable Narcissist
From my experience, I am inclined that many, if not most, abusers are narcissists. Narcissists are constantly looking for stimulus from someone or something – a source of supply, so access to money is vital to feed his inner emptiness addiction. The contented glow he assumes after purchasing some new toy or pursuing a new hobby or immediate source of pleasure he believes will make him happy quickly wears off. So he must constantly pursue new relationships, adrenaline-inducing experiences or material possessions in his vain effort to fill the bottomless pit in his heart. Unfortunately, from my experience, there is nothing and no amount of money that can ever procure what is necessary to fill that pit (other than God). This also means that he must do everything in his power to commandeer how the majority of funds are spent so as to ensure that he gets what he wants before the money is spent on something or someone else. It is that important to him. Not all abusers are this extreme; nevertheless, this dynamic is important to understand.
When it comes to employment, there are several scenarios that are common, and every one of them is impacted by the abuser’s desire for power and control. And of course, there are countless variables that may come into play.
The Owner: This guy brings home a hefty income and provides his wife with every nicety. But he is not a nice guy. This man’s wife may describe him as “difficult” or perhaps “high-maintenance,” which is generally her code word for “abusive.” Although she wears a stunning diamond wedding ring, drives a nice new car and lives in a beautiful home, she is not happy.
He imposes limits upon her freedom, has severe expectations about how his household should be managed, and endeavors to control her relationships while making sure that, when appropriate, she presents a carefully crafted image of perfection for family and any guests. Should she dare to petition him to be kinder toward her, he will remind her of all of the material comforts she enjoys as a result of his hard work and generosity. The owner’s wife wonders if she is being ungrateful if she acknowledges that she fears her husband rather than respects him. She is essentially his possession, and she knows that, if she leaves, others may view her as petty and unappreciative. Not even lavish material benefits can compensate for a life lived with an abuser.
The Control Freak: In cases where the abuser is the sole provider, the control freak especially believes he has a divine right to decide how all resources are spent, and the lion’s share will be claimed by him. He may put his wife on a tight budget. Any funds beyond that are strictly subject to his priorities. If she is forced to grovel for his favor, that only assures him of his power. Groveling won’t necessarily incite him to be more financially gracious, and he may place conditions and limits on any expenditures to which he consents.
In cases where both partners work, the abuser will assert his role as “the man of the house” and assume a divine right to decide how the majority of the money is spent. Again, if there is something he wants or needs, that takes precedence, even if it means that basic necessities are sacrificed, including the children’s needs for new clothes, shoes, food or school supplies.
The User: Finally, there are those situations where the abuser prefers to allow his spouse to support him. In many cases, although the abuser is for all intents and purposes employable, he seems unable to find or hold a job. He may wander in and out of various professions only to lose interest or end up getting laid off, perhaps due to a poor work ethic although he will complain of “poor management” or insinuate that the people he worked with were “out to get him.” Some abusers choose higher education as their escape of choice and might dabble in several majors before deciding that nothing appeals to them.
Over time, these abusers grow accustomed to being financially supported and rationalize the benefits of remaining home, whether to maintain the household or take care of kids. This scenario may be perfectly workable if you’re dealing with a healthy person, but the abusive personality is still primarily concerned about his own well-being, and it shows. For him, this situation isn’t about serving but receiving.
This type appreciates the freedom that comes from not working, as it allows him to make his own schedule and priorities while allowing his wife to pay his way. But he also makes it clear to his victim that, should she decide to divorce him, he will make sure she compensates him for all of the “sacrifices” he has made.
All of these situations are under-girded by an entitlement mentality whereby the abuser believes he has the right to decide what he will do and when without any input from his victim who is simply expected to accommodate whatever he decides. She will learn, likely with no small measure of discomfort, that she has almost no voice in these matters. You can bet he will always be able to rationalize his while victim feels powerless, taken for granted and financially insecure.
It is also not uncommon for an abuser to threaten to quit his job or look for ways to get paid under the table should his wife decide to divorce him so that she will be left struggling for adequate financial support, or she may find herself supporting him for some time after the divorce.
All of these scenarios are indicators that the abuser loves his money more than his bride and will wield it as a weapon if necessary.
Many victims report their suspicions that their abusers have secret accounts, hidden cash or unaccounted-for expenses. The abuser’s intent is, once again, to make sure that his needs are taken care of first and foremost, no matter the risk or cost to others in the household. Some victims feel that their abusers are even preparing for the possibility of separation or divorce and have set aside a secret slush fund for themselves while depriving their spouses of resources that might facilitate their escape.
Unnecessary or Extravagant Spending
Some financial abusers occasionally arrive home with costly or unnecessary items. These spur-of-the-moment purchases feed the beast’s insatiable appetite for stuff, but these decisions are rarely, if ever, discussed beforehand with his spouse. When he shows up with a brand-new, big-screen television and his wife is less than thrilled about the amount of money spent (and the television they have works just fine), he will complain that she is a bitter, selfish woman and a killjoy for not embracing his self-serving measure of generosity. He will insist he “bought it for the family,” when the truth is that he bought it for himself.
He may also become a big spender when he is having friends over or meeting someone he wants to impress. Wanting to appear the superior host, he may spring for T-bones for the barbecue, and expect his bride to put together all the fixings for an impressive spread. Should his bride object, he will likely tell her to lighten up and enjoy life, while the resentment she carries from feeling like a servant and a third-class citizen only grows.
Beyond spending financial resources on expensive or unnecessary items, many abusers are also good at incurring debt when the opportunity presents itself. Debt serves three purposes: 1) it makes it possible for him to have what he wants immediately and defer to his wife as to how to pay for it later; 2) his claim on available funds means his bride can’t spend them on other things, and 3) debt keeps his victim financially bound to him. Community property laws generally make both parties equally responsible for debt obligations, which can make it financially difficult for a victim to become independent. The abuser might well make certain she knows that.
Putting Property in His Name
Oftentimes, abusers look for ways to claim property as their sole possession. This is where the difference between debt and equity must be examined. An abuser will may like the idea of saddling his victim with his debt while keeping assets with equity in his name alone. It is not altogether difficult to see whose interests he is protecting.
Assuming Control of an Inheritance
When an abuser’s victim receives an inheritance, oftentimes an abuser will either 1) demand that she expend them on his self-declared financial emergencies or 2) look for ways to obtain access to those funds. Once that is accomplished, he will siphon off or spend the money for his own well-being, hiding or hoarding. Many an abuse victim who wants to prove to her abuser that she is willing to trust him may end up being defrauded of an entire inheritance that might have helped her to separate from her abuser and begin a new life, not to mention the fact that the money was intended for her use.
Stealing may seem extreme, but if an abuser is willing to withdraw and hoard funds intended for the household or pilfer his wife’s inheritance, why wouldn’t he also be willing to take advantage of strangers? Many abusers are highly resourceful and may look for ways to embezzle funds or highjack product from their employers or engage in any number of shady dealings if they are confident they can get away with it. Some women have even shared that they suspect their abusers of stealing jewelry or other valuables and selling them off. This is not a problem for the abuser because his need to procure whatever he wants is always more important than how his actions affect other people. Stealing brings with it the added thrill of getting away with something. Gambling may also fall into this category.
Questions worth asking:
- Does it seem that he loves his possessions and/or his power more than you?
- Do you feel mostly powerless with regard to marital financial decisions?
- Does he make you responsible for his poor financial choices or debt or minimize their impact?
- Do you feel resentful of his constant efforts to put his needs first?
- Are you frustrated by his self-centered focus as to when or whether he works based on his moods or preferences?
- Does he disregard your efforts to discuss issues related to your finances?
- Do you feel like you have to grovel to get him to meet some of your basic household or personal needs?
- Does he make impulsive purchases?
- Do you feel like you have to pay close attention to your finances and debt load?
- Do you distrust him with money?
- Does he deny the financial harm he is causing?
If some or all of your answers indicate that your relationship is being negatively affected by some serious financial issues, then you might want to consider whether legitimate household needs are the priority – or he is.
What Can A Victim Do to Protect Herself?
Create separate bank and credit card accounts.
- Make sure that both of your names are on title documents associated with property with equity or, if the property is yours alone, make sure your name alone is on the title.
- Insist upon a workable budget based on family priorities and demand that he respect it.
- Refuse to provide him access to inherited funds.
- Look for evidence of any hidden cash or bank accounts and reclaim them.
- Refuse to co-sign any new loans, refinance or credit applications.
- Consider meeting with a family law attorney to research legal options to protect yourself financially.
While these suggestions may help to better protect your financial interests, they don’t do anything to incur lasting change in your abuser’s self-centered heart. Marital relationships must be grounded in trust. If your spouse is either financially irresponsible or power-hungry, then you may need to have a serious conversation focused on serious change and/or serious consequences.
Some would say that we must be willing to accept our spouse’s weaknesses, as in, “… for better or worse, for richer or poorer… ” Such a view is a twisting of the truth. These vows should be representative of the two working as one, striving together to tackle whatever trying circumstances come against them from the outside world. These vows should never justify one marriage partner selfishly pitted against the other. As far as your spouse is concerned, you should never feel like you have to watch your back.
The financial abuser who refuses to support a budget that best serves the needs of everyone in the household leaves those who are depending upon him materially unprotected. Conversely, the one who loves his family will be a protector, one who will do whatever he can to ensure that every family member’s needs are met – even before his own. That’s what spousal and parental love looks like.
“… But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” I Timothy 5:8
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*Although abusers can be of either gender, the overwhelming majority of abusers are male; therefore, for the sake of simplicity the abuser is referred to in the masculine.