LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)– "It might sound really strange," cautions Rita, sounding slightly embarrassed.
We meet in a north London teashop because I am working on a series about the financial reasons women stay in abusive relationships, and Rita (names of victims and perpetrators have been changed throughout) isn’t convinced her experience qualifies.
"It was a reverse," she continues. "I stayed with him because he financially couldn’t cope. And it sounds really strange, but I was worried he would end up on the street if I wasn’t there."
Rita is concerned her experiences may not be instantly recognizable since fear of homelessness and poverty do rank highly in the reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships.
But Rita is not alone. Over the course of this six-month investigation into the economics of abuse in the U.K., half a dozen survivors from varied backgrounds got in touch wanting to tell stories with this atypical financial component; they had more money than their abusive exes.
Here’s how Rita, a journalist, and Dawn, described their situations.
Foster Care Beginnings
Rita was 16 and in foster care when she met her ex, John. "I knew him because he was in the system as well. He made me feel so loved straight away. I really thought I’d gotten lucky and I’d found the person for me."
John seemed like a ticket out of the foster system. He said he had a job and was financially secure. After a series of meetings with social services, Rita was allowed to leave care early, before she turned 18.
They rented a room together in a north London suburb. But suddenly it turned out that Rita, who had gotten a job, was going to have to pay for it. "He was never working in the first place. And that was just something that continued throughout our relationship."
John was physically and emotionally abusive. He left marks on Rita that she covered up with medical camouflage make up. He also started borrowing money from her and stealing from her bankcard to pay for his crack addiction.
She estimates she has spent tens of thousands of pounds on him. "Which was difficult and it’s still hard to say, because at the time I didn’t earn a lot. I just worked as a barmaid."
By the end of the seven-year relationship, Rita’s initial sense of being cherished had decayed into a damaged sense of self worth. Although she was paying for his lifestyle, the abuse didn’t let her take any credit for that. "Your confidence gets so ground down," Rita recalls. "I thought the only reason someone would want to be with me was because I would look after them financially."
In another case, the woman interviewed bought a flat and put it in the name of her abusive ex boyfriend. He managed to persuade her that having the asset in his name would provide her with more financial security than if she owned it outright. But since she left him, he has used the flat to continue to manipulate her through the mortgage and tenants living in the property.
Often, however, victims’ assets do ease the way out, but as Dawn’s case shows, the abusive relationship can still reach deep into the future.
Dawn continued to work after her abusive husband had lost his job. She also owned a house. When she decided to end the relationship he moved out when she asked, but the abuse didn’t stop immediately. They remained together for a while, but at a certain point, she cut all personal ties.
But she found her legal ties were harder to break.
After the breakup Dawn sold the house and moved, so her abuser would not be able to find her.
However, she remains married to him. What holds her back from filing for divorce? The answer is her fear that he will be able to track her down through the paperwork entailed.
It is a particular worry for Dawn because her vision is impaired so she wouldn’t be able to see him coming.
"It’s something that happens to disenfranchised women," says Dawn, in an interview in a London pub. "I’m a graduate, I’ve got two post-graduate qualifications. I’m just not the sort of person this happens to. Those are all things I thought at the time. Obviously I now know that is absolute rubbish and there are just no distinctions."
Different Types of Financial Abuse
Victim Support, a charity with programs throughout the country that provide support for victims of crime, lists three examples of financial abuse in the context of domestic violence: "Taking money, controlling finances, not letting someone work."
Gudrun Burnett is senior business partner for domestic abuse at Peabody, a charity in London that provides affordable housing. She specializes in training front line staff –everyone from housing officers to cleaners – to recognize abusive situations.
Burnett is quick to caution that abuse takes many forms. If victims feel their experience falls outside the usual script of what domestic abuse is supposed to look like, Burnett says, it could inhibit them from seeking help. In the absence of a definitive list of symptoms, she says common factors are–broadly speaking–abuse of power and control.
A tool called the "economic abuse wheel" offered by domestic violence refuges identifies common abusive situations. Examples include "not giving her any money to go anywhere or do anything," "preventing her from getting or keeping a job" and "denying her basic necessities."
The experiences of Rita and other survivors don’t always fit neatly into the "economic abuse wheel," but they do fall under the British government’s definition of domestic violence and abuse, which was updated in 2012.
In the category of financial abuse the wording makes clear that controlling behavior is part of domestic abuse and can involve abusers "exploiting their [victims’] resources and capacities for personal gain."
This story was reported and produced by Jess McCabe for the series "Why Didn’t She Just Leave?" This special project was crowd funded on the Catapult funding platform. Join the conversation on domestic violence on Twitter via #WhyIStayed.