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Economic Abuse: An Invisible Aspect of Intimate Partner Violence 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Marta Nicita
April 29, 2024

Economic abuse, sometimes referred to as financial abuse, is a form of coercive control that can occur in violent domestic relationships. A focus on physical violence, however, tends to dominate both research and media reports on intimate partner violence (IPV). Economic abuse is usually ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ compared to bruises, injuries and scratches. Economic abuse is not readily observable, which is also a factor that contributes to the lack of attention it receives. Additionally, economic abuse is not easily measured—yet another characteristic that creates challenges in identifying and studying it with accuracy. Indeed, there is no universally agreed upon index to measure economic abuse. Finally, the gendered nature of domestic violence, which is predominantly experienced by victims who identify as female, and the gendered nature of economic insecurity, cause difficulties in distinguishing patterns of economic abuse by a partner. This may be attributed to the economic insecurity that women already experience, generally due to, for example, women’s undervalued paid and unpaid work and the gendered nature of care-giving.

While no universal definition of economic abuse exists, it is widely understood as an intentional pattern of control meant to undermine a person’s ability to attain, use and maintain economic resources. Economic abuse affects financial security, often triggering financial insecurity. Despite being understudied, economic abuse is a critical aspect of IPV. To this point, studies have shown that women report financial reasons and concerns as one of the primary obstacles to leaving an abusive partner. The lack of economic resources and material deprivation that can result from financial abuse create dependency on the abuser, prevent them from becoming financially secure and effectively trap victims in unhealthy and harmful relationships.

Patterns of economic abuse can play out through different kinds of behavior. Three subcategories of economic abuse are thus far described in the literature; others have yet to be identified, however attention to the topic is growing. Existing categories include: economic control, economic exploitation and employment sabotage. Economic control amounts to tactics that limit access to finances. They include: restricting access to financial information, excluding the victim from processes of decision-making around finances, controlling spending, refusing to help economically for necessities and causing resource deprivation. By contrast, economic exploitation occurs when an abuser damages or steals property or money, creates debt under the victim’s name, misuses finances, wealth is used as a threat and the victims’ resources are exploited. Finally, employment sabotage consists of several techniques the abuser might use to interfere with their partner’s ability to work, or behavior meant to outright prevent a partner from working

The impacts of economic abuse on victims’ lives are multiple and multifaceted. It can have both immediate and long-term consequences on survivors’ financial stability, which in turn can impact their emotional wellbeing. The immediate impact of economic abuse may lead to difficulties in day-to-day life by impeding access to basic needs, such as food, housing and transportation. In the longer term, financial abuse can imperil financial stability, a status that requires time and consistency to achieve. Studies show that IPV often can be a factor producing poverty, financial insecurity and even homelessness, sometimes long after a relationship has ended. With regards to impacts on job security, economic abuse in the form of employment sabotage can mean a victim loses their job, which potentially has a cumulative impact on a survivor’s career. A survivor with a spotty track record due to truancy at work or a jumbled work history due to frequent job changes may meet roadblocks to promotion or future avenues of employment. By undermining victims’ independence and ability to work, financial abuse can damage self-worth, cause isolation and instill a sense of powerlessness.

A critical path forward for tackling this issue is to raise general awareness specifically among service providers working with victims. The lack of resources for addressing financial abuse, for which there are no quick-fixes, make it a particularly difficult aspect of IPV for both survivors and agencies providing support. Ensuring that advocates have the knowledge and skills to recognize, assess and respond to financial abuse is paramount to improving survivors’ economic security. Helping survivors identify their financial needs and goals, such as cost of living and budgeting plans can be very beneficial for those facing economic abuse in IPV. Integrating these strategies to bolster victims’ financial stability and economic independence are first steps toward addressing economic abuse in IPV. More broadly, a systemic approach should be taken, including strengthening efforts of economic advocacy and creating widespread economic empowerment programs

Author: Marta Nicita is a graduate student at John Jay College currently working towards her M.A. in Public Administration and Public Policy. She graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and Urban Studies from Brown University and has an M.A. in Criminology and Criminal Justice Systems from Universtitat Pompeu Fabra. For the past three years Marta has worked as a social worker supporting victims of domestic violence and of other crimes. In the past she has done research on many topics within criminal justice, such as false confessions to police and the effects of policing strategies on citizens’ perceptions of safety. When she is not studying or working on research projects Marta is usually in the gym playing volleyball or making collages.

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