Recognising abuse in any form is far from easy. Spotting the signs of financial abuse and coming to the realisation that it’s happening to you can be extremely distressing, both emotionally and mentally.
Identifying financial abuse is especially difficult because it can easily be masked behind love, care, and maybe even responsibility.
Here’s a little example of financial abuse through the lens of Bollywood -
Remember that 2008 movie, Rab ne bana di jodi? If you don’t, here’s a little context. Girl meets our hero on her wedding day. Girl’s prospective groom dies unexpectedly. Girl is immediately married off to our hero by her father because the father wants to be assured of her well being after his death.
All this, only 15 minutes into the movie. (Phew!)
Then ensues a series of attempts by our hero to woo his lady love by going for a haircut, shave and a shampoo. Everything ends well, of course. They bond over a dance class and fall in love despite their differences.
But let’s rewind a little here.
The father wanted his daughter to get married. Our hero wasn’t displeased about marrying her either. It’s the girl, however, who didn’t have a choice.
Because she was financially dependent on her ailing father who just spent all his money on her doomed marriage. While a movie can contort this scenario into a happy ending, in real life, all this is the perfect setting for financial abuse.
When someone is not in charge of their finances or is systematically made to let go of their financial control, they are undergoing financial abuse. This can happen through constant nagging, coercion, or brute force. In this movie's case, our hero was shown as a lovable little moustache sporting man with a heart of gold. He is the sole breadwinner but doesn’t really cut his wife off financially.
But just for a minute, let’s flip the scenario. What if he wasn’t the lovable knight in shining armour? What if he never paid for her dancing classes, never allowed her to go out, and constantly abused her?
Unfortunately, every person in a scenario like this, where they’re controlling someone else’s finances, has the power to abuse in all these ways. And unfortunately, it is very difficult for victims to get out of a situation like this. Money essentially strings your life together. When you give someone control of your money, you give them authority to marionette every aspect of your life.
While getting out of a situation like this is difficult, what’s even trickier is identifying that you are in fact a victim of financial abuse.
Well, there’s a frog in boiling water analogy here. Society neither demands nor expects financial independence from women, as it does for men. In fact, in many parts of the country, financially independent women are stigmatised. This makes it easier for women to go through life without knowing the how and why of handling money. Growing up they see their fathers being in charge of the money, sexist ads pointing at a women’s place in the kitchen, and waiters pushing the bill towards the men on the table.
Thus a neurological pattern is created - Money is masculine. The gender pay gap across the world only strengthens this idea by normalising the fact that men are paid more than women.
This is exactly why most cases of financial abuse are very gradual. It starts off by reinforcing the same ideas the victim is fed throughout their life. For instance, it could start off with the victim’s job being belittled, or if they don’t have a paying job, their chores in the household being brushed off as menial.
It could then escalate to a plethora of other red flags. From victims being answerable for each penny they spend, to them being made to feel guilty about this spending. From making them sign financial documents without telling them what they are, to all of the important decisions about money being taken by the perpetrator.
It is a gradual process of stripping the victim of all financial control. Until one day, they realise that they are stuck in a situation without any out.
Here are some things you can ask yourself to determine if you are in a financially abusive relationship. Do you feel like your spouse or your employer has an upper hand on you? Is their behaviour moulded around taking you for granted? Do you feel like you don’t have any choice but to pacify them? And are you dependent on them for your financial needs?
If yes, then there’s a need to step back and reassess how much control you have of your finances.
If you aren’t at a comfortable level of financial control, the next obvious step is to gain control. And this only comes through financial literacy. Say you already have a bank account that your spouse controls, start by checking your credit report online, see when your last tax returns were filed, know your balances across accounts; there are ways of doing all this without your spouse knowing. Once you have fair control of your finances, you can assess the situation and choose to mould your life however you want to.
Another important thing to keep in mind is to always have your emergency private savings. In general, for women especially, it is a good idea to save up for a ‘run for the hills’ fund. This is your lifeline to survive at least a couple of months without any support. It helps you remove yourself from an abusive domestic or work environment without having to worry about how you’re going to survive. The more you learn about money the more confidence you gain to further venture into investments.
Actively be aware of situations where you don’t feel in control of your life and see if it has to do with not having financial control. Actively educate yourself about handing money, through books, podcasts, articles and any other resource you can find. Financial literacy is a slow process. There’s no shortcut to it. But it is the only way you can be sure of having full control of your life. More importantly, it is the only way you can get out of an abusive relationship.
In closing, here’s some advice that our lovable hero gets from his not so lovable friend - “Bike ho ya ghar, handle hamesha apne haath mein. Warna bhabhi kabhi izzat nahi karegi.”
Which translates to - “A bike or a woman - the control should always be in your (the man’s) hands. Otherwise, she (the wife) will never respect you.”
Which further translates to - Be financially independent in case your spouse (or anyone in your life) is gullible enough to abide by this advice.