23 Nov 2020

Episode 6: Financial Abuse - Breaking Silence

From Breaking Silence, 12:00 am on 23 November 2020

Series Classification: PG (Parental Guidance Recommended for Younger Viewers)

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Sarah (not her real name) used to be a high functioning, well paid professional.  When she thought of domestic abuse she pictured scenes from the movie Once Were Warriors.

But, what she didn’t realise is that she was slowly becoming subject to extreme financial and psychological abuse by her partner.  After taking a break from her career to have children, her partner began withholding access to money.  Over the course of several years, things went from bad to worse.  Eventually, after briefly becoming homeless, Sarah fled to a women’s refuge with her children.  Three years later she’s now in housing living on a benefit and rebuilding her life.

Simonne talks to Sarah to unravel the complexities of financial abuse, and in doing so finds similarities to her own abused past.

Financial Abuse: "We need to stop not talking about abuse."   

Author: Lisa Metivier

"The whole thing is so hard to give up on, so hard to let go of.  I mean, you go into a  marriage with a vision.  And I certainly never saw me ending up where I am now."  *Sarah believed she and her former husband shared that vision; a happy, prosperous life together with children.  Both middle-to-high income earners, money wasn't an issue, so once her first child was born Sarah took time out from her successful career to be an at-home mum.  When a second child was conceived she extended that time off.  But somewhere in the midst of all this, the power balance within the marriage began to shift.

Though a keenly intelligent, well-educated woman, Sarah was losing sight of what she was experiencing in her life.  Increasingly things stopped making sense.  While she knew her husband was continuing to make good money, money was somehow becoming scarcer and scarcer when it came to her and the children.  She began having to justify every expense and feeling inexplicably nervous when she paid a bill without asking for "permission" from her husband to do so.

At the same time she was becoming increasingly isolated from others.  Her personal situation was not something she discussed openly or honestly because she struggled to understand what was really going on and felt a sense of shame around it.  She would rationalise, and thereby minimise, what she was experiencing.  The Kiwi "make-do, just get on with it" attitude also played its part in keeping her quiet.     

Fast-forward a few years and she found herself in an untenable situation one day with virtually no food in the cupboards to feed her children and, with ongoing instability in the family’s accommodation, no certainty as to where they would next live.  In desperation, she braced herself, picked up the phone and called the help-line, "Are you Ok?".  On the other end of the line was someone supportive and non-judgemental.  This call marked the beginning of her pathway out of an abusive relationship.  She called the number several times more, each time regaining more clarity and courage, "Nobody said you're being abused.  But it became clear to me that I was feeling abused.  I realised that my feelings were a normal response to an abnormal situation.  It gave me faith in myself again."

The family dynamic reached crisis point and Sarah found herself on the phone to Women's Refuge.  When they offered to bring her and her children into a safe house, she could barely believe she was accepting.  Even recalling it triggers obvious emotion.  "They were so kind to me at Women's Refuge.  But that first night I felt like the biggest loser in the world.  I'd never ever imagined that I could end up there.  I didn't know what I was doing there.  I'd always thought that refuge was for women who were beaten up and that simply wasn't me." 

With hindsight and distance Sarah now clearly sees that she had been subjected to every form of abuse in her marriage except for physical.  She maintains that by the time she left the relationship she was a mere shell of her former self and that she had been blindsided by years of deceit, manipulation and control, none of which made any sense at the time.  She couldn't fathom why a husband and father would run his wife and children into the ground, why someone earning good money would choose to make his family go without.  Sarah had not then heard of financial abuse.

Senior lecturer in Finance at Auckland University of Technology, Dr Ayesha Scott, knows a lot about it.  "We estimate 1 in 3 New Zealand women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, a figure which rises to 1 in 2 when talking about emotional abuse, and the current Family Violence Act lists financial abuse as an aspect of emotional violence.  We also know almost all cases of intimate partner violence have an element of financial control, as money can be easily weaponised by abusers to exert control over an intimate partner.  Entrapping a partner in this way is violent, making her dependent on you for basic resourcing, as is the case in the story told here.  The financial stakes of a relationship are often higher for women in non-abusive relationships, let alone when power, control and entrapment are used to erode her autonomy.  Unfortunately, the money taboo is alive and well in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and a lack of transparency of financial matters is common in many relationships.  When violence is present, however, complexity of money matters and a lack of transparency around income and financial management, combine to have devastating consequences for women and children.  By talking about money with each other, we can all play a role in bringing financial abuse into the open, and work toward solutions to this evasive, invasive and largely hidden social problem."

Today Sarah has regained her strength and some.  But her struggle to rebuild a life for herself and her children has, in her words, opened her eyes to a New Zealand she never knew existed.  Though grateful for the housing and welfare support she has received, she could never have imagined how difficult it would be to become financially independent again.  "The failures in the systems are systemic.  They are simply not set up to support women.  I've asked myself how this could be and the answer is simple; these systems have been set up by white middle-class men.  I'm not picking on white men but they do hold the power."

She has thought deeply about the governing forces which have forged New Zealand society as we know it.  Her conclusions are incisive, powerful, "What are the founding structures of New Zealand society? Colonisation and patriarchy.  And what is colonisation really about? Power and control.  And what is patriarchy really about? Power and control.  And what is domestic abuse about? Power and control."  She believes that we as a nation need to take a good hard and honest look at ourselves.  "We need to be a nation that stops not talking about domestic abuse.  We need to be talking about it all the time.  We have a serious problem.  It's so deeply embedded in our society.  It will take everybody to fix this."

Armed with her new-found insight and determination, Sarah’s vision is firmly set on the future, a future in which she will use her professional expertise to help women and their children, particularly those from middle-to-upper income levels, find their feet again after leaving abusive relationships.  Knowing now how insidious yet damaging financial and psychological abuse can be, she's passionate about being part of a positive change.  "I feel strong now.  In many ways stronger and clearer than I ever was before.  Because back then I was ignorant too.  I didn't know how widespread domestic abuse was, it wasn't something I chose to talk about and I wouldn't have known how to help someone who needed help."  All that has since changed.  And how does she feel now when she looks back at that first night in Women's Refuge?  "Proud.  I'm so proud of me that I had the courage to go there."

*Not this person's real name.

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Magnetic Pictures

Magnetic Pictures Photo: Magnetic Pictures

Juanita Edwards and Brian Holland formed Magnetic Pictures in 2019 with a view to creating original, high quality programmes people love to watch. Their passion is factual content with a social focus.

Juanita and Brian’s recent projects include the Anzac Day documentary Paradise Soldiers acknowledging the contribution and sacrifice of Cook Island soldiers for the NZ Armed Forces from World War I through to Vietnam and present day, and web series K Road Chronicles II exploring homelessness in Aotearoa. 

Made with the support of NZ On Air

Made with the support of NZ On Air Photo: NZ On Air