Mind & Body

‘He robbed me of my independence and financially abused me’

While it’s now widely acknowledged that domestic and family violence that manifests in a physical form is abhorrent, and comes with legal ramifications in keeping with its capacity to destroy lives, our understanding of a less obvious form of abuse is yet to catch up. I’m speaking of financial abuse – a sinister and potentially lethal means by which a person seeks to control their partner in an insidious and often dangerous way. To help shine a light on this frequently misunderstood form of domestic abuse, Body+Soul is uncovering the heart-wrenching stories of Australians who have been directly affected by this – and to share their tales of survival as well as impart practical advice to help others. – Sarrah Le Marquand, editor-in-chief Body+Soul and Stellar

Living with a disability, Nicole Lee trusted her partner to assist with paying bills and managing her money, but gradually had her confidence and independence stripped away. Seeking outside help made her realise that knowledge is power and the financial abuse she was experiencing had nothing to do with her and everything to do with her so-called “carer”.

For the 10-year period that I was married to my ex-partner, he was my carer; I’m in a wheelchair.

We assume that someone acting in the role of carer to a person living with a disability will be doing this in a safe and respectful way. But for some of us, that’s just not the case.

Before our relationship began, I used to take my bills down to the post office and pay them in person. But when he moved in, he brought his computer and insisted that everything needed to be paid online.

I wasn’t computer literate back then. He convinced me I wouldn’t understand how online banking worked, and that he’d need to manage all of our money.

There was a gradual winding back of my financial independence. It got to the point where I didn’t know how much was coming in, or how much was going out.

In fact, he racked up a credit card debt in both of our names, which I had no idea about. I never saw the statements, and I eventually had to add this debt onto the mortgage for my home; it’s now been six years since we separated, and I’m still paying it off.

At one stage during our relationship, I was ill in hospital. That’s when he took the opportunity to buy another home that I’d never seen in both of our names. The real estate agent actually came with him to have me sign all the paperwork while I was hospitalised.

You’d think the fact I was unwell may have been a red flag that I wasn’t in a position to make such an important decision. Yet in my experience, when it comes to those with disabilities, people often assume the carer is merely being compassionate and helpful, and they seem to accept without question that we don’t need privacy to ask questions or express concerns.

The usual red flags that may apply in a relationship where there’s no disability, for example, “Why is he the one always paying all the bills?” or “Why is he asking her to sign paperwork while she’s in hospital? That doesn’t seem right!” just seem to get ignored.

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I had to sell the home I loved that my grandmother had left me in her estate in order to settle on the new property. Had I refused, we would have lost the deposit.

Once he became increasingly physically and sexually abusive, the fact that he’d stripped away my confidence around managing my finances made it even harder for me to leave him. He told me that I was stupid, a slur that particularly stings as disabled people often battle with stigma around our intellectual capabilities. I’d been so depleted of self-worth and isolated from my usual supports, like my mother, that I honestly didn’t believe I’d be able to cope on my own.

For a long time, I couldn’t.

But I’ve learnt that when I’m unsure about how to manage my money, I can sit down with someone I trust and have them explain it all to me; multiple times if need be. I’ll now ask questions, and seek advice (from multiple sources) on things like formulating a budget.

It may take longer to work through things in this careful, more considered way, but knowledge is power.

Jo Lamble, clinical psychologist

“I’m continually shocked to hear that financial abuse is still happening in 2020. Most weeks, I listen to a woman in my office explaining how she doesn’t have access to the household finances, and is given an allowance and has to justify her spending. It often starts after she has children and the family goes to one income. I haven’t yet seen a man who is being financially abused, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Julie Barrow, coordinator of financial counselling development at Financial Counselling Australia

“If safe to do so, it’s important to seek legal assistance for a property settlement as soon as you can after separation. This can help protect from further loss and to access split of assets and any superannuation that you may be entitled to under law. Seeking assistance from a financial counsellor could also be helpful if you have significant debt and it impacts on your day-to-day life.”

Rebuilding after enduring financial abuse can be difficult, which is why Commonwealth Bank has recently launch Next Chapter, a program that will see the bank bring a range of services, support, resources and research to the market, to make it easier for victims and survivors of financial abuse to achieve long-term financial independence. To find out more about Next Chapter here.

Always consider your personal circumstances before acting on financial advice. For confidential information, counselling and support, we recommend heading to, or calling 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. This is a free and confidential service that is not part of Commonwealth Bank.

In an emergency or if you’re not feeling safe, always call 000.