Invisible abuse: Economic abuse as a form of domestic violence

Discovery House’s Leslie Hill explores the tactic of using finances and livelihoods in domestic abuse

19 March 2024

Women's hands opening an empty wallet

In the vast landscape of domestic violence, one insidious form of abuse often lurks in the shadows, leaving survivors trapped in a web of manipulation and control. Economic abuse is rarely discussed, but its profound impact can wreak havoc on individuals and families, stripping away financial autonomy and perpetuating a cycle of dependency.

Economic abuse is a form of domestic violence where one partner uses financial means to gain power and control over the other. It often occurs within the context of intimate partner relationships, where one partner exploits financial inequality to maintain dominance. This can manifest in several ways, from restricting access to money and resources to sabotaging employment and coercing or limiting decisions about finances.

The current housing crisis in the country has only exacerbated the challenges of economic abuse and domestic violence because it is much harder to leave an abusive home when there are no affordable options available.

Economic abuse can creep into a relationship in subtle ways and is not always recognized immediately. Some types of abuse include:

  • Controlling Finances: Many couples choose to have one person be the “CFO” to manage the finances, especially when that person has a natural affinity for budgeting or investing. This is normal. When one person takes control of all economic matters, withholding information about income, expenses, or access to bank accounts, intensely monitoring and managing the other person’s finances and spending, this is not normal. This control can leave the survivor without access to money for basic needs, making them dependent on their partner.
  • Sabotaging Employment: The person using economic abuse (sometimes referred to as “the abuser”) might interfere with the survivor's job or career by causing job loss, preventing them from working, or creating a hostile work environment. This tactic ensures the survivor's economic dependence. An abuser might also prevent their partner from looking for jobs or attending job interviews.
  • Economic Exploitation: The survivor may have been persuaded or coerced into making specific economic decisions against their will, such as taking on debt, selling assets, or making investments that benefit only the abuser’s interests. In some cases, the abuser intentionally destroys their partner’s credit history which can haunt them with severe debt, taxes, and bankruptcies.

The consequences of economic abuse extend beyond the individual to impact entire families. According to the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters 2023 Data Release, economic abuse was reported by 36% of survivors who accessed shelters in the province in 2022-2023. The instability resulting from economic abuse can lead to increased stress within the family, affecting children's mental health, academic performance, and long-term well-being. It can even lead to poverty and homelessness.

The current housing crisis in the country has exacerbated the challenges of economic abuse and other forms of domestic violence because it is much harder to leave an abusive home when there are no affordable options available. For those who do leave, there may be additional challenges leaving domestic violence shelters because there is simply no place for them to go.

Affordable housing programs, tenant protections, and increasing shelter capacity are all tools that can help. It is also crucial to empower individuals with economic literacy skills. Educational programs that focus on banking, budgeting, and financial planning can provide survivors with the tools they need to regain control over their finances.

The impact of economic abuse is a challenge that demands attention and action. Leaving an unhealthy relationship is stressful and scary, and assessing the financial damage can be overwhelming. Rebuilding and healing are possible, and resources are available for those leaving violence.


house with a puzzle piece cut out that is laying on a blue background

Action on affordable housing is needed now

The current housing crisis in the country has only exacerbated the challenges of domestic violence. When a community has ample, affordable housing, it is much easier to physically leave a home that is filled with danger and violence. Not having enough family-sized affordable units also creates problems, especially for single-parent households who may be living on lower incomes.