What is financial abuse in marriage?Written by Darby Strickland
What's inside this article
Focus on the Family Canada is dedicated to bringing healing and restoration to couples who are struggling in their marriage. But God’s design for marriage never included abuse, violence or coercive control. Even emotional abuse can bruise or severely harm a person’s heart, mind and soul. If you are in an abusive relationship, go to a safe place and call an emergency helpline. You can find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada at EndingViolenceCanada.org. If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety, please call 911.
While we recognize that men are also victims of abuse in marriage, most of the victims we hear from are women, so we are choosing to focus on them in these articles. Please be aware that these principles apply to both wives and husbands.
Mary* struggled week after week to see how she was being abused. Her husband, Bob, never got explosively angry, and he never violated her physically or sexually. But he still managed to treat her as if she were less than human. He was grossly indifferent toward her. Many days he would not acknowledge her presence, and he rarely cared for her person.
One day as I counselled her, she pulled out an old flip phone that was pieced together with duct tape. I began to ask about the phone because her husband was big into technology. He had all the best tech, so why did she have an unreliable phone?
This led us down a sad path. We remembered her car and its constant need for repairs. There was the night her brakes had given way, as well as the year she’d spent with a broken driver’s-side door handle and the indignity she’d felt after work sliding through the passenger door. We reflected on the hole from water damage that remained in her office at home; the many sad evenings she spent alone when her husband took their daughter to fancy restaurants; the humiliation of having her boss tell her that the IRS would be gouging her paycheck, because her income taxes had not been paid for seven years – something she’d known nothing about; and the many failed businesses that her husband had embarked on while creating debt that had her name attached to it.
The financial sacrifices were never Bob’s to make or endure. He had a new car, a new phone and top-of-the-line computers – all while being unemployed.
The imbalance was obvious. But it took Mary longer to see how Bob also used finances to control and dehumanize her. She had no money to go out with friends or visit her family. Bob alienated her from her daughter, whose every whim he indulged, while casting Mary as an unfeeling miser. She was forced to work while he brought home no income. She had no access to their banking information and feared asking Bob questions about money. She was so afraid to spend money that they didn’t have that she often went without basic needs.
Recounting all this weighed heavily on her. It wasn’t obvious what she could do to make a healthy change, so we simply prayed and asked God to help her.
The next week, God did the most amazing thing. Mary’s Bible study teacher asked her to go on a church missions trip. She was encouraged that someone had seen her teaching gifts but said that she could never afford to go. I floated the idea of fundraising. Within eight months, she was overseas making an incredible impact for the Kingdom.
The experience forever changed her. Shortly after her return, she asked her church for guidance about the financial abuse. They encouraged her to move her paychecks into an account of her own while they sought to protect her from her husband’s response to her doing so.
When she was no longer financially controlled by her husband, she was no longer powerless. Over a period of almost two years, she slowly transformed. First, she began giving more of her earnings to the church. Then she started meeting friends for coffee, taking her daughter to the movies and visiting her sister. Eventually she had a new phone and a small savings account. All these little steps led her to move toward freedom, and her gifts and wisdom emerged. And she did not just attain monetary freedom but also gained strength and community support that enabled her to face the larger abuses that had occurred in her marriage.
Is it financial abuse?
Financial abuse is a way of controlling a person by making her economically dependent or exploiting her resources. Forms of financial abuse may be subtle or overt. They include concealing financial information, limiting a victim’s access to assets, controlling her ability to acquire money, exploiting her resources or dictating how all family funds are spent.
Christian churches hold a wide variety of views regarding the financial roles that husbands and wives play in a marriage. But there is a difference between a husband who stewards his household finances in ways that seek his family’s blessing and protection and one who seeks to dominate and control his family through their finances. We must look beyond the roles that spouses adopt within a marriage and be alert to whether one of them is using finances to care for the other or to seek to dominate her. A husband can be in charge of financial matters without being abusive.
It is also wise for a family to have a budget, and some couples keep detailed records and receipts as part of doing so. So a spouse who turns in receipts may not necessarily be experiencing financial abuse. This could simply be a way in which she and her husband track their budget.
We don’t want to hold biases against certain practices and mislabel them as abusive. We need to understand each marriage so we can carefully discern whether patterns of power and control are present.
What the Bible says about money
As we read through the Gospels, we see the matter of money coming up with some frequency. Christ understands man’s sinful heart; He points out the dangers of loving money. He warns us that we cannot serve both God and money – that serving money involves too many ways for us to sin. When he is asked about money, he usually says we should do one of two things: share it or give it away (see Matthew 6:19-21; 19:21; Luke 3:10-11; 1 John 3:17). When we take these instructions into account and couple them with the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), we can say that money is best used for loving others.
Loving people is hard enough; being mindful of how we love them with our resources is a particular challenge. That’s why money tends to be a hot topic in marriages, even in healthy ones. Money is, for most of us, both a limited resource and one in which we find security, and what we do with it showcases our values.
How abusers think
An oppressor is consumed with self-love and a desire to control, and this affects the orientation of his heart regarding his financial resources. He does not seek to bless his spouse and children with these resources. Instead, he uses them to make his world the way he wants it. Money and finances become another way for him to act in entitled ways.
Financial abuse can take on a variety of forms. At root, any abuse is about control – and having control over a family’s resources has enormous benefits for an abuser. Oppressors who are in Christian homes often use theology and religious practice to justify their exploitation. I’ve heard teaching on male headship being used to justify abusive actions. For instance, Christian oppressors often insist it is their right to make unilateral financial decisions.
Misuse of Scripture
Sometimes abusers take biblical teachings out of context or use them in a way that God never intended. I’ve heard husbands take the teachings of Ephesians 5:23-24 to the extreme. More than one oppressor has shared with me that since he is the head of his wife, she is subjected to him in everything.
By applying this approach to their finances, these oppressors felt justified in denying their wives access to their income. They thought they were obligated to provide only the necessities of food, clothing and shelter to their wives and that they could dictate what doing so looked like. As the heads of their wives, they felt they needed to control their money because their wives might spend too much of it. I’ve even heard men say that they restrict the money they give their wives as a form of discipline for their wives’ sinful behaviour.
Applying Ephesians 5 this way strips the passage of its emphasis on Christ and on how husbands are to love their wives as Christ did the church: sacrificially and with great humility. It also gives husbands license to punish their wives, which is not taught in this passage or anywhere else in Scripture. If a wife tends to overspend, this needs to be addressed, but not in a punitive manner. It should be done in a way that seeks to restore her heart to Christ, for her protection and out of deep love of her.
Examples of financial abuse
First Timothy 6:10 provides us with a concise warning: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” When a husband loves money and the control it provides more than he loves his wife and children, he will act in all kinds of destructive ways. The following examples highlight financial abuse.
Julie was forced to work many hours of overtime while her husband did considerably less work running his own business. He made decisions on how money should be spent, which usually meant that he spent it on electronics for his entertainment. After an injury required Julie to have physical therapy, he refused to allow her to spend money on her recovery.
Kelly’s husband relied on her to make money for their family. For years he pretended to be searching for a job while during all that time he was at a friend’s home playing video games.
Jody’s husband insisted that she submit every grocery receipt to him for his approval. If she made a food purchase he didn’t agree with, he would lecture her for hours. As a result, she had no freedom to even pick the type of bread or cereal she ate.
Linda’s husband often went out with friends to high-end restaurants but denied her the ability to meet her friends for coffee, saying that they needed to be frugal for their retirement.
Helping the financially oppressed
With some types of financial abuse, we’ll be able to step in and offer practical solutions, while others will remain complex. Make sure you consider the implications of the help you’re offering. You may be able to provide a victim with financial relief, but remember that this form of oppression, as do all others, takes place within a larger system of coercive control.
Be careful as you discover financial abuse
In a healthy marriage, both partners work toward a mutually agreed-on budget and a way they can stay on target with it. They contribute mutually to their home and its stewardship, and they both have the freedom to give input and suggest what the family’s budget and spending priorities should be.
While finances are often a source of conflict in marriages, there is a big difference between having conflicting priorities, experiencing financial stress and engaging in financial abuse in which a person uses finances to exert control. As we investigate possible abuse, we should take our time before assigning motives and stay alert to patterns of entitlement in the area of finances.
Seek documentation of financial abuse
The good news is that financial abuse is one form of oppression that’s relatively easy to verify. It tends to involve records and behaviours that we can directly observe from the outside. This means that the uncovering of financial abuse can also be used to discover and document other abuses. The bad news, unfortunately, is that gathering evidence of financial abuse can be dangerous for a victim if her abuser realizes what she’s doing.
Both you and the victim can work together to keep a list of financial abuses and find any documents that would confirm them – while making sure that she is able to do so in a safe way. You may have to guide the victim to make important connections. For example, if her husband says he can’t afford to buy her medicine but a credit-card statement shows that he made several liquor-store purchases, ask her to start gathering these credit-card statements. Or if a credit application has been made in her name without her knowledge, help her gather evidence of this.
Think about where this documentation can be safely stored, perhaps in the form of pictures, scanned documents kept online or physical copies hidden at a friend’s home. As you search for and store this information, remember to put the victim’s safety first. You might have to call off the search if the risk to her safety increases or if her husband starts to seem suspicious.
Help a victim overcome dependence
Because an oppressor uses financial control to make a victim dependent on him, the very act of educating a victim about financial matters will assist her with overcoming financial abuse. Abuse care is comprehensive. We cannot do it all, so it’s helpful to partner with professionals and institutions.
Enlist additional support
Are there trustworthy members of the oppressed spouse’s congregation who would be able to provide help and training for her? You may want to draw them into the situation, with her permission, so they can form a caring team. Can you make use of her other friends and her family to widen her circle of care?
Look for ways that the church can offer support. Churches can provide:
- Money for her to seek counselling.
- An emergency gift card for a hotel and gasoline.
- Scholarships for women’s retreats.
- Babysitting so she can attend counseling or Bible studies.
- Financial education.
- Assistance with home repairs.
- Guidance making a budget.
- Help navigating her community and seeking government resources.
Uncover a financial abuse victim’s fears
Oppressors can establish control because their victims live in fear. You must learn what a victim fears – what her reasons are for being willing to contort herself financially. We need to be careful with the advice we offer victims; we don’t want them exposed to further punishments.
It’s easy to say to someone, “Just spend $5 and have coffee with a friend,” when we don’t understand what doing so will cost them. Listen to victims’ fears, learn the true cost they will face if they make certain changes and honour the complexity of their situation.
Help her seek God’s help
Many victims are afraid to leave their homes and struggle to trust in God’s provision. Pray with them about how the Lord is their helper and provider. Remember to be kind and gentle when you remind them of such truths.
Victims have much to lose financially if they leave, and the cost when they do so is often greatest on their children. So do not oversimplify their monetary concerns or dismiss them as being trust issues. Respect the complexity of what they’re facing by offering them practical bits of help and spiritual guidance.
To learn more about spiritual abuse and other types of abuse in marriage (such as spiritual and sexual abuse), and to access abuse assessments and tools to help victims of oppression, see Is It Abuse? by Darby Strickland.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
*Names have been changed.
Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. She is the author of Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. She is also a contributor to the free web-based training curriculum Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby has a Master of Divinity degree in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, where she currently teaches a course on counseling people in abusive marriages. She and her husband, John, have three children. Learn more about Darby at her website, darbystrickland.com.
© 2021 Darby A. Strickland. Adapted from Is It Abuse published by P & R Publishing Company, © 2020 Darby A. Strickland. Used with permission.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox