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The difference between normal money arguments and financial abuse

02 November 2021

When it comes to topics that couples and families argue over, money is right at the top of the list. Normal money disagreements are different to financial abuse. Money arguments can happen more when times are tough and we’re feeling the pinch, financially.

If you’ve combined finances with a significant other, it’s important that you can talk about money and make financial decisions together. But the truth of the matter is, money management can be difficult and emotionally charged. It’s not uncommon for normal money disagreements to be heated but that’s not the same thing as financial abuse.

Financial abuse: how to tell the difference

As much as the movies may try to sell us a different narrative, relationships aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. When we’re in an intimate partnership with someone, arguments aren’t only normal — but healthy. It’s important that couples can talk about difficult things in a respectful manner, and each have their perspectives heard.

What happens when normal money arguments veer into the territory of toxic or abusive behaviour? With financial abuse being known as the ‘silent weapon’, it’s important to know the early warning signs, so you can safeguard yourself and your finances. And financial abuse is not limited to partners. There is elder abuse as well and it follows similar patterns.

Catherine Fitzpatrick, Director Customer Vulnerability & Financial Resilience at Westpac, notes:

“Financial abuse (also called economic abuse) is a serious form of domestic violence where someone uses money to control a partner or other relative. Instances of domestic and family violence often increase in times of disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is proving no exception. It’s important to be safe. Call Triple Zero (000) if you are in immediate danger. Contact your local police if there are threats to your safety or there are threats to your friends or family members.”

Normal money arguments versus financial abuse

Controlling behaviour is a hallmark of all forms of abuse. Financial abuse in families is no exception. Perpetrators of financial abuse attempt to monitor or restrict another’s finances, with the intention of controlling them. So, if your partner is exhibiting dictatorial or manipulative behaviour, it may be a sign you’re at risk of financial abuse.

Control might look like restricting access to your joint or individual bank accounts; trying to control your spending in an inappropriate way; making big financial decisions without consulting you. What your partner does, not just what they say during arguments is something to consider.

Financial abuse is a powerful way to keep someone trapped in an abusive relationship. It may also impact on that person’s ability to stay safe once the relationship is over – which is why it’s important to tell others about what is happening and seek help.

Withholding child support payments or refusing to pay for joint debts are both common ways to control an ex-partner. Another common tactic used by some is to send abusive messages via payment transactions. Many banks, including Westpac, have safeguards in place to catch and stop the abuse.

Feeling afraid or trapped in the relationship

We all want to believe the best of our partners. After all, this is the person with whom we’ve chosen to spend our lives. But, through the rose-tinted glasses, it can be difficult to view their behaviour in an impartial light. This can make it easy to miss or ignore the early warning signs. For this reason, it’s important to also pay attention to how you feel.

It’s normal to feel a bit shaken up, emotional or anxious after an argument with a partner. What’s not normal is to feel scared for your wellbeing, trapped or like you no longer have control over the situation. If you’re experiencing these feelings, it may be a sign that you’re experiencing abuse (financial or otherwise) and it’s important to reach out for help when it’s safe to do so. Maybe by talking to someone you trust about it or perhaps contacting a support service.

It’s impacting your finances

Financial abuse is known as one of the most insidious forms of abuse because the signs can be subtle. But, even when the answer isn’t right in front of your face, it may be there in your bank account.

Has your partner been accumulating large amounts of debt in your name, or on your joint credit card? Do they borrow money without paying it back? Do you no longer have a clear idea of what’s going on in your finances, because you don’t have access to your accounts? Have they made going to work or doing your job difficult - sometimes to the point where you may have lost your job due to their behaviour?

Each of these scenarios can indicate your partner or ex-partner is acting in a financially abusive manner.

You feel too scared or ashamed to tell anyone

While you may not vent about every argument to a friend or other family member, it’s normal to need to blow off steam sometimes. But, if you find yourself too scared, ashamed to tell anyone about your situation, it could be a sign that something is awry.

As there’s often no physical sign of abuse, many people can feel quite confused about what they’re experiencing. They may feel that they are overreacting, or even that the situation is their own fault. But, if you’re feeling reluctant to speak about it, it’s a good sign that it’s exactly what you need to do - to someone you know you can trust.

The disagreements are not a two-way discussion

While they can get heated, arguments are still a discussion. That means it should be a reciprocal dialogue between yourself and your partner. Ideally, each person should be able to present their perspective in a respectful way. There should also be genuine listening, negotiation, and compromise present.

However, if it feels like your partner is telling you what to do rather than engaging in a two-way conversation, it can be a red flag. Refusing to listen to your perspective or talking over you can also be a sign of controlling and disrespectful behaviour.

It’s important to note that financial abuse isn’t always accompanied by other forms of abuse. Just because your partner hasn’t exhibited any other physically or emotionally threatening behaviour towards you, doesn’t make your experience any less valid.

That said, it’s not uncommon for other toxic behaviour to occur alongside financial abuse. This may look like belittling, verbal abuse or threats, restricting your contact with loved ones or even physical abuse. If you’re experiencing any of these things, it’s important to seek urgent help as you may be in immediate danger. Contact the police or call 000.

Help and support

The good news is help is available and you don’t have to face this alone. If you suspect you may be in a financially abusive situation, there are people you can reach out to. They will be able to help you safely cut ties with your partner and get you back on your feet financially. Consider making your first call to a free support hotline like WIRE for women in Victoria or 1800Respect, as they will be able to talk you through your options. You can also call your bank, as they will be able to assist you with regaining access to your bank account or safeguarding it from financial abuse.

At Westpac, you can speak with our specialist team, Priority Assist, on 1800 063 509 who can help you manage your finances during difficult circumstances.

Financial Counselling Australia: Provides free and confidential access to professional, non-judgmental financial counsellors. They can provide guidance, support, and advocacy to those who are experiencing financial difficulties

National Debt Helpline: Offers free counselling to those who are in debt due to abusive situations and other difficult situations. As a not-for-profit, they do not offer loans — they work only in your interest to help get you back on track Phone: 1800 007 007

Good Shepherd Microfinance: Provides fair and affordable financial schemes and loans to those on low incomes. This includes their No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS), to help people in tough situations afford essential goods and expenses. Phone: 13 64 57

The Salvation Army: Provides free financial counselling and coaching to help you create a money plan to get back on top of your financial matters again. They can also help you deal with non-complex debts such as bills or rental arrears. Phone: 13 SALVOS (13 72 58) or visit website to find nearby centre.



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