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The silent abuse: understanding economic abuse & coercive control -by Athena

Photo credit: Pexels

Shame. Embarrassment. Shock. Disbelief. Fear.

The past 24 hours had been a blur of so many emotions I was not sure what I was feeling anymore. Finding my childhood sweetheart slumped over his desk, passed out was surreal. The police and ambulance took so long to come I was sure he would die right there. ‘Stay on the phone, keep him on his side…’ someone kept talking to me on the phone… this was not happening… was it real?

Shock. Disbelief. Fear.

He had often threatened to hurt me, but I never ever thought he would hurt himself. Finally, after a long night, he was finally stable, so I left hospital and went home to my children.

When I got home, I noticed a pile of sealed envelopes on his side of the bed and on his bedside table. Something compelled me to look at them and slowly answers started to emerge.

More shock. More disbelief. More fear. Anxiety gripped me. How could this be?

There were huge bundles of envelopes, numerous unopened, many bills. There was an eviction notice. We were being thrown out of our home. Our cars were being repossessed. The school was reminding us of huge monies owing. There were five different postal addresses. How was that even possible? I was sick to my stomach. The betrayal. I knew we had been unhappy for a long time. I knew that something was wrong. Never ever did I imagine the extent of the lies and deceit.

Over the coming weeks friends and family came forward saying that he had borrowed money from them. Banks, mortgages, and loan sharks were discovered. There was debt in my name of around a million dollars. My two children and I were now homeless, carless, and penniless. Nothing was left.

The self-blame started. How could an intelligent woman allow herself to get in a position where she has no access to ANY bank account online or other? How could a person with a commerce background let their partner manipulate them to take control of the finances and get them into such a serious position? The truth is it’s easier than you think. And it happens more frequently than you think. It also happens very often to bright, high performing women. It is a silent abuse because of the shame involved and because it’s easier not to acknowledge the pain and trauma involved in coercive and economic abuse. We tell domestic violence survivors to get on with life not realising that there may not be visible bruises or broken bones but there are wounds and scars that run deep.

Of course, the grooming happens very slowly. No one notices the extremely generous, kind man who charms everyone, slowly taking control of his partners life. It is so insidious. And we have never been educated as a community to spot any of the red flags. Many of our psychologists, doctors, social workers, lawyers, police have not been educated in the signs to look out for. He checks where she is constantly, calls her incessantly, checks her messages and emails, does not allow her to go out with friends very often and yells at her when she does. At home he is often cold and angry then overly generous and confusing. More recently we have come to recognise this deliberate attempt to make her crazy as “gaslighting”. A long-term campaign of making her doubt herself and her capacity to such an extent that she begins to believe his brainwashing. He has never given her access to banking; he takes her to all her appointments (excessively watching over her so that she doesn’t say anything she shouldn’t). Society reframes this ‘stalking and controlling’ behaviour as caring, loving, and supportive and from a very young age girls are told his behaviour is an example of how much he cares.

Naively she believes they are in a partnership. Sharing household duties. He looks after admin and finance. She looks after the children. Only in the months leading up to his suicide attempt do things escalate and she knows something is not right. She asks and then demands access to banking, she is refused and threatened. Still, she thinks it is about control and is beginning to try get some power back. It’s way too late. Domestic violence research tells us women are in most danger when they are getting some power, getting ready to leave or when they are pregnant. These glimpses of threat are so frightening for him that he will often harm his partner at these times.

Never could she imagine how far the deceit runs, that for years he’s been collecting debt, building a house of lies, never could she envisage a whole life of cards about to come tumbling down. All the financial security they have amassed over the years, many of the strong friendships, their indestructible connections with family shattered. Shattered like a beautiful, fragile crystal glass. The illusion gone. The truth emerged slowly but no one wanted to speak about it.

The ironic thing about domestic violence abusers, even those diagnosed as having personality disorder (he has been diagnosed by multiple hospital doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and court appointed social workers and psychologists) is that they are so good at playing the victim. And the family are so in shock they can’t get words out right, they stumble over their unrehearsed words, they are protective, full of shame and grief that the abuser gets away with playing victim. Even when the court proclaims them an abuser. Even when our system stops the abuser from having access to their children (this happens very rarely in our broken system). The professionals warned me to be alert and very careful, that he would most likely be even more volatile after I had stood up to him. While this in fact did happen in private, he played the victim in public.

Some people do not want to believe that the abuser could have done anything wrong. Some people still defend the abuser. Some people refuse to acknowledge the pain of the family. Is it that it goes against the perception that they have held for so long of this wonderful father, loving husband, charismatic man that it is too difficult for them to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the situation? Does it bring to light the hypothesis that this may mean other judgements they have made could be incorrect? Why is it so difficult for some ‘good’ people to acknowledge the situation? To say I hear you. I see you. To listen to what you have been through. Not to solve your problems. Just to allow you your pain. Your fear. Your anxiety. Your grief. Your loss. Whatever their reasons, the impact is that you are left to feel totally alone.

Why is it a silent abuse? When I sat in my lawyer’s office and told him I was so full of shame. That if he knew me, he would know I am more intelligent than this. More independent than this. He gave me example after example of strong, brilliant, independent women. CEO’s, HR directors, psychologists, even lawyers who this had happened to. I just felt sad. Sad that for all of us there was little if no warning.

Photo credit: Pexels

Jess Hill talks about this on the podcast The Trap. That often the domestic violence victims are only aware that they were in a coercive control or financial control situation just before or shortly after they leave the situation. Many people outside the relationship find that hard to believe. The realisation came slowly to me. Naming it ‘abuse’ was a big step. Sitting in court one day the power and control wheel was laid out, printed, on the table. Handouts for us to take. I read it slowly realising all the control and power tactics being used past and present by my ex-partner. (Post separation abuse is the continued abuse using the system to control you when the abuser can no longer reach you in the home) Later I was offered counselling when my ex-partner was ordered into a men’s behavioural change program. (This is offered as there is a need for support during this time. Often this is a time of great danger for DV survivors) It was the first time the cycle of abuse was explained to me. The gaslighting. The subtle use of control. The cruel comments. Tears on every special occasion. The isolation. Surveillance. Threats. Being degraded. Punishment and reward. Jokes that were not funny aimed at tearing you down. Feelings of confusion. Outbursts of uncontrollable anger. And escalation. Escalation. Escalation. Intimate Terrorism.

When I did try to verbalise the very real fear I was feeling at the escalating threats, I was stunned at the lack of response I got from those around me. Certain friends, family and even the system set up to protect us, the police. I was told it is not family violence because we are no longer a family. To come back when something significant occurs. Stalking, threats, intimidation, systems abuse - these are too difficult to prove in court. My anxiety and fear were minimised or ignored. Again, the silent abuse continued. My throat constricted with the ache of not having a voice.

There were red flags. There were little, tiny whispers of red flags and gigantic hot flames of burning bright flags. No one wanted to see any of them. Me included. I reached out and told two trusted people that he was not treating me ok. ‘He is saying disgusting things to me.’ ‘He told the children I am abandoning them because I went to sit with a dying friend’ I tried to verbalise it. Maybe I didn’t verbalise it very well. Maybe they didn’t want to hear it. It will pass they said. They heard him explode at me. ‘He’ll get over it they said’.

And when ‘good’ people do nothing, the abuse perpetuates. And the ‘good’ people are in fact taking the side of the abuser by doing nothing. ‘Good’ people need to stand up and say enough is enough. We need to educate ourselves and our children. What is coercive control? What is the power and control wheel? What is the abuse cycle? Will you know it next time you see it?

We need to believe women when they tell us. Believe and support them. This is most important.

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