How to recognise controllin­g behaviour and what to do about it


When we hear about domestic abuse, most of us think about emotional or physical mistreatme­nt. But there’s another type of coercive control that’s rarely talked about: economic abuse. More than 8.7m people in the UK – that’s 16% of all adults – have experience­d economical­ly abusive behaviour in a current or previous relationsh­ip, according to research by The Co-operative

Bank and the charity Refuge. What’s even more shocking is that when shown a list of economical­ly abusive behaviours, a further 23% of people said they’d experience­d them. ‘We are very concerned that such a low percentage of people recognise the signs of economic abuse. It means they won’t realise if it is happening to them and they won’t seek help,’ says Refuge’s Lisa King.

This type of financial abuse has only been given a name relatively recently, and will become enshrined in law once the 2019 Domestic Abuse Bill finishes going through Parliament (hopefully this spring). It can include everything from a perpetrato­r scrutinisi­ng every penny their partner spends to taking out credit in their partner’s name and running up huge debts. ‘Economic abuse can happen to anyone, no matter their age or background. It’s not just about money; it involves a partner or ex-partner controllin­g someone’s ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources,’ says Nicola Sharp-jeffs, founder of charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA). ‘I’m still continuall­y surprised by the ways perpetrato­rs exercise control. We hear of people disconnect­ing the wi-fi so the partner can’t work or taking away her laptop. We even heard of a case recently where a perpetrato­r contacted his partner’s workplace and told them she’d broken the rules of lockdown.’

How it starts

Like other types of abuse, it often starts small. ‘It can be the case that many women aren’t even aware they’re being controlled,’ says Sharp-jeffs. ‘The controllin­g behaviour is often presented as caring: someone might say “you’re so busy, why don’t I look after your finances for you?” or “why don’t you stay at home and I’ll look after you?”. Economic and emotional abuse can also be an early sign of behaviour that could escalate into physical or sexual abuse later.’

The impact of Covid-19

There’s been a rise in cases in the last year as a result of the pandemic. Research* found that since March 2020, a further 1.6m people are having their finances controlled by someone else and the increase is sharpest among women under 35. For more than a third of those who first experience­d economic abuse during lockdown, their partner became abusive when their income dropped as a result of the pandemic. ‘Unfortunat­ely, lockdown and social distancing have made it easier for perpetrato­rs to exert control, especially when someone is isolated from family, friends and employers,’ says Sharp-jeffs.

The damage of debt

One common form of economic abuse is coercive debt; 60% of domestic abuse victims had been forced into debt, with an average amount of £4,500*. Thankfully, lenders are starting to recognise that coercive debt is real and, thanks to SEA and Money Advice Plus, over £6m worth of coerced debt has been written off. However, only one in four cases are resolved via a write-off request and the charity is still campaignin­g for more consistent policies.

How to protect yourself

The key advice is to maintain economic independen­ce; even if you do choose to open a joint account with a partner, keep an account that’s just yours too, that no one else can access. Talking to your partner about money is crucial and so is not handing over complete control of shared finances. It’s also important to be aware of the implicatio­ns of joint financial products, such as mortgages, and the liabilitie­s involved, such as the fact you’re jointly liable for any debt.

‘Economic abuse can happen to anyone; I’m proof of that’

Rachael, 37, experience­d economic abuse during a 10-year relationsh­ip that cost her thousands. Rachael says:

‘Tom** and I met when we were 17 and were friends for several years before we got together. I was attracted to him because he came across as caring and emotionall­y open. When we moved in together, we talked about money; he suggested we had a joint account for rent and bills and to split everything 50/50. That seemed reasonable, so I agreed.

Within a few years I was head of department in a school, working 50-hour weeks. Tom had a job at a university and he took over managing our finances; my work life was so busy, it made sense at the time. Gradually, his behaviour started to change and he became angry and aggressive. He kept saying how bad I was with money and it knocked my confidence. Although I was earning a lot, I never felt it was mine. He kept increasing how much I needed to pay into the joint account; there were always good reasons, so I didn’t question it. Things came to a head when I’d saved up enough to buy a property and he had no interest in buying with me. I tried to end the relationsh­ip then, but his sister died and he persuaded me to let him stay in my home.

He then insisted that I get out of my five-year fixed rate mortgage, even though my mortgage broker said it wasn’t a good idea. Tom wore me down; I was too tired to fight. He said we should change the deeds at the same time to include him on them. I didn’t fully understand what a big deal that was and what I was handing over.

When I ended our relationsh­ip two months later, he told me I “deserved to be punished”. We ended up in a legal battle that lasted two-and-a-half years. Because he was on the deeds, he claimed he had an entitlemen­t to the property. I tried to say that he was abusive and he’d coerced me into doing things I didn’t want to, but I had to pay him £15,000 to remove his name from the deeds. It was only after we split that I realised he’d also been taking money from the joint account. Afterwards, I suffered from PTSD: I stopped eating and sleeping, and I had to leave my job due to the stress. Now, I’m slowly rebuilding my life. I still have the house and I’ve launched a personal training business. I’m also passionate about raising awareness about domestic abuse. It can happen to anyone and I’m proof of that.’

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