Financial Abuse in Marriages: Warning Signs and How to Get Help

warning signs of financial abuse in marriages

Domestic financial abuse is not limited to any one part of society, and it’s one of many forms of abuse.  The fact is, financial abuse not only takes place among the wealthy, but it can also be incredibly intense and ugly among the more successful middle and upper classes.

Ruth Darlene, M.A. is an educator, domestic violence advocate, social entrepreneur and Founder and Executive Director of WomenSV (Women of Silicon Valley), a domestic violence 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that serves women in middle-to-upper income areas who are trapped in relationships with powerful and wealthy abusers.

She also serves on the Domestic Violence Death Review Team and provides trainings to physicians, therapists, court staff and law enforcement to help them become more trauma-informed in serving survivors in this population.

I recently talked with Darlene about a little known but dark side of affluent marriages that can be particularly dangerous and hard to escape from.

Let’s dive in.

An Interview with Ruth Darlene, Domestic Violence and Financial Abuse Advocate

Interview with Ruth Darlene

What does financial abuse toward women look like in the affluent community?

First a disclaimer. There are many successful, powerful professionals who treat their partners, their families, with kindness, respect and love. In our interview today, I’ll be talking about a small subset of affluent professionals who abuse their power and status. Because 85-95% of abuse victims are female, I’ll use the pronoun “she” to refer to survivors and the pronoun “he” to refer to perpetrators. However, I do want to acknowledge that women can be perpetrators and men can be victims of abuse.

Here’s how you can identify financial abuse and what it can look like…

For example, a financially abusive spouse may put her on an allowance, denying her access to money, have full control of household finances, not give her access to what should be joint bank accounts, steal money and hide money it in separate accounts, or make her ask before making any kind of purchase.

An abusive partner can also punish her for what he perceives to be overspending. He may gain financial control over his intimate partner by not letting her go back to work if she wants to or taking the paycheck when she comes home with it. Also, financial abuse occurs when a spouse attempts to withhold financial information and take control over financial planning, demanding her to ask permission before spending money.

Other forms of financial abuse may include not letting her see the income tax return, signing it for her, forcing her to sign off her financial assets, or committing a breach of fiduciary duty—like secretly appropriating significant amounts from the joint accounts or savings, and spending it on porn or prostitutes. Or hiding it in separate accounts that she doesn’t have access to like his parents’ overseas, or the Cayman Islands. In the business world, it would be called money laundering or embezzlement. What do you call it when it happens in a marriage? That’s financial abuse.

There’s also forcing her to make early withdrawals from her Social Security, pulling out of her IRA early, dipping into that, making cavalier, one-sided decisions about how the money and economic resources will be spent, not allowing her to participate in financial decisions about how money is spent, making her afraid to ask questions about finances.

Financial abuse occurs when he denies her access to money or physical resources, or forces her to pay the bills and her to be the sole provider when he is perfectly capable of working, and forces her to turn her paycheck over to him, having her support him in every way.

What does an affluent abuser look like?

Affluent abuser looks like

An affluent, abusive partner is typically very charming and successful. He is persuasive, intelligent, motivated, a consummate salesman, a good actor, looks good on paper.

He is also very good at playing the victim.

He doesn’t take responsibility when he is at fault. He tends to blame others always, rather than take responsibility himself for any harm done or mistakes made, or cruelty.

He tends to lack empathy, remorse and self-reflection.

He lies easily and lies often even when he doesn’t need to. A abusive partner almost seems to enjoy causing pain to the very people he should be protecting the most.

I’m not a therapist, so I would not put a diagnostic label on the behaviors I described, but when I do trainings for therapists and I list the behaviors, the terms I get back from the therapists are narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, antisocial. These are personality disorders. It’s who they are, and this type of personality tends not to benefit from therapy. Therapy becomes another tool in their hands to manipulate and control their intimate partner. Anything in the hands of an abuser can become a weapon. Even therapy.

Related: Definitive Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist

An affluent abuser also tends to view the world in terms of certain paradigms like war, business, chess, and poker.

Can you elaborate on those paradigms?

War as in, when the relationship ends, I will destroy you. And what’s the first casualty of war? Truth. There are lots of lies and attacking her from all sides… a full-frontal assault. You fling enough mud against someone, some of it is bound to stick. One of my ladies called it the “scorched earth policy.” Trying to damage her reputation, her credibility, her career. Calling everything into question, including her ability to care for her children and handling basic household finances. Setting her up, making her look like she is the crazy one. As a result, she may end up on a psychiatric hold or in jail as a result with a restraining order against her. She may lose access to her children, property, and community funds. Setting her up in this way to make her look like the perpetrator is so common, I call it “the Engineered Restraining Order.”

An abuser is also very calculating and manipulative.  That’s where the chess comes in.  He’s thinking several moves ahead while she probably is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is busy fighting fires that he has already set. She won’t see the ambush that he is planning for her down the road. Sometimes, she won’t notice she’s being financially controlled until it seems to be too late.

With the business paradigm, it’s the whole first-to-market wins approach. He will try and get his story across to anybody they’re both in contact with, get there first and convince them that she’s the crazy one. She is the problem.  Again, he’s very good at playing the victim. He is a very good actor, very persuasive, and a consummate salesman.

She’ll also come up for a performance review periodically. Valued in terms of her assets, productivity, performance. God forbid she should come up short—she’ll be fired and replaced with a newer model.

His children tend to be viewed in a similar way—not in terms of their intrinsic value but what they are, what they’ve done, their worth defined in terms of their GPA and accomplishments.

It’s relationship as a business transaction. Viewing people as resources, using them, using them up and then discarding them. Net worth as human worth.

Money is a defining feature of an affluent abuser, and he tends to consider all the money earned in the course of the marriage as his not theirs. And if the relationship ends, she becomes a threat to the status quo, to his power and control, to all that he has accumulated.

So then it’s about crushing the competition, winning at all costs.

It’s about power, money, revenge, and winning. While maintaining that public image.

Public image is everything. Maintaining power, maintaining control at all costs.

That’s what an affluent abuser looks like.

A piece that jumped out to me was the credibility, the reputation, having that ego.  Is there a way to use the abuser’s ego against them in a divorce setting?

A piece that jumped out having that ego

Absolutely. They always think they’re the smartest one in the room and that can trip them up sometimes. This is where we learn from the strategies that the opponent is using—so we can better to protect ourselves against them.

What I do in my support groups is talk about these strategies and how we can learn from them and implement them and not become jaded or damaged by them.

There is also a saying, “Be careful not to become the thing you hate or be careful of looking into the abyss. You don’t want to fall into it.”

I use another analogy.

It is like a cat and mouse game.  You’re the mouse and he is the cat.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t think like a cat. You know how a cat stalks a mouse out in the backyard. He is quiet and still, it seems like for a long, long time–and then he chooses the moment to pounce.

So someone in an abusive financial relationship must think strategically.

Yes.  It’s all about trying to be strategic.

For example, this whole first-to-market wins approach that he uses, how can she use that to be the first-to-market who wins–with her truth?

How can she counter his lie with her truth by getting that across to people who are in a position to help her, who have power over her life, like providers in court and anybody else that she is having to be exposed to through her relationship with him?

Where there is embezzlement of funds and money laundering, how can she learn from that to shore up her own private personal resources, quietly stockpiling money, often with little or no pay, poor credit history, and no access to family income? She needs to strategically counter his moves because he has done it in a way where he wants to cripple her – by withholding money, concealing financial information, and even becoming physically or emotionally abusive over financial matters. He wants to take her power away. How can she slowly, discreetly, strategically start taking it back?

From his perspective, relationships are a zero-sum game. If you get more, that means I’ll get less. There’s not plenty to go around in terms of love, attention, success or money. I have to have it all.

It’s relationship as a business transaction. What’s in it for me? What have you done for me lately? What can I get out of you? I take from you, so I can have more. It’s a different kind of give and take relationship—you give, I take.

But can she learn from that?  That sneakiness that he is using…Can she be secretive because she has learned that her honesty will be punished? If she shares with him what is important to her, what her innermost fears and desires are, these are the things that will come under attack.

If she doesn’t play her cards close to her chest, he is going to use whatever she reveals to him against her. The less he knows, the safer she’ll be. It’s poker for her, and poker for him where he’s not showing his hand. You always have to assume he’s got something up his sleeve.

So she needs to be more discreet to protect herself?

Yes! She can do what she needs to do quietly, secretly, and thoughtfully and by gathering her allies and resources around her.

When we have our support group, it’s the war room. It’s the situation room. I invite ladies to put on their situation war room hats and start thinking like their partner without becoming like their partner.

We also talk about the rose.  That’s one of our other symbols.


We can be that fragrant flower and folks who show kindness and compassion and respect to us, we let them inhale our lovely scents and feel the softness of our petals because they deserve it.  But can we reserve our thorns for those who have proven to be unsafe and try to grab us and hold us too tight, and deprive us of our basic needs?

That’s one of the strategies of learning from your partner without becoming like your partner.  That’s one of the risks in leaving an abusive relationship, because women have been attacked from all sides: spiritually, emotionally, physically, intellectually, financially, legally.

Are they going to develop this hard shell thinking, I was powerless before. I lost my power. That’s never going to happen to me again. I’m going to attack first rather than be attacked.

I invite ladies to learn how to show their warmth and vulnerability and softness with those who earn their trust, slowly, carefully, bit-by-bit, over time.

I encourage our ladies to keep those beautiful qualities–their beauty, charm and grace–intact for those worthy of those qualities.  Then save the thoughtful, strategic, diplomatic thoughts and secrecy for when the relationship they have found themselves in has proven to be unsafe. This is the key t long-term security, a safe space free from financial, physical, and emotional abuse.

How does the victim of an affluent abuser compare to the victim of someone who isn’t affluent?  Are they different or the same? Are there any distinctions that we can draw there?

Let’s talk about the similarities first.

They both would probably be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They both may have a hard time cobbling their thoughts together. They may not sound very credible because they might leave out really important details. They’re not in healthy relationships whatsoever.

In talking about the abuse, they may have forgotten that he strangled her last week because they are focused on sharing the fact that he tried to run over her with the car today. Leaving out significant details, lack of clarity and completeness in describing the history of abuse, having a hard time organizing thoughts, difficulty with concentration and short-term memory, haziness around details of abusive incidents, ADD/ADHD-like symptoms are all signs of possible post-traumatic stress disorder/PTSD, a side effect of living with abuse that, through no fault of their own, can damage their credibility.

Survivors in addition to PTSD, will often have some kind of physical health problems, ranging from migraines to heart disease and cancer.

They may be self-medicating in some way to find short-term solutions to the anxiety, depression, despair that come from living with an abuser. These short-term solutions include alcohol or prescription drugs, eating too much, eating too little, not sleeping, or just not looking after themselves. They’ve learned in their relationship that if they spend any attention on themselves, they’re being selfish.

They have been conditioned to believe that they must be devoted 24/7 to their partner.  Self-regard, self-care goes out the window.

Their self-worth, confidence and ability to take any pleasure in life are often eroded by their partner’s constant criticism, micromanagement, control, humiliation, intimidation and threats.

What about differences?

Well, if she comes from a background of apparent privilege, she may drive a nice car, wear nice clothes and be well-spoken. If she goes to a shelter, she may find that she is feeling different, maybe even treated a different way.

One of the women I work with was married to a physician. When she told him she was leaving him, she ended up being framed, arrested and put in jail. It was her first time. Not so for her fellow inmates. Her clothes, ethnicity, manner of speaking all marked her as different. They mocked her with derisive nicknames like Yoga, shunned her, re-traumatized her.

The affluent population is misunderstood because we think that domestic violence doesn’t happen in the nicer parts of town.  But the truth is, we’re just better at hiding it. It happens in every economic area, and people from all backgrounds can end up in abusive relationships.

Domestic violence happens to 1 in 3 women on the planet. 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in the course of her life.

When you’ve got money and power and influence, there are lots more ways you can coerce and control and damage somebody. It’s not just all about physical violence.

The emotional violence can take a tremendous toll on a woman’s mental and physical health.

If an abuser has a lot of education, they can employ an array of ugly tactics to abuse a spouse.

For example, one woman I know was married to a highly educated therapist.  He isolated her from friends and family, used his counseling skills to manipulate and brainwash her, over time causing her to question and doubt her memory, her perception of reality, her sanity. That’s gaslighting. And he was a master of it. He was also physically abusive. The last time he tried to kill her, he was chasing her around the house with a knife, throwing plates at her and yelling threats at her.  He terrorized her and then brought her to this point where she was just sobbing hysterically and uncontrollably with these broken plates all around.

She called 911. But when the police came, he got to them first. He met them on the driveway and instantly started morphing from Mr. Hyde back into Dr. Jekyll, telling the officers, “Thank God you’re here. My wife is having another one of her psychotic meltdowns. I’m a therapist and I really do believe that for her own sake, she should be on a 5150 psychiatric hold. Can you please help her? Can you please help me? I’m afraid of what she might do to me. I’m afraid of what she might do to our children.”

The police run in and find her absolutely beside herself. Why? Because he’s kept her up all night, flinging plates at her, holding a knife to her throat, threatening her with murder. And here are the broken plates that had been flung at her. But now it looks like she’s the one who has been throwing them.  He’s made it look like she did it.

She gets hauled off in handcuffs to the locked unit of her local hospital and put on a psychiatric hold. Diagnosis: psychotic episode. Grave threat to self and others.

He comes to visit her, and she says to him, “Why did you do that?”

And you know what he says to her? “Because I can.”

That’s the abuse of power, money, influence, credentials. This is somebody who took his education, his therapeutic knowledge and used it to get inside his partner’s head and convince her that she was the problem. And then convinced the authorities of the same thing.

You can drive someone to the point of madness with enough isolation, sleep deprivation, psychological torture and manipulation. Providers need to separate out: is she mentally ill? Has she been abused? Does she appear mentally ill because she has been abused?

That’s frightening to know that those things go on.  What eventually happened to her?

This is someone who ended up coming to my group for 3 years and gradually healing.   Eventually, she found a wonderful partner who loves, respects and honors her.

Now, she understands what it’s like to live with somebody who treats her with love, equality, and compassion.  She managed to get her life back. There is a happy ending there but there isn’t always for other ladies.

Do you have another example of affluent abuse?

Yes.  I had another lady fleeing from her abuser who worked in the hi-tech industry down in Southern California.

She was driving her fancy car up here in the Bay Area and as she put it, “Where cars nowadays are computers on wheels.”

She issued a voice-activated command to her GPS and it was overridden by her husband’s voice-activated command remotely ordering the car to go back to Southern California.

Can you imagine going to the police and trying to explain that your husband was remotely controlling your car with his voice?

The first night I met her, even though she was a very skilled, highly educated woman, she had that total deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes.

A woman trapped in terror, who looked paranoid because in fact her every move was being stalked and tracked by her husband who was a highly skilled engineer developing the type of technology we use to make sure our daughters get home safely from the prom.

Do attorneys ever get involved in this kind of thing with their clients?

Do attorneys get involved

A powerful, wealthy abuser can transfer the abuse from home into the legal arena. He may hire a very high-powered attorney and convince that attorney that he is the victim and his wife is the crazy or abusive one. He’ll work very hard to convince the court that she’s the problem, or he may continue to drag her back to court repeatedly, forcing her to deplete her financial savings.

He may accuse her of lots of different things that she didn’t do and have the attorney conduct a full-frontal assault, bombarding her with paperwork, discovery demands, and false allegations, hindering the court and divorce proceedings in the long run.

Sometimes she hasn’t even done anything, but her partner will make it look like she did. He may scratch himself, hit himself, and make it look like she did it. Or she may reach out and grab his arm, maybe even tear his sweater.

Then he’ll call 911 and say, “I’m afraid of her. She’s attacked me,” and with the mandatory arrest policy, she will end up going to jail, because police look at whoever the dominant aggressor is.

If he has scratches on himself, sometimes the authorities won’t realize that those could be defensive wounds–the reason why he has scratches is that he was strangling her and the bruises on her neck just haven’t appeared yet.

Strangulation is really signaling to a woman that he has the power of life and death in his hands, and sometimes those bruises even won’t appear for a while, and even if they don’t have marks, she could still end up dying days later as a result of the swelling. It’s a high, high lethality risk. But when an incident happens, regardless of who calls the police, he may end up coming across as calm and convincing, while she looks scattered, erratic. By the time the police arrive, she may “go sideways”, afraid to tell the truth of what her partner has done, afraid he will punish her, afraid he will lose his job, afraid of exposing their children to the shame that his arrest would bring to the family. She may well minimize or deny the emotional, financial, and physical abuse. And her partner may well make himself out to be the victim.

And if he has taken control of the finances, financial documents, and physical resources, he may go into court with his dream team. And she may end up representing herself because she hasn’t any money for a retainer. As a result, she may be forced to give up power of attorney and deceived in the eyes of the law.

Legal abuse in unhealthy relationships is very common. The more money you have, the higher the risk of turning the family court system into a weapon to abuse by proxy.

And what are some steps the spouse can take to protect herself?   

The first step is freeing herself in her mind, imagining what life could be like not feeling like she’s got a boot on her neck, 24/7, walking, sleeping, living on eggshells. What could it be like waking up in a home that is safe, truly her sanctuary?

The second step is to start to reach out and gain information by maybe going on websites, safe websites at the library to get language around what’s happening to her. She can read books like Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft, or Splitting by William Eddy, JD, LCSW, which is about divorcing somebody with a personality disorder or “Not to People like Us: hidden abuse in upscale marriages” by Susan Weitzman, Ph.D..

Other excellent books are by Christiane Northrup, M.D., called Dodging Energy Vampires and The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist by Debbie Mirza.

When you’re on that learning curve, you want to get specific language to describe what’s happening, especially in cases of physical abuse, financial abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse. Then gradually start to reach out, maybe by calling a domestic violence hotline, or a non-profit organization on a safe number where it won’t appear on her phone bill.

Another strategy may involve getting a phone, like a flip phone, or a cheap phone with a different carrier where she can make sensitive calls. Abusive partners often isolate their spouses from their friends and families, limiting their victim’s access to a safe support system. That’s why financial and physical abuse often go unnoticed for so long.

If possible, she can start stockpiling money, financial statements, and important documents secretly and quietly. Create and start to fill a “go bag” that has a change of clothes, cash, some Vanilla visa cards, gift cards, things for the children, prescriptions in it, medicine, important legal documents, bank statements, credit card statements, social security card, birth certificate, passport, all the important documents she would need, should she have to light out in a hurry. Then store that bag safely at a friend’s house or at work.

She can also think about financial planning and gain control over her financial assets if she wants to end domestic violence and escape an abusive situation. She can stop contributing to joint bank accounts and open a new bank account that would be entirely her own.

Then can she start quietly interviewing attorneys? Is this a good time for that to begin?

Yes, quietly. Some of them will do free consults. If despite financial abuse and other forms of mistreatment, she’s been able to save some money, she can pay cash for a few consults to get the ball rolling. If she’s been able to gather some important financial documents, show that to the attorneys, see if maybe one will take a chance on her and get the ball rolling knowing that hopefully the community and financial assets will be divided later on.  But most won’t take the case without a retainer up front.

Safety planning is so important in all aspects of leaving a financially abusive relationship. There is the legal part where she starts to get good legal representation, the financial part where she starts to consult with someone like a certified divorce financial analyst, and the emotional part where she starts to shore up her inner emotional reserves through a domestic violence and trauma-informed therapist.

What other kinds of resources might be valuable to connect with?

Retain people who can assist with physical safety planning, technological safety planning, perhaps with a private investigator who might be able to help her track down hidden assets, or a cybersecurity expert.

An expert could sweep her vehicle and see if there are bugs that have been installed in her car. Has her phone or her computer been hacked, or are there hidden cameras in the light fixtures at home?

She can join a domestic violence support group where she can shore up social support, share resources and information, start making friendships with safe people, reaching out to teachers, physicians, therapists.  She can connect with a local police officer who’s informed about domestic violence and get some information from them about home security and safety planning.

What about reaching out to your program, Women of Silicon Valley?

She can certainly call me and my program and come to meet with me one on one. I run a helpline. I run a support group. I do in-person meetings with survivors of financial and domestic violence victims, and continue to support them for as long as they want.

We’ll be involved with them, not just if they’re thinking about getting a restraining order, but we also go to court with our ladies. We go to the police station. If they’re looking to file a restraining order or just want advice or support or guidance from their local police force, we refer them to many types of resources—legal, financial, vocational, counseling.

We also do education and training. We do lots of trainings for providers, attorneys, therapists, law enforcement, Superior Court, physicians, all kinds of providers.  We visit corporations and talk about domestic violence in the affluent community and its impact in the workplace.

We do public presentations to raise awareness about this issue in the community, because we have to put it on the table that financial abuse and domestic violence happens in all economic areas.

Last year I was on the Megan Kelly Today Show, talking about this issue. I was also on Good Morning America and in the New York Times and with these latter interviews, I was talking about the abuse of technology. Since that time, I get calls from women all around the country asking for help in dealing with their abusive partner or escaping their abusive relationship.  This tells me it’s a widespread problem.

Woman of Silicon Valley is one of the few programs that focuses on women in the middle to upper-income areas. I’ve worked with more than 1,300 women over the last 8 years. More and more come to us for help every day, because the average person doesn’t think it happens in the nicer parts of town, but as I said before, affluent people are just better at hiding it.

Women need to understand they don’t have to go through this abuse alone…that they don’t deserve abuse.  They’re to be commended for the courage and strength it takes for surviving and reaching out for help when they do.

Essential Reading:

Related Content

Recent Posts