Hidden manipulation: exploring gender-based financial abuse

At first, Jane* didn’t realize her relationship was abusive. 

Eight months into her first relationship, Jane, a 23-year-old woman from the Greater Toronto Area, moved in with her partner. 

To save money, the pair lived in Jane’s boyfriend’s mother’s basement. 

She said this is when the abuse began. 

Jane’s boyfriend would manipulate her into giving him money to purchase items he deemed essential. 

These included things like camping gear, home renovation tools and vacations to South America. 

“[The manipulation] is done very subtly,” she said. “It’s done very slowly, and it’s done with what seems like good intentions.” 

If she denied him the funds, Jane’s boyfriend would make threats and rely on emotional and verbal abuse, she said. 

“It had gotten to the point of great violence,” Jane said. “It’s not like I was in a position to really not comply with him.” 

Jane’s boyfriend also had access to her personal bank account and monitored her spending. He claimed she was too reckless to be trusted on her own. 

What Jane was experiencing, along with other forms of abuse, was financial abuse.

Recognizing financial abuse 

According to the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT), financial abuse “involves behaviours that control a woman’s ability to gain and use economic resources, impacting their ability to be economically independent.” It can also be called economic abuse or financial manipulation.

WomenACT also reported financial abuse is often difficult to recognize due to common gender roles associated with families, relationships and money.

Dr. Jess Erb, a psychotherapist and trauma specialist based in Toronto, has worked with several clients experiencing financial abuse. 

“It is one of those almost disenfranchised abuses. We often don’t recognize it or think of it as a component of abuse,” she said. 

At its simplest, financial abuse is linked to domestic violence, according to Erb. 

“Instead of just physical, verbal or sexual abuse, financial abuse is a real source, at its core, to gain power and control in a relationship,” said Erb. “When we think about control of a partner, finance can often be added into it.”

Erb said abusers will often interfere with or prevent their victims from working. This is a way to further control them.

Jane experienced this firsthand. 

“He didn’t want me to work,” she said. 

Jane’s abuser confiscated her debit and credit cards, phone and laptop in an attempt to keep her from attending work and school online. 

“He definitely interfered a lot with work meetings I had. He would start fights beforehand and say that I’m not prioritizing the relationship,” she said. 

According to Erb, financial manipulation makes it incredibly difficult for those experiencing abuse to leave their abusers. 

“It can be really difficult because we often get so tied up in our self-worth being low, not having control and not feeling any power that cultivating that power again can feel nearly impossible,” said Erb. 

Jane left her abuser in February after two years together. 

This was after her abuser forced her to come out publicly as a “covert narcissist,” which Jane said raised red flags for the people in her life.

Concerned, a friend invited Jane to stay at their home in Ottawa for a weekend without her abuser. 

“The more distance I got, the more clarity I got, and the more I realized everything was a plan to drain me out of everything possible,” she said. 

“I didn’t pick up his phone calls or anything,” Jane added. “I was interacting with other people, and I started remembering how it was to be me.” 

After that, Jane cut all ties with her abuser and moved back in with her parents. 

“By that time I was out of there, I barely had any money in my bank account,” she said. 

photo of a piggy bank
Photo by Fabian Blank

The importance of showing support

Jane said the support of her friends and the space they gave her away from her abuser was vital in making her decision to leave. 

She said she hopes others experiencing abuse will have the same level of support. 

“Keep in contact with this person and try to make sure that they’re safe,” said Jane. “Then try to get them to talk to you about the relationship more.” 

For Jane, being a gentle “listening ear” to those experiencing abuse is of the utmost importance. 

Erb said she agreed with this support strategy. 

“If someone being abused comes to you, you cannot shame them but rather affirm them for coming forward,” she said. 

“We often think of someone being abused as someone being quite weak, or weak-willed or not smart enough to understand when most of the time that’s not the case,” said Erb. 

“In my experience, what happens is a very slow trickle of control and manipulation. By the time somebody feels like they’re in a situation, they may have children or they may have certain ties to this person,” she said. 

“When we think about control and what it means, realizing that somebody may not just have the practical resources is a huge step in recognizing that we don’t need to blame this victim for being in a situation,” said Erb. 

Both Jane and Erb said support and kindness are the best ways to assist those experiencing abuse. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse of any kind, call the Ontario Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511.

*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual who experienced abuse. 

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