Economic Harm

Portrait of a middle aged Japanese woman standing outdoors with arms crossed

Economic harm is behaviour towards a person that controls, restricts or removes their access to money, economic resources or participation in financial decisions.

Economic harm, often called financial or economic abuse, is recognised as a form of psychological abuse within the Family Violence Act. 

It is experienced in many close personal relationships, particularly intimate partner relationships. It may also include forms of elder abuse. 

“It was like he had an image of a perfect girlfriend. He would decide what I wore, where I went, who I saw and give me as much money as he thought I needed for the things he agreed that I could do.”

Outdoors portrait of 17 year old teenage girl with long brown hair

Unlike physical violence, economic harm is less visible and does not leave marks; the impact can be debilitating, and can affect financial security well into the future. 

In situations where demands are refused, what begins as economic abuse can lead to other forms of abuse such as yelling, threats and more violent behaviour.

Understanding economic harm

Economic harm can impact all ages, socio-economic groups, cultures, ethnicities and genders. 

It may also present differently in some cultures due to traditions and beliefs, or the systemic experience of colonisation.

Economic harm is experienced in the context of power and control and is often intentional, but not always. 

Like other forms of violence it can be subtle, beginning with the smallest breach of trust, and then build over time. 

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“I was afraid to get clothes for the kids”

Economic harm can also be a product of intergenerational learning, role modelling, previous trauma, belief systems, limited knowledge, traditions etc.

It is most evident when a specific pattern of behaviour is occurring – such as coercion, withholding financial access or support, deceptive behaviour or unreasonable control that limits another persons’ economic or financial involvement – including resources such as accommodation, transport, employment and clothing.

It may also involve limited or no participation in decisions or actions relating to financial and economic wellbeing.

What does economic harm look like?

Other behaviour may be occuring, particularly if a person is trying to leave the relationship, which can be the most dangerous time.  

This could be such things as:

Money or resources being withheld to prevent you from leaving the relationship
The car is damaged so you can’t go
Your employment situation becomes difficult due to constant harassment
Child support is not being paid
Court processes are intentionally dragged out
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Human relationships are complex. 

There are many things to navigate in a close personal relationship, and one of the most common challenges is money and finances. 

Discussions about money will surface at some point and are not only necessary, but can be difficult regardless of how healthy a relationship is. 

There is however, a difference between “money problems” that a couple works on together to resolve, and the financial controlling that can lead to economic harm.

Is it happening to me?

  • Do you have to ask for money or explain your spending needs for everyday items or basic needs? If your answer is yes, you could be experiencing economic harm.
  • Have you ever been coerced/forced to give up your job, go to work or stay home? If your answer is yes, you could be experiencing economic harm.
  • Do you have access to the money in your personal and family bank account? If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
  • Are you allowed to know how much debt your family has? If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
  • Do you have some or equal decision making power over how the household money is spent? If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
Do you have to ask for money or explain your spending needs for everyday items or basic needs?
If your answer is yes, you could be experiencing economic harm.
Have you ever been coerced/forced to give up your job, go to work or stay home?
If your answer is yes, you could be experiencing economic harm.
Do you have access to the money in your personal and family bank account?
If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
Are you allowed to know how much debt your family has?
If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
Do you have some or equal decision making power over how the household money is spent?
If your answer is no, you could be experiencing economic harm.
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Portait of a senior woman standing in a field while at a farm in Autumn, smiling while looking at the camera.

“I didn’t associate myself, my situation, with family violence.”

The impact of economic harm

Economic harm has both short and long term consequences. 

The impact is complex, and cuts across many environments, often leading to years of debilitating economic and social conditions.

Credit and debt

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Economic abuse can cause excessive debt and a damaged credit history that lessens one's ability to meet basic needs and can lead to homelessness.

Social isolation

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The need for support can increase dependence on family and services, often causing fragmented relationships. Personal safety can also be compromised, requiring a move to a new area, away from local supports. This lack of support, and real choice, can force people into long-term periods of social isolation.

Self-esteem

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It is common to feel exploited, depressed, distressed, embarrassed, angry and stupid. Shame, fear, low self-worth and self-belief can lead to physical and mental health issues. Anxiety about financial matters is also a problem - excessively worrying about overspending, long after a relationship has ended. Confidence to rebuild a future, have trust and navigate new relationships is significantly diminished.

Employment

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Remaining in or obtaining new employment can also be impacted by the lack of resources, or poor credit history. It can also be affected by a partner or ex-partner's interference.

Legal system

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Legal and other financial challenges around child support, access, and ongoing court costs can also be debilitating both financially and emotionally, and can continue long into the future.

Lack of choice

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Any decisions that are made when people are in 'survival mode' can lead to consequences such as even more debt, recordable offences or criminal charges, which can influence or restrict future choices.

The impact on children

In families where harm is occurring, it is often hoped that children are protected by not seeing or hearing what’s happening. 

There are however psychological, emotional, environmental and economic factors associated with harm that can have a significantly negative impact.

Children’s basic and developmental needs can be disrupted or limited, along with their social and educational opportunities, due to lack of access to finances. 

Parents or caregivers can become emotionally unavailable and children may need to negotiate issues that occur at home. 

They can be left feeling responsible, confused and isolated. 

Their confidence and self-esteem can become eroded, impacting their overall wellbeing and psychological recovery. In the long term, economic abuse can negatively affect a child’s mental wellbeing, and lead to social and/or behavioural issues, depending on their age, the level of harm and the length of exposure.

Our 2018 research report explores economic abuse, specifically as a form of intimate partner violence (IPV), where men perpetrate violence against women in New Zealand. 

Our research aims to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what economic abuse means in the New Zealand economic and social context. 

We acknowledge that men also experience economic abuse, however, in line with our mission, this work focuses primarily on women.

Click here for more information

Finding support

Our Debt Coaches are here to support you if you are experiencing financial difficulty. Our Debt Coaches are trained in advocacy and understand the impact of economic harm. 

If you are concerned about economic harm or want to talk to someone about the money side of your relationship, please call one of our Debt Coaches on 0800 466 370.

If you suspect economic harm is occurring, other forms of family violence may also be present. Family violence agencies are best placed to work with you to establish whether other forms of abuse are occurring in your relationship and we would encourage you to call one of the agencies listed below.

It is important to take some form of action to stop or address economic harm, but only when it is safe to do so.

If your safety is at immediate risk, please ring the New Zealand Police – 111

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