Economic harm vs economic abuse

September 6, 2021

What comes to mind when you think about the word abuse? Is it a word that you identify with, or does it feel a bit alien, like a word that involves someone else?  

The answer to these questions has shaped the language we use when we talk about economic harm.

We explain why we use the word harm over abuse and how it may affect you. 

What is economic harm?

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

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

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

Power in language  

We know that there is power in language, which is why it’s important to choose the words we use carefully – particularly when it comes to abuse.

We use economic harm in place of economic abuse. 

We use it with the same meaning, so it can be interchangeable. Other than in our research, we use the word harm in most of our communication.

We’ve found that the word harm can remove barriers for people, making the topic more relatable, and easier for those experiencing or using harm, to engage with.

Barrier: Money and abuse don’t align

There is not a natural or common relationship between the words: money and abuse.

The word abuse can seem too strong, harsh, or extreme to explain issues that relate to money and resources.

When we speak to a person experiencing economic abuse, they often don’t see their situation as abusive because the word is more commonly associated with physical violence.

However, if we change the word abuse to harm, we’ve found it resonates – thus is more engaging and removes the barrier.

Barrier: Protecting someone close  

As mentioned above, economic harm is often experienced in intimate partner relationships.

For some people, it happens slowly over time. 

For others, it may be unintentional without either person being aware it’s occurring.

When there is no physical harm, it makes it difficult to identify your own or your partner’s behaviour as abusive unless it becomes extreme or very obvious.

It is common for someone experiencing economic harm to be unaware of it, especially when love is involved. It is more likely to be seen as or called relationship problems.

By speaking with people using the word harm, we’re removing barriers so both people in the relationship can address behaviours they may not even be aware are occurring or causing harm.

Having to face the fact that you have been abusive or are in an abusive relationship can be really difficult. However, being able to identify that something you are doing or experiencing is harmful doesn’t cut as deep.

Although we have changed the language, it does not mean we are minimising the experience, its impact or responsibility for the abuse – it is simply an attempt to open the door wider, remove barriers that have the potential to shut people down, and make it easier for people to identify with. 


Barrier: Confrontational language

Abuse is a strong word. It can make people feel uncomfortable and is often associated with certain stereotypical views and beliefs about a person or relationship.

Feelings that arise from this word can cause a person to not engage, disengage, or even shut down completely – resulting in the experience of harm continuing.

If we want those experiencing abuse or causing it to go on a journey of understanding and awareness with us, it is necessary to use language that makes that possible.

The most effective conversations happen by using non-confrontational language, unpacking the why behind the harm/abuse and working towards a solution.

Other words such as abuser, perpetrator, and even victim can be stigmatising.

These labels can feel like identities and limit the belief that change is possible.

We want to support people through this difficult process using a strengths-based approach, with a focus on the way forward.


Following the lead  

In May 2018 the police changed its terminology of family violence to family harm for similar reasons above.  

The police said:

“We’ve made these changes because we want to deliver a better service to people experiencing family harm. We believe these changes will make a real and tangible difference for victims and will also help partner agencies and NGOs who are involved in providing family harm services.”


Economic harm doesn’t have one identity, it doesn’t belong to a type of person, and it can happen to anyone. 

By changing the word abuse to harm, we’re able to be more inclusive with our language, remove barriers and help people identify, understand and hopefully overcome economic harm.

Picture of Beryl Brogden

Beryl Brogden

Economic Harm Advisor


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