Perspective: experiencing economic harm
June 8, 2021
Economic harm can be invisible and the controlling behaviours that inflict this harm often feel inescapable and create hostile environments.
Sarah shares her economic harm story about the difficulties she has faced and continues to face to rebuild her life.
I married my first husband when I was 25. He cheated on me – I only found out after he’d left the country with another woman.
I was the guarantor for all of his debts and when he took off I was forced into bankruptcy.
My second husband knew my first husband and knew a lot about what had gone on – he actually knew a lot more than I did.
I think I was obviously vulnerable to him.
He was a really hard worker and I was impressed by that.
But due to my financial situation when I met him, he actually twisted it like I was bad with money – which wasn’t really fair.
I’d always been good with money, but I’d been ripped off by my ex-husband.
I was still very vulnerable and had very low self-esteem, I kind of just accepted that and let him take charge financially.
We opened our first business together. It was just before the financial crash and it was a disaster.
I was relieved not to be in business anymore. It didn’t suit my anxious personality, so I was happy to go back and work for my old boss.
However, my husband didn’t like working for someone else, he liked being self-employed so he opened another business and I just got dragged along in the process.
I ended up working full time for the business and part-time for my boss. I was also working in a restaurant four nights a week and had another casual weekend job.
I was working four jobs to support us because he wanted this business, and I was a hard worker and I was just doing what I was told.
Eventually, I was able to quit those jobs because the business could support us.
Then I had my first child, followed closely by my second. I was a stay at home mum but still had to do admin from home.
That took quite a toll on the relationship – looking back, it was always calmer when we were together all the time.
When he couldn’t monitor what I was doing, things would get quite fraught. I thought the amount he was working on was the problem with our relationship and that if we had time together, things would be better.
When I was in labour with our second child, he just walked out on it and went to work without saying anything.
Then he decided to buy another business. I wanted to sell our existing business, so we could have more time together and he’d be more present – but he wanted both.
He accused me of holding him back and so I just hoped that he wouldn’t get the finance he needed for the business.
But he told me one day ‘[Bank name] is lending us the money for the business if we move the mortgage to them.’
I’ve found out since we separated that the money for the business was actually secured against my house. He did the whole process without me, the bank never checked in with me, the broker never spoke to me and he used a lawyer I’d never met before.
Then one day I was just told that I had to go in and sign the mortgage papers, so I did that.
I wasn’t offered independent legal advice and he was there the whole time.
Even though the offer was in both our names, it was only sent to him. He never showed it to me.
Then he restructured how the lending worked and made himself the sole director so everything only required his signature.
Everything was in my name, but I wasn’t involved.
Meanwhile we had the other business and I had a one and two-year-old to look after.
It turned out the business was a disaster and we ended up having to sell the first one. I then did some work at the second one – just at his instruction.
I had to work whenever he wanted me to.
I remember being really sick one day, and it was our son’s birthday, so I was just trying to not work and prepare for his party.
But my husband emailed me and said “you need to do this thing today.”
I just had to do what I was told.
I now realise that it wasn’t just financial abuse, it was economic abuse.
With me doing all those jobs for him, I was limited in what else I could be doing – everything was revolved around him and his ambition.
My mental health suffered greatly.
I was severely depressed and suicidal. I couldn’t see any way out.
I was working in a business that I absolutely hated and it was more stressful than I had ever imagined.
I had two young children, a husband who wasn’t helping and nothing ever got any better.
He walked out on us twice.
After we separated, I did my best to continue in my employment.
I was, and still am, financially liable for the business and I needed to retain my job to support myself and our children.
Almost immediately after he left, he forced me to reduce his salary – he threatened to trespass me from the business if I didn’t reduce his salary.
He has not paid any child support or contributed to the mortgage rates for the home.
I started to work remotely and arranged, via my lawyer, to attend the office 11am-1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays to complete tasks that needed me to be on site.
He emailed me after this to tell me how the staff hated me and were disgusted with me, and he instructed me to leave the office before my allocated time was up so he could interview people for my job.
If it was not for our domestic relationship, he would have faced serious consequences.
However, due to our relationship, even my own family lawyer suggested that I ‘drop it’.
I didn’t and I filed a personal grievance against the company after he instructed an employment lawyer to make me redundant.
That fight cost me over $16k, while he used company money (relationship money) to pay his legal fees.
He also used the company funds to pay his family lawyer while my family paid for mine.
According to the law, as he is the sole director, he is entitled to use company money for personal drawings while I was locked out of the bank account.
That tiny piece of paper that says ‘director’ gives all the power to one person and leaves the other to fight with no ammunition.
It really felt, as far as the law and lawyers were concerned, that no one cared.
[Even though the relationship ended 18 months ago] I just discovered that he’s gone on the company register and taken over my shareholding.
Now he has the full shareholding, he can liquidate the company and I’ll lose my home.
He controls everything, he locked me out of everything. I’ve got no visibility as to what’s happening.
Because the house is tied to the business and he’s the sole director, he controls every financial aspect of my life and I can’t untangle myself from it and I seem to have no rights.
It was 2019, and my then-husband was going through one of his phases of giving me the silent treatment and being quite physically intimidating.
A month prior, he had faked a suicide attempt to manipulate and control me… on this particular day, I’d gone into the workplace that we shared.
He’d said some very nasty and aggressive things to me and I left in tears, I rang one of my best friends and she got in touch with Aviva.
She told me Aviva was going to ring that day, but when they did I didn’t actually answer. I was quite frozen and scared because I could see how bad everything was and I knew I couldn’t fix it anymore.
But then I did get braver, and I made a time to come into The Loft with my mother and met with Kim.
Kim was wonderful.
We partner with family violence agency Aviva because we know that family violence is one of the biggest issues facing New Zealand women.
More than half of all New Zealand women experience some form of family violence during their lifetime.
It’s very blurry – I wasn’t eating or sleeping.
The insanity of the emails and the attacks were hard to get my head around.
Initially, it [asking for help] was just about getting some clarity, I was quite overwhelmed by the situation I found myself in.
I was able to show Kim some of the emails I’d been sent by my ex, and it was just really kind of comforting and validating for her to read these things and confirm that it was really abusive behaviour.
One day I came home one day and he had left.
I’d found out from my children [who were five and six] had gone out to the studio to see him, and they came running inside in tears and said: “we don’t want Daddy to go and live somewhere else- he says he has to live somewhere else because you don’t like him anymore.”
It’s such an overwhelming mess, and when you’re dealing with [a person who] will just keep firing grenades at you, to see if they can knock you over.
You don’t know where to start and you’re just exhausted.
The Loft was such a fantastic, grounding place for me to start from because you’ve just got no idea where to even start.
Aviva and The Loft were really the only ones that actually gave me any meaningful, real support.
My interactions with lawyers and other agencies were all soul-destroying and unimaginably difficult. I came out feeling worse.
Aviva, and before that the Loft, has been my one guiding light through it all. It was the most useful thing that I’ve been given.
Kim was wonderful, and then Luan was amazing.
I spent a lot of time on the phone with her during the lockdown.
The knowledge that she has, and the attention that she pays – helped me unravel things that were such a mess.
After I’d finished with Luan I did the ten-week women’s domestic violence education course, which I was incredibly nervous about.
Sometimes I’d feel like I didn’t belong in the setting because my husband wasn’t physically violent, and there’s still a belief that that’s what it [abuse] is. But then there was the sick realisation of sitting in the room and realising ‘I do belong here’.
That first session, I remember walking up the stairs with tears running down my face, like ‘I don’t want to do this’. But it was wonderful – I’m sad that it’s over.
I met some really wonderful women. It gave me indignation and drive to try and improve the situation, because people’s stories are just horrific, and the support [in society] is just not there.
There were some days that it was really difficult – just remembering some things that had happened, or listening to somebody say what had happened to them and realising ”oh my goodness, this all happened to me as well”.
It was incredibly confronting, but incredibly beneficial, because you can’t process and get resolution on things that you haven’t recognised for what they are.
I think everybody in the group found it equally beneficial in that way. There was one woman in particular – I just saw such a huge change in her throughout, so that was really lovely to see.
The difference now for me is, I’m so much stronger. I was really unwell from it all. And it takes such a huge toll on the people who are close to you to see you like that, so I think having you guys here is massive support for them as well.
Knowing when I’m not in a good head space, but I don’t want to bother anybody, I can bother you guys.
I think I’ve changed hugely. I’ve grown immensely. I think I’ve pretty much shaken off the cloak that he had me wearing for 15 years, and I’ve uncovered who I actually was before all this started.
He didn’t like me striving or achieving anything for myself – I couldn’t outshine him. I felt like he kept my head underwater and he let me come just enough to take a breath and be grateful to him and then shove me back down again.
It takes a long time to re-programme yourself. I still struggle massively with compliments, but I’m getting some self-belief back and self-worth. I think now I’m a better version of myself; I think if I hadn’t been through all of this, I wouldn’t be driven to do all the things I’m doing now.
My advice to anyone else would be: reach out and find support before you do anything else.
I don’t know how anyone would get through all of this without the knowledge, support and understanding and being validated.
If you are concerned about economic harm or want to talk to someone about the money side of your relationship, our Debt coaches are trained in advocacy and understand the impact of economic harm – you can speak them by calling 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 at the bottom of our economic harm page.
It is important to take some form of action to stop or address economic harm, but only when it is safe to do so.
Please note: the name and any identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the person involved