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Economics and Domestic Violence

Mary-Margaret Sweeney, Director of Community Engagement for Domestic Violence Network, shares her story of economic abuse, and how economic self-sufficiency enabled her to leave the relationship:

Growing up, my mother always stressed the importance of being able to support myself without the help of a man. My father died when I was very young, and because my mother worked and could support us, we were able to move forward financially after his death. I watched her negotiate car and home purchases, engage in work she loved, and provide for me. In my early 20s, I found myself in an economically abusive relationship. I was the only breadwinner in the household, working two jobs while trying to complete my college degree. During this time, my partner either didn’t work or quit jobs the moment he became frustrated with them. But I kept a careful budget and knew exactly what we needed to pay bills. And yet, I was working so much, and the math just never worked out. I couldn’t understand where all of our money was going. It didn’t cross my mind for years that perhaps he was being dishonest. He lied about us having health insurance under one of these jobs, which resulted in me calling him from an emergency room asking for our coverage information only to find out, as I waited in pain for treatment, that I had been lied to. Money that I had put into our joint account for health care and property taxes had been spent on a new bicycle, video games, to pay off debt he had accrued without my knowledge, and I’ll likely never know what else. I learned the extent of this when I received notification that there was a lien on my property, and I was in danger of losing the home I’d worked so hard to purchase. We were not a happy couple. Verbal and emotional abuse began to take place, and happy moments were rare. When I hit my breaking point and ended the relationship, I thanked my mother for instilling in me the notion of self-sufficiency and economic independence. I was able to leave him, and without having to wait to save a certain amount of money before I could do so. It still took me a couple of years to pay the back property taxes to relieve the lien on my home which negatively impacted my credit, pay the lawyer, and that emergency room bill, but I was able to do so (personal communication, November 29 2016).

Economics and domestic violence intersect primarily through the freedom that financial stability provides and the dependency caused when an abusive partner controls finances. Whether living below the poverty line or miles above it, financial abuse  immobilizes a person seeking to leave a relationship.

By making his partner economically dependent, the abuser controls her ability to become self-sufficient. This is accomplished by maintaining complete control over her money and other economic resources by making all financial decisions, reducing her ability to acquire, use, and maintain money, and/or forcing her to rely on him for all of her financial needs (Adams et al., 2008; Fawole, 2008).

Consequently, those with little to no financial means struggle to safely exit a relationship. For those experiencing violence and wanting to leave an abusive relationship, the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter are very real barriers. More than just finding temporary solutions to these issues, a person who experiences violence may struggle for years to stabilize personal finances and housing. Aiding those experiencing violence must include addressing issues surrounding financial stability.

Economic considerations cannot easily be dismissed as a barrier to safely exiting a relationship. The safety of the individual experiencing violence as well as any children in the family are impacted immediately when there is little to no income, no place to live, and an uncertain financial future. While much of the conversation has revolved around finding safe and affordable housing for those experiencing violence, it must also be understood that violence occurs in affluent neighborhoods, as well. Often those who are abused but are economically more advantaged experience financial abuse with limited access to money and pressure to maintain the illusion of a healthy relationship. “My client may be driving a $60,000 car, but she has $20 in [her] wallet … she may have the appearance of money, but in reality, she [has nothing]” (Haselschwerdt, 2016).

Examples of Economic Abuse include:

  • Limiting access or restricting money
  • Preventing or sabotaging the ability to work
  • Diminishing an individual’s ability to support him/herself (Weaver et al., 2009)

Intersections will focus on educating the community about financial abuse, examining the economic barriers of safely leaving a relationship, and discussing ways to improve our systems to protect those experiencing abuse. By bringing together service providers, experts in a variety of fields, and the community, DVN will facilitate discussions and action plans on the following topics:

  • Housing and domestic violence: services, barriers, and the future
  • Homelessness, poverty, and domestic violence
  • Wages, discrepancies in pay between men and women, and the intersection of abuse
  • The impact of domestic violence on middle class families
  • Domestic violence in affluent communities


On February 28, 2017, the Domestic Violence Network and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) hosted a panel discussion on the current state of housing in Marion County. The event was attended by service providers, law enforcement, and community members to learn about changes in emergency space and other housing options. To learn more about the content of this discussion, please click here.

On March 22, the Domestic Violence Network facilitated a training and networking event with the Indianapolis Housing Agency and ten local service providers. At the event, participants learned about domestic violence and federal guidelines in public housing as well as a time to network. The goal was to connect local service providers with IHA staff to better serve the community. Read more about the event in NUVO. DVN continues to partner with IHA to provide training to their staff on recognizing and responding to domestic violence, and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) laws that impact housing.

On July 27, the Domestic Violence Network co-hosted a poverty simulation and panel discussion with our community partners Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) and Institute for Working Families. Attendees consisted of local policy makers, social service providers, and those looking for more education on poverty in our city. Read more on our blog here.

Throughout our trainings, community conversations, and events, DVN worked with agencies in our community also concerned with the intersection of domestic violence and economics. A task force was formed and members titled it the Housing and Economics Task Force. Housing quickly emerged as one of the starkest economic barriers to leaving a domestic violence situation. A diverse group of community stakeholders have embraced this initiative and we are proud to count the following partners in our task force: Community Health Network, Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP), Gene B. Glick Company, The Julian Center, Coburn Place, and Partners in Housing.