How to know if you’re in a financially abusive relationship


Financial abuse is far more common than you might think. Every day, millions of people are denied access to their finances by abusive partners, friends or family members.

Around 5.9m people in the UK experience some form of economic abuse at some point in their life, according to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (Sea), while research from Aviva reveals two in five adults have suffered it.

Financial abuse can include limiting access to money, refusing to pay joint bills, running up debt in the victim’s name, or stopping them from going to work. 

Significant awareness about the issue has been raised in recent years: Melanie Brown, better known as Mel B of the Spice Girls, revealed in 2018 that her former husband seized control of her finances during their 10-year marriage. She has since campaigned for more to be done to protect women from financial abuse. 

Economic abuse was included in the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, while financially abusive behaviours are cited in prosecutions under the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

“It’s likely that you know someone who is experiencing economic abuse,” says Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, founder and CEO of Sea. “It can look different in every relationship because perpetrators tailor the abuse to exert control over victim-survivors.”

Here, Telegraph Money explains the signs of financial abuse to watch out for, the instances where financial abuse may be treated as a crime, and where to go for help.

Signs of financial abuse 

Unlike physical abuse that is easy to identify, financial abuse can start gradually with seemingly appropriate requests for money or sensible suggestions to deal with the finances, before leading to a pattern of behaviour that’s difficult to see.

A financial abuser’s actions can be classified in three ways, according to Sea:

Sabotaging your access to income, for example limiting the hours you can work and the ability to gain education or training.

Restricting your finances and the things that you own, for example: controlling how you spend money, making you justify your spending, going through receipts, giving you an allowance or making you ask for money, gaining access to your benefits and controlling use of your mobile phone or car.

Exploiting your economic situation, for example: stealing money, racking up credit card debt or payday loans while insisting all bills are in the victim’s name and refusing to pay joint bills. 

Also misusing joint accounts, such as emptying a joint current account or refusing to keep up with repayments on a joint mortgage, or to obey an order to remove the victim’s name from the ownership documents. Also damaging your property, which could cause financial harm.

Financial abuse rarely happens in isolation and usually occurs alongside other forms of mistreatment, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

It most often occurs between partners, but it can also involve a friend or family member, or even a carer – particularly where the victim is elderly or vulnerable. For example, children putting pressure on a parent for an inheritance, or demanding a will be changed can be a form of financial abuse.

Even when the signs of financial abuse are present, many victims don’t understand it as abuse. Zoe Jeffery, a domestic abuse survivor, said she didn’t even know such a thing existed.

When financial abuse may be treated as a crime

When economic abuse was included in the definition of domestic abuse, and defined in legislation for the first time in the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, this did not make it a crime in its own right. 

Instead, its inclusion means that police and other agencies should be more aware of the issue and more likely to recognise a pattern of financial abuse as controlling or coercive behaviour. 

This is important because economic abuse is recognised and prosecuted under the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. 

To be classed as coercive and controlling behaviour, the following conditions need to be met according to the Crown Prosecution Service:

  • The controlling or coercive behaviour takes place repeatedly (on two or more occasions) or continuously (on an ongoing basis)
  • The victim and perpetrator are “personally connected” at the time of the behaviour
  • The behaviour has a serious effect on the victim, and
  • The perpetrator knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on the victim.

More information on prosecuting a financial abuser is available on the Sea website.

Where to get help

Anyone experiencing financial hardship trying to flee their abusers can apply for up to £500 from the charity Women’s Aid via a £300,000 fund launched in March.

Your bank may also be able to help. For example, TSB launched an Emergency Flee Fund last year to provide between £50 to £500 to assist victims with the cost of essentials.

If you still have a joint current account with your abuser then you should speak to the bank or building society about closing these down – the requirement for both parties to confirm in writing that they want it closed has been eased since the Domestic Abuse bill.

Credit reference agencies Experian, Equifax and TransUnion allow you to add a credit report password. This way if your abuser attempts to apply for credit in your name, your password will help prevent this.

The Sea website also has a telephone support line in partnership with Money Advice Plus  (freephone 0808 1968845) and a survivors’ forum that offers support and guidance. 

The Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247.