How Financial Independence Let Me Leave An Abusive Relationship

“But what do I do about all of my things?” I asked, standing in the hallway with my phone pressed up against my ear. All day I’d been shaking with adrenaline, my fight or flight instinct on high alert.

“I remember that one of my biggest worries when I left was my stuff, but I’ll tell you now that none of that matters.” 

My coworker spoke soothingly in my ear from San Francisco. I reached out to her because I remembered that while out for a work-sponsored dinner, she had told me and our UX designer that she left her fiancé when he turned abusive. I remember being a bit surprised by her disclosure. I didn’t expect something like that to be shared with colleagues over firecracker shrimp. At the same time I couldn’t help but think: Her? Really? But she’s so strong. Smart. Capable. She managed a multi-million dollar project, always put together, professional, and amazing at her job. I tried to push away that knee-jerk, judgemental reaction. Even though logically I knew that women of all sorts experience abuse, my mental model was tired and outdated. Now I’m just grateful she shared her story with us, as it was beginning to dawn on me that I had also been experiencing abuse.

She tells me more about her story now. “At the time he wasn’t working, so I was paying the entire rent myself. He always promised to pay me back, but when I left I had to pay double the rent because I couldn’t get out of the lease. $3000 down the drain. But the money doesn’t matter, I don’t miss a single penny. It was all worth it.”

I have an emergency fund, but I never imagined that something like this would be my emergency. I know the point of saving extra is that you never know what could happen, but I expected my emergency to be something like a flat tire or a natural disaster. Yet I also know I’m extremely fortunate to have started saving early. After I hang up the phone with my coworker, I call around to a list of therapists, trying to find someone who can help me make sense of what is happening. One actually picks up and during our conversation asks me compassionately, “Do you have your own bank account?” I feel a rush of gratitude that I can say yes, but also the squeeze around my heart for all of the people who must answer ‘No’ to that question. How many partners are unable to leave toxic relationships because there’s just not enough money? How many are stuck with joint bank accounts drained or inaccessible in another form of abuse, this time not physical or emotional, but economic?

I’m on the phone almost all day. While talking, I search for the suitcases from the hallway closet. He’s at work. Should I leave now? I can’t focus on my job, the lines of code just blur together on the screen. I’m in survival mode. I’m trying to figure out how much danger I’m in. I felt so safe just one week ago, looking at wedding dresses online and drafting up a blog post about moissanite rings. Now I can’t be sure of anything.

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There once was a sheep that roamed the fields with her best friend. For a decade they played and talked and grew together. At night, they nestled in the grass under the stars. For years their bond grew stronger, and the sheep was happy with her life. Then, one day, the sheep found out her best friend was a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing. Other sheep baa’d that they always knew something was off about him. Why did he hide who he really was? She can’t trust herself, she who didn’t see through the disguise. She can’t trust the wolf, who lied to her since they met. She can’t trust her friends, especially those who knew and decided not to tell her. She thinks back to the adventures they had wandering the pastures, but then she remembers that the whole time he had fangs. She could have lived with the fangs, but she can’t forgive him for pretending he was something he wasn’t.

🐺  🐺  🐺  🐺

Every thought bounces back and forth until I start feeling motion sick. My coworker’s fiancé hit her, while mine never laid a finger on me. Is it still abuse if it’s not physical? I read more about coercive control and emotional abuse. I can’t check off every box, but I check off enough. I start to realize that for years he watched me struggle and stress over our relationship puzzle that was missing pieces he had intentionally stashed under the carpet. He heard me voice my concerns, doubting myself, begging for an explanation, and told me I was being crazy and unreasonable. I asked him directly, and he lied to my face. He let me think the problem was me.

Are the years of deceit I discovered, the gaslighting I’m slowly recalling, and the constant criticism enough to nuke the relationship with this man– the one kneeling in front of me crying and begging? The last time he knelt in front of me he asked for my forever, asked me to marry him and promised a future that would have been built on lies. He might not have hit me, but I didn’t think he was capable of inflicting pain like this either. I don’t know the person in front of me. My hands are numb. Although I heard his words as he confessed on his knees, when I try to remember them now I only hear high pitched ringing.

I book a ticket home to Colorado, calling my parents to let them know. I start the phone call by saying I’m okay and safe, but something bad has happened and I need to come home. “Why are you telling us you’re safe?” My mom asks, “That makes it sound like you might not be.” It’s true, it feels like I might not be. When I pack, I wonder how much to bring. Should I pack everything? All of my documents? If I leave my passport, will he shred it? I don’t think so, but I was wrong about what he would do before. If I leave, will he retaliate? Will he rack up debt on our shared credit card or… I don’t know, kidnap the cat? “I swear to you I will not fuck up your finances,” he promises, but of course he’s promised a lot of things before. In the betrayal business they call it ‘shattered trust,’ and it seems to me every broken piece is slicing up the reality I thought I knew.

Because of financial independence, I could afford to fly home. Because of financial independence, I could consider taking a pay cut to move abroad. Because of financial independence, I could decide on my next steps without dreading a dwindling balance. I could book sessions to see a therapist. Although I didn’t do it, I could have gotten a ride to a nearby hotel, called a moving company to pack up everything, blocked his number from my phone and disappeared before his shift ended.

My situation is relatively rare. Usually, where there is abuse there is also financial coercion. In fact, a study by the Centers for Financial Security found that 99% of domestic violence cases also involve financial abuse. Luckily for me, my relationship didn’t feature domestic violence or economic abuse. In addition, we were still unmarried and my accounts were secure. We shared one small bank account together as well as a credit card that was easy to cancel. I had stable employment (even though during this period I felt like I might be fired for slipping at work), I had my own health insurance, and no dependents to worry about. Also, the wolf desperately wants to make things right, which meant that none of the nightmare scenarios I could drudge up actually happened. In an effort to account for his actions and the impact they had on me, he covered most of the related expenses.

Related: Financial Independence Let Me Walk Away From Harassment at Work

Unfortunately the numbers show for many, money is a big factor in returning to abusive relationships. In fact, 70% of millennial women have experienced financial abuse by a romantic partner. The numbers are startlingly high. Everyone should have an emergency fund for situations they could never dream of. Thankfully there are resources for those without a ‘fuck off fund‘. There are free support groups, organisations founded to help victims, and phone numbers like the National Domestic Violence Hotline to call. But one of the best things you can do for yourself, whether this story resonates with you or not, is to start saving for an emergency right now. 

In almost every way, my situation is “ideal” even though it doesn’t feel like that right now. I feel scared to even write this, yet every time I try to write about other things I hit a wall. When I went non-anonymous, I wrote about how I live in integrity and so I don’t mind if my boss or a friend stumbled on this website. I never considered that other people in my life might not be living in integrity, tangling me up in a story I don’t know how to tell. When I shared this site with his parents or mine I didn’t think I’d be writing about anything more than my money story. 

Yet this is all part of my money story. This is why I believe that every person should have their own, independent bank account. I tell my story hoping that it can help someone else someday, just like my coworker’s story was a lifeline for me. I’m strong, I’m smart, and I’m capable. But the wolf still fooled me. I hear many people say they’ve combined finances with their partner 100% because legally it’s all the same, and dread scuttles like little spiders down my spine. I know I used to listen to events like this and think it would never happen to me. How could it? I had been in a solid, stable relationship for years. However, married or not, emergency funds available to each person is critical to underpin safety and autonomy in a relationship.

Whether I decide to stay or go, at least my decision won’t be made for me by my balance sheet. Because you can be smart, and capable, and strong and still find out the sheep you love has fangs.

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  1. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I’m so glad you were able to get out. Your earlier blog posts gave the impression of an amicable split, so I am shocked and dismayed to hear that it was the result of trauma. It would not have occurred to me that continuing to have your own resources is critical when you’ve been in the kind of relationship you thought you had, but as your experience demonstrates, you can never be too safe, especially as a woman. Thank you for your bravery in sharing.

    1. Hi Karen, thank you for commenting for the first time 🙂 My partner did the best he could to repair, and so far it actually has been amicable, though the trauma is real. This post recounts that initial shock, the experience that feels hard to re-live but also important to tell. I agree you can never be too careful, I’m honestly still in shock most days.

  2. It’s very brave of you to share your story. It brought back a lot of memories from a relationship I was in during my early 20s. She was also a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We dated for three years and I walked in on her with someone else. A couple weeks before we were very close to making a huge joint financial decision (thankfully we didn’t). I’m sure our situations are different in ways, and the same in others. It’s been more than 15 years and I’ve still never written about it.

    Thanks for sharing your story and I wish you happiness as you rebuild your life. Looking back, what I went through ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me years to get to that point, and I’m confident you’ll get there as well.

    1. It does seem that peoples’ stories overlap in similar ways, but each story with its own unique twist. Walking in on her must have been traumatic but I am glad that the ultimate result for you is something that feels like the best thing to ever happen to you! I hope I feel that way in the future.

  3. So sorry you had to go through that, but grateful that you had the financial freedom to walk away and the courage to share this story as a warning for other women who may need to hear it.

    I left a marriage once, after several years of wanting to, but being too afraid and embarrassed to leave. The marriage wasn’t good but it wasn’t like he hit me or cheated on me (oh, the low standards we set for ourselves). Having a high paying job, being financially strong and delaying kids made it possible to walk away. I also took a job overseas immediately after LOL. Later I found someone who showed me what true love and partnership are really all about.

    Good luck in this next phase of life 🙂

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you found someone who could give you that love and partnership! I love that you took a job overseas as well. Congratulations on raising your standards and making a bold move for something better.

    1. That isn’t the point of this post. What he did or didn’t do is irrelevant to the fact that FM felt betrayed and needed to leave the relationship. If she chooses to share more details that is up to her but the claim of abuse doesn’t have to be defended or justified to anyone’s standards.

    2. I think FM said he didn’t abuse her financially or physically.

      But instead, he a puzzle piece under a carpet and I guess drove her crazy.

      I’m assuming they basically didn’t get along and had verbal arguments. So verbal abuse.

      Glad they split!

      1. Yeah it’s sad that as a society, we can’t just say it didn’t work out. Verbal arguments become verbal abuse. Everything has to be sold like a Mercedes. I guess in the end, these blogs are just like any media fighting for eyeballs, sucking in the Pom Pom Tommy’s of the world. Hard to discern who real victims are anymore without a full court hearing.

        1. As someone who is privy to the situation, there was a lot worse than verbal abuse.

          Regardless, I’m not sure how you could read about FM’s experience and not understand the level of shock, trauma, and betrayal involved, nor the fact that her experience has nothing to do with whatever label you, a random stranger on the internet, deem it deserves.

        2. Reed, fuck off. FM does not owe you an explanation or specifics. It takes a great amount of strength and courage to share anything about an abusive relationship in this society, in no small part to dumbasses like yourself. You have to option not to comment. I suggest you utilize it next time.

          FM, thank you so much for sharing this. So many people think that abuse is only physical. You are awesome. Sending hugs from Florida.

        3. Wow I didn’t realize we had to divulge all of our personal details to get permission from Reed, the almighty gatekeeper of emotional abuse victims. I think she can unpack her own life experiences without having to present her evidence to the high court of comment blog sections.

        4. My trauma is real, it seems I get locked up for opening my mouth anymore. He’s put his hands around my neck. I’m mentally handicapped, so it’s okay for him to be an ass. He calls me stupid and plays with my emotions. I gave up hot water once and washed cloths out for a year because he did not want to work. Now he finds ways to keep me broke. I’m lost and alone in life. I hope one day to find my independence again. Love love…

    3. That isn’t the point. The point is that being financially independent enables one to walk away from an unpleasant, stressful or dangerous situation, workplace or relationship. Many people aren’t that fortunate and find themselves trapped.

  4. Thank you for writing about this, Mech. For most folks the idea of “abuse” is centered around frequent physical abuse, to the point it seems that’s the *only* kind of abuse that happens. This is a mistaken belief that makes victims of any other type feel like it’s not actually a bad thing, or that it’s not worth taking steps to acknowledge (much less escape).

    By writing this, you’re helping dispel that notion and reinforce two important truths. Not only can abusive relationships happen without frequent physical violence, but also that an excellent financial situation makes leaving actually feasible. Sending hugs from Boston to Amsterdam.

    1. It is encouraging to see that there seems to be a common pursuit for more nuanced thinking around trauma, abuse, and other topics in the psychology field. I hope stories like this help show that it doesn’t always follow the same script. Thanks for the hugs, looking forward to the day we can meet up and share some guac 🙂

  5. Thanks for being so open, Mechanic. It was really powerful to hear your story and made me think about the times family members have left abusive relationships. I spend a lot of time thinking about money buying freedom but I never thought about it buying freedom from a bad family situation. I hope writing about it helped you process it a little bit more.

    1. It’s amazing all the ways we can get trapped, and how many ways it takes both emotional and monetary resources to get out. Writing definitely helped, I feel like I’m better able to move forward with more of the story out there.

  6. I’m sorry you went through this. I wish you could share a couple of examples of what led you to see that this was a destructive relationship other than the puzzle. You were getting ready to get married and stepped away so clearly it was a big revelation of some sort that led you to make such a quick departure. Or was it something you felt all along in a small way but then was confirmed by some event? Thank you for sharing this story.

    1. Hi Sue, indeed there was a big revelation, and this is the first time I’ve written about it, so I didn’t feel comfortable going into details. Maybe eventually I will get to that point, but I used to be someone who never understood plot points where the main character broke off an engagement over some dumb misunderstanding. I don’t have specific examples now, but over time maybe it will be easier to share.

      1. I understand, thank you. The only reason I ask is I have 4 children, 2 daughters (one in college). It’s helpful to share examples with her to watch for things in relationships, as I’ve never experienced anything like this myself.

        1. Two resources I have seen recommended over and over (though haven’t had the time yet to read them myself) is “The Gift of Fear” and “Why Does He Do That”. I might recommend gifting them to your daughters to help learn to trust their intuition and also see signs of abuse early.

  7. I’m proud of you for doing what had to be done and happy to see you’ve found joy in your newfound freedom overseas.

    It took courage to leave and another hefty dose of it to write about your experience. I’m glad you are able to share your cautionary tale.


  8. I’m so sorry that you had to go through this. I’m grateful for you that you’re able to walk away with your finances intact. It’s so important for people to know that this isn’t on the person the abuser targeted. So often people (and so often it’s women) blame themselves because they’ve been gaslit so many times. It’s not your fault that you didn’t see it. It’s about the abuser and their willingness to lie a hundred thousand times, big and small, while building a life with someone.

    I just moral-supported a family member through a shatteringly terrible divorce (with kids, lies, financial abuse, the works) and while they will eventually get through it, their life will never be anything near the level of comfort they once had assumed they would share with the person they trusted. There was nothing wrong with them, and everything wrong with the person they had trusted. I don’t know if I would have been able to tell them it was abusive when they were in the thick of it, though, I have been told by other friends who’ve been through this wringer that you don’t see it until you’re ready to see it. I won’t comment on how true that is because I don’t know, but I did take the advice to wait until they were ready to need us for help because I didn’t want to alienate them before they were ready to get out.

    I hope that people who need to see this, see this and find a way out safely.

    1. It always helps to have the reminder about where the fault lays. I often go down negative self-reflections where I can count all the red flags, but of course they become more clear only after the fact. Hindsight is 20/20 so they say, and that definitely feels more true after finally finding the root of the problems. I wrote letters over the years that show that I could see it but couldn’t make sense of it. I have found that sharing my story sometimes helps friends share with me things that they are experiencing that they aren’t quite yet ready to share with anyone else. And I hope this extends to others that might find this story as well.

  9. I’m so sorry that you went through this, FM. I remember your posts from when the breakup happened, and it’s perfectly understandable that it takes a while to be able to articulate what really happened because you have to process it first, and, of course, we’re all just randoms on the internet so it’s wise to keep some details private.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to move on, although no doubt you’ll find yourself rehashing things because that’s what our brains like to do – it’s just one of those things that goes with being a social animal! FI does take certain pressures away, though, for sure.

    Having observed a few breakups over the years (other people’s, that is) it often seems to me that a lot of the issues stem from how society enculturates women and men – there is, I feel, a considerable expectation that women will simply overlook men’s failings and foibles and allow love to conquer all. Conversely, men grow up with an expectation that they can do as they please and women will forgive them. It’s all part of what’s called “emotional labour” (you may have heard of it). I’m certainly not trying to make excuses for your ex here, but I suspect that many men truly have no clue that the ways they’ve been enculturated into behaving are actually not okay and not mature. It’s really sad in the long run because it damages both men and women.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re getting on with life and I’m enjoying your posts about your life in the Netherlands (including the cat fostering – more pics definitely needed!). All the best with your self-dating activities, and, of course, with the regular kind!

    1. It certainly is interesting to think about the different socialization of the genders. The best we can do is think critically, try to unlearn harmful lessons, teach people how to treat us with solid boundaries, and figure out how to fix the lessons so we don’t pass it on to the next generation. Thanks for your well-wishes! Hope all is well in Australia.

  10. Good for you for recognizing the relationship for what it was. I left a similar marriage 16 years ago. The bombastic verbal abuse still echoes in my head. Now living with firm boundaries, in congruence with my values.

    1. Love to hear stories of people with firm boundaries, especially those rooted in integrity. Way to go Judy!

  11. Thank you for sharing your story! Like your reaction when you heard your colleague’s experience, I was surprised to hear about yours. You’re smart, excelling in your career, financially savvy, independent, etc., so it’s important people share their stories because this can happen to anyone. It takes a lot of courage to leave something so familiar and with so much history, thinking that perhaps things may get better if you stayed, for something unknown. So happy that you left that situation and had the support (financial, emotional, etc) to do so. And on top of that, moving to another country! I think this is a great fresh start for you and I look forward to your adventures ahead.

    1. It is quite the shake up to the life I thought I’d be living, that’s for sure! I’m looking forward to adventures ahead as well. Thank you for your comment Kat

  12. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to this. No one ever thinks it can happen to them…and then it does. Based on the things you wrote I am wondering if you are dealing with someone that has NPD or something related. Sometimes an emotional abuser is that way because of things done to them when they were a child, usually by a parent or caregiver. They went through something so traumatic when they were younger that it caused them to deny their true self. They had to create a false self in order to survive. That false self is the one who abuses. It would take a miracle but on occasion the person can one day come to the realization that they are in fact the abuser and start to make positive changes in their life. The cognitive dissonance one can face as a result of covert emotional abuse can be truly scary though. It can make you question everything. I am so glad you were able to leave the relationship and that you are safe now.

    1. I’m safe, and we’ve both been learning a lot about some of what you’re talking about in therapy, like the ‘false self’ vs. the ‘core part’. Though I wrote about what happened in the past, since then there has been progress on his part to make positive changes in his life. However, I still felt it would be best to do healing and learning separately, so I moved away.

  13. FM thanks for sharing for the benefit of your readers. I need to know other people I look up to have shit sometimes and how you deal with it. Gives me courage and permission to do the same in my life. Your stock just went up in my account… Paul

    1. Thanks for your comment Paul, since sharing my story with people, I’ve also been impressed with how much other people have shared with me about their struggles. It seems that everyone is dealing with something.

  14. There is strength in vulnerability, and it sounds like you are coming from having recently been betrayed in that trust to now trusting the world with part of your story. I cannot even begin to imagine how much courage that must take. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.

  15. The hardest stories to share are those in which we’re most vulnerable. But these are probably the stories that others will take most from. Thank you for sharing.

    And if you’re European adventure ever takes you to Spain, please look up the chaos family.

    1. I’m planning on going to northern Spain this year! I’ll have to figure out where you all are, maybe I can stop by 🙂

  16. Dependency is absolute poison. I can’t imagine how many people in the entire world are actually stuck in their situation with a bad relationship, stuck with family relations, or stuck with a horrible job because the alternative could be to literally starve out on the streets.

    Financial freedom is the ultimate solution. Yes, the journey will be absolutely awful for the first 2 – 3 years or so but the alternative is so much worse.

  17. My ex wife was abusing drugs but telling me her memory lapses and other odd behaviors were from a bout of meningitis.

    I felt so badly for her I stayed for years, you know, in sickness and health.

    Then it was a 13 year old child who figured it out and told me!

    I embarrassed to say, I’m a physician and so was she.

    I got custody of the kids, eventually, but it cost me 80 percent of my our net worth.

    in divorce, men are like women getting selected for CEO; we almost always lose, regardless of our qualifications as parents.

    Sorry to drone on: my point is really that I don’t have the victim mentality, but really, I was emotionally abused. It’s different Reed, than physical, and not as serious as physical or as mundane as arguing.

  18. Sporadic reader, first time commenter (hence the lat comment). I am so glad you are ok. I love your book recommendation the gift of fear. I’ll have to check out the the other one. You are brave for writing about this publicly. It is so important to talk about because it is more common than we think. I was in a non financial non physically abusive relationship in my early twenties, it took a lot of time to process what was going on. Your coworker sharing her experience helped you; you sharing here will help someone else. No doubt about it.

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