“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 Even though logically I knew that women of all sorts experience abuse, my mental model was tired and outdated.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.
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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.
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.