Financially preparing to leave an abusive relationship

Financially preparing to leave an abusive relationship

Published on 4th November, 2021 at 08:58 am

Escaping an abusive relationship seems impossible when you are financially bound to your partner. A psychologist, financial experts and survivors share their tips and experiences for financially preparing to leave an abusive relationship.

We have a serious problem

Domestic violence has left an ugly, pain-ridden mark on South Africa’s past and present. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened it, with thousands of people trapped at home with their abusers. For months, the headlines spoke to the skyrocket in reports of physical and sexual abuse women experienced at the hand of intimate partners. What stories seldom cover is how partners’ controlling behaviour seeps into a relationship’s finances in the form of financial abuse. In 2008 Michigan State University referenced a study in their research brief, in which 103 survivors were interviewed about the various forms of abuse they experienced in their intimate partner relationships. 99% of them admitted to having experienced economic abuse at least once in their relationship.

How does this play out? “If you think about the concept of abuse, it is about a form of control or a form of the one person being triumphant over the other in a way that is unhealthy, that disadvantages and often causes harm to the other person,” says Charity Mkone, a Jo’burg clinical psychologist. “With financial abuse, it’s a similar thing, but it has to do with depriving the partner who is being financially abused of significant means to survive or help themselves,” she explains.

If you are in an abusive relationship and want to know your legal rights and get support, you have access to the free Legal Assist benefit to help you. A 24/7 telephonic advice line is manned by qualified attorneys on standby to offer guidance on legal matters. Learn more about this benefit here.

The face of financial abuse

An abuser focuses on the control and power they can exert over their partner, but this can manifest in overt and less obvious ways.

For example, if the person in the relationship doesn’t earn an income, and relies solely on their partner to provide for their needs, the partner can take advantage of this situation and insist on making all financial decisions in the household, whether they suit the person or not. This can take various forms, says Mkone. “The abuser can dictate how the victim should spend or use money, or withhold certain basic needs from the other partner who does not have money,” she says. Carina* experienced this in her own relationship: “I was prescribed medicine for mental health problems, but my husband, who was the breadwinner, didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me or that I needed the medication, so he wouldn’t let me buy it.”

An abusive partner may also try whatever means to disempower you in your own right, which is something Marusha Nadar, a financial planner at Ravi Naidoo’s Financial Services, has observed: “The abuser prevents their partner from working or gaining any skills that can allow them to earn their own money,” she shares. “Then, when the abuser gives them money, they expect proof of payment to know what their partner spends ‘their money’ on.”

The power can also be exerted in a way that humiliates the woman, as Mkone explains: “An abuser could make the financially reliant partner perform certain things that they’re not comfortable with, or exploitative acts within the relationship, in exchange for money. They could also withhold money if the victim refuses to do what they want them to do.”

Even if two partners are earning an income, a more covert way the financial abuse can manifest is through the abuser insisting on controlling the purse strings of the relationship without discussing the matter. “Having a partner that channels funds into things that only he is interested in is a prime example of a woman then feeling left out of the relationship,” says Hazel Pretorius, principal and financial planner at Sasolburg BlueStar, underwritten by Sanlam. In cases where the abusive partner is the higher earner, this sets a power dynamic that can be abused to perpetuate the mindset of belittlement the woman begins to adopt. Chandré* shares how this dynamic was used to humiliate her in her own relationship: “My husband constantly reminded me that he earned more than what I did. He would often throw it in my face that he was the one paying for everything, which gave him the ‘right’ to spend money on things he thought he deserved. He would belittle me in front of our friends with jokes about how ‘small’ a salary I earned.”

You can get 24-hour medical assistance and professional counselling telephonically using the Trauma, Assault & HIV Assist benefit, for free. Learn more about it here.

Prepare to leave for good

Because abusers reduce their victims’ self-esteem to believe that they cannot get by in the world without their partner by their side, many people who leave their toxic relationship sadly do end up back in the same position. Leaving the relationship for good is not only emotionally taxing, but financially testing, too. “Expenses are split when in a relationship, and when you leave, other expenses are added to the list such as your own accommodation and other living expenses,” shares Ntombi*, who was able to escape her abusive relationship. Mothers have a particularly challenging task: lifting not only themselves but their children safely out of the environment in a sustainable way. If you are in an abusive relationship and have decided to leave, here are some steps to consider to prepare financially for it:

Don’t do it alone

Organisations such as the Department of Social Development’s Gender-Based Violence Command Centre and People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) have social workers on standby to help support women in the middle of domestic abuse escape their relationships.

“Do not be afraid to ask for help, and accept when it is given,” says Chandré. “Where possible, reach out to your family and friends. They are your ultimate support system. They may not be able to support you 100% financially, but they could help with small things, making your burden a little bit lighter while you go through these changes.”

Read more about how to be an ally in the fight to ender gender-based violence here.

Find work

Working and forging independence is probably the last thing your partner wants to see you do if you are financially dependent on them. Speak to a trusted member of your community to find out what work is available where you could earn, but that wouldn’t raise flags or create any suspicion on your partner’s part about incoming cash that isn’t being ‘declared’ to them.

“It doesn’t matter what type of employment you get, just take that first step in rebuilding your life and regaining your self-worth,” encourages Chandré. Finding employment is the first step to setting yourself up to be financially independent, which lays the foundation not only for your finances, but your own emotional wellbeing, too. “It is important for women to be empowered and financially literate, as this places them at a lower risk of being perpetual victims of abuse and feeling like they are stuck and have no option but to stay in abusive relationships for material sustenance,” says Mkone.

Use these tips to take your job search to the next level.

Start saving

If you don’t already have a bank account, open one so you can start saving. Some banks don’t require payslips to open an account, and have low monthly fees, making them more accessible especially if you don’t independently earn a steady income. Alternatively, start stashing small amounts of cash in your home where someone is unlikely to find it. “Even if it is a few rands in a tin on top of the cupboard, whatever you can put away, do it,” encourages Chandré.

This savings calculator helps you set a goal and find out how much you need to put away regularly to reach it.


Now that you are earning and building up a pocket of funds, the next step is to decide how those funds will keep you going once you are on your own. Read up and don’t be afraid to lean on friends and family to get tips for cutting costs and spending on budget-friendly options while you get on your feet. The Wealth Sense portal is also a good resource for budgeting, saving and other personal finance tips to help you establish your independence.

If you need a nudge of inspiration to help you in this new chapter, here are some expert tips.

Gather your documents

Most banks, landlords, lenders or even car rental services require documents like your ID and bank statements, so slowly start gathering this information for when the time comes to leave. These are your ‘tickets’ to freedom. If your partner knows your credit card details, it may be necessary to open another credit card and freeze the old one to avoid a situation where they rack up debt in your name, which can damage your credit profile.

With Sanlam Credit Solutions, you can check your credit profile and talk to a coach for free to help you improve your credit score and make better financial decisions. Register now for free.

Speak to an expert

If you are a beneficiary on your partner’s risk policies, now is the time to assess your own risk cover needs (and that of your child) by speaking to an expert. Book a meeting to talk through the cover you have in place, and whether this needs to change once you have left the relationship. The same goes the other way round: if your partner is a beneficiary on a life policy in your name, you may want to remove them and nominate a different beneficiary for the policy.

Reality Health and Plus members are eligible for up to 30% discount on their risk cover premiums. Learn more here.

*Names have been changed.

Book a meeting with a Sanlam financial planner today to start the conversation.

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