All of the usual reasons for divorce were obvious to me — infidelity, mental, physical and emotional abuse, growing apart and so on.
And then I was watching Oprah interview an author who bluntly outlined what financial abuse was and how debilitating it is for women. It was one of those moments — she and the expert were speaking through the television screen directly to me. And they were describing my former marriage down to the last detail.
The foundation of my marriage had been cracking for years. Little lies. “Lost” money. Mismanaged bills. Unnecessary debt.
To be fair, we were both terrible with money. I fumbled with balancing a checkbook and had a palpable fear of the unopened Suze Orman books on my shelf. He spent. And spent. And when that was gone, he opened credit cards and spent that. Our home was packed full of stuff — we spent more energy making room for it all than simply returning it, selling it or asking for the money we needed pay rent.
I attempted to gain control of our bank account and my own understanding of where the money was going. I implemented an old-school envelope system, placing cash for our essentials into categories like groceries and gas money. For months and months, the one splurge envelope, date night, had three worn dollar bills in it.
I felt defeated and overwhelmed. I was parenting solo most of the time, and so I looked away from the bank accounts and budgeting. I released control.
My husband was working two jobs. He’d leave before 6 a.m. and return at 11 p.m. I was primarily a stay-at-home mom to our young son, only able to get side jobs and online work. It was the early days of blogging and I was slowly building a career in a new industry by furiously tapping away on my keyboard to out earn what I paid the babysitter. We were both working so hard. We were both exhausted. We were always broke.
I didn’t realize how broke we really were until I served my husband with divorce papers and seized control of the bill basket, cash envelopes and any financial documentation I could find. We were deep in financial distress – sent to collections for bills with $6 and $12 balances, our savings wiped clean, our car one ticket away from getting the boot (again). We had credit cards I didn’t know about. My husband’s salary was actually $20,000 a year lower than he’d told me. Underneath the big yellow banners screaming FINAL NOTICE were lies and manipulation.
I was overcome with shame sorting through it all, adding up the hefty debt and calling creditors to set up payment plans, plead my case and make it right.
And no surprise, there was financial retaliation the moment I took my wedding rings off. One day, what little we had left in our shared accounts simply vanished. Under oath, my husband swore to a judge that I’d been the one who cleared out all the money, took half of his pension, the 401k and had run-up the secret credit cards.
Months later, I got a dream job at a salary I never thought I’d be offered. It was only then, in the momentary calm that comes after the bills were paid and the deposit on a brand new, beautiful apartment had been secured that I saw the situation clearly.
This was financial abuse.
It was a shock to me because despite all these financial disasters I’ve detailed here, it was not the reason I left my husband. I left him because he had an affair, he was emotionally abusive and I feared my husband would harm himself, me or worse, our son.
As I peered deeply into my own marriage and divorce, I saw that even if the other kinds of cruelty hadn’t occurred, the financial issues would have eventually been enough to take it all down.
I’ve been divorced for a decade and have enough learned lessons to last a lifetime. Your finances require constant care and accountability.
Don’t max out credit cards or buy something just because it is on sale. Don’t depend on a man for money. And finally, know your money. Whether it’s $100 or ten times as much, take a deep breath and go through the bill basket. Be thorough. Be humble. Ask for help. Hire help. Make the call.
The story of financial abuse hasn’t ended for me. I’ve been in court fourteen times in the last decade with the person I divorced, each time over money owed, money contested, money lies. Each time, I stand taller, talk with more confidence and build on my experience. I have all the evidence I need to know I can take care of my family on my own, that I have worth beyond dollars and that I can survive the fall.