For most new homeowners, buying a first flat to settle in with a partner is a moment of pride and excitement – something to remember all your life.
But for Lucy*, receiving the key to her own front door didn’t mean freedom. Instead, it locked her into a financially abusive nightmare at the hands of her boyfriend – and 11 years later, she is still staring ruin in the face.
The 28-year-old executive assistant had been with James* since she was 17. All was well in the early days, and she worked hard to pay for their first flat – but quickly, James became financially dependent on her.
‘He’d lose his job and take hundreds of pounds out of the bank constantly. He would claim it was his money, because it was a joint account,’ Lucy recalls.
‘I put money in the bank to save, and he would spend it, claiming it was his. There was emotional and verbal abuse if he didn’t get his own way. It became very toxic.’
James subjected Lucy to ‘King of the Castle’ abuse whereby the perpetrator treats the victim like a servant.
She remembers: ‘I would have been working away, and I’d come home after travelling for hours, and he’d be lying on the sofa, expecting me to clean up after him and then do the cooking.’
When Lucy ended the relationship in 2019, she moved into the spare room. But James, who used drugs, would come home late, throw things around and shout. Finally, she moved in with her parents so she could sell the flat.
‘I was paying the mortgage, paying the bills and he was refusing to sell, pay or leave. It was all about control,’ she says.
It can include sabotaging the victim’s income and access to finances, restricting how they use the money and possessions and exploiting the victim’s economic situation.
Controlling how money is spent, dictating what a partner can buy, providing an allowance, controlling the use of the phone or car, refusing to contribute to household costs and money being taken from joint bank accounts are all abusive behaviours, according to charity Surviving Economic Abuse.
One in six women in the UK has experienced economic abuse by a current or former partner, the charity says – with figures showing that two-thirds of victims already can’t meet their living costs.
Disturbingly, abuse specialists Rayden Solicitors have seen a 77% increase in visits involving financial abuse in the last two years.
‘Financial abuse needs to be viewed as part of broader controlling and coercive behaviour,’ says William Ham, the firm’s Legal Director. ‘Does your partner insist that all of your salary is paid over to them on the pretext of covering bills? Do they know your internet banking or email passwords and log in details?’
By the time Lucy was ready to sell the flat and get away from James for good, he’d lost his job and wasn’t paying the mortgage. Yet he would refuse to tidy the flat for estate agents.
Lucy even offered to give James thousands worth of equity from a sale. He refused. Her only option was to stop paying the mortgage in 2020 so the property could be repossessed.
‘I just desperately wanted to be out of the situation. I had no other options. I wanted the repossession so I could get him out of my life.’
Ever since, she has lived a nightmare of endless phone calls from the bank and mounting legal bills. Until the flat is sold, she is unable to get a new mortgage, she can’t rent or even take out a new phone contract because her credit rating is so poor.
Lucy is now £12,000 in debt and still being charged £800 every month for a flat that she cannot live in.
‘It’s a form of control. I’ve been through so much, and I’m still living it. I just want to move on,’ she says.
Economic abuse can be debilitating. But Solace Women’s Aid warn that the rise in living costs is making it harder for women to leave violent homes.
The charity supports a number of women whose entire identity was controlled by violent ex-partners.
What to do if you’re a victim of financial abuse
A shocking five per cent of UK adults – 2.7 million people – have been pressured to take out credit card or services in their own name for someone else, according to the Vulnerability Registration Service.
This can leave victims with unmanageable debt and unable to protect their financial wellbeing. Now with the escalating costs of living, leaving the abusive relationship is harder, according to Helen Lord, CEO of the VRS.
She says: ‘For those who do leave, the nightmare doesn’t end there. The debt can follow them for years, with organisations chasing them for repayments they can’t make and contributing to their stress by making them repeat their painful story each time they have to engage.
Helen advises those vulnerable to financial abuse to register for free with the Vulnerability Registration Service so their circumstances can be noted with a ‘risk of coercion’ flag without their abusers finding out.
They include 28-year-old Sara*, who fled her husband after three years of physical abuse. The Iranian couple were married by arrangement before they came to the UK, but once here, his abuse began.
‘I was only allowed to do housework. I wasn’t allowed to get a job,’ she recalls. ‘From the beginning he controlled what I wore and ate. He gave me pocket money and controlled my mobile phone use. Even if I wanted to buy a bottle of water to drink, I had to ask him. I had no permission to know anything about our financial situation.’
Sara wanted to leave for years, but her husband attacking her and causing her to miscarry their first child was the final straw. She recalls: ‘I knew I wasn’t safe. I couldn’t be in this relationship any more. He threatened to kill me.’
She spent two days in hospital recovering before Solace housed her in a refuge. Sarah had left her home with nothing – no bank account and no possessions apart from the clothes she was wearing. She is now dependent on Solace for help, but the charity itself is struggling.
‘The cost of living crisis is making life even harder for survivors,’ explains Kalina Shah, service manager at Solace.
‘Housing is a nightmare. It’s really hard to move women on from the refuges. They go to viewings but they are competing against professionals, who landlords know will pay more. And because we can’t move people on, there are fewer rooms available for new women at immediate risk of abuse.’
Financial abuse can affect anyone
Recent months have seen a huge increase in cries from help from men, according to charity Respect’s Men’s Advice Line, which offers advice, signposting and emotional support.
Respect’s Head of Services, Ippo Panteloudakis says: ‘Callers have talked about experiencing abuse following arguments around reducing spending, or reducing energy use in the home. Some have said they are scared to leave as they know they couldn’t afford to cover their own bills in addition to expenses for their children. This situation is only likely to get worse over the coming months.’
Mark Brooks, Chair of the ManKind Initiative charity for male victims adds: ‘Callers to our helpline are saying the cost of living crisis is preventing them from leaving because they can’t afford to. They are also telling us they are being blamed by their partners for not earning enough money to keep the family home warm which is giving their abuser another reason to humiliate and belittle them.’
Anti-abuse charity Galop has seen a 227% increase in the use of their emergency fund to help support survivors with resources such as food and transport and clothing, compared to the same two-month period last year.
One frontline worker warns: ‘Survivors are returning to perpetrators because they are unable to support themselves financially.’
Peggy* is now £7,000 in debt after her ex persuaded her to pay for everything. The 38-year-old customer services account manager from Lincolnshire says: ‘I felt that I needed to financially help him because I believed it meant he would stay with me.’
She met Tom* in 2016 and although he insisted they were soulmates, he also begged her for money, saying that if she didn’t contribute, he wouldn’t be able to stay with her.
Peggy remembers: ‘He would say he need to clear his debt before we could be together. Or he needed to get a new job but he couldn’t without how own vehicle. He told me a new car would help him to see me more.
‘I set it up car finance in my name and the car payments were rarely made. It spiralled out of control from there. He would say he was struggling to pay bills, so I would pay them and end up short and unable to pay my own.’
Peggy ended up in credit card debt – but when she became pregnant the following year, Tom said he wanted them to move in together to become a ‘proper family’.
’I was pregnant, working full time, paying all the rent on my own,’ she explains. ‘I had the baby and he still didn’t move in. I paid for everything for the baby.’
After three years – and around £10,000 – she ended the relationship. She consolidated the debt with Creditfix, but estimates it will be another four years before she pays it off.
’Everything is really hard now with the cost of living,’ Peggy adds. ‘I shouldn’t need, at my age, to rely on my mum for financial help. If I hadn’t lost all that money, I would have savings to dip into for difficult times like this. I wouldn’t be in debt.’
Meanwhile Lucy, who is happy with her new partner, says: ‘I’m hoping that my flat will be sold soon, so I can move on and rebuild my credit score. It will probably take decades – but then I will be free.’
*Names have been changed to protect survivors’ identities
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk
Share your views in the comments below.