The financial cost of leaving: Understanding the barriers survivors face

Domestic abuse is a pervasive and insidious problem that affects millions of people all around the world. While the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of abuse is well-documented, the financial barriers to leaving an abusive relationship are often overlooked hence so many often wonder and even ask: Why didn’t she just leave? These financial barriers can make it incredibly difficult for survivors to leave their abusers and can trap them in a cycle of abuse and violence.

Yesterday we shared the above TEDX Talk by Nora Casey who is a survivor. Her account of her own experience with domestic abuse sheds light on the complexity of abusive relationships and the immense courage it takes to leave. Interestingly she talks about “the complex paradox of loving and leaving somebody; where the balance of power and control tilts.” She refers to it as a “uniquely human feeling of needing to be loved and wanting to be loved intertwined so tightly with jealousy and rage and abuse.” But more relevant to this post is what she refers to as “the four phases of abuse,” which helped her to understand why she stayed and how she left. The final phase is the act of leaving and she describes it: “It’s when you know that you absolutely have to get out of the relationship. But actually now there are loads of barriers that you never before had even considered because you never considered leaving. And when your self-belief is through the floor, those barriers become enormous. For me, it was financial.”

As part of our 16 Days of Activism campaign titled The Cost of Leaving, we would like to shed light on some of these financial barriers. Read on as we explore three main barriers that survivors we have worked with face: loss of income, housing instability, and legal expenses. By raising awareness of these challenges, we hope to reach and support anyone being subjected to abuse and to help them find a way to safety. 

  • Loss of income: Leaving an abusive relationship can result in lost wages and financial instability. Survivors may need to take time off work to attend court hearings or find a new place to live. They may need to move to a new location, which can mean losing a job or starting over in a new city with fewer job opportunities. The abuser may have controlled the survivor’s finances, leaving them without any savings or access to money when they leave.
  • Relocation expenses: Securing a new place to live, whether renting or buying, can be costly, especially if a survivor must move quickly and doesn’t have any savings and cannot afford upfront costs like a rent deposit for example. The cost of transportation to a new location can be significant, especially if the survivor is moving to another city. They may need to purchase new furniture or appliances, as they may have had to leave behind belongings when escaping their abuser. If they have children, there are additional relocation costs associated with changing schools, daycare, and other services.
  • Legal fees: The cost of hiring a lawyer can be expensive, and survivors may not have the financial resources to pay for legal representation. Court fees, such as filing fees and the cost of obtaining documents or transcripts, can add up quickly. If the abuser contests the legal action, it can prolong the process and increase legal fees. If she is trying to get child custody, they may also need to pay expenses related to the custody evaluation.

Escaping an abusive relationship is never easy, and these financial challenges can make it even harder. Where there has been financial abuse, some survivors might even struggle to afford the basic necessities, such as food and clothing, making it harder for them to focus on leaving the relationship. This fear of financial insecurity can be crippling especially when children are involved, making it even more challenging for survivors to focus on their safety and well-being. Often this may lead to self-blame or feelings of helplessness. Survivors may also fear retaliation from their abuser if they try to leave, which can further discourage them from taking action.

This is where refuges like The Haven Wolverhampton can play a vital role. By providing free or low-cost housing options, practical and emotional support, we help ease the financial burden on survivors, allowing them to focus on their safety and recovery. In addition, we offer survivors a sense of community and emotional support, which can be invaluable during a difficult time. Going into refuge can be a critical first step towards financial independence and a life free from abuse.

There are also some specific services that focus on financial support for domestic abuse survivors:

  • StepChange – A debt charity that provides free advice and support to anyone struggling with debt, including domestic abuse survivors.
  • Surviving Economic Abuse – A charity that provides specialist support to survivors of economic abuse, including advocacy, legal support, and help with financial planning. The even have a Banking Support Directory with information about the practical support that some of the UK’s major banks and building societies can offer victims of financial abuse.
  • The Money Advice Service – A government-funded organization that provides free and impartial financial advice to anyone in the UK. They have specific information and support for domestic abuse survivors, including advice on how to manage money and debt after leaving an abusive relationship.

In closing, recognising and addressing the financial barriers to leaving an abusive relationship is not just a matter of empathy; it is an urgent call to action. It’s a call to redefine societal norms, challenge systemic inequalities, and extend a helping hand to those who need it the most. It is a call to shift mindsets away from asking Why didn’t she leave? to Why didn’t he stop? Or better yet, How does she leave? Only through collective effort and a commitment to debunking these myths and dismantling these barriers can we truly empower survivors to reclaim control of their lives and build a future free from the shadows of abuse.