Many years ago I visited Atlantic City. I was helping a ministry group rehab a house and we visited the Boardwalk. I was struck by the experience of abject poverty in the neighborhoods surrounding the rich, glittering, spare-no-expense casinos. That something representing riches was set against a backdrop of poverty has stuck with me. The messages of exploitation, class, and entitlement were received loud and clear. This was the first time I had seen abuse of power so starkly illustrated: the rich ostentatiously flaunting indifference to the suffering of the poor. This was my first real education about how power and abuse work in the world.
Fast forward to a college class: Political and Economic Power. In my class, I learned definitions of power: "the ability to achieve purpose" and "the ability to help or hurt." I learned about neoliberalism (or corporate libertarianism) and how it has worked by convincing the everyone that their interests align with corporate interests. I learned that the guiding principle behind neoliberalism is to maximize profit while minimizing accountability and responsibility. As a system, it externalizes blame so that profits are preserved and any costs are put on the people. It sets up classes, hierarchies, is economically exploitative, and because now, corporations are considered to be "people" with "rights", it uses government and politics to carry out its oppression of others.
I remember thinking, "I know a place where people are corporations and behave just like this: family court." I had a work group and we even did a research project on child support as an issue to take up using principles of non-violence. Our group included someone who had formerly worked at the child support enforcement office, so she'd seen everything. We could easily see the oppression acted out through economics and how there was a big need to enact social change around this issue.
Child support is a huge issue, with $112 BILLION and counting owed in back child support. It is also a racial and gender issue, for family court judges have little repercussions for enacting gender or racial bias. Their only real requirement is that they act nice during proceedings. It's in their decisions that punish women and minorities that biases are evident. It's an area where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, for on paper, we have child support charts and public policy, but in practice, we have sweeping inconsistencies and a huge lack of accountability. Six-figured white men are routinely told to quit their jobs to get out of paying child support. Men walk into the child support office complaining about their unemployed status as they drive off in their new cars, or even drive beater cars and jet off to their exciting international vacations. They don't care about their children's lives when they are with the other parent. It's like they believe their parenting responsibilities get "switched off" during the time their children are somewhere else.Yet withholding child support is not the only way to financially abuse someone.
When I first started writing this, my intention was to explore my own experience and the experiences of others. I have a circle of friends with whom I've gathered stories, and there was a common thread running through them. Most often, the personality they were dealing with, man or woman, was high-conflict and controlling. Whether or not they were diagnosed or professionals had suggested the possibility of a personality disorder, the stories were basically the same. I sought experiences of women through a national website with over 32,000 followers. This site is dedicated to educating family court about cluster B personality disorders and support women going through a divorce from one or already divorced. On asking, my inbox was flooded with responses. Financial abuse is an issue that has little platform, little attention, but has a huge impact. Women are primarily the targets, and although one can find counter-examples of men being financially abused, exceptions do not negate the structure within which abuse is allowed to thrive.
It's the abuse that keeps on giving. It doesn't stop after divorce.
One aspect of abuse we don't talk about very much is an abuser's pleasure at watching another suffer. It isn't JUST about enacting continuous power over another, it is about TAKING AWAY something they want and that is a basic human right: agency over one's life. With emotional abuse, the abuser may have gotten to see his partner grovel and beg for love. With physical abuse, there is obvious wounding. Somewhere, deep down, there is a sense that an abuser takes pride in acting out this demonstration of power over another person. It confirms their belief that they must be in charge and powerful. No where is this more evident than when someone uses their resources to take away the resources of another. There are no bruises, but you can easily see the ramifications of your abusive handiwork: making another work second and third jobs, imposing deep legal debt on them, watching them struggle with bankruptcy or lack of housing or poor housing or lack of food and transportation. Watching them live paycheck to paycheck, sacrificing visits to a dentist or doctor in order to buy food, or to make sure their child has their needs met. Watching your own bank accounts fatten so in some sick way you can think of yourself as the "winner" while watching a former intimate and your own children be put in precarious positions over and over. To an abuser, this is pleasure. It is somehow a victory if you are homeless and without food. It proves your inadequacy, even though it was their attacking that put you in that position.
Maximize profit, eliminate accountability.
But in interpersonal relationships, the accountability is ultimately to your own flesh and blood. Refusal to see the bigger picture of how financial abuse affects them is not just irresponsible, it is abusive to children.
The NNEDV defines financial abuse as:
"Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship. The forms of financial abuse may be subtle or overt but in in general, include tactics to limit the partner’s access to assets or conceal information and accessibility to the family finances."
Abuse is leverage over another person's life. It is the privilege to affect another's life without consequence. It is the ABILITY to help or harm and choosing to harm. In this series, I will allow the stories of individuals illustrate how this abuse affects children on a visceral level, and how it affects parents who are targeted for this abuse, and how it affects society. I will look at enablers such as families, culture, and family court. I will explore how the larger paradigms of control are echoed in interpersonal financial abuse, and why it should be considered for radical change in public policy. My hope is to raise awareness for this very important issue and educate people on what it's like behind the scenes and how family court is kind of like socialism for abusers, especially if the judge isn't fluent in all the languages of abuse. Finally, I hope to let people who are in these situations know they are not alone.