By Dr. Margaret Curtis, WCI Columnist
Recently I was approached by a woman who asked if I would like to co-author a column. She is, like me, a middle-aged physician, and she had read my WCI column on the empowerment many women find in growing older. She offered to share her story of leaving and recovering from a financially abusive marriage.
Financial abuse is almost universal in physically abusive relationships, but it can also be part of a pattern of emotional abuse. Financial abusers limit their partner’s access to money and other assets, withhold information about finances, and keep their partner financially dependent. All this is done as a means of keeping the partner in the relationship. Financial abuse can have long-term consequences in the form of debt, ruined credit scores, and lack of work history or career advancement. It is also often perfectly legal.
My co-author hoped that the lessons she learned might help others—men and women—who might be in or preparing to leave a relationship like her first marriage. I think her story is remarkable and a good reminder that abusive relationships can exist even between intelligent and highly educated people. She asked to remain anonymous, but I hope you will join me in cheering her hard-won accomplishments.
These are her words.
Trigger warning: if you are in an abusive relationship or have been in one, you might find the material in this article distressing. You may still want to read it but find a safe space, perhaps with a counselor or a support person. Definitely don’t read it between patients.
My Financially Abusive Marriage
The first time I read one of the WCI articles, I thought, “Wow, that sounds great, investing. But that’s not for me. That’s for doctors who didn’t spend the first 15 years of their career in an abusive marriage and then seven years in court getting out of it. I wish I could invest, but that’s not me.”
I met my ex-husband when I was in medical school. I was 26, and up until then, I had always managed my own finances. I was a classic empath: a worrier, always questioning if I was right, wanting to please. He was a narcissist. Narcissists are always certain and never waver, and when challenged, they DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. They gaslight.
The idea of having a “provider” as a husband was something my family had always valued. We were both doctors, and the abusive dynamic started with our job search in residency. I was a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholar, and he wanted a job that wasn’t near any good repayment sites. I had to take a lower-paying job so he could have the job he wanted, making the first of so many choices to please him instead of doing what was important to my career and then hoping things would get better. This meant I got paid half of what he did. And that meant he called himself the “real” doctor and immediately assumed all financial responsibility.
As soon as we got married, I relinquished all financial control to him, along with giving up my name, as a sign of love and devotion. Right away, he started telling me I was bad with money. Early on, he told me he was the one who knew how to do it right. I didn’t know how to manage it. I spent too much.
In the thick of the marriage, he would use money to control me. He would look at the credit card statements and question me about everything. He threatened not to pay the bill when I spent $300 at Walmart buying back-to-school supplies and clothes for the kids. Another time, he yelled at me for buying the children clothes at Walmart and not being better with money so we could buy them the “good clothes” they deserved. We paid off his student loans because he said his were larger and, therefore, more important to pay off first. Mine were less of a burden, accumulating less interest, so he told me it was an important financial decision to prioritize his.
I took 18 months off after one of our children was born with a serious medical condition. When I was ready to go back to work, I couldn’t take a job with night call, because my husband would drink and couldn’t take care of the kids in the evenings. So, I created a job for myself at a medical center that wanted to add my specialty. After about a year of that, the center stopped my service line and replaced me.
My husband made me apply for unemployment then. God, that was embarrassing. Partly because I was so highly educated, I felt like everyone would look down on me for being on unemployment. I felt like maybe he was right; I really was bad at money. But what really got to me was that it was so unnecessary. Every time I got out that benefit card, I felt like I was stealing from the people who really needed it. Sure, I technically qualified for it, but he was making $350,000 per year at that point. My unemployment was hardly anything compared to his salary. He wanted me to have to use a state benefit card at the grocery store to punish me for not having a job.
Once, we were driving on the highway, and he started to yell at me about how I wasn’t making any money. He told me to get out of the car. I refused so he pulled over and got out himself. When I got to my destination, people saw my face was puffy from crying and were like, “Uh, dude, are you OK?” That’s when I learned to keep Visine eye drops, short-acting Sudafed, and powder with me at all times.
When things got even worse and I had to get out of the marriage quickly, I got a lawyer and he got angry. I was terrified at the time that he was going to hurt us, and so, my timing was terrible. I wasn’t thinking about money. I hadn’t worked in almost a year, and he just switched his paycheck to his private bank account as soon as I told him I wanted a divorce. I went to get money for groceries, and there was $2.58 in the joint bank account. I had already put the lawyer’s retainer on my credit card.
That was the beginning of my path to financial freedom. It sucked.
Recovering from Financial Abuse
I lived off my credit card. I just put everything on credit. My mom helped some with clothes and food shopping. My name was still on the $600,000 mortgage for our house, and he refused to take me off it until I moved out. I ran up $40,000 in credit card debt, and I still had my student loans. I couldn’t get approved for a mortgage on my own. Eventually, I was able to get a mortgage with help from my dad with my dad’s credit. My poor dad hated borrowing money, but he hated my ex-husband even more. When I signed away all rights to our marital home, my ex took me off the mortgage.
I thought I was broken. Something to be thrown out in the trash. Hopeless.
Years later, my new husband asked me to look at my credit report with him. When I got upset, he was confused. He’d seen people have plain old panic attacks but never that kind of flight-or-fight trauma response from looking at a credit report.
In retrospect, none of this was an accident. My ex-husband wanted me to pay. When he couldn’t control me emotionally and physically, he turned to legal and financial control and abuse. No one warned me about this, so it felt like I was the one doing something wrong. My lawyer, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL), and the judge all seemed clueless about it, too. (GALs are people the court will get involved to help make decisions about what is best for the children in high-conflict divorces. They are very expensive and highly variable in their skill sets. Choose wisely.) I can only now see what happened. My ex-husband had been gaslighting me all those years into thinking that I was doing everything wrong with money and that his angry outbursts, aggression, and violence were because of me.
Then, I tried something new. I wrote down all my debt one line at a time. I added it all up despite feeling like I was running away from saber-toothed tigers the whole time. I felt like I was going to die, but I kept at it. It wasn’t actually that much money. Not nearly enough to be causing me to feel this scared. I recognized the feeling. I was afraid of what was coming next. This was him. This was him still controlling me through leftover debt.
I decided I was going to bring this debt into myself and become one with it. By so doing, I could free myself from his talons. I did a little ceremony with my paper:
“I take thee to be my price of freedom, to have and to hold until we part, knowing that you were necessary to keep me and the kids alive.”
I had to stop being so scared of looking at my debt so I could start paying it. It still took me almost 10 years to stop feeling afraid of paying my bills. But finally, just recently—maybe because I’m perimenopausal and maybe because I’m finally not afraid of him anymore—I’m finding my wings financially. This is what I have learned:
- The fact that you feel like you are bad with money was part of the gaslighting. It took time to get here; it will take time to get out. Don’t beat yourself up.
- Don’t look at your credit report without a counselor. Have support. Understand it’s not about money. It’s about control and power. Once you heal, you will be fine with money.
- Honor that money as the price you paid for your life, your freedom, and your sanity.
- You got into the situation with the best of intentions. Start working on a path out of there, one baby step at a time.
- Fear may have been driving your choices for a long time. Try to notice if you are still allowing it to drive your financial decisions. Breathe. It will take time to dismantle this protective force.
- The legal system is only just starting to understand legal and financial abuse. If you are entering the divorce process with a narcissist, make sure your lawyer and any Guardian ad Litem involved are aware of how your ex may use the legal system (and the cost of attorneys, mediation, and prolonged court battles) as a way to prolong the relationship.
- Don’t be afraid of therapy. Just start talking. It’s OK not to be OK. (I know that the idea of talking more about what had happened in my life seemed more terrifying than having lived it. I was carrying so much fear. I started therapy only because the GAL said I had to. I felt like I was going to get in trouble for talking about all the things that had happened. I’ll never forget the day when my therapist asked me if I thought my ex might be a narcissist, and I immediately said, “Oh no, of course not. I know he’s trying really hard. He couldn’t be . . .”).
I wanted to help people who might find themselves somewhere along the path I was on and tell you that it’s OK. You won’t be there forever. No one talks about this. Others will make you feel like you’re a financial mess or there is something wrong with you.
There’s nothing wrong with you. This is the price of your life.
This story has a happy ending. She is now many years out from her divorce and happily remarried, and she's rebuilding her financial life. She has a busy medical practice. In her last email to me, she told me about an administrator at work who pressed her to increase her (already high) productivity and how she said no: “Five years ago I would have cried and said sorry. Not now.”
For more information: Here’s how to create a financial safety plan, and here are resources for survivors of financial abuse from the Allstate Foundation.
We know you visit The White Coat Investor to learn about investment strategies and planning, and we’ve always strived to teach financial literacy to physicians, high earners, and anybody else who finds their way here. But the COVID pandemic has also shined a light on mental wellness for physicians. That’s why we feel compelled to run articles and columns like the one you just read—to make sure white coat investors stay mentally healthy. We know mental wellness is what leads to a long, fruitful financial life, and we’ll continue to run pieces like this because these topics have become such an important part of everybody’s financial journey.