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Starting Over

By Sherry Lutz Herrington 

The beginning of a new year is a great time to reevaluate all kinds of things.  Whether you’re into new year’s resolutions or prefer to set goals or have some other tradition to mix things up as the new year begins, it’s generally seen as a time for change. 

If you’re living in a financially abusive relationship, then perhaps it’s time to consider moving on. Time to put yourself first and figure out how to leave. 

Easier said than done.   

How do you leave when your finances are being controlled by the other person?  It’s tricky and it takes planning.  

You cannot begin a new chapter until you close the old one. Look at this time as a chance to line up your new beginning.  As scary as it might be to think about jumping off on your own, try to see the possibilities.  Try to see the hope for a better life.  The more optimistic you can be the better, even if it doesn’t all go exactly as you’d like.   

Having a well laid out plan is the best way to start.  

Here’s a general guideline that you can adapt and customize to your particular situation. 

Emotional support – Going through a divorce is tough. Coming out of an abusive relationship is even tougher. Do yourself a favor and get professional help as soon as you can to assist you with recovering from the emotional turmoil and abuse.  Whatever form works best for you; therapy, coaching, group support, you choose.     

You are not alone in this, and you will need time to figure out what happened and how to avoid it in the future.  Don’t think you need to go through this alone, you don’t.  There are so many women who have walked this path before you who are willing to support you and help you get on your feet and find a way to recover and live your best life going forward.   

It’s also a good idea to have a personal support system.  That could mean family or friends who you feel safe sharing with and who will support you and not go back to your ex and tell him what’s going on with you.  Be sure you only share in safe situations.  Protect yourself but get support.  This is a huge life event, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to go through it alone. Reach out and find the right people to lean on who will protect and encourage you. 

Save money – Whatever your situation, there is the possibility that your spouse will cut off any access you have to money the minute you say it’s over.  In some states this is illegal but to be on the safe side, stash some cash.  I’m not normally a fan of using cash but in this case, it is probably the easiest way for you to squirrel away funds without too much notice.  Plus, if you live in a community property state, any bank account you open is considered joint funds.     
If you stash cash, find a very safe place, not in the shared house if possible.  Perhaps a trusted relative or friend who knows your situation well and is supportive and won’t share your secret.   

Account access – If you are going to file for divorce, you need to start laying the groundwork to get the best possible settlement that you can.  When there is financial abuse, you may need to do some digging to try to sort out what’s really going on.   

Start with getting access to as much information as you can.  Depending on the other kinds of abuse you are likely enduring, be sure you do this discreetly and don’t put yourself in harms’ way.  Always erase your search history too.   

Try to get access to as many accounts as you know about and dig a little to see if you can uncover any others that might exist that you aren’t privy to.     

Be sure to add yourself to have separate access if you can so you won’t be shut out if your spouse changes the password.  If you are on the accounts, then the institutions should work with you on this. 

Records – Once you have access to accounts, save copies of the past few years’ worth of statements.  Also, get copies of tax returns.  If you can’t find them at home or in a digital file that you can copy to a safe cloud storage, then check with the IRS.  They can provide you with copies.   

Find out from a legal professional in your area how far back you should go.  Having as much financial history as necessary will help a lot when you get to court. Housing – You’ll need a place to live if you don’t think he’ll leave the house or if you feel more comfortable being the one to leave.  Start searching for places to live.  If you’re worried, he could physically threaten you then a women’s shelter might be the best alternative as they won’t give out your location. 

If you’re living on restricted finances due to financial abuse, it could be challenging to afford a place on your own so start with friends and family who would be willing to put you up until you can get on your feet.  You might also have damaged credit so if you do have the resources to rent, you might need a cosigner.  This is not the time to be proud.  But do be careful who you divulge what to until you are ready to go, because if it gets back to your partner you could end up in a worse situation. 

Legal – Given the abusive nature of your relationship I suggest you search carefully for legal representation from someone well-schooled in this issue.  You want to be sure to have someone fighting for you.  Abusers are master manipulators and given the opportunity to charm a judge they will go to extremes to come across as normal. If you’re dealing with a narcissist as well, you need a good lawyer who can cut through his bullshit in front of the judge.  You are not likely in a position, either knowledge wise or emotionally, to handle this fight on your own so please get the best help you can.   

Check for local resources that can point you to the best representation for your circumstances.  Ask divorced friends for recommendations, especially if you know they were financially or otherwise abused as well.

Financial resources – Depending on your current situation, you may need to get a job or figure out how you’re going to afford to live on your own.  Even if you anticipate receiving alimony (and child support if that’s relevant) remember that it can take time to get through a divorce.  Some abusers get really manipulative and will drag out the process as long as they can knowing that it will be more financially challenging for you than it will be for them.   Having your own financial resources will go a long way to getting you established on your own whether you end up receiving money through the divorce or not.  An additional benefit will be the confidence boost that bringing in your own money will give you.

This will give you an idea of the things you should figure out.  They may not happen in this order, and you will need to work on several at the same time.  Use this as a guide to figure out what will work for you in your situation. 

Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous.  It is also hard emotionally.  You are with the person because you love them, or at least you likely did at some point.  Ending any relationship can be scary and painful so be sure you take care of yourself from the beginning.   

Even with a plan, things likely won’t go as you hope, so be prepared to adjust as needed.  If you are in danger, make your safety the top priority and worry about the rest later.  It takes strength to leave a financially abusive relationship and statistically, if you’re being financially abused you are enduring other abuse as well which just makes it more challenging.  Lift your head up and fight for your life; starting fresh is an opportunity to make a better life for yourself.  What better time than the beginning of a new year to break free.  You’ve got this. 

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