“I would take out $40, $50 at a time and put it in this duffel bag.”
The cost of leaving an abusive relationship
An abuser doesn’t just beat his victim, he disables her car so she misses work. He surveils her spending. He refuses to get a job but gambles away her paycheck. Many domestic violence cases have an element of what researchers call economic abuse, or attacks on a victim’s self-sufficiency. At every income level, this can make it harder to escape, to establish independence. When she fled, Mary and her husband had been together about three years. They had a 2-year-old son. (She also had two children from previous relationships.) She had no job, no money, no car, and seemingly no way out. By contrast, Samantha was the breadwinner in her 15-year marriage, with a lucrative job at a tech company. But that didn’t make it easier to leave with their 1-year-old daughter. Had her husband gotten a whiff of her plans, she said, “He would kill me.”
MARY*, Oregon I was working as a medical assistant. I had been sober for many years, and I got together with this guy who was in law enforcement. It started with the accusations: I was cheating with either the patients or the doctors. He would text me 50 times a day, telling me I’m a piece of s---. And then he said we couldn’t afford for me to have a car, and he would get me to and from my job. He coerced me into having unprotected sex — I feel today he got me pregnant on purpose. I had the baby and stopped working.
Samantha, Silicon Valley My partner drove a delivery truck. He quit his job. My company went public, so he had no reason to go back to work because we could afford whatever we wanted. I cashed out a bunch of shares, put a down payment on a house. I thought I was controlling the books, but I really wasn’t. We bought this sports car when I was pregnant. It didn’t really make sense. It’s a two-seater — I couldn’t put a car seat in it. But the physical abuse was always a present threat. He could just curl his fists into little balls, and I knew that I’d better tell him what he wanted to hear.
MARY He came home one day and said, “Hey, I found a house in the country. It’s beautiful. You can have a garden.” The house was very isolated. It was a 2½-mile walk to get to the store. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have a bank account. We were completely dependent on him. He even controlled what I ate.
SAMANTHA My work was having an event at the end of the day. They were like, “We really want you to be there.” I came home before it started, and he’s clearly upset. I make him soup; he throws it at me. He pushes my shoulders down to the floor, and he’s like, “You better clean it up.” So I lick the soup off the floor, vomiting twice. And he proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I ask him, “Why are you doing this?” And he says, “Because your work is clearly more important than me.” From that point forward, I never participated in anything outside of work hours, ever.
MARY Sometimes our neighbors would hear us screaming. It would echo out into the country. The cops would come, and it always ended the same: I would lie to them. “No, those are not handprints on my neck.” I had started using drugs when it got really bad, and I was afraid they were going to arrest me and take my baby. The only thing I had left was that baby.
SAMANTHA I realized I am not in a relationship. I am in a prison. But I didn’t know how to get out of it. He had trackers on my car. He had trackers on my phone. I couldn’t even take my daughter on a walk by herself.
MARY He was head-butting me in the face, telling me he was going to smash my pretty teeth out. I could see my little boy running around in circles next to me, crying hysterically. I had a moment of clarity. A day or two later, I was home with the kids, and he was harassing me via text. I remember standing in the kitchen, looking at a sink full of dirty dishes with tears in my eyes, thinking, I just can’t live this way.
This girl lived across the field from me. We had become friends. I went to her house, and we called child welfare. I just unloaded: “I’m using drugs. My kids are not safe. My husband beats me. I’ve got a tube in my lung right now from what he did to me.” I did not want my kids to be removed, not at all. But I didn’t have any money, and I’d been so cut off and isolated. I thought about suicide a lot before I realized I could call child welfare.
SAMANTHA I contacted a domestic violence group. They said I should put away some money. If I took it from the bank account, he’d know. He was very paranoid, so he kept our passports and a couple thousand dollars in my daughter’s diaper pail. I would take out $40, $50 at a time and put it in this duffel bag at work under my desk. He never came to my work, so I wasn’t worried about him seeing the bag.
I had a doctor’s appointment for my daughter, and I knew that he wouldn’t go. The appointment was at 8 in the morning. I had coordinated with my friends that I was going to drive to the hospital, leave my car, my cellphone, my laptop, everything. They were going to bring my duffel bag, and they were going to put me and my daughter in another car and drive me to a place that my husband had no idea about. I didn’t know if I was going to lose my job. I didn’t know if he was going to empty the bank accounts. I didn’t know if he was going to go crazy and shoot up the people at my work.
MARY We stayed at a shelter in town. I lay down that first night, and I remember looking at the ceiling, thinking, I was the wife of a cop, and now I’m living in a shelter. That was the last time I used drugs. I just stopped. Then I moved to a sober-living house. There was a no-contact order between my husband and me. I broke it — I called him, and we had a fight over the phone, and he hung up on me. He told child welfare, and the very next day, they took my baby. He was in foster care for about nine months.
SAMANTHA I only took $800 with me. I didn’t want him to notice. My first divorce attorney asked for a $20,000 retainer. I put it on my dad’s credit card because I didn’t want my ex to know what attorney I was working with.
I could not access my bank account on the advice of my attorney. A few weeks in, I heard from some friends that my ex had gone on a trip. I went back, got a police escort, got the keys to one of our vehicles that was paid for, and sold it for $20,000. California is a no-fault divorce state. He’s entitled to 50 percent of everything. So I put $10,000 back in our bank account and took the other $10,000 to start a new account. It was a proactive way to make sure that later on he didn’t say I was trying to steal from him.
I tried to open the new bank account at our credit union. They said I needed to bring my ex into the bank to close our existing account. I was like, “My life is in danger.” They were like, “That’s not our problem.” My dad contacted a branch manager. It turns out she was a domestic violence survivor, and the next day she shut down the old account and opened the new one.
MARY The sober-living house cost around $350 a month. I didn’t know how I was going to take care of myself. I never learned how to pay my bills. I started looking at jobs and was willing to take anything. A friend who had a body shop hired me. I just sanded cars and got my head together. People coming out of domestic violence are scattered and confused; it took me a while to even make it to work on time. After a while, I was able to buy a $1,000 car.
I had gone for so long without having things that I hoarded clothes. If they were too small, I kept them anyway. Maybe because I had lost all of my clothes. I only took a suitcase. There was a day when I went to the store to get tights. Suddenly, I had nine pairs of tights in my cart. I called my Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, and I was in tears. I was like, “I don’t really need all of these, but I really want to buy them.” You never, ever have an extra $20 when you’re using drugs, and so I had a bit of a spending problem. I had to learn how to have money again.
SAMANTHA Notifying work was scary. My leadership team was understanding, but I think it took a lot of internal meetings. They issued me a new laptop. I left my old one behind because he was tracking me. They let me work from home. My daughter and I were moving from house to house — of friends and relatives of friends. I was afraid of being found. I called my aunt. She and my uncle cleared out their office and bought a mattress, and we slept on their floor for a few months. I got my finances back in order. This unit opened up next to my aunt, and I moved in. I had a pretty substantial security system put in. Every noise I heard, I thought, Is he breaking in? Every time I’d look out the window:Is that his car? Is he watching me right now?
MARY My dad beat my mom when she was seven or eight months pregnant. I thought that’s just the way that families treat each other. I really did not know that it was not OK to beat your wife. Because of child welfare’s involvement, I had to do domestic violence classes. I had to do parenting classes. I had to do drug and alcohol treatment. Child welfare paid for everything. When I realized what had been happening in my life, I was so angry.
The day the divorce was finalized, child welfare closed my case. I got into a housing program so that I could move into my own apartment. An advocate from a nonprofit came by every week to see how I was, how the kids were, did I need shampoo. My ex and I only really communicated about things like our son’s medication.
I went to community college and took classes in social services and business administration. Now I work for the nonprofit that helped me. I pay all of my bills myself. I had an outstanding hospital bill that was almost $4,000 from when my husband collapsed my lung. I paid it. It’s gone! My credit score was around 400, and now it’s close to 700. I have a house that’s paid for. I don’t have a mortgage. It’s a three-bedroom with beautiful wooden floors. I have a blueberry bush in my backyard.
SAMANTHA I needed the divorce to be over so we could move on. I gave up a lot of money and assets just to be done, and I walked away with debt. In California, a biological parent has the right to maintain a relationship with their child. The court allows my ex to see his daughter every week for two hours under supervision. I pay $500 a week for security to come with me because he’s attempted to attack me while I’m getting her out of the car or putting her in. In the last couple years, I spent between $60,000 and $80,000 in security costs. That’s not the divorce cost. That’s not the cost of my attorneys.
I have to operate every single day at threat level orange. I don’t go on my phone when I’m walking in a parking lot. When I’m loading my daughter in the car, I look around and see if there’s anyone sitting in a car around me. My new life is good, but it’s constantly shadowed by, Is today going to be the day when he flips out and attacks me?