'Martin, I read your financial abuse guide and realised I've been financially controlled for most of my marriage – I want to tell my story'

Financial and economic abuse are often a prelude to domestic violence. Raising awareness is important. It helps those facing it realise they're not alone and help is available. Plus, it means friends and family may be able to spot the signs. Karen wrote to us, having read my Financial Abuse blog (which includes help links and explanations).

I was very moved when I read it – thankfully there was no violence, but the picture of a spiral into financial problems and a letting go of control is very plain. Karen had suggested she wanted to tell her story, I asked if she would be willing to let me publish it. She was happy to share her experience, hopefully to help others. Here it is…

"Dear Martin and the team,

I saw the financial abuse guide link on your email today and read the article. I am coming to the realisation that I have been financially controlled for the majority of my marriage and wanted to tell my story if you don't mind.

I had been with my (still) husband (but we will divorce when we can afford it) since 1994. We both worked but had a joint account from early on in the relationship. We married in 1998. I earnt more and took on the majority of the household bills. Due to a serious illness, a few years later we were plunged into debt.

As we had various insurance policies, we carried on as normal: going out, spending money, having holidays, assuming the insurance would cover the bills and pay off our mortgage. It didn't, as the insurer said (based on the advice of our IFA) we'd ticked the wrong boxes.

Things went downhill from there. We went from credit card to credit card, shifting balances, withdrawing cash and writing cheques against them; all bad practice I know. We had three children, who are now 15, 13 and 11 years old, and I was happy to bury my head in the sand regarding our finances and just get on with raising the kids, leaving the finances to him.

We were threatened with legal action so many times. We took out loans which we couldn't afford to pay back, were severely and expensively overdrawn, switched our mortgage to an interest-only one, and I borrowed so much money from my brother and parents – to my eternal embarrassment. I will never know how much I owe them.

My husband retrained as a mechanic. He bought three Transits within a year, and kept buying lots of new equipment, then buying more when he realised it wasn't right. He rented an office at a decent address so it'd look good on letterheads.

For a while things looked like they might pick up. We were always waiting for our luck to turn. Either we would get PPI or something else would materialise that would magically solve our money worries.

We desperately wanted to move so our children could go to a better school. Yet that was never going to happen as we couldn't afford to. I at least had a full-time job that I could "escape" to. My husband was stuck in the house all day, every day, with no escape. His business had collapsed, and he started just doing odd jobs for small amounts of money, which we increasingly relied on to supplement my wage. 

We ran away from one bank, leaving the overdraft and a couple of loans behind. With our new basic joint current account, I was unable to access online banking because my phone was ancient, so I had no idea how much money we had from one day to the next – so he was in sole control of what we could afford.

I wore clothes that had been passed to me as I couldn't afford to buy anything new. I was still wearing my old nursing bras when the youngest child was eight years old. The kids were dressed in hand-me-downs (always nice clothes though) or my parents bought them new shoes.

Throughout all of this, my husband went out drinking two or three times a week, which I rationalised because he was stuck in the house all day whereas I had a job to go to. However, I tried to address this so many times, suggesting that he gave me an equivalent amount of money for "me", to try and keep things fair.

It never lasted. We argued a lot: about the lack of money and how much debt we were in. I ended up having to ask him each month to get me cash from the cashpoint, mainly so that I could pay for parking (as part of my job, I have to travel a lot. I can claim it back with expenses, but this doesn't get paid until two months later).

He complained every single time I asked him, and after he lost it because I'd also spent a couple of pounds on my debit card (because it had "taken us into the red" and there'd be a penalty). I felt too afraid to use it again without his permission. 

He went to StepChange [the debt charity] about the debts a few years ago. He told me he eventually managed to work out deals with our creditors (all but one of which had now been shifted to debt management companies). That was a big relief for me, but I still couldn't see any end to it. He took up smoking for the first time, I was gutted, not for his health I regret to say, but for the cost.

He began to be a very angry and bitter man. We weren't happy, but I took my marriage vows seriously and thought we would get through it someday. He was never physically violent to me or my children, but could be emotionally very cruel (just to me, not to the kids).

I had been the main wage earner for the past eight years, but the one time he got a bonus for a completed job, he spent it all on a massive night out, because it was "his" money. I was always keen throughout the relationship, and especially after the accident, that he didn't feel emasculated by me being the 'breadwinner', so I handed all of the financial responsibility to him.

Apologies for the lengthy back story. I think we would have still been in the exact same situation now had my husband not have had a severe heart attack. This and other physical problems have prevented him from finding work again. 

He got very angry one day after speaking to a counsellor and blamed my job for the fact that he couldn't claim any benefits, and shouted "this is why I want to move out because I can't get anything because of you".

He declared himself homeless with the council last August, telling me that he always slept on the sofa bed anyway, so it was classed as sofa-surfing. He got a council flat and moved out and just weeks after had a new girlfriend, someone he had been to school with.

When he first moved out I was panic-stricken. How was I going to manage without his odd jobs bringing in the cash that we always needed month after month to keep our heads above water?

How was I going to pay off all of these debts, which were now over £60,000 (more in my name, as I'd had the better credit score)? What was I going to do about my mortgage, which now had not too long to run, but it was interest-only and I had no way of paying off the capital?

I tried to remortgage but was told I needed to clear my debts first "and then come back in a few years". How on earth could I do that?

Over the next few months however, I realised that I was doing much better than I had dreaded. I had more cash month on month, gradually coming to the realisation that my husband spent far more than he let on.

Instead of constantly struggling, I was managing really well financially. I knew exactly how much was in my account (I kept the joint account going just in my name as soon as he moved out because that was where everything was paid from).

Yes, I had to get used to doing everything alone, I took over the shopping as he'd always done that, and we have far less food waste now. So much unopened food went straight into the bin when we were still together.

I was able to clear a smaller debt, I joined your Credit Club and Cheap Energy Club and started up a bad-credit credit card in an attempt to improve my credit score.

Most of my bills are now in my name; the last ones to go are BT and Virgin, which I am dealing with now (I've managed to get a great deal with Virgin, and did a little haggling, thanks to your advice!).

The kids and I went to Scarborough for a short break last half-term and Christmas worked out fine.

At the beginning of this year I finally felt able to deal with the debts head-on. I had still shied away from them last year, but was beginning to get letters from the debt management companies asking for updates to the payment plan, and discovered that StepChange could do it all over the phone.

They have been fantastic, and after over 30 hours on the phone this month (a new mobile that I treated myself to in November!), I am hoping to start an IVA soon.

This will then still leave me with a couple of years in which to sort out my mortgage, as the IVA will take six years to complete. I will then be finally debt-free for the first time in over 13 years.

He is still very ill with his heart. I have alternated between feeling very angry at him for leaving me in this situation, and then extremely guilty for feeling this way because he is still very ill. There is a long way to go, but the kids see him every week. They are more settled now, and that's the most important thing to me.

I apologise for the vastness of this message. I think it has been a bit of a catharsis for me to get it all out, but I'm sure that it is far longer than it needed to be. Thank you for being a virtual "ear".

Kind regards, Karen"

Some minor details have been changed to protect Karen's anonymity.

Where to get help

If this is happening to you, by someone you love, it can be confusing and tough to recognise and accept. Do read my Financial Abuse blog where I go through the signs and issues in more detail.

Yet it is worth considering talking to, or getting web guidance, from the following (friends if you spot this in someone else you can too).

Feel free to add your comments below or in the MSE Forum but two requests. First please be kind and remember Karen may well read your comments, she has been very brave to share her story, don't knock that. And second, if you're writing about your personal experiences, don't put too many identifiable details in.