If Jessica’s husband told her to buy him a new jumper, she had to do it.
She spiralled into more than £50,000 of debt, while he took out credit cards, bought expensive gadgets and left her to pay the mortgage and provide for their three children.
“If he said, ‘buy me that camera’ or ‘buy me those clothes’, I was too scared not to. The consequences of not doing it would be so much worse,” she told Sky News.
Jessica, not her real name, was a victim of economic abuse – a form of domestic abuse whereby perpetrators use their victims’ finances as a way of controlling them.
In the UK, 60% of domestic abuse survivors have been forced into debt by their partners, totalling an annual bill of £23.5m, according to research by the charity Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).
Coerced debt can be very difficult to prove, as abusers use joint accounts to take out loans in their name, or force victims to do it themselves by threatening violence.
In UK consumer law, proving duress or misrepresentation is often impossible because the abuser is not party to the victim’s lending contract.
The abuse often continues after the relationship ends, with perpetrators still taking out credit in their ex-partner’s name and victims paying off debts for years after.
This means they are not protected by controlling or coercive behaviour offences or the Domestic Abuse Bill – as they only cover people still in a relationship or living with their abuser.
Jessica, now 51, first experienced economic abuse after she gave birth to her first child – eight years into her relationship.
She said: “After I had my daughter, he told me that if I wanted to go back to work, I would have to pay for childcare because it had ‘nothing to do with him’.
“I asked him to hold the baby once and he said he would only do it when I earned as much as he did.”
Soon after that, he became violent, she said.
“In quite a short space of time after he punched me, the whole dynamic changed. I was absolutely terrified of him.”
Unaware of what economic abuse was, she thought her mounting debts were just the result of her “being really bad with money”.
“I just thought he was being really horrible. I didn’t realise it was a pattern of abusive behaviour. Now looking back, it seems like he planned it from the start,” she said.
“He started taking out store cards and setting up direct debits from our joint account – but didn’t put any more money in there.
“He would buy motorbikes for £13,000 and once he spent £800 on clothes in one evening.
“I was worried things would bounce, so I started putting more and more into the joint account.”
By the time their third child was born, Jessica had three jobs and was paying more than double what her husband did for bills and childcare.
But she never sought help, because she thought if she was offered a repayment plan, it would reduce her credit score and she wouldn’t be able to borrow any more money to feed his habits.
The Financial Conduct Authority recognises that “when people are in vulnerable circumstances, it may affect the way they engage with financial services”.
But the SEA’s Economic Justice Project report, which worked with 300 victims over three years, showed they have to rely solely on lenders’ good will – so only one in four successfully get their debt written off.
Jessica was not so lucky. She left her husband in 2004 after he hit her in public. But it took her until 2017 to pay off £58,370 in debt.
“There was no real interest in helping me pay it back. There was nothing in the way of coerced debt.
“I didn’t realise that’s what it was. But there’s more of a conversation around it now.
“It’s the financial side of things that often stop people leaving, you think ‘I can’t afford to do it all on my own’. But if I knew you could get help, I would have left him sooner.”
SEA is calling for coerced debt to be recognised by law and calling on banks to work with victims.
Founder Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE told Sky News: “Victims are left with repayments and late payment fees, destroying their credit score, living standards and mental health.
“They are commonly left paying off the abuser’s debts for decades, long after bruises are faded.
“Consumer law must be reformed so that coerced debt is recognised, victims can seek redress, and perpetrators are held accountable.”
A spokesman for UK Finance, which represents more than 250 firms, said: “The banking and finance industry is committed to ensuring vulnerable customers are treated sympathetically in these particularly difficult circumstances.”
It said the SEA report made a “series of helpful recommendations”, which it will consider incorporating into their code of conduct.
A Home Office spokesman told Sky News economic abuse is defined in the Domestic Abuse Bill.