When Serena Williams speaks, it’s wise to listen. Whether Williams is fighting for equality on the tennis court or sharing the story of her traumatic childbirth and postpartum experience, the 23-time Grand Slam Champion—arguably the greatest living athlete of all time—is well known for her unapologetic advocacy. It’s no surprise that Williams has partnered with the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse initiative for the third year in a row to raise awareness about financial abuse in relationships.
When asked why she signed on to be an ambassador for this cause, Williams cited the high prevalence of financial abuse in domestic violence. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, Purple Purse estimates that 99 percent of domestic violence involves some financially abusive behavior. “That was such an incredibly high number,” Williams tells SELF. “It is basically all cases [of domestic violence].”
Financial abuse is a pattern of monetary actions that are meant to control and intimidate a partner, according to Purple Purse. Those actions can include running up a partner’s credit score (which can make it difficult for them to do things like obtain housing), controlling their spending habits, and even deliberately sabotaging employment or educational opportunities.
“It’s really important to know the signs and educate yourself,” says Williams, who notes that she’s learned a great deal by meeting with financial abuse survivors and supporting a friend through an abusive situation. “If you see them trying to handle your accounts, or trying to decide where you should spend money, or asking you for receipts, these are really big signs and red flags.”
It’s also important to know that financial abuse often occurs alongside other forms of domestic violence. In a small 2018 study from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) that surveyed 164 people living in shelters across 11 states and Washington, D.C., 70 percent of survivors had dealt with at least five types of abuse, including financial, physical, sexual, and emotional, along with stalking.
With that said, financial abuse is often a major reason why people remain stuck in cycles of abuse. In that IWPR survey, 73 percent of respondents cited financial difficulties as a factor that drove them to either stay with their abusive partner or return to the relationship. “Financial reasons were the number one reason [survivors we surveyed] either hadn’t left or had to go back,” Cynthia Hess, Ph.D., acting co-president at IWPR, tells SELF.
These financial obstacles don’t just magically happen—they are deliberately perpetuated by abusers so that they can keep their partners in a dependent situation. Almost every aspect of physically removing yourself from a domestic violence situation requires money. Whether it’s buying a bus ticket out of town or trying to secure an apartment, a person’s financial autonomy directly impacts their ability to start a new life outside of an abuser’s grasp.
The more we speak out about patterns of abuse, the more we can create pathways for survivors to get the help they need. Being vocal about these topics really does matter when it comes to pushing for change. In a 2018 public opinion survey of 1,840 American adults over age 18 conducted by Purple Purse, 70 percent of respondents thought recent stories about harassment in the workplace could create a domino effect of sorts, prompting even more people to share their stories. The same could be true for financial abuse.
These conversations, whether they’re happening online or IRL, help create a culture where information and empathy are accessible to those who need it, David Austern, Psy.D., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Langone Health, tells SELF. “Awareness [provides] support for those who are brave enough to share their stories so that it’s not so isolating,” he says. “And for anyone who might still be in the situation and might not be aware of options or resources…it’s a way to try and extend a hand so that they can, hopefully, be pulled out of the really abusive situation.”
But even when conversations about abuse take center stage, it can feel like discussions specifically about financial abuse remain in the shadows. Even though financial abuse appears to be devastatingly common, Purple Purse found that more than 50 percent of the public opinion survey respondents were unaware that there can be a connection between finances and domestic violence. “People tend to think more about the physical aspects of domestic violence, but other aspects of abuse [can be] equally damaging,” Hess says. “Financial abuse is really about maintaining control.” But because it doesn’t look like other, more commonly discussed forms of abuse, it can be harder to recognize. In fact, 48 percent of Purple Purse public opinion survey respondents said they thought financial abuse would be the hardest type for people outside the relationship to notice.
Then there’s the fact that shame and stigma might keep abuse survivors from opening up about their experiences.
“A person might start to live with a chronic sense of fear, both real or imagined, if they disclose or try to seek help,” Austern says. “There can be an enormous amount of shame, so all of these often lead people to want to avoid any behavior that’s risky, like disclosing or seeking help.”
Since talking more openly about financial abuse is one of our best tools for combatting it, it’s our shared responsibility to start conversations with “friends, and partners, and sisters, and brothers,” Williams says. “I also have a daughter and I want her to know about [this],” she adds. “You have to get really comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.”
So what can you do to combat the phenomenon of financial abuse, since you probably don’t have quite the audience Williams does? It depends on your exact situation, of course. But if you have any friends or family members who might be in any type of abusive relationship, you may have a real opportunity to be a source of support and solace for your loved one.
Conversations with vulnerable friends or family members take a fair amount of discernment. To help with this, Purple Purse has a guide to make talking about this with your loved ones a little easier. You can start by simply expressing your concern without judgment. Even if you’re upset about or baffled by their situation, it’s important to avoid getting into an argument—they need to know they can trust that you won’t get mad at them for being in a situation that ultimately isn’t their fault. Above all, remember that although you can tell them you’re there for them and offer to help them find support, the decision they make is entirely theirs. Here’s more information about how to help a friend who may be in an abusive relationship.
What if you’re dating someone who might be showing signs of financial abuse or who you’re pretty certain is financially abusing you? “Don’t ignore your instincts,” Williams says. “If you feel like, ‘Oh, this could be something, but I don’t know,’ don’t ignore that. Listen to your voice.” Beyond that, Austern says to consider accessing one of the networks that have people trained to help those dealing with abuse, like Safe Horizon or the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. These are confidential resources that can be tremendously helpful as you’re trying to decipher whether or not you’re in an abusive situation or figure out how to leave. If you aren’t ready to do that, sharing your experience with friends and family members (if you feel safe to do so) is also valid. There’s no way to tackle these problems without talking about them.
That’s why, for Williams, her role in the spotlight is far too precious and powerful to let it go to waste. “That’s what I’m doing now,” she says. “Using my voice.”
Watch Purple Purse’s financial abuse PSA featuring financial abuse survivors below:
- 7 Helpful Things to Say to Someone in an Abusive Relationship—And 3 to Avoid
- This Nonprofit Organization Is Using Yoga to Help People Heal After Domestic Abuse
- What It’s Like to Live With PTSD After Escaping Domestic Violence
Originally Appeared on Self