How to Leave a Financially Dependent Relationship

Financially abusive or dependent relationships hurt everyone involved. Here's how to get out—and gain financial independence.

Deciding to leave a relationship is never easy. From love to marriage to the proverbial (in my case, very real) baby in a baby carriage, there are numerous things to consider when you end a relationship, particularly one with kids: custody, health care, splitting belongings and assets, securing new but separate living spaces, and more. But if you have no income, or live on a limited income—whether due to disability, being a stay-at-home parent, or another reason—you may feel trapped, due to being financially dependent on your partner. How do you leave when you have no financial stability, or support?

Staying in a relationship for money, not love, can have detrimental effects on your physical and emotional health. In fact, it can quite literally make you sick—something George Guillelmina, a certified financial planner, emphasizes.

"Financially dependent relationships are relationships where one partner has an unstable or low income and insufficient savings," Guillelmina explains. "This puts him or her in a fragile position, i.e., they are heavily dependent on the partner's financial support. And this doesn't only impact the person's self-esteem; it can also lead to financial instability in cases of divorce, problems with health, or the death of [a] partner."

Financially dependent relationships are detrimental, through and through. The good news? You don't have to stay in one. There are ways to gain financial independence and find your footing on your own.

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Understand the numbers.

In order to better understand your financial goals and needs, you first need to understand the numbers. "See what you are spending on things like rent/mortgage, food, utilities, car, education, entertainment, insurance, etc," advises Aviva Pinto, a certified divorce financial analyst. "Use year-end bank statements or credit card statements to get a full picture, and don't forget the ATM withdrawals."

Getting clear on these amounts will allow you to create a realistic budget.

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Make that budget.

Once you've reviewed the numbers, you'll want to make a financial plan, outlining both your needs and wants. You should develop a list of short- and long-term financial goals. Pinto says you should "set goals for how much you will need in retirement, to put kids through college, pay for weddings, buy that vacation home, take that vacation, etc. And you should also look at how much you'll need to achieve said goals and prioritize them. Do you need to get a higher paying job? Should you downsize? Find ways to save more and make your goals a reality."

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Find ways to reserve money.

While it can be hard to "squirrel away" money when you don't have a job and/or live on a limited income, trying to find ways to save and reserve money is essential to your financial independence. Create a separate savings account in your name. Put coffee money or lunch money into it and/or a portion of your paycheck, if you receive one at all—and keep at it. "Having your own saving account will reinforce the habit of growing it and will provide a sense of security and alternative to relying on the partner who you feel dependent on," Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, explains. "The key here is security and stability and not having to ask for permission to use these funds, fostering your own sense of agency and independence."

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Get a job.

Easier said than done, we know. That's particularly if your partner or significant other works long or strange hours and/or if you are the primary caretaker for young kids, but getting a job—even a very part-time, WFH gig—can help you feel more financially stable and secure. "Even if it is not a dream position, getting a job will help foster financial independence and help you create momentum to eventually find a position that is ideal," Romanoff says. "Finding a job will also help with personal meaning and feelings of self-worth."

That said, if the relationship you're leaving is a marriage, you may want to wait on working until post-divorce settlement. "While many women I have counseled who are leaving financially dependent relationships want to return to work to ensure their financial stability, it may be best to wait until after the settlement as your income will be subtracted from your maintenance," says Joyce Marter, LCPC, a psychotherapist and author of the upcoming The Financial Mindset Fix.

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Educate yourself.

In addition to creating a budget, getting a job, and making a financial plan, it's important you educate yourself about money matters and the divorce process. "When my clients are contemplating leaving a financially dependent relationship, I recommend that they educate themselves about the legal and financial ramifications of separation or divorce," Marter says. "State laws vary in terms of rights for unmarried domestic partners as well as for couples going through divorce, and divorce support centers, such as The Lilac Tree, offer confidential support and resources to those contemplating divorce. You also can (and should) enroll in courses and/or read articles and books about gaining your financial footing or independence."

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Work with a professional to create (and adhere to) an exit plan.

And finally, you should work with a trained professional to develop an exit plan. Why? Because licensed therapists, counselors, divorce attorneys, and financial strategists can help advise you about your rights. They can help you untangle and better understand the complexities of leaving a financially dependent relationship and/or marriage. Plus, meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist can help bolster your self-esteem, giving you the strength and courage to leave a financially dependent relationship. These individuals can support you and guide you. They can offer advice and insight and help you stay on track.

It's important to note, however, that some financially dependent relationships are abusive. In fact, financial control and abuse often go hand-in-hand. If you are in a financially and/or physically abusive relationship, you should seek additional support: Reach out to family members and friends and let them know what's going on, and work with a therapist or trusted mental health professional to create a safe exit plan. Plan your way, slowly or swiftly, out of the relationship—and connect with organizations like The Allstate Foundation, which aims to end domestic violence through financial independence.

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