Protecting Yourself And Your Credit From Abuse
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to switch gears now, to a much more serious subject, which is the cost of domestic violence. And one reason domestic violence or relationship violence has been in the news a fair amount lately is that on again-off again relationship between the pop stars, Chris Brown and Rihanna. Now, remember that Chris Brown received community service, not to mention a lot of public condemnation, after he admitted beating up Rihanna back in 2009.
Now, a lot of people have been worried about the message their reconciliation sends about the seriousness of his behavior, but other people say it's not relevant to other people since Rihanna is one of the most successful pop stars in the world. She's well off.
Well, our next guest says that being smart, well educated, even having some money, may not protect you from the financial chaos that can come with abuse and those financial consequences might be one of the hidden consequences of abuse.
Our guest is Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. She is a survivor of an abusive marriage. Her story, "How My Abusive Marriage Left Me $100,000 in Debt," was recently featured on Forbes.com.
Leslie, thanks so much for joining us once again.
LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: My pleasure. Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, we've talked with you before about this chapter in your life. You wrote a book about it, "Crazy Love." Your recent TED talk about this has gone viral. Hundreds of thousands of page views so far. Why are you now breaking out the financial side of it? Why do you feel it's important to highlight the financial impact?
STEINER: Well, you know, even though I've told my story so many times, I had never focused purely on the financial damage and the financial abuse and I think that it's an important story to tell because it hasn't gotten a lot of attention and it's such an incredibly important part of domestic violence and it's a huge barrier to victims rebuilding their lives. So I thought it was important to try to focus just on this piece of this story.
MARTIN: A big factor in this huge debt was that your husband had terrible - your former husband had terrible credit to begin with and he persuaded you to take out huge student loans, not just for yourself, but for him. And, when you look on this now, do you think that this was part of his way of controlling you?
STEINER: I think it was part of the manipulation. You know, a huge part of our relationship was, you know, that I felt really sorry for him, that he had been abused as a child and I, in many ways, had had a golden childhood. My parents had both gone to Harvard and Radcliff and I - raised in a - you know, a family that looked very good on the outside and Conor, the name that I use for my ex-husband - I felt so sorry because he had been abused. He had grown up in poverty and I wanted to make it all up to him and I think that a lot of victims - that's how we get sucked in. We see the good in a person that nobody else sees and I would have done anything for him.
And one of the things I did was endure abuse, but one of the other things I did is that I opened my financial life to him and I took out a lot of debt in my own name so that he could go to business school and I also had had a lot of money that my father had painstakingly put aside for me. It was a custodial account and I gave Conor access to all of that, too, during our marriage.
MARTIN: Adding insult to injury, if you don't mind my putting it that way, is that when you finally - the scales finally fell from your eyes and you finally did leave him, which is a process you detail in both your book and your TED talk - and I recommend that people read this because it's important. It shows exactly how - the insidiousness of it.
But that you - when you went to court, you actually had to pay him. How did that happen?
STEINER: Well, this was so amazing to me. I think this is a common paradigm for victims. We get the courage to finally leave and to break the silence and I told the police and I told my neighbors and my friends and family that he had been abusing me behind closed doors for years and I went and found a divorce lawyer and I began the process of getting divorced and Conor hired a very aggressive female attorney and she sued me. She filed for alimony and she also filed for a lot of other financial assets.
And I couldn't believe it. I just - I felt like it was such a kind of societal outrage that, here, I had been abused, but I had to pay him to go away. And it was awful, Michel. It was - I don't know if I've been so angry in my life as when I was told that my soon-to-be ex-husband wanted me to support him financially.
MARTIN: But you did do it. Why did you do it?
STEINER: Because I had a really smart divorce lawyer who I wanted to kill at the time and he told me - he said, let's look at this objectively and strategically. Let's convince Conor that he's beaten you forever, that he's beaten you financially, too, and then he's never going to bother you again and it'll be the best money that you ever spent. And I refused to pay alimony. I couldn't do that and I didn't want to be tied to him in the future, but I agreed to give Conor a lump sum of money, essentially just to leave me alone forever.
MARTIN: And it worked? It did work?
STEINER: And it worked. I had spent almost 20 years and I haven't talked to him since the - you know, the end of our marriage and that's priceless. I didn't know it at the time, though.
MARTIN: Well, one thing, though, I want to sort of lift up here - and I appreciate, again, your candor about this. Obviously, I'm very interested in what lessons you think that people can learn from this, particularly - and one of the reasons you are so aggressive about talking about this yourself is that you want people to know that these kinds of things can happen to people, even like yourself, with Ivy League educations who are white, who have family of means and so forth.
But I think there are going to be people hearing this who are going to say, I don't have parents to give me $10,000 to get away from this.
MARTIN: What do I do?
STEINER: Right. I think that that's really true and I think it's an important part of my story, the financial aspect of my story and also the abuse aspect of my story is that most victims actually have it far, far worse than I did, especially because most victims have children with their abusive partner. And, once you have kids, you're tied forever and you're also vulnerable forever.
And our society and particularly our family court system doesn't offer a lot of protection to people with kids who've left abusers and I think that one of the most important things you need to do is get really good legal representation, which I had and which I paid for, but there also is more and more legal advocacy in terms of relationship violence and domestic violence and there are more and more lawyers willing, on a pro bono basis, to help victims because everybody is recognizing it's a key part of going from victim to survivor - is getting good legal representation so you can protect yourself financially going forward.
MARTIN: We only have about a minute left and this is an important topic, which I'm not sure we're going to resolve here, but what do you think you learned that you have now taken into a presumably much healthier relationship with the man you are now married to who's the father of your three children?
STEINER: Well, I learned a great lesson for anybody, any adult, whether you're in an abusive relationship or not, which is to protect your own financial independence, your economic independence, your credit history. And my husband who I've been married to for almost 20 years now who is not abusive - he still has a little bit of a hard time understanding why I'm so protective. I have credit cards in my own name. I have a bank account in my own name. I have investments in my own name because, you know, heaven forbid, if anything happened to him, I need to take care of myself and the kids that I have with him and I think that's a great message for any adult, male or female, to make sure that, no matter how in love you are, take care of yourself, too.
MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is editor of the book "Mommy Wars" and author of the memoir "Crazy Love." She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Leslie, thanks so much for joining us once again.
STEINER: It was a pleasure. Thanks, Michel.
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