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Q: There’s a stereotype that domestic violence primarily affects lower income individuals, as though enough money can protect you from marrying an abuser. I can say that is undeniably false. I live in a very affluent neighborhood in California and have known several friends who have felt abused and controlled and threatened by their rich husbands, but they don’t want to seek help because they’re embarrassed to admit they “fell for it.” How do I convince them that it’s not their fault, and that abusers target anyone? – Liz
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You’re spot-on. Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate because of income, education level or geographic location. Abusers are cunning individuals who look for trusting individuals they can manipulate, control and gaslight, and many of these abusers have power, money, fame and influence. If anything, these factors make them even more dangerous.
Ruth Patrick lives in the Silicon Valley area of California, near San Francisco, where many of the country’s biggest tech companies are headquartered. It’s one of the most expensive places in the country to live. The median income here is around $110,000.
“I had close friends who were experiencing abuse and people would look at them differently,” she says. If they sought help, Patrick says they told her they were met with more judgement.
“You’re a woman of means, what are you doing here? There was this sense that they were taking up resources.”
In early 2017, a horrific case of domestic violence in Silicon Valley came to light when a survivor released video and audio recordings of her then-husband, Abhishek Gattani, physically and psychologically abusing her, telling her she was being beaten as a punishment for not staying calm, and threatening to stab her to death. Gattani was the CEO of Cuberon, a Silcon Valley startup.
Even though the abuse occurred over a period of a decade, Gattni was able to secure a plea deal, with help from his legal team, that reduced his charges from a felony assault to felony accessory after the fact with a misdemeanor charge of “offensive touching.” He served just two weeks in jail.
Breaking the Silence
Survivors of affluent means often hide in the shadows, afraid of the societal backlash for coming out against their high-powered partners. Seven years ago, Patrick began WomenSV.org, a domestic violence advocacy and information nonprofit aimed at survivors facing abusers in just this situation.
No matter what the stereotype may be, money cannot buy one’s way out of domestic violence, says Patrick, especially since most affluent abusers will use financial abuse to make sure survivors have no access to money or assets. She’s since helped more than 1,300 women in abusive situations through a help line, support groups, court accompaniment and more. Though based in Silicon Valley, Patrick says they get calls from women all over the world.
“The helpline is for anyone in middle-to-upper income areas dealing with subtle forms of abuse in a professional community.” These subtle power and control tactics often include the aforementioned financial abuse as well as psychological and emotional abuse, legal abuse, technological abuse and gaslighting.
Characteristics of an Affluent Abuser
The qualities of an affluent abuser mirror many of those of less well-off abusers. According to Patrick, affluent abusers tend to…
- Be very charming
- Lack empathy and remorse
- Be very sensitive to shame and punish their partner for constructive feedback
- Be very good at lying, and lie easily and often even when they don’t need to
- “Poison the waters” in the community so everyone doubts their partner’s sanity, stability or character
- Are very accomplished, present well in public, and volunteer or give to worthy causes
- Have an intense sense of entitlement
- Are very vengeful and see relationships in terms of power and control
More Money, More Danger
“The more money and intelligence an abuser has, the more tools and opportunities they have to get inside the head of a survivor,” says Patrick. “That’s how affluent abusers get away with this kind of thing. People will say, ‘Oh, he’s a doctor, he can’t possibly be an abuser.’”
Same goes for CEOs, celebrities, religious leaders, mental health therapists—people in a position where they are trusted, respected and esteemed for their talents are often able to conceal their violent and controlling side behind a veil of admiration. Just look at Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Terrence Howard—all accused of domestic violence who still make their living today with the support of an approving fan base.
For instance, technological abuse—a tactic that involves sinister types of stalking and spying involving technology, can occur more frequently, since wealth provides increased access to gadgets. And since we are talking about the Silicon Valley – or anywhere for that matter – there’s no shortage of tech in people’s lives.
“We’ve had abusers put hidden cameras in light fixtures. One tracked [a survivor] using her Tesla. She would drive around and he’d issue a voice-activated command to the GPS to override it and send her somewhere else. She reports it to the police and ends up looking paranoid,” says Patrick.
When it comes to those abusers who work in the medical field, Patrick says their skill sets can be particularly ominous.
“Psychologists will turn it back on the survivor when police arrive, accusing her of abuse. Or they’ll get in her head to manipulate and gaslight her,” says Patrick. Gaslighting is when an abuser convinces a survivor that her memories are not true, and that what she remembers happening in fact never did, or happened completely differently.
And when it comes to medical doctors who are abusers, the possible outcome is potentially the most frightening.
“Doctors have the medical knowledge to kill their partner and make it look like an accident,” says Patrick.
Leaving Survivors Penniless
One of the main reasons survivors stay with abusers—affluent or not—is financial. Patrick says affluent abusers especially use the threat of poverty and homelessness against survivors, as well as threatening to take away custody of the children, just because they can.
“Some of these women have lived out of their cars after leaving when they used to have very nice homes,” says Patrick. Abusers will restrict access to joint accounts, seize shared assets or offer survivors a measly allowance and micromanage her down to the dollar. Often a prenuptial agreement is the first step to prepare for this type of control. Patrick says abusers will pretend the prenup isn’t something they wanted to do, but rather something they’re forced to sign by the board of their corporation.
And when it comes to court, survivors without money struggle to acquire professional legal help, something abusers bank on. Because of their income level, these survivors often don’t qualify for pro-bono help either.
Enough is Enough
If your friends are ready to leave an abusive husband, Liz, “the less he knows, the safer she’ll be,” says Patrick. “Assume you’re being monitored in your home. Stay low-tech. Don’t get sensitive information at home—set up an account at a library to another email address.”
Consider reaching out to an advocate to construct a safety plan. You can find an advocate near you on our Find Help page. A safety plan will help you prepare for all scenarios should the abuse ramp when you leave.
Then, says Patrick, try to stockpile cash in a secret place. Even gift cards will do. Something you can use when you escape in case the abuser seizes all assets. Consider getting a disposable phone that isn’t connected to the internet to make secure calls.
“Imagine you’re a duck on the water—business as usual on top with your feet underneath paddling like mad to get where you need to go.”
And, says Patrick, stay away from couples’ counseling. An abuser can easily manipulate a counselor—and possibly you—in a way that will make you question your reality.
Everyone should be aware of signs of abuse before they can infiltrate your life. Read “Abusive Red Flags Everyone Should Know.” And for more insight into the severity of abuse in more affluent communities, consider reading, Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages. And be prepared for possible high-tech means of intimidation in “High-Tech Stalking Tactics.”
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