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Home / Articles / Your Voice / Not to People Like Us

Not to People Like Us

Affluence can be yet another barrier to escaping a controlling and dangerous abusive partner

  • By CarolAnn Peterson, PhD
  • Mar 04, 2024
rich suburban women

Everyone has ideas about the rich and famous:  They live a life of luxury, they have no problems—because money solves everything—and they live happily ever after. However, for some, this is far from the truth.

Domestic violence has no boundaries—abusers don’t care if you’re rich or poor, if you’re heterosexual or LGBTQ+, or what race, ethnicity or even religion a survivor is. But it’s those survivors with money who are often thought to be immune from abuse, or at the very least, have a much easier time extracting themselves from it. However, the reality is much different. The affluent is a group predominantly hidden from sight. There is little research on this population—in 2001, Susan Weitzman published a book titled Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages and then, in 2016, an article was published by on this topic. But what do we really know about this population?

Many survivors who live in upscale neighborhoods will not likely report abuse, feeling shame or embarrassment in sharing what’s really going on at home. Many of the services they’d utilize from professionals to help respond to or escape from abuse (such as doctors, dentists, attorneys, etc.) are probably neighbors, belong to the same country club, and likely socialize together. Even though seeking services to escape abuse may seem more accessible to those in upper-middle-class areas, this shame to disclose is often a barrier. 

It is important to understand that the affluent feel pressure to put on a persona that matches their environment. This can further isolate survivors who are considered upper class. This is due in part to the abusive partner having power and influence within the community to maintain privacy, including when domestic violence occurs.  This creates a sense of powerlessness for the survivor.

Weitzman found that abusers in the upper-middle class felt a sense of entitlement and did not feel remorse for the abuse they inflicted. Many abusers do feel remorse. However, I have to wonder how genuine is that remorse? Many abusers apologize, some feel guilty, and some will fear the survivor will call the police. However, I believe what Weitzman found—that upper-middle class and rich abusers don’t have these feelings. In my opinion, these may be the most dangerous abusers. 

Glimpses into the lives of the “rich and famous” enduring abuse include such cases as Nicole Brown Simpson, Tina Turner, Robin Givens, Amber Heard and Ivana Trump. Rhianna—the case heard ‘round the world—was assaulted by her boyfriend, rapper Chris Brown, in 2009. He pushed her head into the passenger window of a car and punched her multiple times. Rhianna did reconcile briefly with Chris Brown and I have to wonder what changed her mind to make this choice. Eventually, she did leave him. But that wasn’t the case for Janay Brown who would marry NFL running back Ray Rice after his attack in 2014 in a Vegas elevator. He punched his then-fiancé so violently she lost consciousness, the assault caught on a security camera and released for the world to see. 

Survivors of domestic violence can face many barriers to leaving, and the affluent certainly aren’t immune to this. Law professor and survivor Sarah Buel says there are at least 50 reasons a survivor may feel trapped with an abusive partner.

Male celebrities can also be survivors of intimate partner abuse. Dwayne Haskins, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, was assaulted in 2021 by his wife who punched him in the mouth and caused him to lose a tooth. She was charged with a domestic violence felony. The NCADV reports that 1 in 4 men will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. 

 These glimpses into the lives of affluent couples show that being rich doesn’t mean someone can’t be abusive, or that a survivor can’t be trapped indefinitely. 

In a 2021 survey conducted by of 844 survivors of abuse, it was found that survivors returned to an abuser 6.3 times on average before leaving for good. Research conducted in Australia indicated that of 59,402 women who had experienced domestic violence in a relationship, 50 percent had left the abuser at least once, 20 percent had left twice; and 14 percent had left three times.  The most common reasons given for returning to the abuser were concern for their children or financial reasons.

Weitzman pointed out that when a survivor threatens to file for divorce, her partner will warn her that she will be left penniless. The survivor is very aware that the abuser can and will carry out this threat, sometimes referred to as the “golden handcuffs” that keep affluent survivors trapped. 

It is not uncommon for abusers to deplete bank accounts, max out credit cards (with the survivor being responsible for the debt) and refuse to pay the bills, known as financial abuse.  This leaves survivors of abuse with not only a poor credit rating but also a dependence on the abuser for money to live. We know that over 8 million paid workdays are lost due to domestic violence; 60 percent of survivors lose their jobs due to a partner’s abuse (though in most states in the U.S. it is illegal to fire a survivor for being a victim of abuse), and that approximately 99 percent of abuse cases experience some form of financial abuse. 

One avenue to make a workplace safe for survivors is an employer who offers paid leave (this can be done by utilizing the Federal Family & Leave Act).  The article by Forbes Magazine, Understanding The Financial Impact Of Domestic Violence, points out that from a 2017 survey, 42 percent of American employers reported not offering paid leave to domestic violence survivors, while another 19 percent of employers were unsure if they had such a policy. 

The other issue for upper-middle-class survivors is having to move themselves and their children into a shelter, which is communal living, leaving behind a lifestyle that they and their children are used to. It also means that the children leave behind their friends and more affluent school systems. And I speculate that the older the children, the less likely they are to leave, which means survivors stay with an abusive partner.

What can also be an issue is that wealthy survivors are often stereotyped, which puts them at further risk: police who believe that wealthy survivors can just leave or dismiss the abuse (such as in the case Nicole Brown Simpson) don't take into account that being in the spotlight makes it difficult to seek services without their lives being front and center on the news. In fact, one ex-wife of a famous wrestler indicated that she suffered severe anxiety after making the abuse report, thereby asking for help was scary and difficult.

In an article by Cate Holahan, Silence, Suffering, and Abuse in Affluent Communities, a friend of hers became uncommunicative for five years; when she surfaced, it was found that her relationship was with a violent partner and she believed that she was alone. She was ashamed to tell friends and believed that friends wouldn’t understand her situation. Holahan indicates that many affluent survivors are likely to suffer in silence, therefore making domestic violence in affluent communities an institutionalized oppression for the upscale.

Weitzman reported in her book that many affluent survivors are reluctant to call authorities for fear of affecting their spouse’s career, future employability and community standing. This only further creates a misleading understanding that abuse can occur in wealthy households.

In an article by Kathryn K. Berg, she relates a personal story told to Susan Weitzman at an international conference:

“I was in a very wealthy marriage. And my doctor-husband battered me constantly. I was ashamed and embarrassed. As a mental health professional, I felt I should have known have better. I felt I should be able to fix myself. And I was sure this wasn’t happening to anyone I knew. I felt frightened, depressed and alone. In fact, because of my reputation in the community as well as my husband’s position, I really had nowhere to go for help.” 

In fact, Berg also indicates that white, middle-class women are seldom taken into consideration as a culture or even considered in research of domestic violence. She further expresses another comment to Weitzman at the same international conference that “privileged women do not deserve access to more resources” as if privileged women have access to money or resources.  Berg further explains that to discount women of privilege may seem counterintuitive but is vital to a mission of social justice.  She further indicates that “exploring the effects of privilege need not minimize battered women’s experience of abuse and discrimination on the basis of sex.”

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It becomes imperative for all of us helping professionals not to dismiss survivors of violence simply based on their status in society. We need to push for more research and education around this area and consider affluence as another possible barrier for survivors of abusive partners.

*Article title taken from the book of the same name by Susan Weitzman

Editor’s Note: This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website. Dr. CarolAnn Peterson is a former lecturer in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California and a member of the Los Angeles Mayor's Domestic Violence Steering Committee. She was chairwoman of the Board of Directors and CEO of Peterson Professional Alliance where she worked with corporate America on recognizing domestic violence in the workplace and how domestic violence impacted their organizations. She assisted other organizations regarding welfare reform and its impact on victims of domestic violence, and she provided training on domestic violence to private, public, and nonprofit organizations. In addition, she has been a trainer for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and spent ten years as a registered lobbyist. Peterson holds a PhD from Sanctus Theological Institute. She is a survivor of domestic violence and lives in North Carolina.