My Abusive Marriage Destroyed Me -- and My Finances

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Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner
By Leslie Morgan Steiner, as told to Cheryl Lock

In 1987, I had just graduated from college and moved to Manhattan for my dream job.

I hadn't dated a lot in college, but New York was different. Suddenly, I was meeting guys everywhere -- and going on a lot of dates.

I met Conor on the subway. Although there were no fireworks at the time, he seemed like a nice guy. When he tracked me down a month later, I was flattered, so we started dating.

If you told me then that, within two years, Conor would beat me for the first time, or that in four years I would be filing for divorce, I would have thought you were crazy.

But that's what happened.

Everyone talks about the physical aspect of domestic abuse -- which is, of course, no small thing -- but there's more to it. Conor left me not only physically battered, but nearly bankrupt.

Leslie Morgan Steiner /
Leslie Morgan Steiner /
How I Fell in Love With an Abuser

The truth is that I was unimpressed on our first date. In fact, I found Conor, who was 17 years my senior, completely goofy. But he was a smart guy -- like me, he'd graduated from an Ivy League school -- and as we got to know each other, I fell in love with him.

About three months after we started dating, he confessed that, as a child, he'd been physically abused. At the time, I didn't know such an admission could be a red flag that was characteristic of abusers. I felt sorry for him, and I was determined to show him what love was really all about.

While the physical violence didn't start until we were together for two years, Conor set the financial trap early. Eight months into our relationship, he quit his Wall Street job for a lower paying one in a tiny, New England town without ever discussing it with me. He then convinced me to also leave my job and move with him -- where we'd be far away from friends and my family. I don't know for sure that he was deliberately trying to isolate me -- at the time, he genuinely seemed to be seeking some kind of inner peace and happiness. But, now that I look back, his actions clearly fall into a classic seduce-isolate-abuse-repeat pattern.

We used the small amount of money my father had put into a custodial savings account for me to buy a house once we moved. We owned one car, which Conor drove to work every day. My new job paid about 75 percent less than the one I held in New York, so I also had to freelance, which was lucrative but sporadic. Meanwhile, Conor was horrible with money, and splurged on extravagant things -- like a Montblanc pen that cost twice as much as our monthly mortgage payment. Pens aside, between the house and the car, we racked up $100,000 of debt.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-"I thought the court would side with me -- the victim. Unfortunately, the system doesn't work in this way. They're only concerned with dividing the assets."%At this point, we'd totally merged our finances, and since Conor had the steady paycheck and his job covered health insurance for both of us, I felt dependent on him. I had spent my own savings supporting us, so I didn't have any money left, nor did I have the courage to approach my parents or friends for financial help.

This was also compounded by the ongoing physical abuse. Conor first hit me five days before our wedding. I was working at home that day, and I yelled out in frustration because I was having trouble with the computer. He grabbed me by the throat, told me never to yell like that again because it reminded him of his mother (whom he both loved and detested for marrying his abusive stepfather) -- and then threw me to the floor.

I figured it was a one-time thing -- an accident -- until it started happening once a week, twice a week ... and then several times a month for the next two years. I should have left him then and there, but I had lost my sense of reality -- I didn't want anyone in my life to know what was happening.

The Day I Finally Decided to Leave

Two years into our marriage, Conor suggested that we go to business school together. Since he had terrible credit, he wouldn't have been able to get a loan, so it fell to me to pay for both of us. Ultimately, he wanted an MBA to prove his self-worth, and I was too willing to oblige. I was freelancing at the time, so I had to borrow another $30,000 from my father and take out $35,000 in government loans to cover Conor's tuition and our living expenses for the two years that we were in school.

Despite the loans, going to business school was actually the best thing that could have happened to me because it broke my isolation. We left New England -- renting out our house because we couldn't sell it for a good price -- to attend business school in a thriving city. I loved my classmates and teachers, and I felt like I had worth outside of our marriage for the first time in a long time.

By the second year of school, I got the courage to tell Conor that if he hit me again, I would leave. He didn't strike me for six months after that, and I began to think that we were going to make it.

I was wrong, of course.

One night, Conor beat me so badly that our neighbors called the cops. I filed a restraining order -- and finally told my friends and family what had been happening. It took over a year to get divorced, and it was financially draining.

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At first, I didn't want to give Conor anything. His lawyer had asked for alimony, since I was working and he wasn't, but I thought the court would side with me -- the victim. Unfortunately, the system doesn't work in this way. They're only concerned with dividing the assets, and my lawyer told me that the best way to be done with the whole thing was to pay Conor a lump sum of money to get him to sign the papers and go away. Fighting in court could take five years, he said, and it might end up costing five to ten times as much money in legal fees. At the time, we were almost done with business school, and I didn't want to drag it out any longer. It was time to move on with my life.

In the end, I gave Conor $10,000 -- and that was on top of the approximately $100,000 in business school loans that I owed. All of the debt that we had was in my name, thanks to the fact that his terrible credit barred him from getting approved for loans. As for the house that I had purchased for the both of us using savings from my dad, well, I had to sell that at a $30,000 loss.

While it killed me to give my abuser money, it was actually the right decision for me because I haven't heard from him since.

How I Recovered, Financially and Emotionally

When I talk about it now, I wonder how I could have been so blind. In reality, I wasn't as alone as I'd felt: One in four women will experience domestic violence, and 74 percent of Americans know someone who is or has been abused. But while I was living it, my heart went out to Conor because of what he'd suffered through. And I believed that our relationship would get better.

I just couldn't see that it was crazy love.

It took six years of extremely frugal living to pay off all of that debt -- house, car, business school, lawyer -- not to mention a therapist!

Leslie Morgan Steiner
Steiner today with her family (Courtesy Leslie Morgan Steiner)
I've been married for almost 20 years to a man who is everything my ex-husband wasn't. I work as a writer and a public speaker, and we have three great kids. But despite the stability of my relationship, one thing that I took with me from my marriage with Conor is my financial independence. It took years for me to agree to have a joint checking account with my current husband, and I still have my own checking and savings accounts, as well as credit cards in my own name.

Without financial independence, I would feel submissive. If I'd had it in my relationship with Conor, I could have afforded to leave him on my own.

Every once in a while, my husband will ask, "Why do you need that account?" I just look at him because he'll never understand. I need my financial freedom. Every woman does ... I just happened to learn the hard way.


Riches to Rags: 5 Tales of Woe From Those Who Had It All and Lost It
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My Abusive Marriage Destroyed Me -- and My Finances
The lifestyle of a professional athlete can be glamorous. But it's easy to get caught up in the trappings of big paydays and life in the limelight, and end up broke.

Guadiano worked with a pro athlete in San Antonio in his mid-40s whose road into hard times was paved with the purchase of too many toys, and a failure to plan for retirement.

The athlete came to Guadiano with $100,000 in credit card debt, $200,000 in loans for two sports cars, a $200,000 loan for a luxury cabin cruiser, and a look of terror on his face. His sports career was at an end, and he had attempted to get a job with a life insurance company. But he was turned down when his prospective employers saw his credit report.

Initially, the athlete started a debt management plan with fixed payments to eliminate his debt, but since some of his toys had been repossessed and he had judgments for non-payment of other bills, he eventually dropped out of the program and declared bankruptcy.

Guadiano saw him recently and said he seems happy without the trappings of the high-profile lifestyle and is gainfully employed at a nonprofit company that works with cancer survivors.
Ashley Adami, a certified credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Portland, Ore., worked with a woman in her late 40s who lived off a monthly income from a trust fund, but had accumulated $300,000 in gambling debts.

"She lived in a home with a lot of home equity and a small mortgage, plus she owned a second property without any mortgage," says Adami. "She came to me because she had a gambling addiction and her therapist told her to get some financial help."

The woman's credit score had plummeted, yet her favorite casino continually loaned her money to cover her gambling because they knew she had assets to sell. In the end, she sold her second home to pay off her debts. Her credit improved and she was able to refinance and keep her primary residence. She also found a full-time job. While this woman didn't end up in rags because of the cushion of her trust fund, she needed to make some dramatic transformations to her life in order to clean up her debt problem.

"Although she still struggles with her gambling addiction, it's under control now and she's much happier working full time," says Adami. "Not only is she earning a living, but she's keeping busy and feeling productive."
Another of Guadiano's clients, a high-ranking noncommissioned military officer, was making a good income, but got caught up in buying expensive furniture for a new home, a costly car, and a high-end truck. He wasn't eligible to reenlist, and so he retired at an income that was about half his previous salary.

"He struggled with a debt management plan for about a year," says Guadiano, but then he wound up getting a job as an overseas security advisor through his military connections. He went back to Iraq and earned enough money to pay off all of his debts.

"He's a lucky guy to have had the connections to bring in the income to get him out of the hole," says Guadiano.
Mary Ellen Nicol, a credit counselor with CredAbility in Atlanta, is working with a client who owns a public relations firm.

"In September 2012, my client lost his major client, a restaurant chain that was paying him $27,000 per month for his PR services," says Nicol. "His income went from $30,000 a month to $3,000 a month."

The client used his $40,000 in savings to stay current on his mortgage and for other living expenses, then began putting all his expenses on his credit cards, but finally turned to CredAbility for help.

At that point, says Nicol, he was two months past due on his mortgage. He couldn't qualify for a loan modification because the payment was about the same as his income from his remaining PR client. Nicol and the client are currently requesting a reduced payment due to his reduced income.

Bruce McClary, currently director of media relations for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Seattle, worked with a debt collection agency in Los Angeles where he saw the sad aftermath of fortunes frittered away.

"An actor who had been popular in the 1970s and had earned millions was living off the residuals from some TV roles and the income generated by several properties," says McClary. "One of the homes, a $2 million mansion, was destroyed by a natural disaster."

Although there was insurance on the property, the special coverage needed for that particular disaster had lapsed. The property was a total loss, sending the actor's already shaky finances into a tailspin.

The debt collection company McClary worked for eventually collected a 50 percent settlement the portion of the actors debt that concerned them -- a second mortgage on one of the actor's properties -- but most of the actor's fortune had evaporated by the time the actor died from an illness.

"These situations remind me of similar circumstances that happen to lottery winners, sometimes referred to as 'sudden wealth syndrome,' when people who come from modest means are suddenly thrust into the limelight of fame and fortune," says McClary. "If they weren't prepared with core financial skills, their financial security is at risk."

The biggest lesson that everyone can take away from these tales -- whether they come into sudden wealth or not -- is the importance of living within your means.

"Fame is fleeting, so those reaching the top should think about how to make their newfound fortune last a lifetime. Otherwise, it can disappear faster than it arrived and can even turn into some serious debt," McClary says.

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