Criminal justice experts say that feminism deserves much of the credit for focusing public attention on the problem of domestic violence. As women’s demands for equality and respect grew, law enforcement increased its efforts to protect women and prosecute batterers and abusers.

While this process was unfolding, researchers discovered that the effects of domestic violence were more complex and expensive than they had originally thought. Domestic violence exacts a toll across our society from such diverse entities as workplaces, insurance companies, and healthcare providers.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates an annual cost exceeding $5.8 billion each year.

Now experts are expanding their thinking about the economic causes of domestic violence. Prevention programs have traditionally focused their efforts in three directions: Imposing legal consequences, treating substance abuse, and providing psychological counseling. Lately, though, money has been added to the list. Experts are realizing that tensions over money often trigger intimate violence—and that increases in women’s earning power may have the same preventive effect as counseling and jail time.

Stories coming from Third World countries with microloan programs illustrate how money affects the power structure in intimate relationships. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Kristoff explained how a $65 loan transformed an abusive marriage. Saima Muhammad, wife of a poorly paid Pakistani laborer, endured almost daily beatings from her unhappy husband. Eventually Saima obtained a loan to buy embroidery supplies to start a small home-based business. Because she was bringing money into the marriage, her husband allowed her to attend meetings in which women discussed business, social, and family issues—and gradually the power structure in their marriage changed.

As Saima’s business grew—she eventually hired 30 employees, including her husband—the beatings ended, with no need for law-enforcement intervention, which would have been unlikely anyway in her Pakistani village.

Researchers say that economic issues often work the same way in US domestic violence cases. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, writing for the Review of Social Economy, postulate several strong connections between economics and domestic violence: “Men are assumed to indirectly receive positive utility from inflicting violence while women get negative utility from having violence inflicted upon them. A woman stays in the relationship as long as her relationship utility exceeds that of her utility outside the relationship, her threat point. A man may choose to make transfers to the woman to increase her marital utility and, therefore, keep her in the violent relationship.”

In other words, partners stay in relationships when they think they’re receiving more benefit than they would find outside it. An abuser (who could be male or female) benefits from the power and control associated with inflicting violence. The abused partner may feel that security and occasional affection are sufficient to stay with the status quo.

But those dynamics can change when the couple’s finances are altered. According to Andrew Roblee, money problems can worsen the abuse; he thinks recent US economic woes are one cause of our high rate of domestic violence. On the other hand, an influx of money can tip the balance in an abusive relationship in the victim’s favor, as it did for Saimi in Pakistan.

Farmer and Tiefenthaler say that when women have access to more money, they may decide that life will be better without the abusing spouse—who may drop the violent behavior in order to keep the relationship going, as Saimi’s husband did. In other cases, money from a charity or shelter may provide new options for a victim who previously felt trapped. The movie Waitress is a good example: After Jenna (the central character) receives a large monetary gift from one of her customers, she finds the courage to leave Earl, her controlling and unloving husband.

According to Farmer and Tiefenthaler, a sociological relationship model that includes economic issues can provide new insights and lead to additional options for ending one of America’s most devastating criminal justice problems: The intimate violence that affects an estimated 1.3 million women every year.

To learn more:

Farmer, A., & Tiefenthaler, J. (1997). An economic analysis of domestic violence. Review of Social Economy, 55(3), 337+.

Kristof, N. D., & Wudunn, S. (2009, August 23). The Women’s Crusade. The New York Times Magazine, 28+.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at for free report writing resources. Go to for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.