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‘It felt impossible to rely on others when I was abused’

While it’s now widely acknowledged that domestic and family violence that manifests in a physical form is abhorrent, and comes with legal ramifications in keeping with its capacity to destroy lives, our understanding of a less obvious form of abuse is yet to catch up. I’m speaking of financial abuse – a sinister and potentially lethal means by which a person seeks to control their partner in an insidious and often dangerous way. To help shine a light on this frequently misunderstood form of domestic abuse, Body+Soul is uncovering the heart-wrenching stories of Australians who have been directly affected by this – and to share their tales of survival as well as impart practical advice to help others. – Sarrah Le Marquand, editor-in-chief Body+Soul and Stellar

Being overseas without her family made it challenging for Rachael Natoli to remove herself from an abusive relationship, especially with the added fear of how she’d support her children. But she found the courage to free herself from her financially irresponsible partner and regained her independence, going on to launch a foundation that helps others in her situation.

I came to Australia on holiday from the UK in 2007 and fell in love, not just with the Aussie lifestyle, but with the concierge at the hotel where I stayed.

Three months later, I went home to pack up my stuff, left my job as a primary school teacher, and moved permanently to Sydney to be with him.

I decided that rather than continue my teaching career, I’d work as a nanny. My boyfriend’s family was well off and owned a home we were able to live in rent-free.

On weekends, we’d often go to the beach or to pubs to watch horse races; it seemed quite fun at first, having a few drinks and placing bets. I’d never really been around anyone who gambled before, so I was quite naïve about it.

But I soon realised he’d gamble his money away over the weekends, and I’d then have to pay for all the food and bills. Within a couple of months of being here, he asked me for money to pay back a loan his uncle had given him. When I initially refused, this was the first time that he physically assaulted me.

It was a shocking outburst, but he was apologetic afterwards. I loved him, and wanted to make things work. I had some money saved in the UK that my parents had given me. And when I brought that over, he gambled it all away, too.

After about two years, he left his job and decided he was going to be a full-time professional gambler.

There were times when he did well, but when he didn’t, that’s when the physical and emotional abuse would escalate. By this stage, I was totally under his control and manipulated by him. I even convinced my parents to loan us money, and lied to them about why we needed it.

When I fell pregnant, I did leave him for a little while. I managed to clear my credit card debts. But by the time I was in hospital giving birth to our twin boys, we’d reunited and he managed to spend about $40,000 maxing out the credit cards while I was hospitalised.

He convinced me the only way for us to move forward as a family was to declare bankruptcy. I still owned a property back in the UK, but he told me not to tell the Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA) about it. After we’d declared bankruptcy, I sold that house and brought the money over here for us. He then lost £70,000 (AU$127,000) of the proceeds in a month feeding his gambling addiction.

Who could I turn to? My family were overseas and I didn’t have friends – he’d isolated me from anyone it looked like I was getting close to. The one good friend I did have, who supported me through much of this, ended our relationship once the boys were born. She told me she couldn’t stand by and watch me stay with him now there were children involved.

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It wasn’t until my boys were two and-a-half that I left. If it had just been me, I could have perhaps slept on someone’s sofa. But with twin toddlers it felt impossible, and indeed when I finally did leave, my sons and I had five different homes in just seven weeks. We were staying in hotels and in shelters. It was a real struggle.

My ex retaliated to me ending things by reporting me to the AFSA for the sale of the UK property. Thankfully, my legal team successfully argued that I’d been a victim of financial abuse and I wasn’t charged with an offence.

I now run a charity that I founded to support victims of domestic violence [Natoli is the founder and CEO of the domestic abuse support group Lokahi Foundation]. I understand from my own experiences that their situations are often complex and highly traumatic.

Always consider your personal circumstances before acting on financial advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency or if you’re not feeling safe, always call 000.