The first signs of trouble in Donna Andersen’s marriage were subtle.
The Atlantic City resident fell in love with a man she met in 1996 — he was ambitious, and he wanted to take her with him in a life of luxury. He told her she was the person he had been waiting for.
She had her own business at the time, and she trusted him. They eventually married, and he began investing in businesses with her money.
Soon, she noticed things were changing. Their business ventures were failing, he continued using her bank account, and by the time she caught on, he had taken about $250,000 from her account and was cheating on her with six other women.
“You know something’s off, but you can’t quite figure out what it was,” said Anderson, now 61. “He always had an excuse, he always had a reason.”
Andersen experienced a different type of domestic violence and abuse than what can generally be reported to the police: financial abuse. She didn’t have any physical bruises or scars, but she was still a victim.
There are categories of crimes that have a domestic violence component to them — from cases of harassment to serious physical assault and battery. But the common element of domestic violence that isn’t always as easily classified or noticed — although experts say it’s always present — is a partner who is controlling in any form.
Domestic violence can relate to any pattern of behaviors meant to maintain or control a relationship, but “that pattern of behavior can look like a number of different things,” said Nicole Morella, director of public policy and communications for the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
Victims have experienced financial abuse, but also emotional, psychological and technological abuse — cyber stalking — in addition to physical abuse. Each year, domestic violence hotlines around the state get about 90,000 calls total, Morella said, and those calls can come from some victims looking for immediate help or housing, and others posing their situation to figure out if what they are experiencing is domestic abuse.
“We have a tendency to wait to address domestic violence until it’s more severe,” she said.
When a person finds themselves in a situation of less blatant abuse, he or she might find it difficult to break away from their abuser. They might feel leaving the relationship could make the situation worse — or in financial abuse, some might not have the financial stability to break free, experts said.
Andersen couldn’t find a way out of the marriage until she realized her then-husband was cheating on her.
“His objective was to deplete me of resources,” she said. “What wife throws away her marriage because the business plans aren’t working out?”
Law enforcement must follow state law, which says police can charge a person with an act of domestic violence when one of several specified acts occurs. New Jersey State Police statistics show nearly 62,000 domestic violence incidents were reported in 2015.
Some charges that can fall under domestic violence incidents include homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment and stalking, according to the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
According to State Police, some victims can report non-physical offenses, such as emotional and psychological abuse, under charges of harassment or terroristic threats, depending on the incident. In December, cyber-harassment was added to the state list of offenses.
Morella said domestic violence often includes some form of financial abuse, and it can be noticed in different ways: forbidding someone to go to work or school, harassing them while they’re at work, controlling how money is spent, or not allowing people to spend money or access bank accounts.
Any kind of non-physical control could indicate physical control or harm could come next, Morella said.
That was the case for Jackie Guerrero, 28, of Egg Harbor Township. Guerrero was in a 10-year relationship, which over time became more emotionally controlling. She said she felt unable to make decisions for herself after a few years.
“I lost myself, it was hard. I felt trapped,” she said. “I was kind of just going with the motions of everything.”
The emotional control continued, she said, until things got physical one day and she needed medical attention.
Throughout Guerrero’s relationship, she said, she often found herself sitting in the police department parking lot, waiting to report her alleged abuser. But she could barely find the courage to press charges.
Recovery from this kind of domestic violence is possible, however.
Andersen eventually filed for divorce and never reconnected with her alleged abuser. She’s now happily married to someone else.
“The key is to leave,” she said.
Andersen has used her experience to do research on fraud — and the connection she has found between abusers, sociopaths and personality disorders — which led her to create her website and business lovefraud.com more than 10 years ago. With the website, she has connected with people all over the world who experience domestic abuse similar to hers.
Guerrero said she spent several months feeling like her relationship was the way her life was destined to be.
But she eventually did call police and a restraining order was put in place.
Once she left the relationship and the cycle was ended, she got back into school, graduated from the Ultimate Medical Academy with an associate’s degree, and even plans to get her certificate in billing and coding, she said.
“I felt like I was going in circles,” she said. “The hardest part is actually getting yourself out of the situation, but after that, you feel so liberated, you’re so free.”