When Heather Silverman*, 33, met her future husband, Brian*, he made no bones about being a high-roller. He pulled in a six-figure salary at a major investment firm and loved surprising her with luxury gifts – a BMW after her son’s birth (big red bow and all) and a Mercedes after her daughter’s.
But it wasn’t long before she found herself caught in a web of money lies so complex she’s still clawing her way out two years later.
“When you begin to realise the person you thought you married isn’t really who he said he was, then you start having doubts about every other part of your life,” she told Business Insider in an exclusive interview. “If I can use my experience to prevent another woman from making the same mistake, then it’s had some positive effect.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Heather, a native Londoner, met Brian on an online dating site in her early 20s. He didn't blink an eye before flying out to take her on their first date.
'Now, at the time that sounded incredibly romantic,' she recalls. 'But it took a very impulsive person to jump on a plane and meet someone in a foreign country.'
Flattering? Sure. But even if you've got ample funds (as Brian claimed), impulse spending is certainly a sign of financial irresponsibility.
At age 25, Heather had already earned three degrees and had a six-figure salary of her own when she married Brian. Clearly, she was more than capable of managing the checkbook.
But he never let her touch it, not even the spreadsheets he supposedly used to track their household expenses.
'It was frustrating because I had always worked since I was 16,' she says. 'I saw my job as running the home and taking care of the kids, and I thought that could be managing the books.'
Heather needed some kind of cash on hand to keep their fridge stocked and her small children in clean diapers. So, they worked out an arrangement:
He doled out weekly allowances of about $1,000, but 'slowly, that amount was reduced to about $400 per week,' she says.
The couple had a joint bank account, but Brian opened a second one.
It wasn't until debt collectors started ringing her phone off the hook that she realised he'd also used her stellar credit score to finagle at least five new lines of credit.
By the time they divorced, he'd racked up $30,000 in charges she's now responsible for -- and her phone is still ringing.
After her daughter's birth, Heather received a much-needed check from the insurance company to cover the cost of her epidural -- about $3,500.
'But it was never sent to a doctor,' she says. 'I only found out it hadn't been sent to the doctor when I started getting letters from debt collectors.'
'There were so many secrets, and when we were with his family...I always felt like there was something going on that I couldn't quite grasp,' she says.
But she hesitated to ask, especially since Brian was adamant that his finances were none of her concern.
'When we decided to get married, there should have been a conversation (about this),' she says. 'But I was just young and naive. Every time I tried, I was told it was none of my business.'
'My ex-husband knew how to get me to shut up,' Heather says. 'He threatened me. He made me feel like no one would ever want me.'
But far from her friends and family back in London, she found herself even less capable of getting out from under his thumb.
'Had I been at home, I don't think anyone would have let me continue the relationship with him,' she says. 'They would have snapped me out of it. But I didn't have them.'
When they married, Heather's parents helped them with the down payment on their first home.
With that burden off their shoulders and a supposedly healthy income, finances shouldn't have been an issue. But 'there never seemed to be any money,' she recalls. 'It was always tight.'
Finally, one night as she was making dinner, there was a knock at the front door.
Their home was in foreclosure.
'I think the one thing is that once I had my daughter, I looked at myself and I thought, 'How can I be a role model when I've lived with this?' she says.
'I don't want her to ever think that it's OK for a man to treat her that way. That was a real turning point for me mentally.'
She finally filed for divorce in 2009, five years into their marriage and more than $50,000 in debt.
In what Heather says was a very calculated move, Brian filed personal bankruptcy without telling her.
Under their divorce settlement, Silverman agreed to cover these debts: $30,000 in credit cards and an unpaid $20,000 tax bill.
'We could have filed bankruptcy together, which meant that the marital debt was erased, but he went and did it individually,' she says.
Together, they agreed to joint custody.
In her naivete, Heather took nothing from the home after they separated but appliances from the kitchen she'd remodeled, thinking it was best to wash her hands of everything else.
Now she wishes she'd done otherwise.
'(Brian) took out all (the) appliances ... and sold them,' she says.
Two years after her divorce, Heather launched her own business and decided to make a fresh start.
But 'I can't even get a line of credit to make initial investments,' she says.
'I went from having a stellar credit score before I married him ... to now having a credit score in the 500s and trying to rebuild my financial life. I'm working with the IRS to resolve tax issues. Those types of things are the daily challenges.'
Coming from a privileged family, Heather says she never had cause to distrust anyone before, which made believing all the lies even easier.
'You have to remember that when someone gets under your skin and isn't nice to you, it sounds like a clicheé, but you do begin to believe it,' she says. 'Those red flags were all there and I chose to ignore them.'