The difficulty with boundaries in an abusive relationship

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Often, women dealing with abusive partners are told ‘you have no boundaries’, ‘you need better boundaries’. This ignores the simple truth; that your boundaries are not welcome in an abusive relationship.

People who abuse others don’t want to hear that they are at fault. They make you believe that it’s your fault they hurt you. Or that you’re over-sensitive, a nag, or too critical. Or a few really sadistic abusers will actually enjoy causing you pain. Either way, the abuser wants to treat you exactly how they want to treat you. They don’t want to be challenged.

There are a few key ways that abusive relationships damage our boundaries:

EXTERNALLY

  • We are habitually treated in ways that hurt or harm us.
  • We are violated.
  • We are controlled.
  • We are silenced when we challenge how we are being treated. This can look like: punishment, name calling, violence, stonewalling, justification, excuses, turning the responsibility back on us/blaming or suggesting that we have done the same / something just as bad / are not so perfect ourselves.
  • It can be dangerous to express our hurt or anger at how we are treated, or even to show it.
  • Conversely some abusers enjoy causing pain, and so we might shut down our hurt in order to deprive them of this satisfaction.
  • We fight. Or we run. Or we freeze.

INTERNALLY

  • We lose trust in ourselves.
  • We blame ourselves for being ‘over-sensitive’ when the truth is that we are being repeatedly treated badly.
  • We think that if we can just find the perfect way of expressing our boundary, that we will finally be heard.
  • We feel a lot of anxiety.
  • We feel a lot of anger.
  • We start to believe we have an ‘anger problem’ or that ‘anger is bad’. (We haven’t, and it’s not.)
  • We feel no anger.
  • We feel shame.
  • We feel responsible for everything.
  • We hate ourselves.
  • We doubt our feelings.
  • We monitor ourselves/our behaviour closely.
  • Our bodies/feelings shut down.
  • We tuck our feelings away.
  • We don’t listen to ourselves because it just hurts too much.
  • We think other people know better, even when it comes to what we think and feel.
  • We place more weight on other people’s opinions of us, than our own opinion of ourselves.
  • Our feelings, bottled up for so long, sometimes explode out of us.
  • We think about escaping constantly.
  • We want other people to make decisions for us. (Because it’s been unsafe to make decisions.)

If you ever manage to get them to the point where they even agree they are not treating you well and accept help, inevitably you will end up responsible for ‘holding your boundaries’ rather than them holding themselves accountable for their behaviour. This is a continuation of the ‘it’s your fault I hurt you / for having feelings’. They may also place themselves as the victim of your ‘unreasonable’ demands.

EMPOWERING YOURSELF

To start

  1. Start to listen to your feelings. Practice checking into your body: are you scared, angry, disappointed, sad? Where do you feel it? Can you allow it to be, just as it is, just for a moment?
  2. What choice would you make, if you were free to?
  3. Watch what the abuser does to disempower you. How do they hook you into feeling guilty, ashamed, like you’re doing something wrong rather than the target of abusive, shaming or controlling behaviour?
  4. How can you support yourself in the moment. Sometimes a mantra can help; ‘It’s okay to feel hurt/angry’, ‘I hear you’, ‘I love you’.
  5. How can you diminish the power of their words in the moment. A mantra can help with this too; ‘It’s just a tactic’ (what the abuser is doing)
  6. Practice working out what you think, rather than allowing the story to be defined by the other. Allow yourself the space for your own opinions.

Into action

  1. Research ‘boundaries’ and ‘how to be assertive’
  2. Practice in safe ways
  3. Don’t measure the effect of your boundary by how it is received
  4. Expect it to be hard
  5. Expect push back
  6. Don’t try to get it perfect
  7. Be messy
  8. Keep practising
  9. Don’t give up
  10. Be in your own corner, unequivocally
  11. Enlist support

Part of honouring your boundaries is the internal work; the feeling and the finding of your limits and also the letting go of guilt, shame and responsibility for the other person’s part. It can be a lifelong journey.

Good luck, and take care. You are not alone.

Important: If your relationship is physically abusive – or you fear it might become so – please do seek specialist advice. It can be very dangerous to challenge a violent or potentially violent abuser.

Learning to trust yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship

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One of the hardest things about emotional abuse is that, through a campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting, it can cause you to lose trust in yourself.

This is true even if you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of some (although usually not all) of the tactics their partner was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected them anyway.

This manifests in a few key ways:  

  • You may not trust your feelings, because they have been so frequently invalidated or dismissed. Equally, it may actually have been dangerous (emotionally or physically) to express certain feelings, such as anger.
  • You may not trust your perceptions: gaslighting is key here, when the other has control of what reality is (e.g. says they said / did something when they didn’t and blames you for being crazy / wrong / bad, frames reality in a way that doesn’t allow for you to have your own perspective), then you learn that you cannot trust your own mind, what you see and experience, as real.
  • You may feel overly guilty / responsible: this is because you have been blamed so often for things that you couldn’t reasonably be held accountable for.
  • You internalise the idea that you are ‘less than’ other people, and automatically take the ‘one down’ position in relationships.
  • You may focus more on making sure everyone else is okay / happy before yourself: this is often learned as a way of keeping you safe, but can cause you to lose touch with what you want and need.

In this short article, there are a few things listed that might help. It is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to do your own research too!

Spotting emotionally abusive tactics

One vital tool in your tool box is to know what emotional abuse looks like, both in general and in how it manifests itself in the particular relationship/s you are in. Knowledge is power. There are many great books and articles on the topic that can teach you about the tactics and dynamics of abuse.

Surround yourself with non-abusive relationships

This will have a threefold benefit; it will increase your support system for dealing with any abusive relationships that you might still be in or dealing with, and being treated well (when we can allow this in) is in itself enormously healing. Plus it will also give you plenty of examples of how non-abusive relationships work, which you may internalise on a deep level as well as on a cognitive one.

You might want to try some or all of the following: find a support group, prioritise and nurture friendships or relationships that you have that are non-abusive, go to therapy, spend time in nature or with animals or join an internet support group (or anything else that you can think of!)

Look at your individual vulnerabilities

We all have our own particular ways of experiencing and living in the world, and in the same vein as the point above; knowledge is power.

When we know how we are repeatedly hooked, we begin to be able to unhook ourselves.

It may be that we have a fierce need to explain our side of the story, and get hooked into defending ourselves, or we like to look after others and get hooked back in via care-taking. You will have your own subtle and particular experience. Get to know it, see if you can begin to deal in a different way with the abuse. *

This is not a way of holding you accountable for the abuse; we develop ways of relating that absolutely make sense, and have probably kept you emotionally (and potentially physically) safe, but there usually comes a point where these defence mechanisms cause us to lose more than we gain. Then, it might be time to look at whether we have other options, too.

Get back in touch with your boundaries

It is painful to have a boundary that is repeatedly violated, so it is common to simply become numb. Plus, your anger and discomfort have likely been ignored and/or invalidated. You may also struggle to set boundaries in other, non-abusive relationships.

An important part of healing is often to touch in with how it feels when we are treated in a way that we don’t like, and to think strategically how we can deal with it in a way that honours our feelings. Here are some things that might help:

  • Play around with boundaries in your imagination for a little while, think about what you might like to say, how you might say it and how that might feel.
  • Plan what you may need to increase your skill at setting boundaries: read books about boundaries, look for people who deal skilfully with other and see what they do. Try on their way of relating, see how it fits.
  • If you’d like to, when you’re ready, you can start with the easy relationships, the ones that feel safest. Work on this, and increase your levels of difficulty slowly. Even if you need to start by saying ‘no’ in the supermarket, every boundary is a win. Or, start with what hurts most. Whichever makes sense for you.
  • When it doesn’t work out how you wanted it to, evaluate what went wrong, learn what you need to learn and move on.
  • Celebrate your achievements! It takes enormous courage to change old patterns, particularly ones developed in such difficult situations. You are doing amazingly just to engage in the process.

Setting boundaries with people who do not listen can be infuriating, saddening and crazy-making, so it is fine to find this challenging and also to reach out for support if you need it. Particularly with people who use abusive tactics or tend to respond defensively, it’s not necessarily that helpful to judge your boundary by their reaction.

Dealing with shame

A common experience when you’ve been in an abusive relationship is to feel frequently ashamed and guilty / overly responsible. Shame can be hard to look at and stay with, but it is best healed by showing it to the light of safe, non-judgemental relationship.

Honouring what feels good

For me, this is as important as getting in touch with what is uncomfortable. This might be physical; exercise can often be important to healing, or wearing clothes that feel good; either your favourite pair of pyjamas after a rubbish day, or a clean shirt; whatever feels right. Eat as well and as nourishingly as your budget and time constraints allow. Read a book, watch something good (or terrible but enjoyable!) on television. See people that nourish you. Spend time in nature.

Allow yourself to treat yourself well. Explore any internal blocks to this, and see if you can move through them.

You are valuable simply because you exist.

Finally

If there are any areas that you are particularly struggling with, there is plenty of support out there. If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.

* It is important to note that if you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, please act in the way that best ensures your safety. There are places that can offer you specialist support to deal with what you’re experiencing, or help you to find a way out if you want that: please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.