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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- What choice would you make, if you were free to?
- 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?
- 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’.
- 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)
- 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.
- Research ‘boundaries’ and ‘how to be assertive’
- Practice in safe ways
- Don’t measure the effect of your boundary by how it is received
- Expect it to be hard
- Expect push back
- Don’t try to get it perfect
- Be messy
- Keep practising
- Don’t give up
- Be in your own corner, unequivocally
- 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.