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
Don’t give up
Be in your own corner, unequivocally
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.
An almost universal response to being abused is to turn the blame and sense of responsibility inwards. Sometimes, we internalise the abuser’s words, the names that we are called, the negative qualities that are attributed to us. Or we may feel responsible as a way of giving ourselves back some power in a situation where we had little, or none.
This happens in two ways; we develop ways of relating with the world and ourselves that cause us problems in our lives, and/or we can develop pockets of trauma or shame. I’ll look at both of these separately, and also look at how you can help your own healing from self-blame if you have been in, or still are in, an abusive relationship.
The abuser blames the other; “it’s your fault, you made me do this”. We may hear this either said explicitly or it may be subtler; implied instead of spoken. The look, the sigh, the eye roll. In my experience, even if you can see this happening, it still has an effect on you (although not as big an effect as if you are not aware of it).
The abuser takes our healthy, pro-social process of taking responsibility for ourselves, and turns it into a way of gaining and maintaining control over us.
We then start to believe that we are responsible for the feelings and actions of others; we actually start to relate to other people in the way that we relate to the abuser.
You may not even be conscious of blaming yourself; this is the tricky bit, you may feel that you are actually at fault. It may even feel wrong to not hold yourself responsible in this way.
Healing can be scary, because to do this we probably have to face why we adjusted our behaviour in the first place. It involves beginning to trust people again, to believe that the rules that we learned in our abusive relationship are not, actually, transferable to the ‘real’ world, and that we will need to learn or relearn how to be *vulnerable again in a way that is healthy.
(*Vulnerable means different things to different people, I think. For some, vulnerable means just that, learning to be soft where it is appropriate to be, but for others, to be vulnerable means to be assertive. You’ll know best what you habitually find hard.)
Triggered into shame
Another way that we continue to be hurt by an abusive relationship is when we are ‘triggered’ back into the trauma. Someone says or does something that reminds us of what our original abuser did to us (we may or may not be conscious of being triggered), and we find ourselves flipped right back into those excruciating feelings of shame, self-hatred and guilt.
A useful process for unpicking this is:
What was the trigger? See if you can separate the past from the present, sometimes this is enough to allow you to respond appropriately in the moment. Saying to yourself ‘it’s a memory’ in a gentle, reassuring tone can help.
Take a moment, breathe deeply, steady yourself if you can, or excuse yourself if you need to. Give yourself some choices about how you respond.
Let yourself be scared/hurt/ashamed. It may not feel appropriate to the present situation, but it’s real that you feel it, and it likely makes sense in the light of your past. When you’ve allowed it, it might help to put your hand on your heart, gently, and say to yourself – either aloud or in your mind – whatever it is you need to hear; ‘it’s not your fault’, ‘you’re safe now, even if you don’t feel it’, ‘I love you’. (Try and come from a gentle, loving place, or imagine a dependable other – real or imagined – saying it to you with great, real compassion.)
Let yourself off the hook if you weren’t able to respond in the moment as you would have wished; being triggered can make it really hard. Your body kicks into a trauma/survival response that is beyond your conscious control (fight / flight / freeze), plus the shame you’re feeling probably was part of the original trauma anyway.
*Write about it / talk it through with a safe friend or therapist. If you’re writing about it, see if you can call to mind a compassionate other and let yourself open to their compassion and understanding. (Even if you feel nothing, or feel sad, or angry, that’s fine; breathe, sit with it, allow it to flow through you. What’s important is that you are allowing yourself to be held in your hurt.)
Imagine how you might successfully respond to being triggered, then let it go. Just imagining yourself navigating it well can begin to strengthen different neural pathways, as the brain doesn’t really differentiate between internal and external experiences. This will give you a better chance at dealing with it differently next time.
*A word about safety; with trauma, sometimes it is far more appropriate to distract and comfort rather than engage with the trauma head on. So if you find yourself getting too dysregulated or overwhelmed when trying to unpick it, drop it and find a way to soothe yourself. Call a (safe) friend, watch or read something comforting, imagine yourself held in a gentle, healing light or by a gentle, healing other – imagined or real. Investigate and experiment with what makes you feel comforted, and under what circumstances.
If you find yourself consistently being triggered and aren’t able to navigate it yourself, therapy can be a useful tool.
Other ways to help yourself heal
Knowledge is power
Read about emotional abuse, how it happens, what it looks like. If you know what is happening, you can at least begin to unpick it. There are lots of amazing resources out there; books, articles, podcasts, internet forums.
When we are in an abusive relationship, their perspective tends to dominate; it is a process similar to that seen in cults, for example. You usually have access to limited information, so as well as researching abuse, you could start talking to safe friends, or a therapist, or a helpline, or an internet support group about what is happening in your relationship. Try and allow yourself to consider these other perspectives, and see if you can figure out what you think too (if you don’t already know).
Give the responsibility for the abuse back
You can give the abuser back the responsibilty for their actions, and you can understand your reactions (at least in part) as a response to living in a confusing, frightening and sometimes dangerous situation.
Humans are wired to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli; there’s nothing wrong with you for responding however you did; whether that was to fight back, to argue, to use emotionally abusive tactics yourself, to dissociate, or however else you protected your vulnerable spot.
This also means that you can look for where your choices are; what is actually in your power to do and change.
Try and access some self-compassion
Watch how you talk to yourself; would you talk to a friend like that? How can you understand your feelings and actions in a gentle, non-blaming, non-shaming way?
Sharing with a safe other can really help. If you are feeling particularly ashamed or churned up, therapy can be really useful as a way of gaining insight into yourself, your responses and your actions. The increased understanding of yourself often aids self-acceptance, if you can allow yourself to take it in.
Set boundaries / take appropriate responsibility for yourself
People who have been bullied, shamed or coerced in abusive relationships often really struggle to stand up for themselves; they either go into fight or people please mode. So you might want to work on becoming more assertive and less passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive. (These are all responses to not being able to state your wishes, feelings, thoughts and needs openly and having to hide or fight for these things.)
If you are still in your abusive relationship, do be thoughtful about setting boundaries in this relationship. Often abusers will escalate their abusive behaviour in order to regain control. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make changes if you want to, more that you might want to make sure you are prepared for a difficult road if you do, and get enough internal and external resources to support you.
Note: 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.
I put this at the end, not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important part of your journey. Treat yourself as valuable, use your time wisely or watch terrible TV if that’s what you need. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good, invest in relationships that make you feel good, take care of yourself in relationships that don’t. Follow your dreams, pay your bills, take care of your responsibilities or let go of the responsibilities that you have picked up unnecessarily. Say yes more or say no more, be more present for your loved ones or be more present for yourself. Grieve. Laugh. Take up a hobby, let one drop. Let yourself off the hook, or hold yourself accountable (kindly).
Sometimes simply to survive is all we can do, at others we will feel we can reach the moon. Only you will know what self-care looks like in any given moment for you, and what looks like self-care for one person can be the opposite for another. Find your own way, according to the needs of the moment.
And last but not least: Build yourself a network
Everyone needs a network. As social creatures, I think that we all need to feel rooted in some way, so deepen (or find) your tribe, in person, online, a support group, and connect with them in a way that suits you. It will help you not only feel grounded, but also gives you more opportunity to ‘take in the good’ of other people’s kindness, to allow yourself to feel loved and valued and safe in relationships, and safe and held in the world.
It can be so hard to watch someone that you love being treated badly by their partner, and harder still to understand why they stay. You may find yourself frustrated, sad, angry, depressed, irritated and feeling powerless.
The truth is, they also may not understand why they stay. Or, they may be torn, caught between loving their partner, but also hating the way that they are sometimes (or frequently) treated. They may be financially dependent, or had their self-esteem chipped away little by little so they have no strength to leave, or they may truly struggle to believe that they can make it on their own.
So, my first principle is: Meet them where they are at
By this, I mean: let them be where they are. If they want to leave, support that. If they want to make it work, accept that too. You don’t have to like it, but if you can, try to support them in their decisions as best as you are able.
Abuse is essentially a relational power-grab; their partner is likely to be undermining and controlling, and so, although it may seem counterintuitive to support them in their decision to stay, you need to behave differently to the abuser.
Trust them. Allow them space to make their own decisions. Be supportive. But be careful not to step into the role of rescuer. It’s a fine line, but an important one.
My second is: Be genuine
This may seem to contradict the above point, but I mean; you don’t need to lie about your concern for them.
In fact, it may be really important for you to express your genuine misgivings about the way that they are being treated. In this way, you can help provide a barometer of what is normal and healthy behaviour in a relationship.
Do be careful not to be too vocal in your condemnation of their partner though; a good rule of thumb is to comment on their behaviour, not them as a person.
Understand that they will likely have positive feelings for their partner
It is likely that they experience both positive and negative feelings for their partner. This can be really hard to tolerate, but if you shut out their positive feelings they may find it harder to talk to you.
Be a positive, loving force
Don’t feel that you need to talk about ‘the problem’ all the time. You can be a space for them to breathe, to laugh, to be free. It might be really important for you to provide some much needed relief from what they are dealing with at home.
The relationship is about you too, allow yourself to be as free and authentically you as you can be with them.
Keep yourself safe
Depending how dangerous their partner is, you may need to think about your own safety. If you witness an act of violence, absolutely call the police.
It is also important for you to look after your emotional needs too; you are not responsible for your loved one*, so it is fine for you to engage as much or as little as you are comfortable with and if it becomes too much, it really is fine for you to back away.
Your presence may itself threaten the abuser’s control
One tactic abusers use frequently is isolating their victims from sources of support in order to better keep control. Therefore, be aware that your presence in your loved one’s life may undermine the control over the abuser, which may in turn cause them to try to undermine your relationship. This may make it tricky for your loved one to see you.
They may never leave
As much as you would like them to, sometimes people never leave their abusive relationships; or they may leave, only to return again. This can be sad and painful, and difficult to see, but it doesn’t make your presence any less important in their life. In fact, your very presence holds a door to the outside world open, and may even make it more likely that they end the relationship in time.
If they are thinking about leaving
Encourage your loved one to seek specialist advice; leaving, and the months immediately afterwards is known to be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. Seeking expert advice will help them to plan for a safer exit.
Look after yourself
Keep a focus on your life, the activities and people that bring you joy and that give your existence meaning and vitality. Tend to your affairs. You need to be steady before you can be someone else’s rock.
If you find yourself struggling to deal with your anxiety for your friend or loved one, there’s no shame in seeking support for yourself. There are plenty of professionals out there who will be able to support you, which may in turn make it easier for you to support your loved one.
* Unless they are a child or a ‘vulnerable’ adult due to learning difficulties or severe mental health problems, in which case I would recommend seeking specialist advice around safeguarding.
The terms victim and abuser are very imperfect, and I acknowledge that. You may also note that I tend to define the abuser as male and the victim as female. I use these terms for readability, but please do substitute your own language if this doesn’t fit with your preference or experience.
It is a common misunderstanding that abuse is an issue with anger, and if an abuser could gain control of their anger, they would no longer be abusive. However, this explanation misses something crucial;
Abusers have abusive expectations, and then they get angry when these expectations are not met. Abusers are coercively controlling, using anger as a means to gain and maintain power and control in their relationship.
Anger, acted out in an abusive relationship, can therefore be more usefully understood as a problem of entitlement and a need to be in control rather than a problem of anger.
Anger in this context can be displayed in two ways: passive aggressively, or aggressively. It is often easier to spot the more obvious displays of anger; violence, threats, destroying possessions and yelling, to name a few. Harder to spot are the subtler displays of anger; the criticism ‘for your own good’, the sulking, the mess left ‘accidentally on purpose’, and the kids who have not been put to bed yet, even though it’s well past your bedtime.
Aggressive or violent displays of anger
If my partner punches me because I have not done the washing up to his standards, it might seem that he lacks control of his anger (indeed, he may actively encourage me to think this), however:
His anger arises from the ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one who decides how the washing up needs to be done.
His belief (conscious or not) that he is entitled to use force / violence / coercive tactics to get me to do what he wants.
A wider relational dynamic where he believes he is entitled to be in charge, or that I need to be controlled.
That it is my responsibility to prioritise his feelings (in this instance, his wish to have a clean kitchen) at the expense of my needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, my personal autonomy, and my human right to live a life free from violence and fear).
Passive aggressive / emotionally abusive displays of anger
They may display their anger in a variety of ways: sulking, manipulation (drawing on your empathy, making you feel sorry for them), pressure, love-bombing, stalking, harrassment, or punishing you in a variety of other ways.
If we take the example of a man who doesn’t want his partner to go out (jealousy is common in abusive relationships); he might tell her he’s fine with it, but his behaviour will demonstrate otherwise: he might tell you he doesn’t like your friends, they’re not good enough for you, come back in drunk the next night to punish you because he knows you don’t like it, ‘have’ to work late on the day when you share a car so you can’t go without him being home, text you incessantly when you finally get out, and then sulk for days afterwards but deny that he is sulking.
What makes it a problem of entitlement and control is the following:
His ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one to decide where you go, who you see, and what you do
The idea that he is entitled to use underhand & coercive tactics to achieve his aims
A wider relational dynamic where he feels entitled to be in charge, and;
That it is your responsibility to look after his feelings (in this instance, jealousy) at the expense of your needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, personal freedom)
I use the example of an intimate partner relationship, but obviously abuse can take place in all sorts of other relationships too. For example, issue of entitlement can be complicated in the case of parent-to-child abuse where the parent’s ordinary responsibility for taking care of, ensuring the safety of, and disciplining their child can sometimes be hard to separate from coercive control and abusive expectations. However, at the heart of all abusive relationships is the issue of power and control; abusers try to dominate their victims using a variety of methods, including manipulation, violence, aggression, blackmail, criticism, gaslighting and (faux-)kindness. In contrast, to use a Winnicottian phrase, ‘Good enough’ parents try to take into account their children’s desires, needs and feelings and do their best to act from a place of empathy when they have to set boundaries, rather than use blame and criticism (although they certainly don’t always get it right).
Therefore, displays of anger can be both understood in the context of the wider use of abusive tactics, and also as arising out of inappropriate expectations of the other.
Some abusers really do have hair trigger tempers, and could usefully engage with anger management techniques, but this would need to be within the context of a specialist Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme and not an anger management course. (Anger Management course can actually escalate abusers’ behaviour because of their emphasis on shared responsibility for conflict.)
Controlling, but not taking responsibility for their feelings
Interestingly, where abusers so often take control within relationships, they usually also don’t take responsibility for their abuse or their anger. A common justification that an abuser will use is ‘I just saw red’ or ‘I couldn’t help it, my jealously was so strong’. Or they will blame their victim ‘you shouldn’t have gone out / talked to that man / looked up from the floor’.
This reallocates the responsibility towards the victim for managing the abuser’s feelings, while keeping the locus of control firmly in the abuser’s hands. So, they have the control but none of the responsibility, and the victim is left looking to the abuser for how she should think, act, feel and behave.
In contrast, for an abuser to have a meaningful recovery from being abusive, there must be a consistent, repeated attempt to take responsibility for one’s own actions while letting go of their control over their victim’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour. Most abusers are very good at saying sorry; meaning it, and undertaking a consistent and sustained change in their behaviour is usually another matter entirely.
If you are in an abusive relationship, as ever, focus on your safety first. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247, they should be able to point you in the direction of some suitable help if you are in an abusive relationship or struggling with the after effects.
Good luck, and take good care of yourself.
Please do note that violence does not need to be a part of an abusive relationship. Emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships can be extremely damaging in and of themselves. Seek appropriate help if you are struggling, therapy can be a useful resource, the internet can be a good source of information and enable you to find online and offline support networks.
Developed in 2003 by David Grand, Ph.D, Brainspotting (BSP) makes use of eye positions to access and process unresolved trauma and difficult emotions held in the body and in the brain. While the process cannot ever erase the troubling events and situations, it can make them less distressing and change your response to them.
Sometimes used in conjunction with musical bilateral stimulation, this can be a powerful and effective way of processing distressing memories or feelings.