Begin Setting Boundaries –
A Victim Can Never Live at Peace with an Abuser
In December I wrote about how impossible it is for an abuse victim to live at peace with her* abuser, because he will never truly repent of the sins he commits daily against her. I said that trying harder to please him was not the answer, because he will never be pleased with her actions, no matter how hard she tries.
If you or someone you love is a victim of emotional, verbal, psychological, or spiritual abuse, this blog is for you. If your abuser is physically or sexually abusing you, I recommend you call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224. If you live outside the United States, check out my Get Help page for hotline numbers in other countries.
The advice below is from my book A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom. Be aware that this advice is not meant for someone in a physically abusive relationship. Note also that an abuser who has not been physically abusive might become physically abusive when you try to stand up to him. Consider your actions carefully. Check out my blog entitled When Emotional Abuse Turns Physical. How Can a Victim Prepare?
Help from the Bible
The bible clearly outlines how to deal with a brother or sister who sins against you in Matthew 18:15 – 17:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
In these verses, Jesus lists three steps for dealing with a brother or sister who habitually sins against you, (which is a good description of an abuser). In the first step, we are told to go and point out their fault to them, one on one. Most likely, you have tried to point out your abuser’s fault to him many times, but this did not change his behavior. There is a good chance nothing will change his behavior, but if you want to attempt to save this relationship, you may want to try to follow the steps Jesus outlines in Matthew 18. Words alone will probably have little impact on him. You will need to take action.
Boundaries – A Line Drawn in the Sand
A great resource for standing up to abuse is the book Boundaries, When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Christian psychologists.[i] They explain how relational boundaries show where I end and someone else begins, just as the boundary lines in my yard show where my property ends and my neighbor’s yard begins. I am only responsible to mow, fertilize, and water the grass on my property, not that of my neighbor’s.
Boundaries rely on the law of sowing and reaping, Galatians 6:7 says:
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
Unfortunately, in an abusive relationship, the abuser usually does not reap what he sows. For example, my husband used to yell at me often for no good reason. Because I feared him, I went out of my way to behave more lovingly toward him. In this case, his evil (yelling) produced good things (more loving) for him. This is not how the natural world works. In the natural world, if a farmer plants poor seed, he receives a poor crop.
The way to begin using the law of reaping and sowing in an abusive relationship is to allow the abuser to receive the natural consequences of his behavior. For example, you could tell your abuser if he continues berating you, you will go into another room until he can discuss a problem rationally. Or, you could say, “If you start yelling at me again, I will go to the Wilson’s house to spend the night.” In this way, you would be letting your out-of-control partner suffer the consequences of his actions. This move is not manipulative, though he would probably accuse you of trying to manipulate him. Rather, this response is simply an example of limiting how you allow yourself to be treated. The natural consequences are then falling on the shoulders of the responsible party.
Before I learned about boundaries, I might have said something like, “You’ve just got to stop yelling. It’s ruining our family. Please listen. You’re wrecking our lives.” After I learned about boundaries, I might say, “You may choose to not deal with your behavior if you want, but I will not continue to expose myself and the children to this chaos. The next time you begin raging, we will go to the Wilsons’ for the night, and we will tell them why we are there. Your behavior is your choice. What I will put up with is mine.”[ii]
As this example shows, a boundary always deals with you, not with the other person. You cannot demand your abuser do something, even respect your boundaries. You are setting boundaries to say what you will do or will not do. Only these kinds of boundaries are enforceable, for you only have control over yourself. Do not confuse boundaries with a way to control your abuser. It is the opposite. It is giving up control, and beginning to love. You are giving up trying to control your abuser, and allowing him to take responsibility for his own behavior.
Beginning to set boundaries with an abuser can be difficult and frightening. The fear of abandonment keeps many people from setting boundaries, even with “easy” people. For this reason, establishing a support system of people who will encourage boundary setting in your relationship is very important. Do not set boundaries alone. You have not set boundaries because you are afraid; the only way out is through support. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Boundaries are like muscles. They need to be built up in a safe environment and allowed to grow. If you try to shoulder too much weight too quickly, your muscles may tear or be pulled. Get help. This is where friends, mentors, and counselors can help you be strong, and support you while you are changing your patterns of relating to your abuser; a very difficult task.
One thing I learned from my study of Boundaries is this: The hard part for me (and many women) in saying “no” to someone is living with their reaction. We are so used to being people pleasers that we don’t like when someone is mad at us. Therefore, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to “fix it” for the other person, when this is something they need to fix themselves. We need to hold onto our “no,” and let them deal with their problem accepting it.[iii] Setting boundaries is my responsibility. How they react, is theirs. If someone truly loves me, they will want to behave better and work to live within my new boundaries. Most likely, an abuser will not accept my new boundaries.
If you become frightened by your abuser at any point when trying to set boundaries with him, Cloud and Townsend encourage you to remove yourself to get away from danger, and put limits on evil. They say:
“The Bible urges us to separate from those who continue to hurt us and to create a safe place for ourselves. Removing yourself from the situation will also cause the one who is left behind to experience a loss of fellowship that may lead to changed behavior. When a relationship is abusive, many times the only way to finally show the other person that your boundaries are real is to create space until they are ready to deal with the problem.”[iv]
The Bible supports the idea of limiting togetherness for the sake of “binding evil.” Psalm 141:4, 9–10 says:
Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil,
to take part in wicked deeds
with men who are evildoers;
let me not eat of their delicacies.
Keep me from the snares they have laid for me,
from the traps set by evildoers.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while I pass by in safety.
And Psalm 37:27 says:
Turn from evil and do good;
then you will dwell in the land forever.
Note that Boundaries is not written specifically for abuse victims. If you are afraid your partner will react badly, check out my blogs on what to do if you feel you are in danger. Next week I will give examples on how to stand up to specific types of non-physical abuse.
Living in an abusive relationship does not honor you, and these relationships do not heal themselves on their own. I pray you will give abuse victims your wisdom and discernment to know whether they should begin standing up to the non-physical abuse they are suffering. If they do, Lord, give them your courage, peace and protection. Amen.
* In this blog, I use the word “she” to identify the victim of abuse, and “he” the abuser. The same principles apply if the abuser is a woman and the victim a man, or if the victim and the abuser are the same gender.
[i] Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries, When to Say Yes When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 1992), 29, 33.
[ii]Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries, 157.
[iii]Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries, 242, 257.
[iv]Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries, 35-36.