Set Boundaries In Abusive Relationships to Protect Yourself

February 27, 2011 Kellie Jo Holly

Set boudaries in abusive relationships to regain clarity. Here's how to set boundaries and see things as they are--not how the abuser presents them to be.

Setting boundaries in abusive relationships lets the abuse victim see how rampant the abuse has become. When it becomes clear that the abuser disrespects your boundaries--repeatedly--the relationship becomes more tiresome and the abuse more obvious, increasing the chance that you will find a way to leave. A personal boundary is a rule that you say cannot be broken without consequence. Consequences for breaking your personal boundaries are not punishments for the person breaking them. The consequence involves you doing something good for yourself right away.

Boundaries for Any Abusive Relationship

Some personal boundaries are standards that you set for yourself for all relationships from here forward. For example, these are some of the boundaries I set for myself for the rest of my life:

No name-calling directly or indirectly where it can be overheard by me or other people.

No covert abuse implying I am is less valuable than another because I hold a different opinion.

No word games, no rephrasing of my words to change their meaning, no more technicalities or meaning-splitting (i.e. “You didn’t say not to do that on the list!”).

No attempts to control through tone or word.

No abuse disguised as a joke.

The consequence of someone violating that boundary is as follows:

If someone violates this personal boundary and I feel safe saying something to them, I will say, "I feel threatened/disrespected by your words and tone. I am going to leave your presence to collect myself. Maybe we can spend time together later, but I'm not sure when."

If someone verbally abuses me and I feel unsafe in saying something, I will only act on the consequence, not explain it. I will leave the area for an extended period until I feel safe to return (if it is safe to return!).

Leave "You are" and "You Make Me" Out of It

Notice that the consequence for abuse does not include statements like "You are_______! You make me feel______!"

  • Saying "You are...!" labels and defines the person, and we abuse victims KNOW how unfair and miserable it is to be labeled - so don't do it to someone else, no matter how nasty they are.
  • Saying "You make me feel..." gives my power to the person hurting me. If I fall into the trap of believing that someone else can stir me up, then I let go of all responsibility for my own feelings. I allow the abuse to define me, and that is a slippery slope leading to all sorts of nasty internal consequences including low self-respect.

Boundaries Meant for a Specific Person

There is another way to write a functional boundary in which you have a specific person and their specific abuses in mind. Here's a second example of a boundary:

When you narrow your eyes and interrupt me, I feel unheard and disconnected from the conversation. I want you to acknowledge my point of view.

And the consequence:

Because I can't control what you do or say, I will leave your presence and the conversation temporarily until a later point in time when we can try to communicate again.

I Felt Guilty for Setting Boundaries for My Abuser

The first time I wrote out a specific boundary for my abuser, I felt guilty. I felt as if protecting myself was a crime against him. The idea that I should be and do just as he wanted was the source of that guilt. But after writing a few boundaries, I noticed that the guilt disappeared. While defining the things he did and said, I realized that his actions were wrong. He should feel bad for the way he behaved and I had every right to protect myself from his derogatory words and actions.

Writing the boundaries helped me to recognize the abuse when it started. By defining what I didn't like, by putting it into words on paper, I learned to circumvent the abuse from the beginning instead of sticking around until I was a crying heaving mass of jelly.

Writing my own boundaries gave me a sense of personal strength and a sense of responsibility to myself to curtail the negativity I had once so willingly accepted. I stopped seeing myself as a victim and started seeing myself as an agent of change, both for myself and my relationship.

When I began enforcing my boundaries, the abuse increased. My abuser was like a little child being denied his comfort blanket. He didn't take to my new reactions well. We are divorcing because I began to act in ways that were good for me. As much as I didn't want this divorce, I also would not go back to that situation ever again.

Things My Boundaries for Abusive Relationships Did and Didn't Do

The outcome for your relationship may be different, but I suspect the feelings you have after writing your boundaries will be similar to mine. Writing boundaries helped me to realize several things, some of which did not come to fruition, such as

  • I thought I could improve the relationship now that I knew how to behave in a healthy way (alas, it does take two to tango, and he didn't want to behave differently).
  • I thought that my ex would change his ways once the responsibility for his actions and words fell back onto his shoulders (he only became angry that I didn't take responsibility for them anymore).

But, at least two important feelings helped me shed my victim mentality:

  • The disgust that the abusive behaviors occurred in what was supposed to be a love relationship.
  • The greater sense of empowerment I developed after remembering I don't have to feel guilty for being good to my mental health.

For help writing your first boundaries, visit Verbal Abuse Journals/How to Set Personal Boundaries.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2011, February 27). Set Boundaries In Abusive Relationships to Protect Yourself, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

July, 10 2017 at 9:25 am

I was the daughter of a disfunctional family. My father was abusive and violent emotionally and physically. When I was young I was sexually molested and to my surprise, I learned about how awful that was when I was in my 30s. Needless to say, I was destined to be in disfuctional relationships. I married someone who was not physically abusive but an absent person. I never thought he was so damaging in my life. He didn't value his wife. I had then a relationship with a man who was so abusive verbally. I never experienced that before. I tried to please him. I became nude of my own opinions and own being because I wanted to make him happy. Just as much as I wanted him to make me happy. It was awful and it took a long time to heal. I still don't know if I overcame all of that. It was as I had a stroke and needed to be retrained in everything about relationships and social interactions. I was afraid of making mistakes! During my recovery I met another man who was verbally abusive too. This time I feel stronger, I have more pride in myself and having gone through the descriptions of this article word by word, I am very happy to say that although not perfect I am a great human being just any of the other women who join this chat. Be strong, believe in yourself and your capacity. That is what I repeat to myself everyday.

Louise Joost
July, 4 2016 at 2:22 pm

I have been living in an emotionally abusive relationship for 41 years. My father was verbally abusive to my mother and I grew up learning how to survive with a monster as a husband. I worked, got the friendships, and the social connections. Last week was the last straw. I am an RN who has not been able to work since 2005 due to Lupus/Asthma. Although my husband was shouldering the bulk of the income, I was always ready to contribute as much money as needed from my inheritance and I have plenty to contribute. 3 years ago I had a complex hysterectomy which with Lupus left me fragile and ill for 8 weeks. My husband told me THEN that he didn't love me anymore because I was sick all the time! Cute, huh? So for the last three years I have bent over backwards to please him. Starting last April I began a grueling series of back surgeries that had me in so much pain I was vomiting all the time. this went on for 3 months with people helping out every day at home. My recovery required absolute rest with no stress. This made him so unhappy that I was getting help and healing that he pulled the absolute cruelty card out: I don't love you because you are sick all the time" He is a monster! He thought I couldn't live without him because I'm fragile and dependent on him. He is moving out tomorrow. He couldn't have me happy under any circumstances. Wish I never married him.

June, 15 2016 at 3:48 pm

I have been in two ... yes two abusive, narcsisstic relationships. One married ... one dating. I have read and researched everything I could on verbal and emotional abuse. It is so insidious. I could write book after book of all that transpired. The strongest asset you have is to recognize abuse and set boundaries. No doubt it is hard to set boundaries especially at the beginning of a relationship. We are wanting to see and seek positives and there is a definite yearning that we want to be loved and accepted. We then ignore the bad and unacceptable behavior of someone else. We allow that abuse when we are not strong enough to set boundaries. I am still struggling with the end of my 3 year dating experience with a narcissitic, verbal abusive man. Remember, please remember you are worthy of love and respect and the minute a man does not give you that.... please be strong enough to say....No to the relationship . Do not give power to a man that is not worthy of the beautiful you of you. 18 years in an abusive marriage.... three years in an abusive dating relationship after marriage. know your own heart ... your soul and always believe that you deserved God's best.

April, 27 2016 at 4:06 am

I have been in an emotionally abusive marriage for 20 years. We have 4 children. It recently reached a point I can no longer take. Its affected my physical health, my childrens emotional health... basically everything...when I siggested counseling & temporary seperation...he lost it.. & said je was going to kill us all, kids included. He said he would kill, our children...:( :( He had a weapon within reach...I escaped with the children.
Now we are both in counseling ( separately) and my counselor is asking me to write out things that I need to see before I know he has changed. Or asking me what are the things he needs to do to show me he has changed? How can that possibly happen without him being in the home?.. Which he is not and is not going to be. I have a domestic violence restraining order for one year. He has shaken my trust and security to the core. He only has supervised visitation w/our children. Its been 3 months since it happened....and Im just now, barely coming out of the numb feeling.. even trying to think about the situation. How can I move forward in a healty & safe way.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Jo Holly
April, 27 2016 at 10:29 am

Always remember: your counselor is not the boss of you. You're paying him or her, and he or she is doing you a service. You have the power to redirect your counselor's assignment. Instead of writing out what you would like to see in this man who probably won't change at all, write out what you WANT in a partner. (I don't advise looking for a partner yet, but get a grip on who you would like to be with). See this page:… and scroll down to "How To Heal From Abuse A Bit Now" subheading. That will explain the exercise much better.
Your counselor may be asking you in a roundabout way to describe all he's done to you in the past. By telling him/her what changes you'd want to see, you're revealing what he's done. The exercise I suggest will do the same thing, but it won't be about you dwelling on HIM. It will be you forecasting your future.
If you've got a restraining order for a year, think about making this a permanent separation, divorce and all. You wanted a temporary separation, and now you have it. Use it.
If you haven't settled on divorce, get an attorney anyway. And for signs of change, you'll have to look for them in his public persona. Unfortunately, his public persona is part of why you fell in love with him in the first place. He'll do his best to appear to be the victim to others and the man who loves you to you. But, some signs to look for that he is changing is if he initiates doing something that would help him. Something NOT court ordered. Something he doesn't tell you he PLANS to do, but something he's been doing already (and remember, trust, but verify!).
I don't know if you two are able to text about the children or what the details of the restraining order are. My restraining order included phone, email and texting so we could deal with the children together. In short order, I told him I wouldn't accept calls - only email or text. (He used phone calls to abuse me.) Funny how that stops when you have a written record of what he says to you.
Anything that shows his "change" must be observable - you have to see it. Words don't count when it comes to him anymore. He will SAY anything. And remember, his ability to lie like a rug could get him back in your home, close to a weapon, ... you know the rest.

Kellie Jo Holly
June, 16 2015 at 5:55 pm

Nothing. You say nothing. This is a point where you ask yourself, "Can I live with this behavior or does it hurt too much?"
He is withdrawing and withholding, which is abuse. You cannot "make time" with an abusive person. It gives them time to prepare their reaction. Yours simply decides to NOT respect your time or feelings.

August, 9 2014 at 6:01 pm

when I want to talk to him he says what the f and other abusive things do I need to hear you (even after we make a time) walking out is exactly what he wants not to talk about what I feel needs to be discussed. What do I do?say?

July, 14 2014 at 2:30 pm

I can't ever simply talk to my husband. He makes faces and gestures that are very dramatic, like jutting out his neck, bulging his eyes, using his hands to wave off my replies. If I define a personal boundary, he will not stop questioning my boundary! He insults me and the boundary. For instance, I told him I would rather he spend time with his guys friends or otherwise leave me to be when I have friends over. I understand he has rights to speak to my friends, but this is not what he does. He settles himself on my guests. When I tell him my discomfort, he has all-or-nothing answers, he exaggerates my point and distorts my words: He says I am accusing him of wanting to date my friends. He says we are now one, so I take that to mean we are not to have separate time, friends or interests. He calls me tyrannical because I asked why he put an outdoor chair in the upstairs computer room (His reply was his back is hurting and that is the only chair to help). I explained we have fabric chairs folded away, to use them. He said I have no concern for his comfort. I want my individuality and boundaries. I feel I should not have ever married. I feel guilty to say but I can't wait for him to work nights. No more clanking repeating on dishes, no more bickering when I ask yet again for family not to eat food in living room, and I keep "finding" things from his mom's house that I told him to not bring here, as there is a distinct cat odor and cigarette odor on all his things from his mom's, when he smoked inside.

April, 20 2014 at 1:56 pm

Has anyone had a partner who is allowed a path to their charges being dropped, who then skirts from issue by the group to issue, learning all the language in "anger mgmt" class and "domestic abuse" class, then uses them against you? I let my partner, a person of fairly high status in the community in his job, off the hook from charges, and am 2nd guessing this all the time, as he continues the abuse and disrespectful behaviors he began the first day of his marriage to me. His parents enable him, he enables his ex wife to do it w his kids and toward me, and he enables his parents, ex wife, and children to put me down. It's cuckoo-making. Yet, when I say okay, let's do all and only respectful behaviors, okay? Of course he says okay, then hangs up on me again. And if I bring it up will say, "You're abusing me talking on and on," when it's been one question he refuses to answer, or acknowledge. Crazy-making coupled with denial. Overall crazy-making. And if I note I should just being charges and drop the program that allows them to be dropped, I am of course being, "abusive," while he disregards that program's and each counselor's recommendations toward his behavior. Who raises people like this? His parents blame me, too. I've ended up feeling like I will be cheap if I talk to the only friends he set me up with in this new state to me, his colleagues. Would it make him cringe, of course. Does that affect how he treats me, if anything it makes it worse. Making boundaries also has his accusing me of being worthless and abusive. The marriage is a delight. These people are capable of so much hurt, I wish they could blame it on brain damage. But, in my mind, it is calculated. It's been 3 years. I've ceased driving his kids, and attending his work's events, and people notice. I hold mum, though one woman I know knows the truth, and has ceased contacting me, which just isolates me further. When you are on this side, unless you have a really supportive family, it seems folks isolate you -- do others find this? Even the court situation, they seem to have dropped my side, in favor of his ruse, actually "weeping at the meetings. Oy vey. I think the group deals solely w domestic abuse, don't they get it? Every bit of research I see says they all do the same thing, but the group I'm in buys it? Where is the sanity, is what I keep wondering, is all of the world this insane? I don't think all of the world is this unkind, is it?

August, 14 2013 at 10:09 am

I was in an abusive relationship for the past one year. Worst of all it was the first year of our marriage. Although the day i left the house he threaten me of divorce but its been two months since i left the house he has not contacted me. Now he is spreading rumours about me that i left the house because i was cheating on him. I dont live in US and laws here are so different. Anyways i need some advice on how to expose an abuser.
How to deal with anger that i have for myself. Everyday i regret spending 10 months with him. I wish i could have left him on the first day of his abuse.

June, 20 2013 at 7:49 am

This link is broken for me and I really would like to learn to write these.
For help writing your first boundaries, visit Verbal Abuse Journals/How to Set Personal Boundaries.

October, 26 2012 at 8:31 am

Thank you Kellie! I have replied over at that post. :)

October, 24 2012 at 3:28 am

I have a question - when I say (for example) 'I am uncomfortable with that phrasing,' if asked why, I am fine with explaining 'That's how I feel when I hear it' = owning my feelings, not labelling them, etc. (It's a long and confusing route to this skill, isn't it!) But both my sons will then just say they're made uncomfortable by my objection; they have a right to express themselves in this 'normal' way and it's a generational difference, or me being too fussy, or similar (of course these counter-arguments are learnt from Dad) ... then they do it more, rather than less. I can't keep walking away from meals and other conversations with my own sons! So usually I reason with them a while and then give up, allow the subject to be changed, and that looks as if I'm sulking or defeated (since their reading of the conversation is in winner/loser terms). 'Defeated' confirms that I was wrong in the first place.
Besides never 'winning', I hate seeing them grow up without the live-and-let-live values of mutual respect that I have always taught them. I know some of it is just to wind Mum up but I also know they, especially the older one, really can't see what's better about 'OK, if you dislike that then we won't do it.' :( These are my children, the adults they become are largely my job! (Not 100%, I know.) Always, always, I'd say things like, 'I agree it isn't important but if the owner wants it not touched, then we won't touch it,' or 'Dad wanting you to be quiet is reason enough, if someone feels the need then we all join in doing it...' and applied this to respecting my own wishes as much as anyone else's - but they have picked up the opposite values. (They are 12, still just a bit of 'formative' time remains for him, and 19, not really any years left.)
(It hurts more with the younger one, who was born compassionate and is a natural good listener, whereas the older one takes after his father physically and i suspect has the Number-One values built-in as well.)
What do you suggest when someone just blankly refuses to acknowledge you have any kind of point at all, let alone to stop the abusive forms of speech? Not only within the family, but at work we can't always just walk out; some times of day I am too weak to get up and leave (I have chronic health problems); there must be other situations. How should we reply to 'You're mistaken, that's just your feeling, we're not wrong to talk like this, it does no harm'?

August, 21 2012 at 12:25 am

Drawing boundaries is fine, but what happens if the abuse is a one liner quickly delivered and left hanging, so that no further discussion can be entered into? Stopping the conversation is of no use, then, because the conversation had already stopped when the one liner had been uttered.
I find this is the typical abuse that I receive from acquaintances, mainly, not just my partner

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
August, 22 2012 at 9:48 am

If you do not want to ignore the comment, you can say, "Would you repeat that?" If they repeat it, you can say, "That's what I thought you said. I do not like it when you (what did they do? insinuate, insult, ...?). Please do not do that again."
If they will not repeat it, then just let it go. It's enough that they know you heard them and will not hesitate to call them on it.
Sometimes when we hear these one-liners, we're shocked into silence. If you find this happening, you can always go to the perpetrator and say, "I don't like it when you call me out like that in front of everyone. If you don't stop insulting me, then I will ... (what are you willing to do?)." Then walk out.

March, 14 2011 at 5:30 am

sorry, pressed wrong button and submitted comment without finishing what I wanted to say, and what I want to say is...
don't stop in the relationship, whatever you do, get out, whether you have kids or not, in particular if you have just got married.
My story is simple really. My father abused my mother, and on occasions, his children, for sure, we were so small we couldn't get out of the situation, no child line then, and my mother had no money because my father was a gambler of the worst kind and drank everyday, out at the pub with his friends in the evening. My mother worked hard, had much tragedy, engless children, lots of spare time to sit and think when dad went away for a couple of years, weekends not included because of an accident at the local mine, and spent his disability money on gambling and well that's a long long story. Anyhow, I became determind, I would grow up to be somebody, to make the best of my talents, to always love my father, and well perhaps you can understand that dad had very severe survival syndrome through being nearly drowned during the war (3 times actually), and was a code breaker over in Alexandria as well, so we could really, just about.... only just when I grew up an started to think, see why he was so volatile. And anyhow, just goes to show how you do not know how wrong you can be, because should my mother have split our family, we could have grown up apart and I do truly love my siblings, even though for some awesomely volatile reason, they have alll turned against me, and as I was saying. I became determined to live a full life, have a good marriage if at all possible, raise a family, always care for others, meaning putting the kids and ol husband first, whilst at the same time achieving much through learning and my career, and the strange thing was.
Well, as an when.... when you are young you are sweetness utself, and pretty as a picture and every man's fantacy, according to the husband. And he treats you like s*** to make sure you have no confidence, and so the fight is on, so that no other man could ever have you, you have those children and so you put those first and put your lies on the back burner, and start to wish the superstar goddess he really things you are would just pack up work and live for the children.... you get where I am coming from so far?
So you get to te menopause and during the marriage he has no belief in his capabilities, so leaves to sort out all situations, includng financial, so you aren't half the one to rule the roost and run the family home, and sort out bills etc. and then it happens you see. You put your head down because the man you once loved so very much has been an abuser, so far so good you think because no one could ever put you through that insane childrenhood that you have had, and yes the husband you married and who promised to cherish you, has turned into that physical and mental abuser, through lots of upset, lots of cares, lots of stress through work, stars as a man who all love outside the home and is absolutely adored through his workplace, and you are left holding the cradle. So watch out, is what I say, fior you never know who you are going to get and those four walls hide many secrets, and when the house is empty because the children have grown up and gone, and love their father, because you as the mother protected them from all harm, upsets, rows and cares, as far as you were able that is, and then you know the story of the three little pigs. Well I huffed and I puffed and I could not blow my house down, for now I am considered the big bad wolf for wanting change after all these years and that house is made of brick, and you built it fair and square together with your own fair hands and your sweat and your tears, and your finance, and what he gets that vile abuser of your physiucal, mental, and breakdown of your nervous system, is much pleasure for all he has to do is ask you if you are suicidal yet, after several ears of screwballing your brains, and using your body as a sat off potatoes andor saying saving the best til last, he has his needs you know, is a doctor locking you up i a psychiatric unit, with an eternity of mind numbing tablets which he encourages you, yes, your husband, and the doctor as well, to take for the rest of your life, so that you can do the eternal round of the psychiatric hospital, and he can have that house you tried to huff and puff and blow down because.... the house is empty now and you want your fair share.
And the moral of the story is, look after number one, don't ever forget to tape up your mouth, don't go to the doctors through 'not being ableto cope' don't wait for your kids to grow up, just run and tape up their mouths about their awesomely volatile father because you know what, to do the latter and to do the former is just always the wrong thing to do, becaue if you leave that nest and take those kids the children forget why you separated them from their awesomely volatile father and if you stay in that awful situation, they forget how awful it was anyhow because they themselves. Forget anyhow because you have brought them up to respect an elder, and mother was always the one to do the discipline and father was the one who....
drank too much and perhaps even gambled. And now after nearly 60 years of abuse, because I can't remeber before the age of 6 months orr so, I am leaving and he has no idea how to correct his behaviour because, you see, he does no believe he has ever committed those crimes against me. For sure you see, he was never taught right from wrong, his father was always away from work, he was totally adored by rather a lot of women, he never grew up to be a top talented man, the man who all thought he was, because he has had no confidence in hisself and for sure I redressed that situation, by giving him the bull off, and what I mean is. Don't forzet to put your man first if he is a good man, find out all about his needs before you set out along the pathways of life, whether short or long, always answer your instincts with a qestion, never dismiss your inner doubts, don't suppose there is anyone there now, who wants menow, because thatpretty face is awesome lined now, through lots of cares, my body is far too large for that man who I have spoken to above, my face does not fit through my family for some soulful reason, for they all adore John, and my sons well..... they are bought you see, even to this day. The person who holds the purse....wins

Kellie Holly
March, 5 2011 at 6:14 am

You are not inferior and you are definitely not evil, Kelly. This is one of those times where you can say, "This problem is HIS; I'll let HIM own it." Differing views and opinions can cause a relationship to flourish when the relationship is two-sided. In a one-sided (it's my way or the highway!) abusive relationship, differing views causes collapse at best.

March, 1 2011 at 3:26 am

Your blog has been SO helpful to me. I am working with a therapist and boundaries right now. What I didn't realize is that implying that I am less of a person because of different values and beliefs is abuse as well. I have spent years being told that because I have different beliefs, I am inferior and evil.

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