Setting boundaries to create safety: Healing an emotionally abusive relationshipWritten by Kari Trent Stageberg
What's inside this article
Boundaries are important in any relationship – they’re essential to self-respect and others-respect. They create predictability and relational safety. Boundaries mark the emotional and physical lines by which a relationship is governed.
Healthy boundaries allow for genuine care and love to thrive and for two people to live as both individuals and a harmonious unit. They allow genuine and godly love to thrive. But if abuse is present, boundaries are often absent, unclear or disrespected. Learning how to set boundaries and uphold them in the face of abuse is critical – and at times, life-saving.
What is safety?
Two major types of safety in relationships are physical safety and emotional safety. Physical safety is present in a relationship when no physical threats or harm exist. Emotional safety is present when a couple can trust each other and be vulnerable without fear.
Physical safety is violated when a spouse attempts to exert control through behaviours that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. Applying new boundaries in a physically abusive relationship must be done with extra intentionality, support and a safety plan. Without these, there can be dangerous implications. If physical abuse is involved in your situation, don’t simply start with announcing new boundaries on your own. Instead, skip down to “What do I do next?” in this article to form an action plan and get to place of safety right away.
Creating boundaries which allow for safety is the goal – and a marriage that is safe can begin to grow from there. Safety leads to openness which can then lead to intimacy. Safety is the first building block for an improved marriage.
The importance of setting boundaries to create safety
Every healthy relationship needs boundaries. In a safe environment, setting boundaries can show you if your spouse is willing to change or not. However, adding them to an abusive relationship can be challenging and may also increase or escalate the number of abusive incidences.
Safety means that you are physically and emotionally safe. Opinions, ideas, feelings, wants and desires are regarded and, at the very least, respectfully heard.
Your spouse may try to use mind games that turn boundaries against you or begin to set their own harmful boundaries to retaliate. If this happens, stop and reach out to a counsellor for help and support or find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada at EndingViolenceCanada.org.
Every person in a relationship deserves to be treated with respect. Often, a place to start when setting boundaries is identifying an area where you are continually being disrespected, such as name-calling or mockery.
In a healthy relationship, you would feel free to simply tell the person how you feel and plan to do so at a time that is best for the two of you to pause and share your hearts. However, when emotional abuse is involved, calling out behaviour when it happens and directly telling the perpetrating spouse to stop is actually more effective.
Sadly, only telling the other person how you feel can also give them another way to manipulate or hurt you. While it may seem hard to accept, a person who is unrepentant of their abuse is not going to change their behaviour based on how you feel. If they did, they would have likely stopped the abuse the first few times you told them how much their actions hurt your feelings. Asking them to stop also involves your leaving the room or situation temporarily. This is the beginning of enacting a healthy boundary. Good and enforceable boundaries are those which do not necessarily require the other person’s participation for you to enact them.
The abusing spouse may not change or stop when you directly tell them to, but they’re more likely to listen if you respectfully call out the unwanted behaviour consistently after it happens and enact the self-initiated actions and self-care that you have determined are necessary for your well-being. These are not disloyal to your relationship – they’re the actions that allow you to stay in the relationship with hopes of making it healthier through this process.
Steps to setting a boundary:
- Communicate clearly and calmly that you would like your spouse to stop their behaviour.
- Try to leave the room and find a space away from your spouse if they don’t stop emotionally hurting you.
- Do steps one and two consistently.
- Discontinue this particular approach if it becomes unsafe and skip below to “What do I do next?”
For example, let’s say your spouse calls you nasty names.
- Tell them clearly and calmly to stop. You could say something like, “Stop calling me names.” This is clear, direct and keeps the emotional impact low. The less emotion you show, the better.
- Try to leave the room or find space away from your spouse if they don’t stop. Disengaging shows them you’re not going to tolerate their behaviour. It shows a clear boundary and tells them that if they choose to call you a name again, they can’t have a conversation with you.
- Call out bad behaviour every time it occurs. Vocalizing concerns only occasionally can send the message that you’re not serious about the boundary. Sadly, this can give the manipulative spouse more reasons to continue when you tell them to stop. If you’re planning on setting a boundary, be committed to repeating steps one and two (as long as it’s safe) consistently.
- Stop if the situation becomes unsafe. In healthy relationships, new boundaries can be mildly uncomfortable. But in abusive relationships, they can be scary or even outright dangerous – especially if your abusive spouse doesn’t know what to do with this new reality, your newfound courage or appropriate request for respect. Be wise, listen to the Lord (and your gut) and stay safe. Pressing a point to prove your resolve in a highly heated moment may actually compromise your safety. Call a helpline or a counsellor for more help and support.
If it’s safe to try establishing boundaries, remember to be clear and direct, and do your best to keep your emotions out of the conversation. Remove yourself from the place where your spouse is if the behaviour continues. Do this consistently – and implement your safety plan if it becomes unsafe.
What if I’ve tried setting boundaries and they don’t work?
Proverbs 9:8 says, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.”
The last part of the verse shows that if your spouse is relationally healthy, they will most likely listen when you tell them to stop a hurtful behaviour and will embrace healthy boundaries. They should begin to make behavioural changes, such as being willing to talk with a counsellor and stop harming you emotionally. Your relationship can grow closer if your spouse has a heart to change.
However, the other side of the Bible verse is true for abusive spouses. They may react by blaming you or finding new, vindictive ways to harm you.
Setting boundaries is extremely important, but be aware that there’s a chance that change won’t happen. If that’s the case, know that the perpetrating spouse’s unwillingness to find help or change is not your fault. Some people can’t receive healthy correction. They have a heart issue they need to resolve – something you can’t change for them. However, that doesn’t mean you’re out of options.
What do I do next?
If physical abuse is in your relationship or setting boundaries for emotional abuse isn’t working, coming up with a plan is important.
The steps below aren’t for long-term decisions. They won’t necessarily show you what your relationship will look like in the future.
They’re designed to help you get to a place of physical and emotional safety so that you can figure out the next best steps for you and your family – with the help of a counsellor or other domestic violence professional.
Here are the steps:
Pray for God to give you wisdom and courage about the next steps. God loves you and sees you. And I’m praying that you will feel his love, pleasure and desire for you. I’m also praying that you will see the situation clearly and have the courage to take the next steps for your health and safety.
Many times, Christian people stay stuck in inaction because they think taking action requires divorce and have rationalized that “God hates divorce.” While God does hate divorce, this is not the whole picture of what God hates. He hates the violent situations that accompany divorce. The often partially-quoted verse (“God hates divorce” in Malachi 2:16) also indicates that he hates a spouse covering themselves with wrong and violence and says to “keep watch” so no one “deals treacherously” with their spouse. He hates family violence too! I have no doubt that he wants us to take action to stop it – completely stop it, and then seek potentially marriage-redeeming paths.
Make the call
Don’t downplay the importance of your physical or emotional safety. I know how hard it can be to truly understand that you’re experiencing abuse or to realize that despite your best efforts, your spouse is choosing to continue to harm you emotionally or physically. I was in an abusive relationship, and God provided options for me to get help, but I had to take them. Many abusive spouses are capable of unpredictable actions, and that’s why it’s important to not do this alone. You have options for help. I know how much courage it takes to pick up the phone, text a friend or tell the truth about what’s really happening – but it’s worth it. I’m praying for you today that you choose to do the same. Get to a safe place and make the call.
Get help from a professional
While the support of friends and family is important, make sure you receive help from someone who’s trained to help with domestic violence. Start with the helpline or a trusted counsellor in your area, preferably a Christian, who shares and respects your values. You need someone who can help walk you through what to do next in a way that will help you stay safe. Your friends and family can provide emotional support, but a counsellor can help you think clearly and navigate which actions to take and which to avoid.
Create a safety plan
You should make a safety plan so if you or someone you love is in physical danger, you have a way out. A safety plan often includes:
- A safe place to stay. Visit EndingViolenceCanada.org to find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada. Sometimes friends or parents are safe; other times you may be putting them at risk. Get guidance to determine where to find refuge.
- Money for temporary needs. Try to set aside some funds in a separate account that your spouse cannot access during this time. But don’t risk your safety to attain it.
- A plausible reason to leave the house with the kids. If the abusive person restricts your desire to leave, having a backup plan for next steps is important as well.
Put your plan into action
After you’ve created a safety plan, act on it as soon as you’re able. Sooner is better than later. Follow through with your plan for intentional safety, remembering why you made it in the first place.
I hope and pray that you will never need to use a safety plan, but creating one could save your life. Sticking to this boundary can literally rescue you, your child or even your spouse.
I know how terrifying, overwhelming and even hard to believe all of this is. I also know how hard it is to get to a place where you’re ready to reach out for help.
Please know that you are not stuck. There is hope and you’re not alone. But it all starts with making that call – for you, for your kids and for the abundant future God has for you.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Kari Trent Stageberg is a public speaker and the CEO of StrongFamilies, an organization founded by her father, best-selling author Dr. John Trent, which seeks to help people more fully love God, others, and themselves. She co-hosts the StrongFamilies podcast and has co-authored a book with her dad and Gary Smalley titled The Blessing: Giving the Gift of Unconditional Love & Acceptance. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Joey. Learn more about Kari by visiting her blog, MyBelovedDaughter.org.
© 2020 Kari Trent-Stageberg. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.
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