Boundary Setting In Relationships of Abuse

             There are occasions when meek, emotionally-controlled, wounded women come to Titus 2 who have been subjected to abuse in one or more forms- emotional, physical, financial, sexual, psychological, spiritual, or relational. They often have learned to be “people pleasers” at the expense of their own personhood. They are generally incapacitated, too, by anxiety and fear. Through prayer, Bible study, classes, counseling, and mentoring they discover their identity and value in Christ, learn how to set boundaries and say “no” appropriately, confront their fears, and stand up for themselves. I have witnessed several young ladies’ tentative steps in self-actualization, emerging differentiation and autonomy, practicing healthy boundaries, conquering co-dependency, and voicing their needs and desires with the confidence and perseverance necessary to actually go after those things. Each small victory is a celebration. They discover the strength and freedom they have in Christ and begin to walk confidently in their faith. A physical change sometimes occurs in them that is astonishing. It is certainly recognizable to their family and friends. They go from reluctance to make eye contact to being able to discern truth and contend with lies. They become equipped to train and discipline their children with consistency and determination. It’s a bit like seeing the joy and boldness observed in the disciples after the Resurrection in these emerging disciples of Christ today.

            The only person who is likely to object to a woman maturing in such a way as this is one whose attempts to control or subjugate her will become impotent or who feels his own personal power is threatened by her emerging autonomy and power. Those who know their own value in Christ, who love her and want her to be the person God created her to be will cheer the emerging “new creature in Christ” and will help facilitate her becoming all that she can!

            “What is relational abuse?” When a partner sets out to isolate an individual by denying one access to family or friends, limiting phone or personal contact, refusing to allow family members or friends who are safe and supportive to be alone with the controlled partner, denying one the right to work outside the home, speaking on her behalf instead of allowing her to make her own choices, etc.  Some mistake such jealous control for “love.” It is the furthest thing from love. It is control, slavery, abuse, and selfishness. It can also be very hard to escape.   Most who are caught in such relationships hold out hope that somehow the abuser will change.  The only direction of change I’ve ever observed without some kind of intervention is that, with time it is likely to get worse and progress to other forms of abuse – financial, emotional, spiritual, and eventually the possibility of physical abuse.

            There is only one way that I know to address the problem, assuming one does not simply run, react in violence, or completely shut down and acquiesce to the abuse.  That is for the abused person to take action…..not a pastor, not a counselor, not a friend, not a child, not some other person or institution…… the abused person.  The only way that can be successfully negotiated without reciprocal abuse or violence is to begin to set small non-threatening boundaries to test the willingness and ability of the abuser to change before giving up on the relationship.  With that it is necessary to have prayer support, good counsel on taking small steps, education and equipping for dealing with potential consequences, supportive community to encourage and sustain one through the effort, and a plan in place for protection for oneself and children in the face of anger that can arise when boundaries are set with the abuser.  Part of the planning for potential consequences is recognizing and preparing for the  possibility that the abuser will not tolerate any effort to have boundaries set as the abused person begins efforts to assert her voice and will and he may simply walk away.   I’ve observed efforts by others to intervene on behalf of the abused person, but that generally ends any efforts at self-actualization by the abused person who continues to live as a hapless victim.  It preempts efforts at reconciliation and may lead to escalation and reciprocal violence not only against the partner, but against those supporting the abused person, as well. 

            I’ve observed and counseled quite a few women in abusive situations on boundary issues.  Some implemented small test boundaries, made progress and eventually negotiated peaceful co-existence in their relationships.  Some abusers will change if the relationships with the partner and children or others involved in the family system are important enough to them or if the adverse consequences to them are painful enough financially, socially, legally or otherwise. 

            In one case, a woman was observed for several years in regular periods of crisis, asking for prayers, usually “unspoken” or non-specific.  She confided in several people but again in more or less vague, non-specific ways.  Eventually, she found someone who prodded her enough and whom she trusted enough to tell the “secrets” to.  In the marriage there was infidelity, financial, emotional, spiritual and psychological abuse, pornography addiction, and coercion to engage in conduct that violated the woman’s personhood and her Christian principles.  There was not any acknowledged physical violence. The person in whom she confided did not feel equipped to know how to deal with helping this woman and, instead, took her to a pastor.  The pastor listened briefly and dismissed the two women, declining to get involved and offering no counsel.  Shocked, the helping friend decided to help the woman use some boundary setting (and risk-taking) actions with the abusive husband.  The woman and her helper began discussing survival in the midst of several potential “worst case scenarios”, including how to survive in the event of divorce, threats of which the abusive husband had used against the woman for years.  After months of continued anxiety and abuse, prayer, and seeking spiritual guidance together, and  with a few small boundary victories, the woman eventually had grieved the potential loss of her marriage, formulated a plan for economic survival, and had become strong enough in her own sense of herself and in her identity in Christ.  Her need for emotional security over financial security prepared her for readiness to push for some harder and necessary boundaries.   When it was met with resistance, she sought counsel from an attorney.  She finally told her husband that she was prepared to file for divorce if he would not live within certain boundaries in their marriage and accept her as a partner instead of treating her any way he wished.  He moved out and got an attorney and negotiations began.  It was a needed time out.  It lasted for months and was very hard for the wife to endure.  But she had a good support system of family and friends. Eventually, as the reality of the financial loss he would incur through divorce became evident, as well as the impact to his relationship with their children, and the reality of being alone himself, he began to show some changes.  As she stood her ground he came around and asked to delay progression of the divorce and to work on their marriage.  That’s when real progress began to occur.  Years later they are still together, she is happy and clearly in a better place in her life.  He, too, seems to have made changes that have improved his wellbeing and satisfaction in their marriage.  It started with being forced to do it herself, with only supportive help to set appropriate boundaries that were flexible enough to allow for gradual change to take place but firm enough to let the abusive husband know there would be consequences for continuation of the gross violations that had occurred in the past.  The people in the marriage have to do the work.  But it can seldom be done without individual spiritual growth, supportive community, godly counsel, and learning and practicing a variety of relationship development skills.

             Such boundary-setting approaches to renegotiating imbalances in relationships can occur in all kinds of settings.  It is hard.  It takes time.  It takes growing into a strong relationship in Christ and having supportive community.  But it is generally worth the effort.   Though, be advised, there are no guarantees.  But God is still present, he is still good, he still works on our behalf, and he still desires peace in relationships, especially in families.