Do victims have a problem with setting boundaries? This is a close cousin to the question “Do victims attract abusers?” which I looked at recently in my post Is there something in a victim that an abuser latches on to?
One of our readers, Pamplamoussejuice, made a comment to which I wrote a couple of responses. I think the issue she raised deserves a post on its own, so no-one misses out. [our discussion was among a mass of other comments on that original post].
Here is what Pamplamoussejuice wrote:
For me, I think it is because I had no boundaries. I was raised to put up whatever treatment I got and never complain, and also to think that I was somehow responsible for it. I still really tend to put up with a lot of bad treatment from others without complaint – which is a real juxtaposition to the way I live the rest of my life: that is not my personality with anything else. I am an avid defender of my kids, of the Gospel, of proper doctrine, and have offended many people (not because I am offensive) because of these things without caring – but in my personal relationships, I am totally different. I have to unlearn this, but I don’t know how to defend myself and my boundaries in the proper, healthy, biblical way. I don’t even know what they are probably.
And here are my responses:
You raise a really important point, and one that I think many survivors, especially females, will identify with: “I was raised to put up whatever treatment I got and never complain, and also to think that I was somehow responsible for it.”
Let’s examine this for a moment.
Martha Stout, PhD, author of The Sociopath Next Door [Affiliate link], has this to say (p.100, my emphasis added)
When you teach your daughter, explicitly or by passive rejection, that she must ignore her outrage, that she must be kind and accepting to the point of not defending herself or other people, that she must not rock the boat for any reason, you are not strengthening her pro-social sense; you are damaging it – and the first person she will stop protecting is herself. … Do not set her up to be gaslighted. When she observes that someone who is being really mean is being really mean, tell her she is right and that it is okay to say so out loud.
Maybe also, you have a better sense and command of your own boundaries than you realize. If you are an avid defender of your kids, and of the Gospel and proper doctrine, you are not an essentially silent or timid personality.
Maybe the problem is not that you are unable to know or set boundaries in personal relationships, but that the person(s) you have had important relationships with have been so abusive and disrespectful that it was not possible to maintain boundaries with them. This often occurs in abusive scenarios. When the victim sets specific boundaries, the abuser deliberately and strategically runs roughshod over those boundaries. Often the victim may chose not to set certain boundaries because the consequences of saying “No” are even more dangerous than not saying “No”. When we overtly resist, abusers often escalate and punish us further. So we choose our battles carefully, and we covertly and creatively resist, biding our time, trying to gather our wits despite his fog-machine working overtime, and nurturing what we can in ourselves and our kids until the time is right to institute that one big boundary: Separation and Zero Contact if possible.
Here is what a survivor wrote to me recently (paraphrased and reprinted with her permission):
I, too, used to note that apart from relationship with my then-husband, I had the capacity to say “No”. The reason why I couldn’t was due to my safety – and I was doing everything I could to keep everyone safe. My ability to say “No” is pretty average: sometimes, it is hard, sometimes it is only a bit uncomfortable. But everyone seems to find it very difficult to say “No” to my ex, not just me, but also his kids, his friends, my friends, church leaders, the police, the legal system and his colleagues. The only people who managed to say “no” were abusive people themselves – my mother, who had no trouble slamming the phone down, some of his brutal co-workers, and a tenant who is pretty big and scary. So the inability to say “No” was not a fault of mine, it was a feature of anyone in relationship with him.
Here is an article that you will find useful. I’ve added it to our Resources page as well.
Resistance to Violence: A Key Symptom of Chronic Mental Wellness – by Martine Renoux & Allan Wade (secular therapists)
15 thoughts on “Do victims have a problem with setting boundaries?”
I believe you totally nailed it. Thank you for you insight-that really clarifies things for me and helps me know what to work on in my life. Recognizing these people quickly and then leaving just as quickly.
Something interesting I found-
J. Gresham Machen: “Liberalism has abandoned Christianity” [Internet Archive link]
The other day in this series the idea that “people are inherently good” was discussed. A lot of liberal Christians seem to believe this- that if somebody is behaving badly it’s because you aren’t being nice enough to them, and you must be patient with them and not criticize their behavior. This is clearly not biblical but seems to be quite common nonetheless.
This is also the attitude of the church towards women who are having trouble in their marriage- it is just assumed that you aren’t being nice enough, or submissive enough or whatever enough. You just aren’t ever enough. Like men are inherently good , but women are inherently bad and just looking for a chance to take over.
Jodi, this goes back to the way the ultra-conservative hermeneutic has interpreted Genesis 3 by saying that Eve’s sin was not merely the taking of the forbidden fruit, it was the sin of:
Usurping Authority From Her Husband!
[chorus of shock-horror in-breaths and shudders from the innocent teenage girls and docile wives in the audience, and gravitas of head-nodding from the boys and the men in the audience…]
And therein lies a whole two chapters which I’ve half written. You got the trailer.
Barbara, This is so exactly what I have heard over and over “Eve’s sin was not merely the taking of the forbidden fruit, it was the sin of:
Usurping Authority From Her Husband! ” It makes me want to scream. What about Adam, standing there taking part, without a single protest? He wasn’t even tempted or deceived. Let’s not open THAT can of worms-because we all know that women are naturally more stupid since Eve was deceived and not Adam. Argh! I just heard a sermon at church about being a submissive wife that would have driven most of you out of church altogether-tho he did an ok job the next week on how a husband is supposed to love his wife-but he never mentioned the possibility of abuse even tho there are two women in his church that he knows have suffered in abusive marriages.
I’ve always said that the only person he could say ‘No’ to is me – because he always seeks approval from other sources, and wants to prove what a nice, helpful guy he is. Meanwhile, the only person I couldn’t (wasn’t allowed to) say it to was him.
True for me on both counts. He was eager to please anyone and everyone (even telemarketers) but never me.
OMG yes! I’ve forgotten about that. The telemarketers love him! He’d talk to them because he didn’t want to be rude, but he’d walk away from the family time to do so. Later, I’d be ignoring what I think is a solicitation in the mail but it’s really a bill for something he’d gotten on the phone.
I think that one of the problems with ‘no’ is the ‘what if’ scenario. I you want to keep a big, aggressive dog either in or out of a place, you must build a really good fence. Just telling him ‘no’ is not going to work. As I counseled a lady a few years ago, “You must make up your mind as to what the consequences are going to be, set yourself for the battle, and determine that you are not going to cave.” She did. It worked. But the marriage ended in the battle. ‘No’ is fairly easy to say. To say it, stay with it, and deal with the consequences of it, now there is the battle.
Yes indeed. And if the victim knew in advance how many fronts the battle would eventually have to be fought on, and how many dirty tricks the abuser would play in the course of the war, she would quake in her shoes. But most of us seem to get thru it in the end, with the help of the Lord and our true supporters.
I sometimes tell victims “Steel yourself; make your backbone strong, hold your chest cavity firm in readiness for those flaming darts.”
This is biblical language: remember how God told Ezekiel (or was it Jeremiah?) “Make your forehead like flint!”
A really good fence will work with a big aggressive dog, for sure. I always felt like I was trying to protect against a bulldozer, and any fence would not have been sufficient, so moving neighborhoods seemed a better idea!
I hope it’s ok to comment on an “old” post written a few years ago?
I also was taught–both at home and at church–that I should be “nice,” not offend anyone, not hurt their feelings, not “make things worse” by “rocking the boat,” to “accept people as they are” and to be loving, forgiving, and “Christlike.”
I am naturally empathetic and forgiving, and I do not like to cause suffering. This has been used against me. I try to resolve differences…but as I have learned, abusers don’t want to resolve anything. They want to keep victims under their control. I have always wanted to help wounded people, but abusers can pretend to be the victim and they can play the part so well that it is difficult to see past their masks. So I give understanding until I realize that this person has been manipulating me. And then I feel sick because it feels as if, once again, I have been manipulated and used. So I think that maybe my boundaries are just not firm enough…and I set them, and then I’m told that I’m an awful person who is unloving, unforgiving, unChristlike. It takes energy to fight for these boundaries and sometimes I just get really tired.
I realized a few years ago that there is a form of “niceness” that I have been taught that robs me of the ability to protect myself and I have been working to overcome this.
I appreciate what you said in this post:
Maybe I’m not the wimp I sometimes feel that I am. And maybe I’m not as awful as I’m told that I am when I try to protect myself.
Readers are always welcome to comment on any post!
And you may find this post encouraging – especially the comment section. There is a discussion about being too nice. . .
Thursday Thought — when Abuse Occurs the Rules Change
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
Amen and Amen!
Also, you may have already seen this post Stop Being ‘Nice’ but if not, I encourage you to check it out.