Dealing with fear while setting boundaries

Many victims find it hard to deal with fears that come up when they think about setting boundaries to distance themselves from their abusers. Here are some thoughts that might help. I’ve extracted them from an email conversation I had recently with a survivor, so I’m speaking to a survivor in the second person, addressing her as “you”.

Every spasm of guilt you feel for ‘selfishness’ is false guilt, inbuilt and habituated by YEARS of brainwashing from your church and your husband. The Scripture take every thought captive to Christ might be useful here. Share with and call upon Jesus to help you take each of those thoughts captive when they grip you, ask Him to help you deal with the lies and the false guilt: if you can make a decision to try to recognize and not get hooked in when those guilt spasms come, and pass each thought up to Him, then that can help Him to renew your mind.

My gut feeling is that whatever you do, it will have something to do with changing your habitual patterns of thought; reconditioning and recalibrating your semi-automatic responses, or catching them more quickly before they run away with you. That guilt is FALSE guilt. The more often you can see and believe that, and refute its lies, the stronger you will be. You have the right, biblically, morally and ethically, to set a wall between yourself and your non-repentant abuser, and to set whatever boundaries you want to set with him.

But it’s also important to recognize that fear of setting boundaries comes not just from false guilt, it also comes from real and practical apprehension of what he might do when you set a boundary. When you set new boundaries, the abuser will  escalate his abuse tactics. So your fears are based on reality, as well as partially springing from false guilt.

Take home message: Fear comes from at least two places:
(1) false guilt
(2) realistic apprehension of the abuser’s retaliation.

The only way to deal with the realistic apprehension of how he might retaliate is to make a safety plan, including planning your tactics of when, how and where you set boundaries. There are no guarantees of safety, but planning in advance can sometimes forestall some of the unpleasantness. This is where it helps so much if you seek advice from secular domestic abuse support workers.

Even if you don’t want to consult such workers personally, I recommend you look on the internet for info about “Domestic Violence Safety Planning”. There are numerous sites on the web that set out the basics of safety planning. These sites are not going to tell you how to tailor and adjust a plan so it is the best fit for your particular (and changing) circumstances — as a professional DV worker can do — but they will give you an idea of where to begin and what is involved. (DV is shorthand for domestic violence, but it includes all the non-physical types of abuse as well.)

(I’m also repeating here a comment I made to Jenny’s comment at another post):

….Most victims don’t consult DV support workers, but in many cases they would find it beneficial to do so. These workers are trained to help the victim develop a safety plan whether or not they are ever intending to leave the relationship. I always advise victims to seek support from secular DV workers if they can….  [Emphasis original.]

There are so many ‘traps for young players’ that can be avoided if you have good counsel from people who know the local scene re: what support is available, legal issues, ways to obtain protection, etc., etc. I also advise women that these DV workers are usually overworked so you have to persevere in asking for what you want. But don’t hesitate to do so. Just because these workers have other clients, doesn’t mean that you should put your needs in second place because those other clients also have needs.

Compassionate and empathetic women tend to always be thinking of the needs of others. When you are suffering abuse, it helps to try to remember to give your own needs a bit of a higher priority. And the needs of your kids for long-term safety and an environment where there is less abuse.

[September 23, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to September 23, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to September 23, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to September 23, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (September 23, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

Safety PlanningACFJ Resources page listing many different safety planning resources.

11 thoughts on “Dealing with fear while setting boundaries”

  1. He’s not violent, has never directly threatened me, but had become so unstable and frightening. But what’s there to be afraid of if he hasn’t done anything obviously threatening? Yet I have real fear.

    He has commented on a timeframe for when things started to go wrong with our relationship – it’s the same time I started trying to set better boundaries within it.

    1. Please be careful, Little Miss Me. I found that when I set firm boundaries my ex became physically violent and the more I stood up to him the more physically violent and emotionally abusive he became. In order to keep safe in the relationship I unfortunately had to reassess some of my boundaries.

      1. Dear Jenny, would you like to share with our readers how you re-assessed your boundaries then: what you did, and how you navigated through that section of the rapids?

      2. Jenny – thank you. Currently I’m safe in that the one line he will (seemingly – I won’t push far enough to find out) not cross is physical abuse, because he knows this will make him appear wrong no matter what and he won’t be able to talk his way out.

        And I hope that you’re safe and free from abuse (or at least on a safe path in that direction)!

    2. Dear Little Miss Me, it sounds like your fear IS real, and is based on a gut feeling that he could indeed become threatening and dangerous to your bodily safety.
      Note that I use the term ‘bodily safety’ in distinction to ’emotional and psychological safety’ – because a woman in the situation you’ve described is already in danger for her psychological safety because of the necessary vigilance, walking on eggshells and long-term tension and emotional undermining she has been living with for a long time.

      He has made the comment:

      When things started to go wrong with our relationship – it’s the same time [you] started trying to set better boundaries.

      This is a threat. He’s more or less telling you: “Don’t set these boundaries, and don’t try to institute any new boundaries, because if you do that, I’ll make you suffer! I’ll pay you back! Don’t push me, you don’t know what I’m capable of!” This is definitely a threat. And threats can be very scary. The more vague, the scarier they can be, sometimes. He is trying to intimidate you, to overpower and quash your developing strength and determination.

      Let me quote your words here:

      He….has never directly threatened me, but [he] had become so unstable and frightening. But what’s there to be afraid of if he hasn’t done anything obviously threatening?

      There’s LOTS to be afraid of if he is becoming increasingly unstable. And you said you find him frightening. So you ARE afraid, and if you are afraid, believe your own feelings. You are not crazy. He has been doing this very subtly to induce fear in you while at the same time inducing you to question the validity of your fear. It’s all part of the mind games and the fog. Believe your feelings. Believe your gut. If you are afraid, it is because there is something to be afraid of. You are not talking about the fear that springs from false guilt here; you are talking about your fear that the abuser will escalate his abuse in order to retaliate against your determination to maintain your person-hood, dignity and integrity.

      1. Barbara, thanks for the validation. As I told Jenny, I believe I’m safe and am on a safe path (OUT!). When I asked “what’s to be afraid of” I was basically paraphrasing others who have been influenced by him. They do not see it (even when I’ve said “I’m Afraid of him”), and it does frustrate me to no end that they can’t. I know that’s the way it is but it’s one of those things that’s hard to wrap my head around. I hate how the fog gets you going in circles!

        And of course he didn’t actually make the connection outright about the boundary timeframe, but when I asked why he kept talking about that as the point when things got bad, he did say that was when I started to talk more about being unhappy. I see that as giving himself away a little, but I’m confident that others (not here) wouldn’t see it that way.

        He’s so clever with his way of manipulating without showing his intentions. And obviously I can’t rip open his soul for others to see what his intentions are, and I can’t prove that his intentions are to hurt me. But even if that wasn’t his intention, at the point that I told him that was the result, that should have marked a change in his behavior. But instead, I was discounted, told I was overreacting, too sensitive, and then he turned it back on me to say that I did everything I complained he did. He claims he just didn’t understand how hurt I was, blames me for not communicating it better, but would never let me address my concerns, then says that I could have just said so.

        OK, I’m done with the rant and will now go take my internal screaming somewhere that I can do something productive with it. 🙂

  2. LOL! (the internal screaming). I think I might put that into my ‘sound bites’ file. Thanks, LMM.

    he turned it back on me to say that I did everything I complained he did.

    Yeah. That inversion is one of the strongest marks of an abuser. It seems to occur across all the different types of abusers, whether they play “Mr Sensitive” or “Mr Right” or “The Terrorist” or “Rambo” or “The Victim” or “The Player” or “The Drill Sergeant” or “The Demand Man”. Lundy Bancroft talks about it being a noticeable feature in all of those types of abusers.

    Also, I’ve just remembered what my second husband started to do towards the end. He would mix up pronouns, saying “I” when he meant “you”; and “you” when he meant “me”. It was really weird, because he wasn’t doing it in contexts where he was clearly inverting the blame (= accusing and blaming me for the very wrongs HE was doing). Rather, I think he was just mixing the pronouns up to bamboozle my mind and make it really hard for me to understand what he was saying. I would be so absorbed in trying to understand ‘simple’ communications and statements from him, that I would not notice how he was gradually escalating other aspects of his control and take-over of my life.
    I see that in hindsight. At the time, I just wondered whether he might be showing early signs of dementia, so I felt sorry for him and bent over backwards being his carer.

  3. I too though there was some things my ex would never be capable of, but I guess that he felt that he was so entitled that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to maintain his power and control over me. And he became more and more demanding of me.

    At the time I had 3 young children, including a baby. We [had] not long since moved house. I was a stay at home mum, and my ex was not working at all. Despite this, he refused to contribute in any way towards caring for the children or the housework. He would drink excessively and refuse to eat his evening meal with the family, so I would leave his dinner plate in the fridge for him to microwave for whenever he chose to eat later in the evening. It was usually well after midnight when he did eat, and I had gone to bed a long time beforehand. One night he came in and loudly and angrily woke me up, complaining about the meal and demanding that I get up at once and cook him something different. I refused, politely of course, so as not to further enrage him and explained how tired I was and suggested he heat up leftovers from lunch instead. He insisted that I get out of bed and heat it up for him because he said he was too tired and drunk to operate the microwave. He shouted and literally physically dragged me out of bed to get me to the kitchen and blocked my exit from the kitchen and said I was not going to leave the kitchen until I had done so and if I tried to leave he would slam me. So in future I made sure earlier in the evening [that] I discussed with him beforehand what I was planning to cook, either “option a or b what do you prefer and if you are still hungry there is option c as well”. This helped somewhat, although one night I was awoken by a bowl of warm lasagna being thrown at my head which he had not liked (and by the way I consider myself to be a good cook).

    When I discussed his behaviors with him and he knew I was not happy with the relationship, he began to imprison me as he was worried I would leave. He would block my car in the driveway with his and I had no keys to move his car. He would take the children with him on errands and not let me take them when I went anywhere.

    One night after an incident he was worried I would call the police or leave so he ripped the phone cords out and blocked the doorway. I began to despair of ever getting out. He was not working and rarely left the house. I prayed constantly for a way out, which God provided. In the meantime, to remain safe and to get him to relax his restrictions on my movements, as distasteful and false as it was, I began to pretend that I was very happy in the relationship with him, that it was all my fault, etc. I have been out now for around 21 months and we are divorced. Unfortunately the abuse still continues. Despite having an intervention no contact order, I was court ordered to provide him with my home and mobile phone numbers. The children are continually being physically neglected and emotionally abused. He tells the children lies about me and does whatever he can to poison them and alienate them from me, even backing up his claims with false legal papers. He instructs them to pass threats on to me. He stalks, threatens and verbally abuses me. I believe I am physically safe. His threats are mostly of the nature of threats of full-custody battles, and police charges for child neglect and reports to child protection for things he makes up (e.g. a child develops a cold on an access visit, therefore the child has a more serious illness and has had for many weeks and I failed to seek medical treatment).

    [Paragraph breaks added to enhance readability. Editors.]

    1. Dear Jenny, doesn’t the law in your state for family violence intervention orders prohibit things like emotional and verbal abuse? In my state it does, and women are able to take their ex to court for breaching the order for verbal abuse, stalking, and exposing the children to the abuse. We are pretty lucky here, having had a new law recently come in. Not everyone knows how broadly this law defines ‘family violence’ and how many things are prohibited in an intervention order for family violence.

  4. About setting boundaries – I never could do very well with that with my husband, until I separated from him – but I am trying to do that with my friends. I just wrote a “Dear John” letter to a semi-new friend who did so much to help me through my separation, but whom I think is also married to a “nice guy” abuser – her first husband was physically abusive. This one I think is very controlling, but for the most part, she won’t admit it – she cancels almost every time we have plans to spend time together and the last time was just the last straw for me and then she contacts me 3 weeks later to say she finally has time for me, so do I want to do something? I couldn’t believe it – if she were a guy, I would have dumped her a long time ago. So, that was a painful thing, but I had to do it because I spent too much time banging my head against a wall with her.

    The other boundary issue I am having is with my oldest friend, who, until I separated from my husband, was always supportive, and compassionate about my situation. Now, I can definitely see that she has very negative feelings about what I have done, but she won’t say anything directly – but through little things she says and doesn’t say – I know there is this big wall between us now.

    My question: Do our friends have problems with us when we set these kinds of boundaries in our marriages and why? She is married to an alcoholic who is in treatment and he has treated her with great insensitivity in the time they have been married, but she seems determined to stick with it. I feel like I am losing my friend here because I can’t talk to her about my situation any more, she just ignores whatever I say and changes the subject. Those are the only 2 close friends I even had – so I am feeling so alone right now.

    [Paragraph breaks added to enhance readability. Editors.]

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