The Backlash of Boundary Setting

[September 23, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]

You have heard us talk a LOT about boundaries. I have recently set them, myself, daily learning the subtle art of boundary setting — from minor “I would rather not talk about that” boundary setting all the way to “warrior” boundary setting. I was not prepared for the fall-out last year when I set the boundaries. However, I feel like I now have a pretty good idea of some of the abusive patterns I see after boundaries are set. I wanted to give a short-list (by no means exhaustive) of what to expect when we set boundaries.

1) Abusers may get angry when we set boundaries. They are quite used to being able to control us. When we set up fences (soft or rigid), they feel almost insulted. We have changed. We are no longer accepting our “victim-ness”. Abusers do not like this. Expect their anger; do not let it hinder you. Press on.

2) Abusers may try to isolate us further. This one has recently become ludicrous to me. Somewhere along the way, all the abusive people in the world got together and decided that they could convince their victims that majority tips the truth scale. The abuser will call all your friends and family, sway as many as they can to their “side” and then throw it in your face: “See how many people are against you? You must be WRONG, Victim! So, come on back home to be abused with your tail tucked between your legs. We’ll ALL feel a whole lot more sure of ourselves if you do!” Goodness! Since WHEN did “truth” become truth just because a bunch of people believe the same thing? Listen, friend, just because your abuser can convince others that he is innocent does NOT make it true — no matter how many people believe him or her! Remember how many were FOR and AGAINST Christ when He was crucified. No, my friends. Majority opinion does not make said opinion true.

3) Abusers may try to find a small lack of discretion on your part and blow it up to a ridiculous degree. I like to use the very technical term “fist to the ear syndrome.” One time, I was cornered in my kitchen. My ex was squeezing me too tightly. In my effort to break away, my fist hit his ear. He went to the doctor and made a big deal about it. When anyone asked about his physical abuse toward me, he told them this story of how I was actually the abusive one and he was defending himself against my tiny fist flying at his man-sized head. If an abuser can find one slip up in your life, be sure that it will be shouted from the roof tops. This is how an abuser works to keep us afraid and under his or her thumb.

The good news is, if you are experiencing any of these three post-separation, abusive NONSENSICAL attacks, this means your abuser is reaching….trying to grasp back onto your soul. He, she or they no longer have the kind of control they used to have. We are now a force to be reckoned with. Their attacks will come fewer and further between and you and I will learn how to better handle them. I’m proud of us. 🙂

[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.]

41 thoughts on “The Backlash of Boundary Setting”

    1. Yet, it can be so dangerous to set boundaries until you are in a safe place (physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc.). There is NOTHING an abused person can do to stop the abuse — and setting a boundary probably means that the abuse will escalate — both in intensity and type. You must be safe before you can set a boundary! There is internal ‘work’ that can be done as far as recognizing and facing that your ‘normal’ is abusive, that the person you love and trust is not worthy of that love or trust (but is a very dangerous person for you!) but nothing external until you have a support system in place and both you and your children are safe.

  1. Megan, so true! When an abuser realizes (s)he is losing control of his victim, he sometimes goes into a “panic” mode & lashes out even more harshly, hoping to intimidate the victim back into the old reality. It is sort of a “final lashing out” that often indicates desperation on the part of the abuser. Abusers don’t take it well when they have been rendered powerless. It seems to me that if the victim can withstand this final attempt, then at least THAT abuser (thankfully) fades away for good. I pray the Lord will use your well-written & accurate post to encourage, enlighten and inspire many! Thank you for the wisdom & clarity you bring from so many different angles in this realm of discussion!

    1. Thank you so much, David. I need this today:

      It seems to me that if the victim can withstand this final attempt, then at least THAT abuser (thankfully) fades away for good.

      1. Please be aware that the “final lashing out” can last for a long time — during the whole separation, divorce, and even after. Remember that the abuser’s mindset is that you are property that rightfully (in God’s eyes!) belongs to him and it is not God’s will that you leave (and definitely not divorce). The abuser believes (because of his twisted thinking) that he is doing God’s will when he pursues you and tries to bring you back — and many abusers work very hard to get back the abused. If you have been abused, it can be a long time before you stop looking over you shoulder, before you put away the “escape” bag from the front door or the vehicle, before you stop checking for footprints in the snow before you approach the house, before you can sleep soundly through the night. Abusers keep the abused off-guard by changing tactics, and once boundaries are set, this “final lashing out” can take many, many forms. An abused person has to work very, very hard to be safe.

      2. Yes, Mama Martin, I agree with you that the final battle may take many forms and can go on and on; there is often / usually not one final lashing out and one final resistance followed by drum rolls and taps. Let us not foolishly suggest that anyone to drop their guard during the death and dying of the relationship. Or even during the decomposition. If the abuser cannot have what is “his”, he might make plans to complete the destruction of his property so that no one else CAN have it — it’s gone, he might make plans to disfigure “it” (emotionally, physically, spiritually) so that no one else would WANT “it”. (“Oh, did you hear about Sally’s problem?….Bless her heart….it’s horrific….how ugly.”) So that no one else is ABLE to get “it,” he might, in all diabolical cleverness, continue to surrepticiously abuse in ways only “seen” by the abused. Indeed, like Gollum he may never give up on his “precious”. Now really, doesn’t this sound crazy?

      3. ….then at least THAT abuser (thankfully) fades away for good.

        What does this mean? Does it mean that an abused [person] can expect another abuser to come along? Why this false promise and threat together?

      4. Dear Pippa, if I may venture a reply here, I want to say first of all that I loved you words —

        Let us not foolishly suggest that anyone to drop their guard during the death and dying of the relationship. Or even during the decomposition.

        You’re a wordsmith after my own heart!

        Regarding your question about the meaning of Megan’s phrase:

        ….then at least THAT abuser (thankfully) fades away for good.

        I’m sure Megan didn’t mean that an abused person can expect that another abuser will always come along and con the survivor of abuse into a new abusive relationship. I think Megan probably was simply referring to the sad reality that there are many predatory abusive people in this world, and we need to remember that and be on guard. I don’t see Megan’s words as a threat, just a warning reminder to be on guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing. After all, Jesus and Paul told us we had to be on guard against such wolves too.

        Regarding whether Megan’s words were a false promise, I don’t think Megan would have meant her words to represent a “promise” that every abuser will fade away eventually. The research tells us that some abusers, the minority, the really hard core ones, never give up on trying to harass their former victims, that in some of those cases the victim is killed, and in other cases the victim and her kids are subjected to continuing legal abuse, abuse via visitation, abuse via slander and enlistment of allies to the abuser’s wicked lying belief system, etc.

        Megan may not have mentioned the fact that those post-separation abuse scenarios can play out indefinitely, but I am pretty sure we can give her the benefit of the doubt on this one. She has not read nearly as much of the research literature as I have, because I’ve been reading in this field for a decade, whereas she’s less than two years out of her abusive marriage.

        So as an administrator of the blog and as someone who read Megan’s post before it was published, I should have picked up the point you made before it went to press, and I want to apologize to you. Please forgive me. And bless you for your continuing support and honesty on this blog.

        One of the things I really love about this blog is how we can have robust discussions and can challenge each other at times, but in the end we all come out wiser and more able to care for each other and for other survivors we may come across in the future. So thank you, Pippa, for your comments. Keep ’em coming!

      5. Before I end, I would like to say I really do think this is a great post on your part, Megan. I just think we need to be very careful not to put our hopes and trust in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      6. To be clear, the phrase about an abuser fading away was not Megan’s, and it also was not from her post.

        And I think we all understand that often we get piled on by many people who end up participating in the co-abuse, so we can be grateful when each one decides to let it go as we continue to set boundaries.

        The thrust should be that it takes strength to endure the backlash of boundary setting, and when we do so (setting them when we are in a safe place if the abuse suffered is the kind that compromises safety) we should be encouraged as we go forward.

      7. Good morning! What a hearty discussion! (Cheery wave!) 🙂 Thank you all for your comments and concerns. This all helps me to learn and grow! Thank you, Jeff S, for clearing things up a bit.

        First, I did not mean this post to be exhaustive, but merely to point out a few of the types of backlash we might endure or have endured. It was a “shortlist”. Perhaps I am one of only few who have dealt with this type of abuse from co-abusers (good word, Jeff S) OR maybe many have experienced this. As Barbara pointed out, I by no means, consider myself an expert. I am just pulling from my experience and that of others whom I know or have counseled in hopes that I can help someone, or that someone is comforted or encouraged by my words. As Jeff stated, the thrust of the post was meant to encourage victims to press forward into victory. Many abusers will go away when boundaries are set. Some, though (as you have pointed out), will not.

        Second, and at the risk of sounding defensive (I certainly do not mean to be), I merely want to point out that I did mention post-separation abuse in that last paragraph — I admit I was not thinking about trying to set up boundaries within the four walls of marriage. I see, now, why it was important to make that very clear — at the onset rather than at the end. It seems I have triggered a response from wonderfully passionate readers who have great big hearts for the oppressed!

        I also was not specifically talking about an abusive spouse and I regret I did not make this clear. In my mind, when I wrote this post, I was thinking of abusers, in general, many of whom pop up after we have separated from our spouses. And I believe that is what David up above was speaking of, as well. Those nipping, nagging abusive personalities that try to drag us down at church, in our families or our ex’s families.

        Pippa and Mama Martin, you have added another dimension to this post. Thank you for helping me to better understand the dangerous abusive temperature in which so many dwell.

  2. I could not implement boundaries in the same house as my abuser. Even my kids, who have to see him find boundaries with him only work if they can walk away. I knew this was true. I kept trying to explain this to my counselors. They were sure I just hadn’t tried before he left. Then one day I said “no” to a demand he texted me. I was polite, not angry, gave him other options but said “no”. His answer: “Anytime you put up boundaries I see them as something I have to blow up” (this was the start of the threat / temper tantrum demanding I help him). When I forwarded that text to the counselor, all of a sudden she believed me about boundaries not working face-to-face with him.

    1. Sweet SS — you might not be able to set boundaries in your house, to be sure. I am working on a post now that might help us all be able to set better boundaries in our hearts and minds — not necessarily physical boundaries. It can be done. You have been through so much….hugs to you.

      1. I can without him here! But never could with him present. One of my sons won’t see his dad at all because he can’t put up enough of an emotional wall to allow all his boundaries [to not get] blown up every time he sets them.

      2. I am so sorry, Still Scared. Abusers seem to always find a way — especially seasoned ones. My heart aches for you.

  3. Thank you for the paragraph re majority! Two different times I returned to the abusive man because he had convinced others that HE was the victim; he was changing; he was doing all the things he needed to do; he was sorry; that I needed to forgive him. After we were back together and had gone through a “honeymoon” time, he told me he just did and said all those things so he could be back with me! SICK! 3 years ago, I made a decision to leave for good! Life is peaceful and safe!

  4. A very good post, Megan!

    My first thought, reading through it, was the experiences I went through as boundaries were set, and the escalation of things to the point of ridiculous.

    My second thought (still thinking about discussions earlier this week with Barabbas about Pharaoh’s abuse of Israel) was how the Bible records Pharaoh doing exactly that. Pharaoh literally kicked Israel out of Egypt, after the plague of the death of the first-born. Yet, when he realized that Israel was really leaving (as per his command) and were not coming back, Pharaoh responded by calling his army together (gathering support) and chasing after Israel (escalating abuse).

    1. That is an interesting parallel, Joe! When you go to war, you gather your forces.

      I just wonder why people who are being gathered don’t see this? And so much of it is done under the guise of “concern” (“We LOVE so-and-so….we want to HELP so-and-so” — help indeed! Help her get back to her abuser!)…. Don’t they see that the abusers are preparing war against their victims by allying themselves with “surrounding countries”?

      1. The short answer, of course, is that abusers are typically very good liars and manipulators, and it is difficult for anyone who hasn’t lived under their abuse to see through the lies and manipulation.

        It goes beyond that, though.

        Part of it, I think, is the divorce mythology that is so commonly promoted in churches….the false notions regarding divorce starting with “God hates divorce” and “divorce is sin.” When people really, deep-down, believe that divorce is sin, and that godliness always pursues marital reconciliation no matter how bad the circumstances, then it is very easy for them to fall for the abuser’s deceit. It is a lie, of course….and sets the stage for deeper lies….

        Another part, I think, is that it is easier for an outside observer to believe someone they love is a little “high-strung,” “emotional,” or “hard to live with” than to believe they are an evil person intentionally inflicting deep wounds in their spouse. To believe the victim requires accepting that their spouse is an evil unrepentant abuser who has deceived all their friends. To believe the abuser only requires accepting that both spouses are “a bit high-strung” and “hard to live with.” Although a lie, that is the easier version of reality for an observer to accept.

        Accepting that someone you thought was a friend is actually evil incarnate, is a HUGE paradigm shift….and most people are not good at making large paradigm changes, all at once.

      2. Ah! This is VERY helpful, Joe. Thank you. Especially this part. It helps me to be more compassionate. It also gives me hope that, in time, truth might arise:

        Accepting that someone you thought was a friend is actually evil incarnate, is a HUGE paradigm shift….and most people are not good at making large paradigm changes, all at once.

      1. I actually use the example of Israel and Pharaoh a lot in my book. However, the discussions on this blog have led to further insights.

        Thanks, Barbara!

  5. Arrrggg, what have I done? Of course, Barbara, you may venture a reply. And hopefully we do not need to edit one another unless it is clearly abusive. Jeff S is correct that I was not reacting to Megan C’s post. However I am not sure that it is “better” that I was reacting to a reply to it that, as far as I know, was by a new-to-this-blog blogger. All I can say is that I had just settled down for the night, having double-bolted the door, and was seeking the comfort of this safe group of people when I read something that to me was vaguely scary from a male blogger. Trigger. So let me venture an attempt at a non-defensive question to David….

    Please clarify what you are saying about the abuser fading away….at least THAT abuser? I do hope, David, that we have not scared you away.

    And Megan, I am not sure if all or none of us are experts but it is a great summary.

    [Paragraph breaks added to enhance readability. Editors.]

    1. That’s cool, Pippa. 🙂 What happened with my misunderstanding is over and done with and not a problem anymore. But I think your question to David is a good one. Hope you answer, David.

    2. No worries, sweet Pippa. I have contacted David and he will respond to your question when he has a free minute at work today. There is nothing to fear — all is well. Be at peace. 🙂

  6. Hi, Pippa! When I referred to “that” abuser, I was thinking of a friend of mine whose ex-husband abuser had a handful of “fellow-supporters” who joined him in aggressively harassing my friend for a year or two after she (my friend) was separated / divorced. One of those “harassers” or “fellow abusers” I think finally went away after one final attempt to harass (or join in the abuse of) her. Once she withstood that attempt, it appears that the harassment (or abuse) from that person has died down. I am not saying that this is everyone’s experience, but that it is the experience of my friend, and maybe others, too. As has been mentioned in this post, some abusers never go away….they perpetually seek to abuse even long after a divorce. I know cases like this. But thankfully, some abusers — in an act of desperation to try to hang on to their victim — will lash out severely, hoping in one last ditch effort to regain their victim. When this attempt fails, some move on. I don’t know if this helps or not….but I hope it clarifies just a little! And I wish you all the best for life…. A life of security, peace, and blessing, Pippa! 🙂

    1. Thanks for that clarification, David, it’s helpful. Hope you keep coming back to this blog. We appreciate all who are genuinely seeking to help survivors. I am glad you are helping your friend.

  7. Would “playing the victim” fall under this category? My h kicked me out over a month ago and now says I left him. He has since moved out and I’m back with our children (I suspect his counsellor may have prompted that).

    We email and text about logistics (him seeing the kids) and finances (they are a mess of investment debts with other family involved). And that’s my boundaries about contact. Logistics and finances only.

    However, it seems he keeps putting in “I’m not coping, feel sorry for me” stuff as often as he can. It seems like he’s trying to guilt me into having him back. He did actually say “sorry please have me back” but I’ve had so many sorrys but no change that I don’t trust anymore.

    He seems to be doing it to some of our older kids too. They tell me how “dad is missing me”, like as if they also think I should have him back.

    I guess as guilting has been his most effective tactic in the past he might be hoping to get it to work again? It makes me feel sickened and anxious whenever he sends another “poor me I’m not coping” in what should be just plain exchange of facts.

    1. Would “playing the victim” fall under this category? My h kicked me out over a month ago and now says I left him.

      Yes, for sure, that’s a “playing the victim” strategy. I knew one abuser who when his wife finally got the courage to insist that he leave, took a one-man tent which the family owned and camped out under some trees near the railway station near where they lived. He could have gone to friends. He could have rented a room somewhere. But that wouldn’t have shown him nearly so well as the poor rejected husband.

    2. He seems to be doing it to some of our older kids too. They tell me how dad is missing me, like as if they also think I should have him back.

      Yes, that’s typical too. My ex spent the whole hour of his first visitation sitting in his car with our ten year old daughter weeping to her about how sad he was that mummy would let him back and how much he missed me…

      She of course came back home all full of sympathy for dad. 😦 And I had to be ‘hard’ — not give in to all the guilt-tripping.

      He is intentionally doing this to make you feel sick and anxious. Be strong! Don’t buckle. He has not changed. This is just another tune from the repertoire of the abuser.

  8. I didn’t realize 2) was isolation. Good to know. 😀

    3) I yelled at the kids to do something from upstairs. I was upset with good reason. When meeting with the pastor my h says how I yell and scream all the time and want to make it out like he’s the only one etc.

    That was pretty intimidating and worked like a charm for a couple of years, until one of our children had a talk with the pastor. When asked if it was the same the child said “no, dad’s was over the top”. It helped me to see the difference even though I knew it was different but felt guilty and frustrated that it was being called the same. Trying to explain myself only seemed to dig a hole that made me look more guilty and WORSE not humble or willing to see myself for how I am.

    My h sat next to me with one of the kids, playing [with a] cowboy pistol. I had just been reading an article for a couple minutes when he sat next to me. He kept pointing the pistol at the wall and shooting, over and over and over. Then again, and again. I ignored it until it was so ridiculous and distracting. Plus it was just a bit weird of him too.

    I asked him “would you please stop shooting that?” He jumped up offended and said something derogatory, leaving acting hurt and slighted. Ugh….seriously? He knew I was reading and just did that. I was getting creeped out. Why would he sit there doing that? He HASN’T EVER, EVER done that before. Obviously he was at the least being obnoxious and had to know it.

    Then he got out the guitar and went to playing and singing outside the door. I closed the door but not rude or loud or anything. Just couldn’t concentrate while he strummed. So he came back a bit later mumbling how his audience didn’t care or something. Poor guy….not really. He can play when he wants, where he wants but I can choose to stay or leave or concentrate elsewhere too, right? It doesn’t have to be taken as an attack or slighting him.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing. Unfortunately I’m an expert on emotional violence. I’m currently going through it again with neighbors. Of all things. It’s intention with knowledge of my Complex PTSD, agoraphobia, panic and stress disorders. All a result of emotional and physical violence. For a few years after I left I lived off the grid in some horrible circumstances in an attempt to not be found. He has promised to make me unrecognizable to my children (adult).

    [He was electronically stalking her in several ways] before I left….

    [Details of abuse from neighbours and negative responses from law enforcement deleted by Eds, as it could have identified the commenter.]

    I am emotionally numb and have been for 2 – 3 years now. I don’t feel joy, happy, anger etc….all I get is fight or flight. Which keeps my blood pressure abnormally high, it keeps the panic constant. Violence has destroyed my life in ways that can never be recovered. I have yet to receive any kind of validation or justice.

    I am to the point being right back where I was before I went to treatment, I’m still in treatment. My 100% survival rate I was proud of. Not anymore. I don’t understand why I have to keep running. My physical health has deteriorated, my emotional health is destroyed again and I have to go through another move which is traumatic in itself. [She’s had more than two dozen moves in about 15 years….]

    I have no more resources to move again. I put my own money into cleaning, painting, repairs to make it a long term home for myself.
    I know no one will reply to this.
    Thank you for reading.

    1. Hi, Daisy,
      Welcome to the blog. 🙂 I did read all your comment but have edited it before publishing it. The reason I edited it is that it contained a lot of details that could have identified you to your various abusers. We want to help you keep safe.

      I am so sorry about all the stuff you have suffered and are still suffering.

      We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

    2. Daisy,
      Thank you for your comment. It really resonated with my sister who has experienced similar false and unjust treatment at the hands of neighbors & law enforcement.

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