Thursday Thought — Abuse is a Boundary Problem

When I use the word “boundary”, I am referring to the limits we have around our bodies and our minds to protect our safety, our integrity, and our privacy.  Our boundaries can be thought of as fences with gates in them.  At certain times we decide to open the gates and allow chosen people to pass through; at other moments the way is blocked, and we have a right to have the limits respected. Certain people we prefer never to let in, and places exists within us that may be open to no one.

Some boundaries we can reasonably consider inherent, in that they are accepted by most cultures as natural and unassailable; they are just there, without us having to erect them.  The outside of our bodies, our skin, is one such limit; no one should touch us without our consent or against our wishes.  Another inherent boundary is the right . . . not to be looked at in ways that feel invasive; for example, no one should sit and stare at you while you attempt to think, work, or rest because the power of their gaze will take over your mental space and you will be unable to focus on the activity you wanted to engage in.  In other words, eyes can intrude upon minds as well as bodies.

Other boundaries are less universal, and are chosen by an individual based on what he or she finds necessary for physical or emotional well-being.  You might find that you hate being tickled — many people do — or that you don’t care for tight hugs because they make you feel suffocated.  You may become enraged when someone tells you what you are feeling, so you proclaim firmly that you are the only one who gets to define what is happening in your heart.  These kinds of physical and emotional boundaries may be specific to you, but you nonetheless have every right to expect and demand that they be respected.

When a person’s inherent boundaries, or their individually specific ones, are violated, any or all of the following effects can appear:

  • Feeling invaded and unsafe.
  • Feeling degraded or dirty.
  • Feeling confused, including having trouble distinguishing what is voluntary from what isn’t (e.g. “Did I like that, or didn’t I? Did I want to be doing that, or was I pressured into it?”)
  • Feeling lonely, abandoned, not seen, or not understood.
  • Having trouble trusting people (which may intensify over time).
  • Feeling angry or enraged, becoming extremely defiant.

When children or adults experience severe or repeated violations of their boundaries, the above effects can become deep and chronic.  In addition, the violations can cause them to lose part of their ability to handle the gates in their fences well.  They may find, for example, that they sometimes let people in who turn out not to be trustworthy, or whom they didn’t really want to allow to pass through in the first place.  At the same time, they may shut good people out, only to regret later the missed opportunities for emotional or physical closeness.  Or the gates may stop working at all, so they simply shut everybody out, leading to an isolated existence of mistrust, or let everybody in, leading to an existence of being exploited, with intimacy coming to feel like an unpleasant obligation.

These insights lead us back to a central point:
Abuse by a husband or boyfriend almost always includes some aspects of disrespecting the woman’s boundaries.

(excerpt from When Dad Hurts Mom [Affiliate link] by Lundy Bancroft, p93-95)

***IMPORTANT NOTE:  While we endorse Lundy’s writings about the dynamics of domestic abuse, we do not recommend anyone attend the “healing retreats” Lundy Bancroft offers or become involved in his “Peak Living Network”. See our post, ACFJ Does Not Recommend Lundy Bancroft’s Retreats or His New Peak Living Network for more about our concerns.

13 thoughts on “Thursday Thought — Abuse is a Boundary Problem”

  1. You struck a nerve here. He was always staring at me, especially at meal times or in restaurants. It always made me nervous, and I know I indicated I didn’t like it. He actually quit giving me flowers because when they were placed in the middle of the table he couldn’t stare at me any more. I didn’t miss the flowers; I did miss the wall they made. Now it makes sense; eyes can intrude, and it is a very unpleasant feeling.

  2. MF! You reminded me of several times where I found my stbx staring at me as well! It is a horrible feeling!! And, several times recently he has been (whether parked or drving) in areas where he knows I will be driving by…making his presence known!

  3. Yes!

    He takes me out to dinner–stared at.

    I interact cheerfully with friends, family–stared and glared at.

    Constantly grabbing me and forcing me to kiss him.

    Busting in on phone conversations.

    Telling me how I will handle my medical situation.

    1. Having been taught through Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts–Bill Gothard that I have no rights as a Christian, it put the nail in the coffin for no boundaries.

  4. When I finally got brave enough to ask my husband not to stare at me when I was in our bedroom in various states of undress, it made him mad, and he said things like “Who decides when ‘looking’ is ‘staring’?” and “What’s wrong with wanting to look at my wife?” I struggled with trying to explain why I didn’t like it. I told him it made me feel dirty, cheap, and inferior to the porn he also enjoyed staring at. But it felt like there were reasons beyond those that I couldn’t describe. Thank you for this explanation of ‘inherent boundaries’. Now I understand why I felt invaded when he stared at me, clothed or not clothed.

  5. My daughter recently said that she didn’t remember ever being bullied by her siblings (and there are many). I taught them that if one of them said, “Please don’t”, then whatever the other was doing had to stop, now, no explanation needed. Funny that their dad didn’t get that, and that it took so long for me to give myself permission and build up courage to enforce it with him. All the years of explaining……….what a waste of breath and energy.

    The problem now is that she thinks everyone should honor that, and doesn’t seem to understand that some people don’t.

  6. This comment really hit home, “I didn’t miss the flowers; I did miss the wall they made.” And I heard this one a lot, “What’s wrong with wanting to look at my wife?”

    It creeps me out just to think about how affected I was by his disregard for any boundaries.

  7. My daughter has been discussing her marriage( in a teen, casual kind of way) and repeatedly says she knows she has to have her dad there but he “won’t respect boundaries”. That he will deliberately try to talk to me or her brother that refuses to see him. I jokingly said, with some seriousness, that we hire two “guests” to run interference and repeatedly start conversations with him anytime he tries to head toward where my side of the family is.

    1. Still Scared.
      “I jokingly said, with some seriousness, that we hire two “guest” to run interference.

      You may want to seriously consider that if you feel the father’s present will cause a problem. That was a concern for two of my children’s weddings. The first wedding the father wasn’t invited. The other wedding the father was invited but he was given very specific instructions who he could approach and who he couldn’t. Very specific arrangements were made where he sat and who he sat with during the wedding and the reception, and several key people were aware of the situation and given instructions to remove him if he violated any of these instructions.

      So there is wisdom in your “jokingly” said suggestion. It’s sad that these types of arrangements have to even be considered, but that’s the reality of dealing with abusers.

  8. Late to the conversation – on vacation.
    Seriously the spouse would continually violate boundaries & one of the things he constantly said was “Flash me”. He would say this in all sorts of inappropriate places & get angry when I didn’t comply. What made him more angry is that I would say I am not your porn star. He said as someone else related “what’s wrong with a husband looking at his wife?”
    I must admit I didn’t always know how to answer that , but I HATED that he did it & still do. Makes me feel so terrible.

  9. Thank you for this. I never knew what a boundary was until my fourth decade of life, and when God showed me, He also showed me how fundamental physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries are to people’s well-being.

    Hosea 5:10, “Judah’s leaders are like those who move boundary stones. I will pour out my wrath on them like a flood of water.” One Bible commentator put it like this, “The princes of Judah were like them that remove the bound,…. Or landmark, which to do was contrary to the law, Deuteronomy 19:14; and has always been reckoned a HEINOUS sin among all nations, and is only done by such who have no regard to right and wrong, and by them SECRETLY; and such were the kings, princes, and nobles of Judah; they secretly committed the grossest iniquities, yea, were abandoned to their vile lusts, and could not be contained within any bound…….they broke through all bounds and limits, and transgressed the laws of God and men, being not to be restrained by either:”

    God created boundaries and His word mentions them often. They are important in providing us with examples of his glory (Job 26:10, Jeremiah 5:22) and pointing out our need to separate / respect things about his vs. our abilities as well as helping us to recognize that other people have things that aren’t ours and vice versa. This is a BIG DEAL to God. So, as I’m discovering what boundaries are and learning how to implement them I’m also going through my life in my mind and realizing how very abusive it was that I was trained by my parents and the church to deny that I had the need for or the right to, set boundaries for myself.

    John 9-10, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (10) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This verse is a good example. This is Jesus talking and he’s using the gate (which is a boundary and he’s plainly stating that HE’S the boundary) as an example of a line of distinction. Within his boundaries you will find rest and safety and outside this boundary is one who is looking to completely destroy. (Not JUST destroy, but to steal and kill and THEN destroy). So when I took the advice of people who were wanting me to be compliant and malleable and to serve them (as is the goal of all people without a conscience) I ended up being destroyed. But here’s the good part. I was used up by the world and left for dead. I was no longer any use to the evil ones because I no longer “worked right.” Even though I had been trained to allow them to rape me and they even trained me to believe that I was somehow to blame and wanted this, God had other plans. He picked me up; slowly, carefully, lovingly, and showed me that I had value. That I had rights as his child and that I was not created to be raped by evil as I’d been trained to be, but that I could set boundaries that protected me and allowed me to make choices based on the desires He gave me when I gave my life to him and to use the gifts he gave me to care for myself as well.

    We are NOT all the same. Not one single person that was ever created in all of time, was ever the same as the other. If you’ve been lied to and made to believe that you are nothing and are only here to serve people and that you are to do this at the expense of your soul, and that you have no right to defend yourself or to protect yourself, let me just tell you that God does not view you this way. You are rare and precious to him and he did NOT make you to serve evil. He wants you to learn how to protect yourself but he never tells you to do this alone. He is the gate that will protect you when you call on him, and as you start to erect your boundaries, he will gird them with his strength. It may be hard at first and you may feel like you are being “selfish,” but this is the opposite of selfish. When you set boundaries you are actually defending/standing up for a child of the King, and in doing this you are honoring him and caring for something that is so invaluable to him, one of his children.

  10. Until I read this here I didn’t understand what the staring my husband is doing was all about. I hadn’t read it anywhere else.

    I’ll be sitting in a room reading or watching tv and he’ll just come in the room and stand there and look at me. Most of the time he doesn’t say a word and eventually leaves.

    At first, of course, I didn’t realize what was going on and I’d ask him what he’d want. And we’d have some inane, stupid conversation that was like talking to a 5 year old.

    Now I just pretend like I don’t know he’s standing there. It’s as if he wants to make sure I know he’s keeping tabs on me and checking up on me. It always seems to happen when I’m doing something for myself–watching tv, reading, talking on the phone, sewing. If I’m doing housework it doesn’t happen.

    I didn’t even know this was another thing in the bag of tricks for an abuser until now. No one, no one (except you good people) would ever believe all the things my husband does. With Lundy Bancroft’s book and this site I am learning how many things I’ve been subjected to. There are so many! I know I’d be accused of exaggerating–that no one would do all those things!

    1. Annie, I had forgotten how my husband used to do this years ago (it changed over the years). He would sit in a room and just stare at me. For me, it was most often when I was busy doing something with the kids, reading them stories or something. Or sometimes when I was reading or doing Bible study, or getting ready to go somewhere. I have always hated being the center of attention, and it always made me so uncomfortable. Like you, I would feel like he was wanting something, so in the beginning I would ask him. He would give a little smile that always felt ‘weird’ to me, and say something about just liking to look at his wife. I always felt exposed and almost violated, but at that time wouldn’t have been able to express that in any way. And, of course, I thought there was something wrong with me for being uncomfortable when he stared at me. If I mentioned that I didn’t like to be stared at, there would be a big ‘debate’ about what constitutes staring, and who decided what staring is, and on and on.

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