How to Set Boundaries With Your Abuser in Mind

“How to set boundaries” is a code phrase for “how to stand up for yourself”. I’ve stood up for myself in unhealthy ways in the past by yelling, trying to look intimidating (ha!), and whatnot. I’ve learned that I can’t fight fire with fire. My husband can out-yell and out-intimidate me every time.

personal boundariesCreating personal boundaries gives me a leg-up on my abuser, even though he doesn’t respect the concept of a boundary. When he’s raging but I calmly state my boundary and follow through, I feel great! I feel that although he is acting horribly, I can stand up for myself and keep my self-respect.

Writing my boundaries in these four easy steps helps me think them through so they’re empowering, honest and effective.

Step 1: Begin the sentence with “When you…”

Define the behavior that causes your negative feeling. Does he narrow his eyes? Interrupt you? Tell you you’re living in a fantasy world? Turn red? Raise his voice?

What is your sign that something “bad” is about to happen? Be descriptive of his BEHAVIOR. If anyone present could see or hear what he’s doing or saying, then you’re describing his behavior, and you’re on the right track.

Step 2: Complete the first sentence with, “…I feel…”.

Abuse causes victims to disconnect from their feelings because your abuser routinely tells you how you should feel! When the disconnection is in play, it is almost impossible to decide how you truly feel. (Download these feeling words from if you get stuck.)

How does your abuser’s behavior make you feel? What is your gut reaction? Do you feel unheard? Attacked? Put-down? Unimportant? Belittled?

At this point, you’ll have a sentence that reads something like this: “When you roll your eyes and interrupt me when I’m talking, I feel unheard and disrespected.”

Step 3: Begin a new sentence with, “I want . . .”

Your “I want” sentence must be specific. “I want to know I am important to you,” is too general.

How do you want the other person to show that you’re important to him? Think of the behavior you want to see (something other people watching the conversation would describe – an action). Do you want him to look you in your eyes when you’re talking? Do you want him to stop interrupting? What does the other person need to show – how could he best behave – in order for you to feel important?

Step 4: Write down “Because I cannot control you, I will…”

What are you willing to do in response to him breaking your personal boundary? Are you willing to leave the room? Leave the house temporarily or permanently? Sing a song in your head instead of listen to any more of his nonsense? Pretend to agree with him? What are you WILLING to do? What is SAFE for you to do?

Personal boundaries are only as good as your desire and ability to enforce them.

It is important to understand that your abuser is as powerless over YOU as you are over him. This does not mean that YOU are powerless over everythingThat is only the illusion your abuser wants to create – he wants you to believe that he is your “everything.”


When you roll  your eyes and interrupt me when I’m talking, I feel unheard and disrespected. I want you to listen to what I have to say. Since I cannot control you, I will leave the room and the conversation temporarily until I feel comfortable enough to talk to you again.”

Two Warnings

Your new strength will confuse and anger him.

When we strip away the pretending that goes into an abusive relationship, your abuser sees that he is powerless over your actions. He uses intimidation and manipulation to pretend he has control over you; when you begin to rebel against his methods, you threaten his pretend world and he strikes out at you in hope that you will fall back under his spell, intimidated.

By creating personal boundaries, you resist his efforts to control you. Be careful as you decide what you will and won’t do in response to your abuser breaking your rules. Choose an option that protects you on all levels.

Boundaries can be manipulative.

Your abuser could try to turn your boundaries around on you by setting his own! Here’s an important warning from the web page that helped me:

“Setting boundaries is not a more sophisticated way of manipulation – although some people will say they are setting boundaries, when in fact they are attempting to manipulate. The difference between setting a boundary in a healthy way and manipulating is: when we set a [healthy] boundary we let go of the outcome.”

This means that you know your abuser may not respect your boundary. Using my example, when I leave the room my abuser may follow me. I will have to enact another boundary (possibly leave the house) to enforce my first one.

Here’s a manipulative boundary:

“When you leave the room when I’m talking to you, I feel enraged and disrespected. Since I cannot control you, I will follow you around until you agree to sit down and listen to me.”

Read over your boundaries. Are you trying to control your abuser’s behavior? Remember, the only person you control is YOU. As much as you may want your abuser to change, you cannot force him to change. Make sure the “I will” part of your boundary describes what you will do to escape the abuse.

Click to visit Kellie Jo Holly's author page

Process of setting boundaries is from Joy2MeU, by Robert Burney.

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  1. Brilliant. I was abused growing up and for years I thought boundaries were about stopping the other person from abusing me, no wonder it didn’t work! The distinction in this article is extemely powerful that boundaries simply describe what you will do to escape the abuse (not what you will do to stop the abuser). Trying to control the abuser is disempowering, but controling your own ‘escape’ puts you in full control and empowers you and that is what enforcing boundaries is all about.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m very bad a setting limits or boundaries but I do try to walk away from abusive episodes and he throws that back at me, saying that I want to control everything and that’s why I walk away and that I’m disrespecting HIM by walking away and leaving him talking to himself.

    • That sounds familiar. Your abuser wants your undivided attention because that’s how he implants ugly things into your mind. But hey, respect goes both ways. If he wants you to listen, then he should speak respectfully to you. You owe him no explanation for walking away, but you should plan for when he follows you. Download the safety plan (free link at bottom of page) and fill it out:

      I have to add the thought of how RIDICULOUS it sounds for him to blame you for leaving him talking to himself. As soon as you walk out, why doesn’t he shut up? LOL Try to have some fun at his expense. I know he sounds big and bad ass, but he’s really just a kid throwing a tantrum. Well, a DANGEROUS kid – so be careful and use the safety plan.

      And something else to remember (sorry, it’s late, I keep editing this because my brain is slow) – he will tell you what he is trying to do by blaming you for doing it. So HE wants to control everything and HE wants to disrespect you and HE wants you talking to yourself using his words (brainwashing!).

      Yep. That is exactly what he wants.

      • Dear Kellie, why do you choose to stay in such a toxic relationship, or are the examples from the past?

      • Dee, I began this website while still married to my abusive husband. I left him in January 2010 and never went back. Between you and me, I don’t want to go back through all the pages I created then to put them in the past tense.

        Thank you for your concern! <3

        I did stay with him for over a year after I realized he abused me because I thought that when he saw how his behavior affected his kids and me, he would want to stop abusing us. He made it clear he wasn’t going to change, and I left.

  3. Oh my gosh this is a life saver. I have been trying to make my own boundaries for a while now and have been failing miserably. My husband always comes back with manipulative boundaries like you talked about, how do you deal with those? For example, i told my husband that “when you get in my face I feel scared and since I cannot control your behavior when you do that I am going to leave the room” and then he responded “when you talk back to me I feel disrespected and since I clearly cannot control you I am going to get in your face until you apologize”

    • It isn’t funny, Crew, what he does with the boundaries, but I did giggle to myself a little in remembrance of my situation. I suggest that you state your boundary once, which you did. From now on, don’t tell him jack crap. Just do what your boundary tells you to do.

      A suggestion for people like your husband who insist on following you around the house: get on the phone with a friend or family member. You don’t have to tell the friend WHY you’re on the phone (unless you want to). This used to shut up my ex pretty quickly. If no one answers you can pretend to talk t someone since modern phones don’t do that annoying “BEEP BEEP BEEP” after talking to air for some time.

      If he escalates and knocks your phone out of your hand, that is physical violence. If he throws your phone, that is also a precursor to physical violence. Those actions are both akin to kidnapping in which your abuser does not allow you freedom of movement or activity. He will deny that it is abuse.

      Another option is to leave the house. Keep a spare key to the car in your bra or hidden on your person. It isn’t fair that YOU have to be the one to leave when HE is clearly the one who needs the time-out, but it works. (If you have the thought, pretend to pull the key out of an outdoor flower pot or from under a rock or something. That way he won’t suspect the key is on YOU in the future. He may just pull up the yard looking for your hiding space though. Make sure you laugh to yourself if he does that!)

      Why don’t you sign up for a mentor from our site? I think you could use the support. If you want to do that, fill out the form on this page:

  4. These are very effective to preserve our sanity, regardless of the outcome. If our abuser is not interested in reconnecting with us, there will be no change on his end, but we will come out empowered and we will reclaim our self-worth.

  5. Looking for Peace says:

    He will INSTANTLY blame me for the way I WORDED THINGS–choosing to FEEL ATTACKED, instead of hearing my words. Over nearly 24 years with MANY therapists, I have changed my communication style more times than I can remember. How said that the WOMAN HE CLAIMS HE FEEL IN LOVE WITH has to CONTINUALLY CHANGE–and still is NOT GOOD enough….FOR HIM~! I was taught over 10 years ago to say “I feel …..when…….” Yet he DENIES that I say that, and claims if I DID, we WOULD NOT HAVE A PROBLEM (taking 0 accountability for HIMSELF!)

    • I don’t think you’re going to find any peace with him. Setting boundaries isn’t about making someone else change his/her behavior. It’s about determining what you will and won’t tolerate. A boundary does no good if you don’t honor it for yourself.

    • Anonn M says:

      This is what I’ve been dealing with for so long….. “it’s not what you say it’s HOW you say it” is another thing I’ve heard over and over! I have tried reason, understanding, agreement, ignorance, even submission. I wish I could leave and I know I can but instead I’ve become more and more like him? I shout back, sometimes first because I mostly just want it over ASAP so I can relax and reflect and try and see where I’m going wrong? My biggest issue is with sex! I avoid it a lot because I know he will ignore me after, which makes me feel really bad. I actually prefer to say no and deal with the aftermath of that than feel that bad later! I love him….. is something I’ve found amusing from others before! Now I say this to myself, and him, all the time? The biggest problem I face is no one to turn to! I’m not sure most of the time if the things he says are true or not because I don’t trust my own judgement and have no one to ask for comparison??? I can’t reach out to anyone because the only people I know knew him first! OMG. I’ve just read this back and it hardly makes sense…. am I crazy?

      • Anonn M says:

        Just to say….. If I try to leave the house he will storm out first… If I manage to leave the house for some peace he will lock me out? I go to another room, he will follow me? He just has to be in control even of my boundaries…. I just want some peace but we have two sons together aand he always threatens to take them from me, something he has actually done on a few occasions I tried to stand up to him! I feel better just typing this… but a little afraid he might seem it? I think I may just be destined to spend my days thankful for the times he comes home from work without a mouthful of insults about what I have or haven’t done all day!

      • He does all of that stuff so you can’t get away from him, right? So you have to get creative. Either tune him out (easier said than done) or wait for him to leave and then YOU leave, too. But not when he can see you do so. Being grateful to a person for not being an asshole is no way to live. Call his bluff and leave him. At least begin thinking about how you could get the hell out of there. He doesn’t respect your boundaries, and you need some peace so you can think clearly.

        Get into counseling (alone, not with him). Go to domestic violence group meetings. At least visit and find out what resources you have locally. Just stick your foot outside of the house a bit, poke around, see what your OTHER possibilities could be.

      • Nope. Not crazy. Abused.

        He’s effectively isolated you from people you trust. Your warped meaning of love to include a person who hurts you is common. It isn’t love, but feels like love because you’re SO attached. People in love are attached via soul, whereas people abused are attached through fear.

        You do have people to turn to. Start by visiting and chatting with a volunteer there. Or call (I preferred to call back in the day). They can validate your feelings, help you feel less crazy, and hook you up with resources near you. You aren’t alone, but you’ve got to go get your army. <3

  6. I am trying like hell to find something, anything, to help me deal with my wife that persistently runs me into the ground and makes me feel like I’m not worth anything and all I read are these articles that use “him” or “he” or “husband” as they give their explanations of how to deal with emotional or verbal abuse. Why is it that, by default, the man or the male in this story is always the protagonist? This is 2016 and things are supposed to be equal now but they are infinitely NOT. I am curious to see if I shall find help from a woman that is TORMENTING me without constantly finding myself immersed in all these articles that are so completely slanted toward the woman’s point of view. As manly as it doesn’t sound, I feel just as lost and hopeless as every girl, every woman, every WOMAN, who suffers from abusive at the hands of a man. It almost seems pointless to try & find a way sometimes. Very frustrating.

  7. Daphne Grover says:

    This is perfect. I grew up with a very verbally abusive and physically too, and she lives near me now. We are actually thinking of moving now. I seem to have taken many of these steps without realizing it, once i had my own kids, entered my 30’s, and i did see the confusion and anger from her, and i still do, but the enforcement of my boundaries is exhaustive and seemingly never-ending. She will ease off, and then tries again.

  8. 10yrsAnonomous says:

    What can you do when the verbally abused is leaving the room/ convo and sometimes the home to escape the abuse? He is very verbally abusive, then wakes up the next morning like nothing ever happened and is mad at me when I’m hurt and upset. I’ve been told to “get over it” for verbal abuse as well as multiple times of infidelity. Would the next consequence-boundary be to leave him? I never threaten it verbally, but I have (head hanging) filed for divorce twice and both times went back because he claims he has changed and acts like a completely different person for about 2 months…then right back to the abuse. It’s extremely confusing to me.

    • Anonymous says:

      You are not alone … My husband also acts like nothing happened and I am told to just deal with it .. that is the way I am. I have gotten involved in a wonderful church and have a group of very supportive women .. or I would have cracked up a long time ago.

  9. I am 22 years old and have been dealing with domestic abuse for almost two years. It’s so crazy how you never think of what a person is capable of after they seem to play you in been the man of your dreams. My son’s father and i met 3 years ago and now have a 1 year old son. He has isolated me from all the ones i considered friends and my family. This are so bad that i did go to the police about 3 months ago. I did get my restraining order, but the fear of his threats against my family made me return to him. I don’t know if this is normal in a abuser, but he is a good father he never hurt my son. I feel all his anger is focused on me with his jealousy. He has ripped my clothes of accusing me of cheating and told me he is going to throw me in the streets so everyone can see the kind of dirty person i am, All the 3 years iv been with him never have i cheated on him. In his mind i am this other person when he is upset he use to be a boxer so when he punches me its tremendous pain I have tried hitting back using self defense but it only made things worse. He started to hit my head against the wall until i fainted in pain. After he did all of this he comes to me in remorse and promises to never injury me like that again. of course it was a lie because this continued. For example if he found out i went on a date with a guy in high school like 5 years ago he will want me to remember everything and tell him the story while he is beating me and calling me all kinds of names degrading to women. Even tried the method you suggested here in expressing how he makes me feel. He lashes back saying well look of how you make me feel you are the one who is unfaithful and always break my heart. When i have never done such thing. I guess out of all of this situation i suffer more for my son he loves his dad and i am so confused into just leaving with my son and him later blaming it on me that i took him away from growing up with his father. I know everyone says just leave, but its so hard and he has even been threatening in getting me pregnant again just so i truly never leave his side because he “Loves Me”.

    • I am so sorry you didn’t get replies. I deal with verbal abuse and think about leaving my husband. Such violence can lead to death, you need to leave!!! Would you rather have your son blame his dad for killing his mom than blame you for growing away from a violent dad? Children WILL copy the male model, so stick around that dirt and your son will ruin another poor girl’s life…
      Another thing to think about… Were your daughter (or son) in your position, would you advise them to bear with it, for the sake of your grandson? I hope this question makes you see you are not doing good for him either. Most psichologicly disturbed men come from abusive families! And every day you are taking the risk of your husband hitting/killing your son. Oh, I don’t know your situation, you husband, he never did it? NEITHER DO YOU! He might have never done it to your one-two-yeared son, but are you sure he won’t do it at some point to your five-six-yeared son who tries to protect his mother, enraging him! But don’t worry, each time after he bruises him, he’ll SWEAR he’ll never do it again. Each day that passes makes the separation harder and more necessary, so just do it as soon as possible!

      PLEASE tell me you left him by now! I pray for you!

  10. Anonymous says:

    If I made rules like this I do not think we would ever have a conversation. My husband is perfectly fine “forgetting” about his tantrums or bad behavior. What can I do? If I tell him I want to discuss it, and applied boundaries ( for example .. turn off the tv when we talk, no interrupting, no eye rolling, no name calling) I would get up an leave and we would never speak about his behavior. I have a feeling it would be a dream come true for him. He wants to act however he wants, lose him temper, say mean things, roll his eyes, etc … and then 2 hours later expects everything to be fine in the household. ( I cant tell you how mental this makes me feel … especially when he wants to have sex … the rages and angry faces he makes just echo in my mind the whole time) This has been going on for 12 years. Now that my daughter is 13 she is starting to ask me why we don’t just leave him. Tuesday morning I told him that his anger was affecting our family, and his daughter. I told him there is so much good in him, but it seems that he is stuck in angry and we don’t know how to help him. He sputtered some stuff about “why do you stay with me?” and “Ive been this way my whole life” which I relied “not true.” Then he went out of town for business for two days. Now he is back and slept in the guest room. He still has not come down. Its like he is hiding in there. The kicker is I feel bad! I feel back for calling him out. I feel like I must be the mean one because of how he is avoiding me. Messed up, right? So I am really trying to discern if I try to approach him, or let him come to me?

    • Why don’t you do some nice things for yourself and your daughter during this time? Your husband is currently acting out by withdrawing from you (a form of abuse). Practice a bit of detachment – take your daughter somewhere fun, and make time to do something fun that YOU enjoy, too. Self-care is a much healthier activity to practice than beating yourself up for nothing.

      Don’t feel bad about beating yourself up though! It’s a normal reaction from a good person who wants to keep being a good person. But, you’re under the influence of an abusive person, and some time away from him would do you good.

    • I’m struggling with that exact same thing! The “forgetting”, the acting like nothing happened. Nice to know that my gut feeling about it being a tactic was right! He expects me to just make up with him and move on. He doesn’t get the damage that has been done over the past 20+ years. I too end up feeling bad and I too feel completely lost and mental. I’ve even just thought how great it would to die…which seems weird to write now bc I’m not in the middle of that agony. I’m right now thankful to be alive. I’m going to try this boundaries advice though. I think it could help my sanity. I’m actually getting to spend a few nights with my best friend. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I completely get it. My husband uses this tactic with me as well. In my opinion, it’s merely a manipulative tactic to get us to surrender, if you will, and admit to them that we’ve done something wrong by calling them out on their behavior. I deal with this on a weekly basis. I know it’s difficult, because we are caring people, but try really hard not to be manipulated into feeling guilty. You’ve done nothing wrong by calling attention to his poor behavior. Plan a fun day with your daughter to get out of the house and enjoy yourselves. Ignore the fact that’s he’s hiding, like it’s nothing out of the ordinary, and carry on with your day.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…even started going to a psychologist to help cope with his terrible behavior. But here is my question that I can’t completely answer myself : why do we stay with this type of person? Someone who calls us names, degrades, insults, belittles, shows zero respect for, inconsiderate of ANY feeling/emotions provoked by THEM. I just don’t understand why we stay. I see many women who’ve been in this for 20+ yrs. I know part of my reason is because I don’t want to leave my daughter in his care without me, he’s threatened to take her away (and he and his parents have plenty of money to make that happen), and he makes me feel insecure to on my own financially. If anyone would like to share their reasoning, I would sincerely appreciate it. Feeling alone in this craziness. I can’t imagine how mentally exhausted I’ll be by 20 years…10 years in now.

  13. I used to walk away and go into my bedroom and lock the door. He would yell through the door. Finally he broke down the door. I would love to leave the house but now my car is broken down and I live way out in a suburb with no where to even walk to!

  14. My mother has been the target of my sister’s abuse most often although I have been abused by her as well. The most recent attack on my mother was especially vicious. Since my mom is elderly I am concerned for her safety. Currently I have not had contact w my sister on advice from a therapist. However I am unclear of how to set a boundary with her when I do speak with her since I am not the current target (but that will change I’m sure if I call her out on her behavior towards our mom.) Looking for advice.

  15. Soon to be Ex-wife says:

    I’d take this a step further. Don’t bother setting boundaries with an abuser. Set the boundaries with yourself, and do.not.compromise. After a while the abuser will ask what’s going. At this point the abuser notices the boudnary and is aware things are changing and is having a reasonable discussion and asking for information give it to him. Last time X happened, I don’t want a repeat, so now I’m doing Y.

    Yes warning people is nice, but warning people also serves as a warning and in abusive situation that leads more conflict and abuse, tells the abuser how to prevent and violate your boundary if possible (and its possible if the abuse still has access to you or your children).

    Rather than invite the abuse to get as agressive as possible, and possibly physically violent, just do stealth boundaries. This gives you, not him, the element of surprise, and means that you get to effectively enforce your boundaries several times before he figures out what’s going on and offloads and it gives you powerful evidence that his tactics, do not actually work anymore. It’s not manipulative at all. Boundaries are for him, not you, so stealth boundaries you put on yourself about how you are going to deal with him are perfectly fine. He doesn’t get to be a apart of that conversation or decision.

    One of the things that gets left out sometimes is that you don’t have to justify or explain your boundaries to other people.

    Of course with non abusers that can be helpful to communicate what your boundaries are and why, because normal decent human beings will communicate back and once you understand one another then you can both voluntarily adjust, but since that’s not going to happen with an abuser.

    The effect of this is emotional distance. Which makes it easier and less painful to leave.

  16. I like the article on how to set boundaries, and I feel like I might not be on the right track when I told my husband I was setting boundaries for him. I told him that my boundaries were:
    get a new phone
    get a new phone number
    don’t talk to 3 specific people anymore
    read 1 self help book per month
    attend counseling regularly

    or I will file for divorce.
    He argued with me and said those weren’t boundaries, but were actually orders.
    Am I completely wrong?

    • They’re orders? That sounds like an abuser talking. None of those ‘demands’ infringe on who he is or what he does. He feels like they are orders because YOU are supposed to be HIM at all times. I mean, you are supposed to be, say and do only what he thinks a wife SHOULD behave, how he imagines HE would behave if he were you. It’s complicated, I know.

      Short answer is that you are NOT ordering him around. You are stating what YOU will do.

      You are right, he is wrong.

      But think about this: you don’t have to tell him ANY of those things. Granted, going to counseling and getting a new phone can cost money, so he may find out about them if you don’t have a way to keep them secret. You could get a prepaid phone and only use it for emergencies, and you could tell him the counseling was to help you be a better wife (he’d like that idea). Lying to him may seem foreign, but it is recommended that you do NOT tell the abuser of your plans. It gets dangerous when they know you are planning to leave.

      This question actually deserves a whole post. There is an undercurrent of severe abuse that you may not recognize at this point. Could you please call the domestic violence hotline? Talk to them and see what is available to you locally. And don’t tell your husband what you’re doing.

      One more thing about the boundaries though. They are set on a point f what you will do IN THE FUTURE (divorce him IF he doesn’t allow these things, and you mention a month for the book, so a month is a LONG time in the future). To protect yourself from abuse, make boundaries that you can act upon immediately.

      For example, let’s say you’re sitting at the table reading your self-help book. He interrupts repeatedly, wanting you to STOP reading that book.

      You could say, “I want to read my book in silence. If you don’t stop interrupting me, I will go over to the neighbors and read it there.” And the next time he interrupts, you go over to the neighbors and read it there. (Or drive to the library, or go to the bedroom and listen to white noise with headphones while you read, or…?).

What do you think? Tell us!