Abuse Hides in the Dark. Turn on Your Light.

How to Set Boundaries to Protect Against Abuse

A long fence row that disappears into fog. Knowing how to set boundaries is like setting a fence. Before you change it, you should be absolutely sure it's what you want to do.

How to Stand Up for Yourself

“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!), being mean, and whatnot. I’ve learned that I can’t fight fire with fire. My husband can out-yell, out-intimidate, and out-mean me every time.

Creating 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.

How to Set Boundaries in Four Easy Steps

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

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

What is your sign that something “bad” is about to happen? Be descriptive of the abuser’s 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.

Think about how your abuser’s behavior makes 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 abuser to show that you’re important to them? 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 abuser need to show – how could they 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 listening 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 them. This does not mean that YOU are powerless over everything. That 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 for Learning How to Set Boundaries

Your new strength will confuse and probably anger your abuser.

When we strip away the pretending that goes into an abusive relationship, your abuser sees that they are powerless over your actions. They use intimidation and manipulation to pretend they have control over you. But when you begin to rebel against the abuser’s methods, you threaten their pretend world and they strike out at you in the hope that you will fall back under their spell, intimidated.

By creating personal boundaries, you resist your abuser’s 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 their own (incorrectly)! 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.”

Robert Burney

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 leaving 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 them to change. Make sure the “I will” part of your boundary describes what you will do to escape the abuse.

Learn more:

The process of setting boundaries is from Joy2MeU, by Robert Burney.

Featured photo by Erin Larson

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