How to set boundaries in an emotionally abusive relationship

Emotional abuse is terrifying and traumatic. 

It’s no less real than physical or sexual abuse, and sometimes even more damaging. 

If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship that you aren’t yet able to leave, this guide is for you. 

Escape the emotional abuse cycle 

The emotional abuse cycle follows certain patterns in every toxic relationship

It tends to be bipolar.

There is the time when things seem “fine” and the abusive partner is building you up and treating you well. 

He or she is praising you and being affectionate and emotionally close. 

Then there are the times when you can’t do anything right and everything is “bad.”

The abusive partner is tearing you down and emotionally distant, verbally abusing you and blaming you for everything going wrong in his or her life. 

You’re the cause of all your partner’s problems! You’re the curse on their life!

Just weeks ago you were somebody they appreciated and wanted more of, now you seem to have ruined their life and be irredeemable. 

The next phase of the cycle is that you internalize this bipolar approval/disapproval cycle and begin seeking that feeling of being approved of and valued again. 

You put yourself last and start seeking out the confirmation of being loved by your emotionally abusive partner. 

You make excuses for his or her ill treatment. 

“He or she didn’t mean it.”

“He or she is going through a hard time.”

“We just need to work on our communication.”

And so on.

All excuses, all zero justification for somebody blaming you for their problems and treating you badly. 

That’s why it’s necessary to escape the cycle by setting firm boundaries.  

Set hard limits 

The way to create healthy boundaries in an emotionally abusive relationship is actually to remove emotions from it temporarily. 

Don’t get angry or sad and passionately talk about why you can’t take this anymore. 

If you do decide to break up and leave that is one thing, but if you’re still in love or see a way to make this work, then you need to set limits calmly. 

You need to set hard limits:

“Speak to me at a normal volume.”

“Do not blame me for your problems.”

“Treat me with basic respect.”

“Handle your own share of responsibilities.”

“Do not get drunk or high and then expect me to tolerate it.” 

Of course, these limits only mean something if they are specifically defined and actually followed. 

You need to make it clear what will occur if you are not respected on this. 

An emotionally abusive partner thrives on limits which he or she knows you won’t stick to.  

The emotionally abusive individual may often put forward a false or easy apology just to get this stressful situation to go away and go back to being able to regain control and gaslight you. 

You can’t let that happen. 

That’s why you need to have actual defined penalties.

An apology just isn’t good enough, because apologies are easy but actually follow up and actions are a lot harder. 

That’s why the consequences of your emotionally abusive partner crossing your boundaries need to be enforced. 

Sticking to your limits

spiritual exhaustion symptoms How to set boundaries in an emotionally abusive relationship

Sticking to your limits is all about having actual consequences for when the emotionally abusive partner breaks them or crosses the line. 

You need to have your limits clearly defined and the consequences clearly defined. 

This will vary in each situation. 

Options include: 

  • Removing financial support you may be giving to your partner or ceasing to do activities that you do to help out around the house or between the two of you.
  • Taking a separation period at the time your partner crosses your boundaries the first time.
  • Taking a second, longer separation the second time your partner crosses your boundaries.
  • Making it clear that not only will you leave, but you have real and already set fallback plans in place to completely leave and not come back if your partner crosses the boundary a third time.

Here’s the thing:  

Emotionally manipulative and abusive individuals know all the tricks in the book about how to persuade you that they’re sorry or they didn’t mean it or it was your fault or it won’t happen again. 

But if you don’t enforce your boundaries then they’re not boundaries. 

They’re just lies you’re telling yourself. 

In order to enforce your boundaries, it’s crucial to understand the deeper roots of why you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship and what it means. 

One thing which has really helped me was watching this free masterclass on finding true love and intimacy from the Brazilian shaman Rudá Iandê. 

Rudá really digs into the lies we tell ourselves and how to unravel them and have relationships that are actually mutual and empowering instead of one-sided. 

Check out the free video here.

The truth about emotionally abusive relationships

The truth about emotionally abusive relationships is that they don’t usually happen by accident. 

If you’re in a relationship with an emotionally abusive person it is not your fault. 

But that does not mean there are not certain roots of why you are tolerating this situation that you need to examine and take a deeper look at. 

There are three key things to take a look at in terms of emotionally abusive relationships. 

Understand your attachment style

More than half a century ago, American psychologist John Bowbly developed his concept of attachment theories. 

He theorized that how we relate to love and sex is greatly influenced by how we’re treated as a young infant and child. 

According to Bowlby, we develop anxious, avoidant or secure attachment style. 

The anxious style worries about not being worthy of love and needs constant reassurance. 

The avoidant style feels unable to depend on love and finds it stifling and unenjoyable. 

The secure style is comfortable receiving and giving love with a normal amount of separation and closeness as the context demands. 

Each situation is different, but oftentimes if we’ve ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship it’s because we inhabit an anxious attachment style. 

We seek to feel “good enough” and our partner comes to play the role of deciding what is good enough or not about us. 

Being an anxious attachment style isn’t “bad.”

It’s just a matter of understanding how your early childhood needs that weren’t filled could be contributing to the hold that an emotionally abusive partner has over you now. 

Gaining greater self-awareness over your attachment style can be a big step forward in drawing the boundaries that need to be drawn. 

Set your own internal boundaries

falling out of love after infidelity How to set boundaries in an emotionally abusive relationship

Before your external boundaries with your partner can be effective and real, you need to set your own internal boundaries

This can be the hardest of all to do, and here’s why:

When we cross an internal line it’s only us who knows!

When you give a partner another chance when we really shouldn’t, nobody may know but you and her…

When you break a diet, break a promise to yourself or decide not to work when you really should and you’re freelance, nobody knows but you!

The long term consequences may eventually catch up with you, but it’s quite possible to go many years lying to yourself and never get caught.

That’s why so many people do it. 

Self-deception seems like an easy choice at times, easier than facing the cold hard truth of reality. 

In a toxic and emotionally abusive relationship it can be especially tempting:

You love somebody but they’re unstable and sometimes treat you terribly.

You should leave them, but you love them. 

You promised yourself you’d leave the next time they came home drunk or cheated on you, but you didn’t. 

But so what?

You’re the only one who knows, this is between the two of you, right? 

What are you going to do about it? 

And even if your friends or therapists or other people tell you to break up, you know you’d miss this person like crazy if you were broken up. 

So you stay. 

The solution?

Set your own internal boundaries and stick to them. Trust yourself before you trust yourself to apply boundaries to somebody else and truly stick to them. 

Turn the tables

Enforcing the consequences for your partner can be difficult, especially if you love them a lot. 

But turn the tables a bit:

How would they behave if it was you acting the way they are?

How would they act if you treated and spoke to them the way they do to you?

Not well at all, right?

If they love you and are not just using you, they need to start abiding by your boundaries. 

The threats and emotional manipulation needs to stop. It’s as simple as that. 

And if they can’t stop without hating you or breaking up, then they never really loved you in the first place, or at least they need to find a much healthier way to express it. 

Pulling the plug 

Of course the ultimate limit to a relationship is leaving it and not coming back

This is sometimes the only solution to an emotionally abusive relationship. 

But before pulling the plug, it’s important to be sure that you’re looking at this clearly. 

Don’t gaslight yourself, or allow yourself to be gaslighted, for creating reasonable boundaries and your partner breaking them. 

Don’t gaslight yourself, or allow yourself to be gaslighted, for expressing what you feel and saying it honestly. 

If you’ve made your boundaries clear and your partner has broken them repeatedly then it can come to the point where you do need to part ways. 

As Megan Lane from Healthy Place says in the video below: 

“In a healthy relationship, an argument or a verbally abusive encounter will not ensue simply because I stood up for myself or spoke my mind.”

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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