Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People


Shelia Wray Gregoire at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum just posted an article on how to stop an emotional abuse cycle in marriage. The bottom line is consistently drawing a boundary — saying something like, “I will not tolerate belittling words. Come talk to me when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion” and then walking away.

As both a victim and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, I back this advice 100%.

I remember the first time, back in our dating days, when my husband refused to tolerate my berating. It was a late night, I was tired and stressed, I was being a classic jerk, and we were using that greatest of all communication methods — text. A small problem that could’ve been solved with a good night’s sleep on my end spiraled into a nasty character assassination. He finally texted, “I’m done with this conversation. Good night.”

It shocked me.

But it wasn’t his words alone that shocked me. It was the fact that he really was done with this conversation. He turned his phone off and went to bed, ignoring the tirade of desperate, angry messages I sent him in response to his boundary. When we both woke up the next morning, he still didn’t respond — and I was the one shamefacedly scrolling through last night’s vitriol, all so clearly one-sided and petty in the light of day. I felt so guilty that I sought him out, apologized, and moved on to more respectful conversations.

Boundary drawing works. (Not to be confused with stonewalling, which is another characteristic of dysfunctional couples and only further feeds the cycle of emotional abuse.)

The simple skill of meaning what you say and walking away from unproductive conversations and unwanted behavior applies to many other areas of life.

I use this regularly in comment moderation. If I say I am done with a conversation, I mean that I’m done. Even if the antagonist responds to that comment and tries to bait me back into the conversation, I don’t reply. I stay done. When engaging with someone disrespectful and intrusive, the best defense is a firm, consistent boundary I intend to follow through on.

It seems too simple, but it’s actually quite rare. The majority of people enter back into hopeless Facebook threads after dramatically announcing they’re through with the conversation. “I can’t believe I’m getting dragged into this again,” they’ll say,

No buts. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

I instantly respect people who really do quit the conversation and refuse to budge, regardless of how the trolls play. And even if the trolls don’t share the same respect I do for that person, what can they do about it? They can’t touch a person who isn’t gratifying their disrespect with a reaction of any kind.

Oddly, this is the sort of thing we were supposed to have learnt in grade school. I taught my kids this little ditty about handling bullies and difficult people:

We don’t fight!
Talk it over, walk away,
Find another game to play. 

(And always feel free to come tell the teacher!)

It’s the same principle as Sheila shares in her article for adults. If respectful conversation isn’t possible, walk away and engage yourself in something else. Don’t get dragged into a cage match. It never ends well.

It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that many adults do not know how to appropriately deal with conflict or regulate their emotions even on this grade school level. We don’t talk it over and walk away. We don’t only say something when we have something nice to say. We don’t hold our hands and find our patience.

We all learned the catchphrases, but nobody explicitly taught us or modeled how to apply them when emotions ran their hottest. Now as adults, we feel as justified in lashing out because of our big people problems as we did throwing tantrums as little kids with our little people problems.

In fact, I see a direct correlation between a child having a meltdown and screaming out, “I hate you!” at her mommy and the wife having a meltdown and screaming similar epithets at her husband. There’s so much bottled up, legitimate, but unregulated pain and frustration that it explodes in verbal violence.

A parent’s response, much like a spouse’s, is often to fire back with sarcasm or equally hurtful words, to domineer, to in some way out-emotion the offender — or on the other end, to stonewall, cave in, bend over backwards, and just buy that bag of Oreos in the checkout line already. But none of those things are effective in the long-term, neither for children nor for emotionally unregulated adults.

That’s how I view both adult and child tantrums now — desperate cries for a cool head to step in and help deal with crushing emotion. And the first step to stepping in is often bowing out.

I once worked with a child who threw major tantrums — we’re talking overturning desks, hiding under tables, refusing to budge, along with the general symptoms of crying, screaming, and abandoning reason. I was at a complete loss until I picked up the simple tip of ignoring his tantrums.

“J,” I would tell him over his screams. “I can see you are frustrated that you can’t tie your shoes. I would love to help you. When you’re ready to calm down, come tell me and I’ll help you tie your shoes.”

Then I would walk away. Nothing he did drew my attention back to him. Inevitably — and it was a shorter and shorter period each time — I would feel a little tug and turn to find his tear-streaked face trying to burrow into my arms from shame and exhaustion. I would again reiterate how happy I was to help, and we would talk about how to handle future problems, and we would hug and spend some extra quality time together as we waited for the buses to arrive.

His behavior improved dramatically. All he wanted was attention, and he knew, both from my words and my avoidance of his tantrums, that the only way to get my attention was to approach me directly in a more regulated manner.

I think this is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships where the abusive partner isn’t suffering from a personality or character disorder like narcissism.* Something goes wrong in the relationship — someone doesn’t feel heard, loved, understood, respected, etc. — and the repeated efforts to fix what’s wrong fall on deaf ears and a hard heart. That’s when the adult tantrum — verbal and emotional abuse — starts to seem not only appealing but necessary.

If he doesn’t listen when I’m calmly, sweetly, respectfully presenting my thoughts and feelings, maybe he’ll listen if I scream it at the top of my lungs, slam a door, or throw a pillow or two. 

This is, obviously, a two-fold problem of emotional regulation on the one spouse’s part and of whatever behavior the other spouse committed that was contributing to the first spouse’s desperation.

Drawing emotional boundaries — and more importantly, keeping them — won’t snap boom bang fix the initial problem, but it will allow for the respectful conversations that will eventually bring about a solution. That’s a fresh start all relationships need from time to time.

*I’m going to offer a caveat similar to Sheila’s — many times the root of emotional abuse isn’t a misunderstanding compounded by emotional dysfunction but a serious psychological, personality, or character flaw in one individual. Drawing boundaries with this sort of person will neither save your marriage nor change your spouse. If you find yourself married to this kind of person, please empower yourself, seek professional help, and keep yourself and your children safe. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People

  1. lmshunk

    Thanks for this. I’ve been in an emotionally abusive marriage for almost a decade and only just in the last year have figured out how to name it and finally got my husband into therapy. It’s a looooong ways off to health but reading things like this helps.


    • Bailey Steger

      My heart breaks for you…almost ten years? I’m so glad you found the information and the courage to name the abuse and get help. I sincerely, sincerely hope therapy turns your husband around and restores your marriage, sooner rather than later.


  2. Lea

    Drawing boundaries helps in so many day to day situations too. Just simply saying no, and walking away without rancor, nips a lot of little problems in the bud.

    Now, I’m not naturally inclined to rant at people and yell in any way – my instincts are all to withdraw which is a different sort of problem. So maybe this is easier for me in general, idk.


  3. Mike Stearns

    To be honest, this post seems generic and vague. It’s good advice for professional relationships, but for personal ones, not so much unless you’re dealing with an emergency situation with someone you really don’t like. If you have a sibling, neighbor, or acquaintance you don’t really get along with, drawing boundaries like this is fine, but for closer relationships, you need to take a deeper look.

    I say this because emotional abuse in positive personal relationships is usually the result of a complex social dynamic gone askew. You develop habits and expectations over time from the personal chemistry you share, so you expect someone else to pick up on signals without saying anything more. “Picking up” is our way of showing compassion because it’s our way of taking initiative without being told. Not only does this show we’re not robots, but it also shows a surprise to the other which is truly comforting.

    For example, sometimes, you rub the other’s shoulder, give one a hug, and don’t say a word at all. Other times, you know the other’s serious, so you don’t empathize because you know things really need to be paid attention to. Sometimes, you spontaneously create something for your partner to show what you feel. Other times, you’re getting errands and chores taken care of because it’s what needs to get done.

    The problem is that over time, people grow and change. We don’t remain our past selves forever. We learn lessons, develop new interests, and get exhausted. The habits and expectations we have for each other in the past no longer apply, so frustration happens kind of like growing pains. When these changes happen, they need to be communicated… but how? If the communication is too explicit, then it brings us back to the problem of programming the other like a robot. If it’s not explicit at all, then it leaves the other guessing since we treat them like unrealistic mindreaders.

    If we simply draw boundaries at this point, then it creates distance which diminishes the value of how close you are together. Yea, you get by, but that’s not the point. Your relationship is supposed to be a celebration of your personalities bonding together, not a limitation.

    My advice at this point is you have to play games together, and I mean literal games, not mind games. The goal isn’t to be purely entertained by them though although you should be partially entertained. You have to use them as a learning device to see how each other relates with finding the goals of the game entertaining. Taboo, Pictionary, word association, cards, Jenga, board games, mini golf, and anything else that’s easy going works here. You want to play something where the objective can be achieved in a variety of ways so you can see which options the other prefers. It also lets you show how your own personality changed by letting you prefer options for the other to see.

    Coincidentally, this is why a lot of couples like to play games with other couples. It puts them all in a relaxed mood where they can trust other couples to mediate in case the game goes awry. You can also play on teams with or against your partner to show how you expect your partner to socialize among others.

    I emphasize that it’s important to play games here and not do something else like riding bikes together, dancing to music together, giving someone a massage, or reading books together. What you do has to be goal oriented because the point is to see how your partner gets points across. Playing games literally involves scoring points, so it gives a reliable medium for you to see the other without being too explicit about it.

    This also resolves the “…but…” problem because games have rules that you don’t get to break. If you want, you can create house rules before starting the game, but playing the game compels you to follow-through on whatever those rules are. Heck, it might even be good to create house rules because it helps share expectations on what behavior is expected before it happens.

    If you play games regularly, it will help you stay in touch with the other’s changes. There’s an added bonus when having a family too where you have a regular game night. It helps teach expectations to your kids without being too forward about what you want to teach.


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