Setting Boundaries Against Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse“Boundaries” has become a buzzword in today’s culture. Though Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend published their iconic book on the topic back in the 90s, it remains consistently relevant—particularly in Christian circles, where many feel inclined to give more than they can or should.

In Cloud and Townsend’s book (which, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone), they discuss how and why one should create healthy physical, mental, emotional and spiritual boundaries. The trend of my life as of late has involved setting intentional and specific emotional boundaries; so, at the risk of beating the “boundaries” topic to death, I want to share my experience and where God has directed me for my own emotional protection.

Identifying the Abuse

My story involves someone close to my heart, whom (for the sake of her own identity protection) I will call Martha. I want to clearly state that I love Martha, and I do believe she loves me; however, for reasons I assume stem from her difficult past, Martha tends to want control over the ones she loves.

Psychology Today describes emotional abuse as “an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person.” However, the perpetrator usually does not know that she is being abusive. I believe Martha’s case fits this description. Some tactics of emotional abusers include constant criticisms and manipulation, shaming and belittling language, withholding affection, threats of punishment, mind games, refusal to communicate at all, and attempts to isolate the target from supportive friends and family. Martha has used all of these techniques in various points of our relationship.

The term “gaslighting” encompasses one of the most hurtful and confusing tactics Martha has used in our relationship (quite frequently, in fact). It involves causing someone to doubt him or herself and altering one’s sense of reality, usually through a series of lies and manipulations. This tactic can make a person feel crazy, as the “gaslighter” causes one to question what they saw or heard in recent or distant events.

Martha usually uses this tactic in the presence of others; she will tell a story involving me but add her own twist, usually making me appear cruel, stupid, ungrateful, etc. Though I know her twist is a lie, I often begin to question myself and wonder if I really am cruel, stupid, ungrateful, etc. In the times I have confronted Martha about her gaslighting, she plays the victim role and acts hurt by my confrontation, which sometimes confuses me even more. Like I said, this tactic can make a person feel crazy.

Limiting Contact

I’ve always thought the best way to love Martha involves shrugging off her hurtful tendencies and focusing on her good qualities. She can be fun, generous, thoughtful and caring, after all. But through years of prayer, some good counseling sessions and a better understanding of both boundaries and emotional mechanics, I’m learning that other options do exist for protecting myself and my family, including the choice to love Martha from a safe distance.

God used the story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31) to show me setting boundaries, even with ones close to us, can honor Him while shielding ourselves and our families from emotional abuse. In Jacob’s story, he spends many years working for his uncle, Laban, but suddenly, “Laban’s attitude toward [Jacob] was not what it had been.” (v. 2) Jacob later describes his toxic situation while working for his uncle (v. 40-42), and the Lord instructs Jacob to flee. (v. 3) Laban eventually catches up to Jacob after he leaves, then accuses Jacob of deception and carrying off his daughters “like captives in war.” (v. 26) Laban also claims he would have sent Jacob off with “joy and singing,” and states that he “has the power to harm [Jacob].” (v. 29)

Laban sounds to me like a master manipulator who plays mind games with Jacob when he doesn’t get what he wants. Fortunately, God interferes in the situation and protects Jacob from Laban’s harm by rebuking the manipulative uncle (v. 42). Jacob and Laban end their dispute by setting physical boundaries between them using pillars; they make a covenant not to pass over the boundaries and harm one another. (v. 51-52)

Setting Boundaries With an Open Heart

Boundaries will not necessarily last forever. Sometimes we set them to protect ourselves for a time, but we can always adjust them if circumstances change and trust is re-established.

In the case of Martha and me, I’ve put a temporary season of no-contact in place while I re-evaluate the relationship and my own emotional health. So far, Martha has respected the boundary and not “passed over to harm me,” for which I am grateful. The season could last a few months, or a few years, or a few decades. Whatever the length, I intend to keep my heart open to whatever God wants, and to wait and pray expectantly for His miraculous interference. Thy will be done.

Peace and blessings,

Kat, (semi-professional) insomniac