Three Critical Steps to Setting Boundaries with an Abuser

Defusing a conversation with an abusive person can be very difficult. In the barrage of insults, accusations, and harsh words, many abused people find themselves reacting. Given that fact, it’s not uncommon for the abused person to wonder if they are in fact to blame for their abuse.

Stopping the cycle involves disengaging your emotions from the situation to stop the abuse itself, and to set healthy boundaries with an abusive person you may still have to interact with. 

Proverbs 26:20 says:

For lack of wood the fire goes out. (NIV)

While you may want to defend yourself and convince the abuser that you have their best interest in mind, doing so only sends a signal to an argumentative person that they have the power to manipulate your emotions with false claims and accusations.

And, it only gets you stirred up when the abuser uses your own words and feelings against you.

To further avoid fueling the fire of abusive rage, there are three critical steps you must take to establish boundaries in your interactions with this person.

Three Steps to Stopping An Abusive Conversation

Oftentimes, it is easiest to converse with an abuser by written means, like text. Sometimes, that isn’t possible, or you may find yourself confronted in person by your abuser when you weren’t expecting it. 

If having a conversation with an abuser in person is a necessity, it is advisable that you involve another safe person, and/or meet in a visible, public place. If ever a conversation becomes a confrontation, the following three steps will help you to establish good boundaries with the abuser.

Set a Boundary.

When you feel attacked by your abuser, it is important to employ “boundary phrases” to make sure you are clear what behaviors are unacceptable to you. If the abuser is yelling, name calling, or invalidating, you can simply say, “I won’t be able to talk to you about this further if you are going to speak to me that way.” It’s not an ultimatum; it’s notice of the consequences their actions will garner. It’s simple cause and effect, something that comes along with every choice we make, whether good or bad.

Be a Broken Record.

If you set the boundary and the abuser persists with argumentative behavior, simply repeat the boundary phrase again. And again. Don’t say anything else. The abuser will probably get more vicious in an attempt to knock you off balance, but addressing these attempts at escalation will only enable the behavior to continue. Just keep repeating your boundary phrase and do not resume conversing.

Leave.

If after repeating the boundary phrase a handful of times the abuser does not relent, then let them know calmly that you aren’t comfortable with the situation and that you will need to discuss it at another time. Or, if the conversation does not need to continue, you can say something like, “It seems we just disagree on this issue.” If the abuser continues to harass you, do not respond. Pray for God’s presence and protection (out loud if you have to). If you are in danger, call the police (don’t threaten it, just do it).

By setting boundaries, sticking to them, and removing yourself from the situation, you will stand a much better chance of getting away from the abusive situation without reacting to the toxicity. In a matter of time, you will see that the abuser’s patterns of behavior become somewhat predictable, and you will feel less inclined to defend yourself to or persuade a person whom you know will not listen.

When the Abuse Doesn’t Stop

While we would like to believe that enough counseling and pastoral care can change the situation, many victims of abuse will tell you that this often isn’t the case. The book of Proverbs repeatedly tells us that angry, foolish people are not to be reasoned with; Proverbs 22:10 says “Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease” (ESV).  Strife lies within the abuser, not the relationship. Until the abuser takes it upon themselves to change their mindset to one that is Christ-like and God-honoring, the best course of action is often to remove yourself entirely, and limit your interactions to those that are absolutely essential.

Before ever addressing an abuser’s behavior, please ensure you have a safety plan in place to protect yourself and your children: consider a plan that protects your physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and mental well-being.

Michelle Donnelly

Michelle Donnelly is the President and CEO of PlusONE Parents, a ministry devoted to helping single parents overcome overwhelming situations to rebuild God-empowered lives and raise up a new generation. A mother of three, Michelle is also the host of The Christian Single Moms Podcast and author of Seen: Hope & Healing for Single Moms as well as Safe Haven: A Devotional for the Abused and Abandoned.

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