7 Things Your Emotionally Abusive Partner Does When You Set Boundaries
I’ve previously written two articles that focus on the abuse target and the stages of healing she goes through as well as the ten steps she has to take to get out of the pit of abuse hell.
Today I want to focus on the emotionally abusive relationship and the predictable things emotionally abusive men do when the target begins to wake up and set enforceable boundaries.
The Abuse Cycle
We have to start with the abuse cycle to understand emotionally abusive behavior. The circle goes around and around with both partners participating in the never-ending spin.
One side is the “good” side when things seem to be going well – the abuse target is on her best behavior, not making waves, not needing him to come through in any way, placating and managing his emotions successfully.
(Is this actually “good?” I don’t think so. But it feels good to the abuse target because she gets some perceived relief from the abuse during this phase.)
The other side is the “bad” side when things are falling apart – the abuse target needs something or has a bad day or gives her abuser feedback, and the emotional abuser attacks her with shaming, blaming, denial, accusation, minimizing, mutualizing, and diverting words and behaviors.
Remember that in a healthy relationship, there is no “good and bad” side. It’s not a circle. It’s a line with two people progressing forward, side by side, always able to work through conflict with respect and empathy for one another.
This cycle continues to spin in an emotionally abusive relationship until one partner makes a choice to do things differently.
The Abuse Target Makes a Break-Out Attempt
This is when the abuse target asserts the truth of who she is and what she believes. She DEFINES herself rather than allowing her spiritually or emotionally abusive partner to define her.
She sets a healthy boundary that causes her to step outside the abuse cycle.
For example, when he tells her she cannot spend the money she earns from her new job without asking his permission and that she has to put it all into an account only he controls, she may say,
“I am an adult woman earning money. I will make adult decisions on my own about how I spend that money. We can share it and discuss our budget together like two adults, but I will not ask permission to spend it on something I need for myself or for the family or the household.”
Then she walks away because she doesn’t need to listen to what comes next:
Predictable Thing One: The Emotionally Abusive Person Growls and Barks
And has a temper tantrum. I mean, HOW DARE his silly little wifey define her OWN SELF?!?!?!? That’s HIS job as the Head of the Home. The King of the Hill. The Grand Pooh Bah.
So he barks and growls and stomps his feet, flinging accusations and select Bible verses at her back as she makes her exit. Spewing as much verbal abuse and blame as he can.
The poor little abuser-man isn’t a happy camper, and he will work hard to make sure his target emotionally pays for stepping outside his definition of who she is.
The abuse target has one of two choices here.
- She can get back into her place in the circle of abuse, bringing equilibrium back into the equation by placating her partner. This is what often happens, and it’s why the circle works so well for her emotional abuser. He knows the Bible verses will make her feel guilty. He knows his lack of affection will make her feel lonely. He knows his well-selected accusations will make her feel shame. And all these negative feelings will pull her back into the circle like strong magnets, and round and round they will continue to spin.
- OR, she can do this:
Implement an Enforceable Consequence
Here’s an example: She tells him if he continues to berate her and/or give her the silent treatment, she will take something he likes – that she provides – away from him. In this case, she opens up her own checking account and has her paycheck direct deposited into that account.
She wanted to work together with her partner, but he wasn’t interested in that, so now she made the adult decision to take responsibility for her own income. She gets herself off his credit card accounts and opens up her own credit card account and begins to build her own credit rating.
Another example: she makes the decision not to sleep with him until he has had some time to think about what it means to respect her as a separate person from him. She tells him that if he is unwilling to be emotionally safe with her, she won’t be able to give herself to him in that intimate way to preserve her self-worth.
She is learning how to adult!
Predictable Thing Two: The Emotionally Abusive Person Pulls a “Two-Facer”
This is a confusing stunt for the emotionally abused target, and here’s how it goes down:
He senses her pulling away and becoming more independent, plus he wants free sex, so he may feign an apology. But on the other hand, he also tries to shame her for pulling away and not doing her Christian duty by servicing him.
He may do this by texting her or sending her a letter that contains both apologies and shaming. (These communications are usually somewhat incoherent, so don’t be surprised if you’re not quite sure exactly what they are attempting to say.)
He may verbalize an accusatory apology: “I’m sorry you thought I was trying to control you.” But a few minutes later, passive-aggressively comment on how he never gets to buy a new shirt because he sacrifices so much for the good of the family. Or how he is tempted now to watch porn because he’s got needs she isn’t meeting.
His abuse will get more covert and less obvious. It will be more passive-aggressive. He’s pig bitin’ mad, but he wants to make it appear that SHE is the naughty little selfish girl while HE is the uber-nice victim.
It will become much harder to pin down the abuse, but thank goodness for books like The Verbally Abusive Relationship that will help the real target spot all the subtle tactics.
The abuse target has one of two choices here:
- She can slink back to the circle of abuse with her tail between her legs, feeling horribly guilty and sad for her rebellious, selfish, and unloving ways.
- OR, she can do this:
Hold it. Hold it. She can sit with the uncomfortable feelings of false guilt and shame. Be curious about why she feels guilty. Talk with her therapist about what it is inside of her that requires someone else’s approval. Learn to tolerate her partner’s covert disapproval (I’ll help you get really good at that in Flying Free.)
She can refuse to accept half-assed apologies that aren’t really apologies at all. He won’t like this. He thinks he is Mr. Big Humble Mac with a side of Perfect Fries and Awesome Sauce. Who does his little woman think she is to question his authenticity? Especially after all he’s done for her over the years?
Hold it. Hold it.
Predictable Thing Three: The Hoop Jumper
Often at this point, the abuse target reaches out to her church or small group for help or a family member. She wants some support. He is making things at home even more uncomfortable as she ramps up the boundaries and subsequent consequences.
When she brings in some outside help, this is where the emotional abuser gets all wiley and smiley. I call this The Hoop Jumper phase, because now he is going to grab this opportunity to demonstrate just how amazeballs he is while quietly throwing her under the bus in the process. Stopping his bad behavior to blame her for the relationship problems.
This is when he says he’ll go to counseling. He’d never go before, on his own, but now that folks are watching, he’s totally up for the performance of his life.
To everyone, including the abuse target, it appears there is hope. He is willing to get help! Hallelujah and praise the Lord! It’s a miracle!
The abuse target has one of two choices here:
- She can back off, believing it’s just a matter of time before he is a changed man. She can even give a bunch of concessions out of her extreme relief and gratefulness that he is getting help. If they do marriage counseling together (please don’t do that – but if you do, I’m here for you when you need help putting the pieces of your heart back together), she can confess all her sins to her husband and counselor in hopes that he will follow her example and confess all of his. (This doesn’t work. Get ready for your vulnerability to be used against you in the very near future.)
- OR, she can do this:
She doesn’t assume he is going to change just because the outside pressure is on. She knows that real change comes from the INSIDE as a result of the Holy Spirit indwelling a person and convicting that person in a real, deep, authentic way.
She knows that going through hoops is just part of the abuser’s game to gain allies and break her self-worth down further. He wants revenge and knows how he can get it. Which is what he does next:
Predictable Thing Four: The Big Sneak
Emotionally abusive men may becomes even MORE covert. Now he is putting on a show, so he becomes Mr. Great Dad, Mr. Giver, Mr. Showing Up, Mr. Bible Reader, Mr. Prayer Warrior, Mr. Guy Smiley in the eyes of everyone around.
Except for the target.
Behind closed doors he is still blaming her, shaming her, denying responsibility, mutualizing the marriage problems, insisting on his innocence and goodness, and doing all he can to break her down spiritually and emotionally in the most covert ways possible and playing the victim.
If she tries to explain these subtle tactics to those on the outside, they look at her like she’s crazy and make her feel bad. He appears to be doing fabulous to them. What is her problem? Unforgiveness? Bitterness? High expectations? Ungratefulness? Jezebel syndrome? Maybe she has BPD?
Whatever it is, she is the Sinner now. His sneakiness pays off. He successfully pulls the wool over many eyes.
The abuse target has one of two choices here:
- She can back down and go back to the abuse cycle, feeling she has no strength to fight not only him, but everyone else now as well.
- Or, she can make this happen:
The Adult Shows Up
This is when the abuse target changes their own behavior and begins to show up as an adult in the situation. She senses everything slipping away, and she makes the decision to go for all or nothing. This empowers her to establish more powerful consequences in a last attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue.
It is here that she often chooses to separate. She is now ready to take her last stand, finally accepting the fact that she cannot control her abusive partner and his flying monkeys, but she CAN control her own choices and what she will or will not put up with.
This causes (brace yourself…)
Predictable Thing Five: The Bully Shows Up
The emotional abuser now lets his anger rip with hurtful behavior. He no longer tries to make her believe he has changed.
He begins to experiment with a smear campaign, gathering as much ammo as possible from her journals, the intimate things she has shared with him, the sins she has confessed in the counseling office, and all of her emotional triggers he has historically used to manipulate her, and he starts to spread stories made up of these different parts. Sort of true—but twisted out of context, these stories are crafted to make her appear to be emotionally unstable, unspiritual, unforgiving, and bitchy. Pure verbal abuse to knock down her self-esteem.
He flings sandbox sand and toys every which way in his all-out attempt to wreak havoc with pure psychological abuse on her for daring to separate from him and humiliate him.
The emotionally abused woman almost never goes back at this point. Instead, she instigates:
She files for divorce, and now the you-know-what really hits the fan. The emotionally abusive person has actually been prepping for this moment, and he launches:
Predictable Thing Six: The Smear Campaign
This is more than just saying some bad things about her to the folks at church. This is an all-out attempt to actually turn her children, her family, her friends, her counselor, her pastors, her everyone-she-ever-knew AGAINST HER.
If she goes to a conservative church that preaches men are authorities and heads over women (twisting Scripture to suit them), this is where she gets to be church-disciplined for not keeping quiet and submissive under oppression. (I recommend the book Fraudulent Authority by Wade Burleson if you are going through this.)
Now that she is escaping his controlling clutch, He’s got one goal. Destroy her. Ruin her financially. Ruin her reputation. Ruin her children’s emotional health. Ruin her mental health with his fear mongering during the divorce process.
Fire, Fire, Fire!!!!
This is the crucible in which she will die and be reborn. This is the worst part of the emotional abuse. The climax. The Final Battle. But it is also where the good stuff happens. This is the:
The Emotionally Abused Partner Begins to Heal
She gets help. Often not from the Christian community (usually), but from the secular community. (There is a wonderful community of Christian women in the Flying Free support group.)
She gets counseling and begins to heal. Now she recognizes dysfunctional people more easily and begins to navigate new relationships as a healthy woman.
She grieves and then accepts the losses she has endured, and she becomes a stronger, wiser woman. Her relationship with God heals, and she learns that He is not like her pastors or former husband. He is good and safe. He is her True Shepherd.
As time goes by, she gets healthier and healthier. She finds joy and meaning in a new career. Her children often get counseling and also recover and learn relationship skills that will serve them into adulthood.
The abuse target is no longer a victim. She has moved forward into her new life.
But the abusive partner?
Predictable Thing Seven: The Switcharoo
Emotional abusers move on as well. On to his next target. He hasn’t learned anything new about himself or about relationships. He’s perfect just the way he is, and now he’s going to show the next target just how amazeballs he really is.
So those, my friends, are the seven predictable things your abuser will do if you decide to make a break from the cycle of abuse. They may not be in that exact order. Everyone’s situation is different. But this is the pattern I have seen over and over again in the lives of the hundreds of women I’ve talked to. And, of course, it happened to me, too.
There is life after spiritual and emotional abuse. I promise.
The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance [to the full, till it overflows]. John 10:10
The Flying Free Community is full of women who’ve experienced this exact pattern and will help you navigate the pain and confusion of living it yourself. Click HERE to find out exactly how joining will benefit your spiritual and emotional health.