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How Do I Enforce Boundaries with My Husband?

How Do I Enforce Boundaries with My Husband?

I recently received the following email from a reader:

I wish I knew how to reinforce “no.” I say “no” but the behavior doesn’t stop, and somehow it’s my fault he keeps doing it.

I remember being there. I had no idea how to make my voice matter. If I expressed an opinion about something, it was dismissed or turned into something “ridiculous” if it didn’t match my husband’s opinion.

Sometimes I was a “bad wife” for expressing it. But the bottom line was that my voice meant nothing, and I didn’t know how to MAKE it mean anything to my husband.

But you know what we need to figure out? Just because our voice doesn’t matter to one human being (or even several), doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Here are three ways to enforce your boundaries with someone who doesn’t care about them.

1. Enforce Your Boundaries by Walking Away

Think about it this way. You are standing in a group of people looking at a painting on a wall, and it’s your turn to talk, so you share your opinion about the painting. “I love how this artist uses the color yellow to communicate joy in the midst of pain” you might say.

One person turns away from you in disgust. Two others are talking to themselves on the outer rim of the group, ignoring you. Another person loudly criticizes your opinion by saying “What a stupid idea. This artist isn’t communicating anything about joy or pain. It’s just a picture of a yellow duck.”

But there are some other people who are listening to you. They are interested and engaged in your idea, so you enjoy intelligent conversation and mutual respect as you share and listen to the various thoughts everyone has about the painting.

Now let’s zero in on the one who criticized your idea out loud. Is their opinion your problem? Is it a reflection of who you are, as a person?

No, it’s not. It’s just their opinion. It belongs to them.

And because of their choice to criticize you rather than participate in an open-minded and mutually respectful conversation, they are unable to enjoy the group and the variety of opinions and insights the group shares.

Too bad for them, but not too bad for you.

Let’s pretend that person is your husband. The fact that your husband doesn’t listen to you, thinks your opinions are stupid, and has no respect for your voice means absolutely nothing about who you are as a person or the value you have as a member of the human race.

Let’s go back to the group looking at the painting again. Pretend you say to the disrespectful person, “Please don’t interrupt. You’ll have your turn in a moment.”

What if he snarled, “I’ll say what I want when I want to! You aren’t the boss of me!

What would you do in that situation? What if you just invited those who were still interested in having a conversation with you to join you elsewhere and leave the bully standing alone?


Is it loving to enable bullies? Who are we loving when we do that?

We aren’t loving anyone, including the bully.

Maybe if everyone in the bully’s life refused to put up with his naughty behavior, he’d decide his way of relating wasn’t working, and he’d get some help to learn new skills.

But even if he didn’t, at least everyone around him would be speaking truth into his life, and TRUTH is always loving. Always.

A friend of mine recently told me that she tells her kids the TRUTH is what keeps us safe. Lies and secrets put all of us in danger.

Churches that agree with and support bullies put their entire congregations in danger. And covering up the lies and shaming behaviors of bullies puts the bully in danger of losing his wife and children.

This isn’t rocket science, but you’d think it was when you consider how most churches handle this kind of thing.

How Do I Enforce Boundaries with My Husband?

2. Enforce Your Boundaries by Being Willing to Give Up the Relationship

If you aren’t willing to lose the relationship, the other person will continue to control you. They instinctively know you will stay no matter what.

Many Christians teach that divorce isn’t an option for emotional abuse, and emotional abusers take advantage of this man-made, Pharisaical rule based on a couple of cherry-picked Bible verses taken out of their historical context and translated incorrectly by biased, misogynistic, agenda-driven translators.

The Bible says that we reap what we sow. It’s a law—like the law of gravity. You sow carrots, you reap carrots. You sow wheat, you reap wheat. You sow weeds, you reap weeds. You sow destructive, hateful behavior, you reap a great marriage and reputation.

Wait, what? Well, that’s what many Christians believe! If you have a penis and a wife, you get to do whatever you want to with that wife and any kids you had with her. Why? Because your private parts are AWESOME! That’s why!

The fact is, we don’t throw out everything else the Bible teaches about relationships just because we’re talking about a marriage relationship.

A marriage contract doesn’t give anyone, no matter what their bottoms look like, the right to mistreat the other person. And sometimes the only way to allow the destructive person to reap what they have sown is to QUIT PROTECTING THEM FROM THE REAPING PART.

I’m serious! We get in the way of what God wants to do when we try to control the situation because we are scared spitless of what will happen to us if we let go.

You’ll also need to be willing to let go of your church if necessary because chances are, if your abusive spouse loves your church and is supported by the leaders there, it’s very likely a spiritually abusive, misogynistic place, and you don’t want to be part of that anyway.

I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of women who lost their marriages AND their churches in one fell swoop. Many churches will protect the abuser and demonize the woman who leaves because they have a theology that says rules are more important than love. Contracts are more important than human lives. Men are more important than women and children.

By way of encouragement, I’ll tell you that if you lose your church, it will be okay. There are 5,972,736,275 other churches out there. You’re bound to find a safe one eventually, and if you don’t, you can always take a break from church for a while until you get your bearings.

Jesus Christ will never leave you. His Global Church is faithful, and His sheep hear His voice and follow HIM. Not men.

How Do I Enforce Boundaries with My Husband?

3. Enforce Your Boundaries by Having No Agenda

This is key! If you have a specific outcome in mind and you are dead set on getting your way, you’ll never be able to reinforce your “no.” Some possible agendas we may have (just ask me how I know):

  • We want our spouse to repent and change their behaviors so we can have a healthy marriage.
  • We want our kids to grow up with an intact family.
  • We want to be loved by our spouse, and we think if we hold on long enough, it might happen.
  • We want financial security.
  • We want to homeschool our kids.
  • We want to keep our home.
  • We want to keep our reputation.
  • We want to keep our friends.
  • We want to have a “normal” life.
  • We don’t want to be hated.
  • We don’t want to be lied about.
  • We don’t want to get a job.
  • We don’t want to endure the disapproval of others.

And we could go on and on, right? The fact is, your destructive spouse knows this, and they are counting on you to hold on to your agenda like a rabid dog.

We can’t count on them responding positively to much of anything. When they are nice, it’s just part of the abuse cycle.

Nice, Not-so-nice. Mean. Nice.

The “nice” isn’t so nice when you look at it that way.

So we need to make decisions, not based on what we HOPE they will do, but on what they actually DO.

And let’s be honest, if you’ve been married for two decades and this is all you’ve ever seen, why in the world do you think it’s ever going to be any different? Because you are praying it will be?

God doesn’t control us like puppets, and He isn’t a gumball machine where we can put in our nickel prayers and get the gumballs we want. He doesn’t work that way no matter how badly we wish He would.

Someone recently posted on Facebook that their marriage used to be abusive but is now amazeballs because she, unlike the rest of us losers, prayed hard enough.

Her words brought shame to women who have prayed their guts out and still have crappy marriages.

The idea that our marriage will be awesome if we just pray hard enough is a childish perspective as well as a lie from the enemy.

God expects us to steward our lives based on reality, not wishful thinking. We have to stop spiritualizing our situation.

The bottom line is, you can’t change your spouse. Could God change him? Sure. God could turn an elephant into a chimpanzee if He wanted to. God could end world hunger. God could stop genocide.

That doesn’t mean He will. At least not in our lifetime.

So what are you going to do about that? What are YOU going to do?

You. An intelligent, competent, adult woman with a HUGE God supporting you.

I had to be willing to let go of everything and lose it all. So when I said, “Husband, if you continue to do x, y, and z, I will not sleep with you anymore,” I had to be willing to never sleep with him again as well as endure his vengeful treatment of me.

And then, a year later when I said, “Husband, if you continue to do x, y, and z, I will no longer live with you,” I had to be willing to tolerate the disapproval of some folks at my church as well as the confusion and pain of my children as they adjusted to the separation. I had to take responsibility for raising the kids by myself, for taking care of the house by myself, for taking care of my car by myself, and so on.

And then, a year later when I said, “Husband, if you continue to do x, y, and z, I will divorce you,” I had to be willing to be a divorced woman with nine children. I had to be willing to lose my church and my reputation. I had to be willing to be a single woman, possibly growing old and dying alone. (Who is going to marry an old divorced lady with a thousand children?) I had to be willing to be viewed as a meanie by a couple of my kids. I had to be willing to work full time and live on a shoestring in order to survive on my own.

Every single woman I’ve talked to who has already walked this road has told me it was worth it. (You can read about ten of them HERE. And we have three dozen incredible stories in our Flying Free Sisterhood program that you will have instant access to when you join.)

But they all had to be willing to reinforce their “no” by setting serious boundaries and then following through with the repercussions of any violations of those boundaries.

If you are married to a real abuser, I guarantee your boundaries will not be respected. This kind of partner will get meaner and more abusive if you set boundaries. So before you figure out what you are ready to do, think it through and be prepared for the worst. But remember that in order to get to the best, you’ll need to go through the worst, and others have walked that path before you.

If you want to walk this path with a community of hundreds of other women just like you, check out the Flying Free Sisterhood program!


Natalie Hoffman

Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    August 15, 2023

    My verbally abusive husband has been less verbally abusive since I implemented boundaries. He became covertly emotionally abusive, but I learned how to spot it, and I put up boundaries for myself there as well. Now I will leave the room if he is passive aggressive, negative, or gaslighting me. I also talk to people if his abusive patterns start up again. He is being kinder for the time being and not as controlling. I hope it leads to a real heart change, but so far the boundaries are producing better behavior.

  • Avatar
    April 25, 2022

    Thank you so much for your honesty! This is the conclusion I finally came to as well. I did not want to lose everything I had worked for and so I stayed. I moved into the bedroom my middle child vacated when she moved out instead of leaving. It has taken 2 1/2 years from that point to finally say I’ve had enough. No more. Either you change what needs changing and we fix this mess or its over. I am finally willing to lose anything I need to in order to be healthy. I also trust God to do what is best for me since I obviously don’t know what that is living in this mess for 30 years.

    We went to marriage counseling for several months with an awesome man of God who saw through things enough to agree with me that the problem was his heart condition…it is not really a marital problem but a spiritual one that only he can change with God’s help. God has been opening my eyes to the truth and I see a person who just wants to manipulate me. He has no remorse for how he’s treated me for 30 years and he has no desire to change. He keeps pretending everything will work out while he does nothing. Finally last week I told him there is no future and I wanted him to stop pretending there was one. He needed to accept it was time for separation. This will take a few months because his job has cut everyone’s pay by 20% and the best way for him to move out is by moving to a piece of land we own. He has to put water, electric and a septic tank out there before he can move something onto it to live in but he has the summer off work to get it done. He has finally started using language that indicates he knows its over.

    I am trying to do this in a way that isn’t financially hard on either of us. I have to find a job in the midst of it all so that I can pay my own bills. I do not expect him to support me the rest of my life. I need to be free so I can finish healing and finish raising my teenage son. I don’t want him to grow up thinking this is ok. I’m hoping he will get to see me married someday to somebody who loves me and that he will get to see what a healthy marriage looks like before he needs to work on having one himself. Its time to break one more family cycle of abuse.

  • Avatar
    May 7, 2017

    At what point do you truly release? I have been separated now for about 3 months- some surface changes but nothing real yet…I have had to repeat and tighten boundaries constantly throughout so far since my husband seems to always find a way around my boundaries….

    he is still in the “hoovering phase”…the problem is he JUST CANT LEAVE ME ALONE!” Some of my friends think he is continuing to manipulate me…I feel very torn. I feel bad for him – at the same time I constantly question,,,” what is he up to now?”

    My church has luckily been supportive for the most part..we’ll see how that goes though…

    But at what point do I just throw in the towel and say- I ‘m just done. I don’t trust you and don’t know if I ever can?

    meaning– at what point do you know that the separation should go to divorce??

    • Natalie Anne
      Natalie Anne
      → OnMyWay
      May 8, 2017

      This is a good question, and I think there will be a different answer for everyone. I used a tool that I found super helpful when I finally made my decision to file for divorce after a year and a half of separation with no lasting or significant changes. It’s Can This Relationship Be Saved:

      I hope that exercise helps you as much as it helped me. ((Hugs))

    • Avatar
      → OnMyWay
      August 17, 2023

      I think you answered your question yourself: “I don’t trust you, I I don’t know if I ever can.”

  • Avatar
    April 20, 2017

    Thanks for this great article. Today, at 39 1/2 years of marriage, my divorce is final. And it started 4 years ago when I said no and meant it. I told him, if you ever touch me again, I will leave. He did, so I did. Two and a half years later, I am free.

    I had to be willing to lose a lot when I made my ultimatum. I thought I was prepared for that. I had analyzed and considered and played out scenario after scenario in my journal. I thought I could face losing almost everything, including some of my 9 children. I really didn’t expect to lose everything, though. But that’s almost exactly what I lost.

    I lost my home. I lost financial security. I lost many of my children. I lost most of my possessions. I lost some friends.

    I also lost my fear, when the worst case happened and it didn’t kill me. I lost my timidity as I stepped out and used a lifelong skill in sewing and made a living for myself. I lost my dependence as I took control of my own life. I lost my delusions as I embraced truth.

    My entire adult life was spent trying to please and appease a mean, contemptuous bully who wanted a life of ease at my expense. It is no exaggeration that I was expected and required to manage every aspect of our lives except his career. And had there been a way he could have laid any of that burden on me as well, I’m sure he would have.

    My story is long and painful, but my wake up call came when I found myself surveying the medicine cabinet for an effective way out. I found a doctor who gave me medicine and hope. Years later I found a counselor who listened and helped me see the truth. I returned to a church with loving and strong people who prayed for and supported me.

    It would take a book to tell it all. But today, as I hold my final decree in my hands, I know what it feels like to say yes to the rest of my life.

    The day I left was a terrible day. I said no in the middle of an argument and went to my room. I locked my door even though he yelled at me not to. He broke the door open and came after me. I was afraid and not afraid at the same time. I knew it was time to back up my words. He hurt me physically that night and I left. I stayed gone. Somehow, by God’s grace, I made it. I had help in ways I couldn’t fathom. Blessings I can’t explain. And peace I’ve never known. The first night in my own apartment, on an inflatable mattress, my 55 year old body slept through the night for the first time in decades. A year later, I was able to scrape the money together to file for divorce. He fought every settlement offer for a year. We had to go to trial. That day I prayed that he would show his true colors and I’d be able to state my story without fear or tears. For the first time, I saw him lose his cool and drop his public facade. It took four months for our ruling to come. But I was awarded everything I asked for and then some.

    I still have some battles ahead of me. I still worry and get scared. I’m 57 now, have health problems and I’m tired. But I know Jesus loves me. When I look back over my journal and see how far I’ve come, I see evidence of that love in every page.

    I’d said no so many times, but for whatever reasons, I couldn’t make it stick. I was manipulated, cajoled and bullied into backing down every time. The day I left, I knew it was my last chance. If I didn’t stand up and be willing to lose everything, I’d never be able to leave, ever. I didn’t know how much more vindictive he could be. He threw everything he could at me. He cut me off financially. He turned our kids against me. He convinced them I abused HIM and that he was the victim of my craziness our entire marriage. I’ve kept quiet, letting it all play out, doing what I had to do for myself. Each step of the divorce my phone blew up with the most vile texts from some of my kids. I kept quiet. That is so not me!

    Whatever happens from here, I will be ok. I’ll not like everything, I’ll suffer plenty more. I made it out the other side and the sun shines bright here. Praise God, I live in freedom now.

    • Natalie Anne
      Natalie Anne
      → Patti
      April 22, 2017

      Congratulations! What an inspiring testimony! Thank you so much for sharing it here. (((hugs)))

  • Avatar
    Susan VonGretzinger
    March 16, 2017

    I So Love this post! Thank you for giving honest healthy educated empowering TRUTH. You are a blessing to many!

  • Avatar
    March 16, 2017

    Great Job. Straight to the point.

  • Avatar
    March 7, 2017

    I just had a thought:

    If you (in general, not anyone specifically) don’t believe in divorce, but are treating your wife harshly to the point of her crying out to God to release her from this, you had better be scared out of your mind because God just might say yes to her prayers and kill you.

    • Natalie Anne
      Natalie Anne
      → L
      March 7, 2017

      I honestly wish that would happen more often. And I have heard that it does, in reality, happen periodically.

  • Avatar
    February 27, 2017

    This reminds me of Sandy Ralya’s testimony, how she finally had enough of her husband’s emotional abuse. If I remember correctly, she had been praying and receiving mentoring from a lady (or ladies?) in her church, and just really working on her own spiritual growth for six months, in hopes that it would improve her marriage. When she still saw no change in her husband, and one day he said he didn’t know why he ever married her, she snapped and told him she wanted him to move out.

    He did and moved in with a Christian couple. After hearing Tom’s testimony, the husband of this couple told Tom just what he needed to hear—that he had been dealing treacherously with the wife of his youth. Then this man proceeded to mentor Tom in how to love his wife as Christ loved the church, and it didn’t take too long before Tom humbled himself and went to Sandy and repented for how he had abused her, and God did heal their marriage, according to their testimony.

    So I guess saying No and taking a stand Can produce positive changes, but of course, as you said, Natalie, we have to be prepared for the possibility/likelihood that it won’t change anything and be willing to lose what we have. Obviously, there is no guarantee.

    When I first heard the Ralyas’ testimony, it encouraged me so much, and I prayed that God would send a godly Christian man into my (now ex-) boyfriend’s life to speak truth to him and mentor him, but God chose to answer that prayer with a no (or maybe it was “wait”). Even if he had granted that request, it still would not have guaranteed that my bf would have changed.

    Have any of you tried Sandy’s ministry of marriage mentoring or know anyone who has? I’m curious what people’s experience with it has been. Have they seen genuine improvement in their marriages? What do you all think about that?

    • Natalie Anne
      Natalie Anne
      → Sheryl
      February 27, 2017

      We tried many things that would have been incredible opportunities for growth had there been an interest on my spouse’s side of the block, but we did not know about the ministry you have mentioned. I have a good friend who was married to a pastor, and they got personal counseling from some big wig, famous and expensive counselor (can’t remember his name, lol), and it didn’t help. Bottom line is that you can have access to the most incredible counseling services in the world, but if you don’t think you need help, you won’t get help. Thankfully Tom knew he needed help and got it – and then changed! It’s nice to hear those kinds of stories because they are rare!

      • Avatar
        → Natalie Anne
        March 13, 2017

        Natalie, yes, I absolutely agree with you! On one hand, I love those kinds of stories/testimonies, because they are encouraging, but they can also be discouraging at the same time, because you get your hopes up that maybe that can happen for your relationship/marriage, too, but when it doesn’t, you’re disappointed…again. There is no magic formula.

  • Avatar
    February 27, 2017

    If you are staying well in a difficult marriage, to reinforce your know you may have to endure the brooding, sarcasm, stonewalling, and ill temper that goes with it. This took me a while because it absolutely appalled me that anyone who would claim to love me would treat me that way. Ironically, though, I grew up in that kind of household where my mother didn’t have much If a say and was punished if she did stand her ground. Of course, I married a man who grew up in that same environment and while he isn’t as bad as the previous generation, a lot of that is still there.

    Now, if I have to say no, I brace myself for impact (metaphorically speaking), and have to pretend it doesn’t bother me, like a parent ignoring their child’s tantrum because they cannot have 4 lollipops before dinner.

  • Avatar
    February 26, 2017

    You speak truth, Natalie! Thank God for your boldness!

  • Avatar
    February 26, 2017

    Great read. Thanks for taking the time to write for those of us trying to figure life out.

  • Avatar
    February 26, 2017

    This is amazing advice Natalie. I’m bookmarking this post to refer back to when things get hard and I’m tempted to give in, rather than let go of my agenda and “how I want things to stay”. Thank you.

  • Avatar
    Brenda Turner
    February 26, 2017

    Thank you so much for this article!! I needed it so bad..Didn’t know I was standing in God’s way..Didn’t think of it that way!!!..

  • Avatar
    February 26, 2017

    Excellent! Thank you for your brutal and necessary honesty.