Establishing and Maintaining Good Boundaries

Maintaining a relationship with those who hurt you requires a great deal of thought and firm boundaries. I think, but have no way of knowing, that it would be easier if the abuser were a stranger or someone with whom contact wasn’t necessary.

If your parents or other family members were your abusers, you are presented with tremendous challenges. If you’re like me, you loved your abusers and counted on them to take care of you, a trust they tragically violated. If you grew up with the knowledge of their abuse, perhaps you rebelled as a teenager to try to put distance between you and them. You may have consciously tried to be different than them in every way. You may have told yourself that you hated them, but ambivalence and conflict usually take up residence in your heart as the natural pull of familial love tugs you back.

Or perhaps you’re like me and repressed all the memories, stuffing them away to cope. However, memories like these can’t remain hidden forever, at some time, bits of memories and feelings start to bubble to the surface. When that happens you’re confused and stuck with feelings that don’t seem to make sense.

Either way, you’re faced with the question of how to deal with them once you know the truth. Will you end your relationship with them, turning back on your history once and for all? Will you sweep your feelings and memories under the carpet for the sake of maintaining your relationship? Will you have a conversation with them about what you remember and ask them to own up to it and say they’re sorry? Or will you come to an acceptance of what happened and then see how the relationship plays out? There are so many different ways the relationship can develop once the truth is out.

I confronted my parents one at a time with the truth. My father admitted it, cried and asked for forgiveness. My mother stonewalled, sitting tight-lipped, refusing to look at me. She refused to accept it. As they left, relief swept over me. I had been told not to expect anything from either of them. My then-husband took them to the airport afterward and they talked cheerfully about everything except my conversation with them. Later, my husband asked them how they felt about what we’d talked about, and they both vehemently denied admitting anything. They claimed that they would say “anything to make her better.” Shortly after, I wrote them a letter ending my relationship with them. I told them that if we couldn’t deal in truth, then there was no basis for a relationship. Now, that was my choice. Perhaps it was the right one, perhaps not, but it felt like the only one I could live with at the time.

I kept them out of our family’s life for eleven years. This decision had far-reaching consequences. My children grew up without this set of their grandparents, and they didn’t understand why. I wouldn’t accept gifts for my children from them, sending them back instead. Later, I learned that my children wondered why their grandparents had suddenly forgotten about them. I justified continuing my distance from them by telling myself I had to protect my children, after all. That was true, but perhaps I could have done it another way. I just couldn’t figure out how to have a relationship as long as they refused to acknowledge the truth. To me that was tantamount to calling me a liar. I couldn’t understand why they would want to have a relationship with me if they believed I would lie about such things.

Finally, after my divorce I went to visit them with my sister. The visit was a disaster because of my insistence on talking about the truth. After that, however, I did consent to occasional contact by phone, because I had learned certain truths that my ex-husband had kept from me. Like the fact that my father had called monthly to find out how I was doing and other things I felt were important.

After that I would have dinner with them if they came to the area to visit my sister and me, but I kept my distance . . . for a long time. Then I started to believe their professions of love and care, and immediately my mother pounced and tried to exert her control over me once again. I pulled back and quit taking calls. The last several years have been strained. I have learned that it is critical to keep my boundaries high and firm. I can’t risk the health I have worked so hard to achieve. However, that does allow for some occasional, careful contact. I don’t believe much of what they say about how they love me.

Here are the guidelines you need for a relationship with your abusers.
1. You have to learn what kind of relationship is right for you.
2. Whatever you decide, remember that, unless they have confessed their wrongs and admitted with sorrow their sins against you,
they are not trustworthy.
3. Determine what your boundaries will be in regard to phone calls, visits and letters.
4. Remain firm. Your health is at stake, and perhaps, the health of your own family as well.

Remember, now you have to establish a new normal, a healthy normal. You will be working to create strong new relationships that are likely different from any you’ve had before. Keep these things in mind as you work toward your new life with positive people to encourage you and hold you accountable.


4 responses to “Establishing and Maintaining Good Boundaries

  • debbiepinkston

    I’m sorry about the abuse you experienced, and I agree that it is much more painful when it is done by someone who is supposed to love and protect you.

    I’m working on an eBook about sexual abuse in marriage. A lot has been written about sexual assault, recovery, and childhood sexual abuse, and much of this has been helpful to those who have suffered these things. I haven’t found much about sexual abuse within marriage though. Personally, I experienced it and want to open up this topic so other wives can share their pain and find support.

    I’m thinking that many women don’t dare share the dark secrets that happen in the bedroom for fear of their partner’s reaction. Fear is a big word in this case-fear of what others will think, fear that I’m just imagining things, fear that it will “blow up” in my face and things will be worse than ever. There’s also the fear of the unknown…if I face this squarely, what will happen? Will my marriage end? Will I be alone? Will I be pennyless and destitute? Will my family and friends believe me or will they shun me?

    I finally had the courage to stop the madness, about 4 years ago. I have to say that a few close friends were there for me, and I don’t know if I could have done it without their support.

    • jessibmiller

      I agree that there seems to be little out there for women in such frightening, painful and demeaning situations. Some of the information you’ll find here will apply as it does to all trauma, however there are, as you mentioned, other issues unique to married women who are abused. I’m so glad you are in a loving relationship now that has given you the courage to reach out and help other women who may be too afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to speak up. Hooray for you for having the courage to do so!

  • debbiepinkston

    it’s hard to know just how much to speak out about this topic. My children are young adults, and they still have a relationship with their dad. I don’t want to hurt them with information they might find in my blogs or in the book I’m writing…I’m actually considering using a pseudonym for the book. Does anyone have any advice on how to face these issues without harming our children or “dragging our ex through the mud”? My intention is NOT to take digs at him or ruin his life. My goal is to help other women.

    • jessibmiller

      I think the use of a pseudonym is a thoughtful way to share your journey without hurting anyone associated with you. I know others who have done that for the same reason quite successfully.

      I think you’re kind and mature to think of others before yourself and forgo the opportunity to hurt your ex. Good for you!

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