Gaining Clarity and Mastering the Art of Setting Healthy Boundaries: A Transformational StorySep 25, 2023
I didn't even want to go away with him for our anniversary. As a matter of fact, I seriously considered just going on the trip by myself. We had been fighting so much, and no matter how many times I asked, he refused to honor my requests. Another day, another battle. Another request ignored. I wanted him to speak to me with kindness in his voice, even when he was angry.
Instead, he raised his voice as he spoke, and immediately I was transported to the battlefield. It was my own little war zone that I had resided in for ten years of my life through trauma and domestic abuse. A place where my voice was silenced. A place where anger and manipulation held me captive in fear. An older man and my ex-fiance had destroyed me years ago, and even though I had been out of those relationships for well over five years, I hadn't begun healing yet. Whenever my husband got angry it triggered me, and although logically I knew he would never hurt me, I immediately would feel unsafe, just like I had for all those years with my abusers.
In vain I had tried repeatedly to communicate that to my husband. I told him "When you get angry I feel unsafe, unloved, and like I can't do anything right. When I'm triggered, I can't really hear you. I want to be able to hear you, but I need you to talk calmly". I begged him to put his arm around me when he spoke to me about things that were upsetting him. I didn't realize that what I was really needing and asking for was emotional and physical regulation, along with the feeling of safety. I needed him to help me heal, not further my pain.
My husband had his own issues that he was dealing with from his childhood, past experiences, and a lack of healthy tools to use when he was stressed or frustrated. He told me that when he was angry, he was too upset and didn't feel like putting his arm around me. So we were at an impasse. What were we to do? I couldn't listen when I was triggered, and he wouldn't speak in a way that I could listen.
I was past the point of unhappy. I was downright done. But he had never been outright abusive to me or my kids, and I was confused as I tried to figure out if I had a right to set a boundary, or just needed to put up with this. I reached out to a select few people: my counselor, pastor, and a couple of close friends. It was important to me that I only talk to people who wouldn't judge him because, despite our issues, I didn't want to drag his name through the mud.
But even when I reached out, I got a range of responses. Some said to set boundaries. Some said to leave. Some said to stay and just work on changing myself. Some told me to submit as his wife. What they didn't realize was that I was slowly dying inside.
The toxicity in our marriage was causing such despair and depression that I was not only having thoughts of taking my own life, but experiencing significant physical symptoms. My stress manifested in ways such as aching joints, feeling like I had fever when I didn't, cognitive issues, brain fog, and just overall feeling like I was going to explode.
I knew that if the situation didn't change, I could not stay.
The question that plagued me during this time was this: am I allowed to set this boundary? My husband often told me that everyone speaks this way when they are angry. He would say "normal people get angry and raise their voices. Normal people are not calm all the time." I think he wanted to excuse his behavior, but in reality, it ended up manipulating me. I started doubting myself. Was what he said true? Was I living in a fairy tale by expecting him to speak kindly to me all the time, even when he was upset?
But I was responsible too. I had my own set of issues that I was working through. I was codependent, and I would cater to him so that he wouldn't get upset. The triggers came so intensely and I would get panic attacks that I hadn't yet learned how to work through. I was depressed and anxious. I had little to no self-care, and about the same level of self-confidence. What I needed was major change in more than just my relationship, I needed to change my own actions too.
That's sometimes the hardest thing to grasp isn't it? That we aren't at the mercy of other people's actions, words, and behaviors. We get to choose our own attitudes, reactions, and actions. Some of them (like being triggered from an abusive past) take longer to change. They are pathways that run deep, so we can't expect to reroute them overnight. But if we start today and put in the work, months from now we'll be looking back seeing the positive changes that have happened in our life!
As I think back to that time, there were three major changes that needed to happen. The good news is that you can start implementing these in your life today! The sooner you start, the sooner you will see the results and be closer to living the life of emotional freedom that you desire!
1) Take time to take care of yourself.
As I reached my point of overwhelm and felt like I was drowning, I knew it was vital to drop some of the things that were on my plate and set aside more time for self-care. I couldn't have a mental breakdown or continue entertaining suicidal thoughts. I had kids who needed me. They needed a mom who was present and a leader, who would teach them that sometimes strength means taking care of yourself and saying no to things. So I started scheduling in self-care time each day. Self-care isn't something that is one-and-done. It needs to happen every day in order to avoid burnout and overwhelm.
Here is a Mindful Mediation that can support you in your self-care.
2) Listen to your gut.
What I came to realize as I searched myself and listened to my gut feeling, is that it doesn't matter if anyone else understands it. If it feels disrespectful, uncomfortable, or just not okay, you have the right to set a boundary or at least open up a conversation about it. No one has to give you permission. It's also okay if those closest to you and even your significant other don't think that it's a necessary boundary. What matters is what feels respectful to you.
3) Gain clarity.
Use some of your self-care time to gain clarity and decide which boundaries need to be enforced right away. Don't try to do too much at once, it's better to start small. Pick one to three areas where you feel like your boundaries are being consistently crossed and choose those to work on first.
4) Enforce what you have requested.
The hardest part of all of this for me was enforcing it. Sometimes when I set boundaries with people who don't like it, they challenge me with an attitude of "what are you going to do about it if I don't respect your boundaries?"
Be prepared to have your "or what" already decided. You may need to create some physical space between you and that person for a while.
What does this look like in practical real-life situations? Real-life examples.
- If you live with the person or are in a relationship, that may mean you sleep in a different room or on the couch for a night or even longer.
- Perhaps you need to leave the house for a bit. Maybe you need to let them know that if they continue to cross your boundary you will make the choice to turn around and walk away.
- If your kids are complaining about the dinner, perhaps they don't need dessert that night.
- If your family member leaves you feeling drained after every conversation, pay attention to that. You might need to limit interactions with them.
These are just some examples to help you get started thinking of your own. Yours will need to fit your unique situation and relationship.
If there is violence involved or you feel like you are in danger, please reach out to someone you trust, your local domestic violence center, or call the domestic abuse hotline at: 800-799-7233, or text START to 88788.
None of the changes in either my husband or I happened overnight. It took time, and I had an amazing coach who helped me through all of this. When I look back on that anniversary, I remember the actual day being fairly good, but I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I just knew there would be something that would set him off into another week-long fight.
Over the next couple years we had many ups and downs, and periods of time where I thought things might be getting better. But the changes that were being made were just temporary, made to appease the other person and smooth over the conflict. It would take me setting and enforcing firm boundaries for us to see any major improvement in our marriage. Today though, I am proud to say that our marriage is now stronger than ever because of the changes we both have made!
If you are experiencing feelings of overwhelm, like you can't take it anymore, like you are suffocated or no one listens to you, please know that you don't have to live in that place. You only have to be willing to take one step forward at a time. Understand that you have the right to set boundaries to ensure your emotional well-being, and if others can't respect that, you may need to create some space until they can. I know how daunting this may feel. But trust me, it's so worth it in the end!
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