Setting Healthy Boundaries After an Abusive Relationship

June 12, 2019 Kristen Milstead

Setting healthy boundaries now that my abusive relationship has ended is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to figure out recently. 

It took me a long time to realize how my ex-boyfriend had dismantled the boundaries I did have. He was able to use to his advantage the confusing misconceptions I had adopted about boundaries.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?

Healthy boundaries show our standards for what treatment we expect from others and the behavior that we will not tolerate because it violates our human rights.

For example, healthy boundaries can include the rights to make independent decisions; to have our own thoughts, ideas, desires, and emotions and the freedom to express them; to choose with whom to spend time, how to spend it, and whether to say yes or no; to be treated with dignity and respect.

In a way, if you think about it, the concept behind what constitutes “boundaries” is inalienable. We are all born with inherent personhood worthy of these things.

And yet the idea that healthy boundaries are a concrete thing is not inherent, but culturally ingrained. We grow up learning from the people around us that boundaries are something we have to build and fight for.

We also learn what is okay and what isn’t based on what others tell us we should accept and what we observe. Our own interpretations of what boundaries are, even when we think we have developed healthy boundaries, can help an emotional abuser manipulate us. 

What Healthy Boundaries Are Not

Some people who get into relationships disrespect boundaries on purpose. They may do it overtly through verbal abuse to try to wear down your self-esteem, or they may try to manipulate you into believing you are wrong for having boundaries, or both. 

Before I entered my abusive relationship, I had boundaries, but I also lived in a cultural environment just like everyone else. I hadn’t thought about what healthy boundaries were and I had soaked up some confusing and contradictory ideas about boundaries.  

My ex-boyfriend was both overtly abusive and used verbal abuse and manipulation. Confusion about boundaries made it easy for my boyfriend to bend them around the edges and exploit me in other ways. 

These are some of the falsehoods about boundaries that my ex-boyfriend was able to use to put doubt in my mind about setting and defending boundaries. 

  1. “Boundaries are selfish.”  Having the confidence to set healthy boundaries for yourself is not arrogant or self-absorbed. Setting limits and avoiding things that subvert your human rights only steps on the toes of people who were trying to overstep in the first place. It does not suppress the rights of others. 
  2. “Boundaries are walls.” Healthy boundaries don’t mean you have to stop trusting people or that you’re not a forgiving person. It just means you don’t freely give trust and forgiveness away and they aren’t automatically granted. You’re not “hard” or jaded if you set boundaries and they don’t make you bitter or unavailable. 
  3. “Boundaries are punishments.”  Boundaries are not about getting back at anyone. They are the inverse of punishing—they are about showing respect for myself and others by being assertive. By being straightforward about what I want, I am relieving the other person of the burden to read my mind and freeing myself of resentment.
  4. “Boundaries are about control.” Avoiding things that subvert your human rights is not about teaching other people a lesson. You are only stepping on the toes of people who were trying to overstep in the first place. Setting limits does not suppress the rights of others.
  5. “Only jerks set boundaries.” It’s not outside the boundaries of your sex or gender role to set healthy boundaries. A partner may convince you that you’re not being ladylike or you’re being a misogynist, or something or other. 

If a partner has attempted to make you believe that you are using boundaries in any of these ways or that you are wrong for using boundaries, then you are being manipulated.

Setting Healthy Boundaries After an Abusive Relationship Ends

Even if you had strong boundaries or you thought you knew what healthy boundaries were, after a verbally abusive relationship ends, it can be difficult to rebuild your boundaries due to the doubt an abusive person may have caused you to have about what is appropriate in a relationship if you love someone.

Verbal and emotional abusers seem to hide these truths about boundaries from us by making us give up more and more to get less and less. They cause us slowly over time to believe that the reason the relationship is "not working out" is because we are not doing enough and we slowly lose sight of ourselves and who we used to be.

Re-setting our boundaries involves remembering our core values:

  1. Understand what healthy boundaries are and what they are not. Become aware of any lies the abuser may have tried to make you believe about standing up for yourself.
  2. Decide what your "bare minimum" boundaries are. You are starting over again. Decide what your basic rights are that you will not and should not tolerate. These things are not others "being nice," but things that should be standard in the ways that people treat you. These are your rules for interaction with others.
  3. Once you have determined the "bare minimum" boundaries, think through more complicated boundaries you will have. For example, think through how you will observe when the bare minimum boundaries are being violated. What will you see from others and how will it make you feel?  
  4. Envision what a boundary violation would look like. Imagine a scenario where you remember someone violating your boundary in the past and how it made you feel. It's likely to happen again, so becoming aware of the discomfort and how it sits in your body can help prepare you. 
  5. Decide what you will do when your new healthy boundaries are violated. What are some of the things you would say?  How could you say no or speak up for yourself in a way that you would feel good about yourself and feel that you had protected your boundary?
  6. Practice enforcing your boundaries with people you know.  Assuming most people you know are not people who are out to exploit you, but who will still occasionally ask you to do things you don't want to do, practice your new skill.
  7. Avoid entering into any new relationships until you feel confident that you will be able to maintain your healthy boundaries. A manipulative person can wear down even the most ironclad of boundaries, however, if you enter a relationship with open eyes and the confidence that stronger boundaries can bring you, you may be more aware of any warning signs from a person who doesn't respect those boundaries. 

What healthy boundaries are really about is being assertive, knowing yourself, and being able to stand firm in those two things.

Defending Boundaries and Red Flags After a Verbally Abusive Relationship

Why is it so difficult to defend boundaries? How do we know we've encountered a red flag? Watch this video to hear about what I've learned about defending boundaries in the aftermath of my abusive relationship.

APA Reference
Milstead, K. (2019, June 12). Setting Healthy Boundaries After an Abusive Relationship, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Kristen Milstead

Kristen is a survivor of narcissistic abuse. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is the author of a toolkit, "Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship with a Narcissist," which is available for free on her website, Fairy Tale Shadows, a blog with the mission of promoting awareness about hidden abuse and empowering other survivors. Find Kristen on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on her website. 

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