I recently had someone ask me, “How do you get people, women in particular, to recognize [emotional abuse] for what it is early enough in a relationship to drop that person like a hot potato?”
This really got me thinking; if we understand what emotional abuse is (the categorical and intentional manipulation of someone in an effort to create a significant imbalance of power and a strong codependency), how can we avoid getting caught in it? What early warning signs can we look for?
Again, I somehow managed to get my thoughts about this down to a single word: boundaries.
Boundaries are, I think, the fundamental tell-tale in the beginning of a relationship. And what I mean by that, is that people who respect your boundaries tend to be people you can trust. Those who repeatedly push or challenge your boundaries in ways that make you feel confused or hurt are people you need to be wary of.
In all my unhealthy relationships, a lack of boundaries has been key to the relationships’ failures. Both myself and my partners didn’t practice maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries and that got us into heaps of trouble.
A healthy boundary is one in which your needs are met and you feel safe and confident. For example, using a tool like Our Family Wizard to manage communication between me and my ex-husband is a way of keeping a safe boundary between us, especially when there’s conflict.
Safe boundaries are ones that keep you feeling secure and they can be used not just with former partners, but in all our relationships.
Here’s another example: Many people feel overwhelmed after giving birth and having excited friends and family show up to meet the new baby right away. Asking your loved ones to wait a few days, or until you contact them to say you are ready, is setting a healthy boundary.
Telling someone you need time to process a difficult conversation is setting a healthy boundary.
Saying no to unwanted sexual advances is setting a healthy boundary.
Stepping away from a close-talker is setting a healthy boundary.
Doing anything that preserves your sense of safety and self-worth is establishing a healthy boundary and this is a reasonable thing to do, no matter what someone else might tell you.
Okay, but how do you actually set up those boundaries?
Again, my answer to this question is also only one word: assertiveness.
What is assertiveness? Well, I’m glad you asked! The Cambridge Dictionary defines “assertive” as this: “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe.”
So this means that assertiveness is when you act confidently and say what you need. And I believe that in order to establish healthy boundaries, you have to be assertive.
But wait! Let’s be clear that “assertive” is vastly different than “aggressive.” I think lots of people get these two things confused, so I want to dispel the notion that being assertive is a bad thing! Aggression is forceful and angry; it doesn’t respect boundaries and it can be violent and driving. Assertiveness doesn’t undermine other people and it isn’t nasty. It’s confident. It’s honest. It’s authentic. It’s the middle-ground between passive and aggressive (don’t even get me started on passive-aggressive!) and is also the only healthy way of expressing your needs and getting them met.
If you’re passive, you give your power away to other people. If you’re aggressive, you take power for yourself. If you’re assertive, you respect other people’s space and power, while maintaining your own.
What I’m saying is that the key to recognizing potentially abusive behaviour from others is to notice whether they have healthy boundaries for themselves and if they also respect your healthy boundaries. And the key to maintaining your boundaries lies in being assertive—not aggressive or passive—about what you need.
Sadly, there’s is no magic method for avoiding narcissists, abusers, or shitty people. I do think, however, that tuning into how someone responds to you setting up or maintaining boundaries can be fundamental in helping to avoid unsavoury or overly needy people. It may seem like you are pushing people away when you act assertively and put up your boundaries, but in the end, you’re not responsible for how others respond to your behaviour and those who stick around are much more likely to be the authentic, quality people in your life.
It can definitely feel scary to place boundaries around yourself, but remember, these aren’t walls; they’re boundaries that can stretch and grow, change and shift. You get to set them and you get to decide who comes in and out of them. You also get to choose how you respond to other people setting their boundaries and if you can succeed in creating a balance between getting your own needs met and meeting your partner’s needs (or your friend’s/family’s/children’s/whomever’s) then you will be poised to succeed in a healthier relationship.