What Boundaries Are Appropriate With Someone Who Won’t Talk with You?

Morning friend,

This is a busy week this week for me. A lot is happening and I’d appreciate your prayers especially Thursday, Friday and Saturday during our conference. Next week I will be leaving for a cruise that we booked pre-covid and are finally able to go. My coaches will be answering some of your questions while I am gone.

Question: My husband won't engage or talk with me except when absolutely necessary. If I ask a question he gives short answers and mostly acts irritated by my presence. I understand how to put a boundary in place by walking away from a toxic conversation, but how do you put a boundary in place from no conversation at all? What would a boundary even be with someone who acts mildly irritated with you constantly and avoids being in the same room with you?

Answer: First, I’m so sorry for what you are experiencing. Marriage is supposed to be a loving partnership. Obviously, you are not getting that benefit and it’s painful and perplexing. Has this always been the pattern or is this something new? Was there a crisis or a medical problem or a bad fight that was never resolved that started this pattern? Is he experiencing depression or an addiction to something that may keep him absorbed in his own internal world and not very available to you?  Does he engage with others (children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends) or is he completely disengaged?

There is no easy answer here and any of the choices you have going forward will present their own challenges.  But I’m going to try to answer your question because I think that the whole topic of boundaries can be confusing for many people.

I also want to add that in any problem we face there are two tracks that we want to pay attention to. The first track I’ll define as your toxic marriage. Let’s call that the external life circumstance track. What’s happening “out there” track.

For you – what’s happening out there isn’t changing and now it is impacting you in negative ways. You’re lonely. It’s hard. Your marriage is demeaning, frustrating, and confusing. You can’t get him to talk (attempts to change the external) and when you try, he only gets more rejecting. 

When the external track is not changeable (at least not now) your other option is to focus your energy on you. How is this situation impacting you? What is this teaching you? What do you need to learn from this? What do you need to let go of to heal? How can you grow from this?  What do you want to do with the impact this is having on you, especially if he isn’t willing to change (or the external life track doesn’t change)? 

Hear me:  I’m all for changing the external track if possible. And I’m sure you have done all you know to do to get him to listen. To hear you. To care. To respond appropriately. To engage. And all you get is more hurt. Now what? This is where you might want to consider doing more internal work to have better boundaries.  

Therefore, let me begin by defining what a boundary is and isn’t. Boundaries are always about you, not about the other person. There are two types of boundaries, internal (within your own self) and external (how you will interact with others or your environment). Boundaries don’t seek to control another person’s behavior towards you. Healthy boundaries define two specific areas of you. Identity and Responsibility

Let’s start with identity: Boundaries help you define who you are and who you are not.  What you stand for and what you stand against. What’s important to you? What will you live with? What will you not live with? What do you value? What do you love? What do you hate?

I find a helpful way of thinking about this topic is to look at the 50 states in the United States. We do not have fences that define each state's border, but each state in the US has a border identifying where it begins and where it ends (identity). The 50 states have unique identities. One state does not attempt to control another state. Instead, they create laws, regulations, norms, and a value system that is unique to their particular state. For example, some states frown upon owning a personal firearm, and licenses to carry a gun are difficult to get. In other states, that’s not true. But the state that allows firearms, does not attempt to regulate or control the laws of the states that do not. Each state has its own unique identity.

The second area boundaries are helpful in assigning responsibility. Again the example of states is helpful. I live in Arizona. Arizona is responsible for its laws, taxes, voting processes, police force, water regulation, cleanup, sanitation, etc.  Although Colorado is our neighbor, Colorado is not responsible for Arizona. Colorado is responsible for Colorado and its residents and property. That does not mean that a state would not be helpful if another state had an emergency, but Colorado is not responsible for Arizona’s laws, taxes, or the safety of its population. Arizona is responsible to take care of Arizona.

In the same way, each of us as people needs to establish a sense of who we are and who we are not. What we stand for and stand against. What we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do. What we will say or not say with our words. What we will eat or not eat. Drink or not drink. Do or not do. Accept or not accept. Not only is this important for the big deal things of life but also in our everyday life decisions. 

For example, “Are you willing to drive in a car with a smoker?” Yes or no?  You can’t control whether or not a person smokes cigarettes but you can decide whether or not you will be in an enclosed space with that person. If the answer is no, then that is a boundary you have for YOU, not for them.  Your boundary is:  “I will not drive with someone who smokes in the car.”  Not, “You can’t smoke when I’m in the car with you.”

Do you hear the difference? You can control you. You can’t control the other person. The best you can do is ask the smoker not to smoke, but then that is a request, not a boundary.

You live with someone who non-verbally communicates that he doesn’t want to talk with you, play with you, hang out with you or solve problems with you. You can’t control him; you can only control you. Therefore, are you willing to stay living like this?  And if not, what are your alternatives? (Taking responsibility for you)

Here are a few choices that may help you move forward.  

Choice 1. Start with a short statement about what you observe. For example, “I see that you don’t enjoy being around me. You get short with me when I ask you a question. You never initiate a conversation. You don’t want to talk or go out or hang out together. This isn’t the kind of marriage or relationship I want (You are defining who you are). Where would you like us to go from here?” In a soft way, you are stating your boundary.  “I don’t want to continue living this way. Do you have any desire to change this pattern?”  His response will influence your next choice going forward.

Now he has choices to make too. He may default and do nothing but ignore you. That’s been his typical pattern. Or he may get critical or sarcastic to shut you down. Or he may decide to reflect and be honest and say “I’m not happy either, what do you want to do?” Now you both can have a conversation about that.

Choice 2.  Reflect on what you can do and can’t do, will do or won’t do. Pay close attention to your needs as well as your limitations. For example, perhaps as you think about it you realize that your health (physical limitations) will not allow you to work full-time to support yourself financially if you were to seek a new living arrangement. Or, you do not have the education or skills that would give you a job that paid enough to do so comfortably. Limitations can be a boundary. If we cannot do something, we must learn to live within those limits until we don’t have those limits anymore. But recognize that you still have choices even when your choices are limited.

For example, you might “choose” to live peaceably with him without asking him to have a conversation, meet your emotional needs, engage with you socially or be a companion to you. But you also choose to recognize and are grateful that he is meeting one of your important needs, which is providing for your physical welfare, food, clothing, shelter, medical care. 

I don’t know whether or not that is true. But if it is, what might be possible for you going forward if you accepted what he can give you with gratitude, and accept what he can’t give you without resentment or demands? That decision is totally up to you. (Internal track).  It’s not the marriage you wanted or pictured, but what do you want to do about that given both his and your current situation and options? This is the responsibility part of boundaries. You get to decide. You are responsible for you. For your mood, for your health, for how you handle adversity and challenges in your external world (like your current living arrangements). 

What might be different if you stopped being angry or despondent that he wasn’t talking with you or engaging with you and just went about living your life as fully as you can? That might mean getting involved in some volunteer work. Joining a women’s group at church. Spending more time with your grandchildren. Making meaningful connections with other single women and planning outings and trips with them so that your loneliness and need for companionship and connections are being met elsewhere. 

Choice 3.  Continue to do nothing as he continues to do nothing. Doing nothing to change (external or internal) is always a choice. Usually not the best one but it is a choice.  

Once you recognize that you DO have choices here no matter how small, you regain some sense of personal power to do something about how you are feeling inside and what you want to do to take care of you.  

When you depend or demand that someone else changes so that you are okay, you give your personal power away. When you do that continually, you feel like and stay a victim of someone else’s choices. That is not good for you, for him, or for the relationship. 

One more word of caution. Many times we get stuck right here because we don’t like our choices. We keep believing that if only the other person would change we wouldn’t have to make this choice.  But remember, when we depend on the other person to change so that we can get healthy, safe, or grow, then we give away our personal power to take care of and be responsible for ourselves. Yes, I agree, it would be easier if they would change, but reality often tells us that is not going to happen anytime soon. If that’s true, then what is your next best right choice for you?   

Friend, what other choices do you see she has or what boundaries do you put in place for yourself so that you don't continue to be at the mercy of other people’s choices and then repeatedly feel hurt, angry, resentful, or powerless over the person who won’t change?

14 Comments

  1. Cathy Milan on November 6, 2022 at 9:46 am

    You wrote my story , I am involvedin Bible studies and prayer groups and go to the gym and have friends to hang out with, my husband is just line the one in the story but he spits out in anger, I have grown children that I can go spend time with and most of all I have God that I spend a lot of time with

  2. Sad on November 6, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    So I’ve been on this situation. Choice 1 failed and choice 3 failed also (doing nothing isn’t an option when you’re dependent on your husband financial due to health issues that prevent you from working and prevent you from leaving but where his ignoring you means he’s also not letting you have basic needs eg refusing to talk with you for you to ask for money for doctors and medications you need to live but you live where the options are be supported by someone else or live a shortened life in great pain).
    But choice 2 also doesn’t always work. Having friends and family doesn’t fill the desire for partnership (emotionally and physically/sexually). Even for those who have resources to leave a husband who stonewalls, many like myself believe that even total stonewalling doesn’t justify divorce, and if you do divorce, they believe it certainly doesn’t justify (biblically) remarriage.
    So for those with a husband like this who don’t believe it biblically justifies divorce and remarriage, what are they supposed to do?
    Think of the smoking example – your husband smokes, you are allergic to cigarette smoke but are reliant on your husband to go anywhere, you don’t have money for taxis, can’t use public transport and don’t know anyone who can help you (not all churches are supportive and not everyone has the choice to go to another church), essentially your husband is genuinely you’re only option. Your husband smoking could genuinely kill you to asthma or allergies. Obviously saying to him “I won’t get in the car with a smoker” doesn’t solve the problem as you don’t have transport. You have no one wise to ask and you can’t pay someone because your husband controls your money.
    Yes the situation I describe crosses into outright abuse by the husband but even then, not all women can just leave because some places there is just no help available for women to leave abusive controlling men.
    What do women in this situation do?
    Usually the answers I’ve heard is contact domestic abuse support services but in some areas they just aren’t available, or at least not for women with disabilities.
    What choices do women in these situations have?
    I mention some churches aren’t supportive. Some mean well but they won’t do anything about the abusive husband. Sure, they’ll stop him from volunteering in the church and being part of any ministry while he abuses his wife but they won’t bluntly say to him what he is doing is abuse. They won’t even acknowledge it outside of private meetings with the husband and wife separately (so the wife can’t even be sure they are telling the husband his actions are abusive) and they certainly won’t back the woman up by publicly or offer help or support. They just say it is a private matter and to keep it private (don’t talk about it other than to ministers and elders) and to go get help from secular domestic abuse services and don’t listen when you say that services aren’t available (and particularly where I live, the police are very misogynist and don’t even act on serious physical abuse of women and children).
    In fact, the silence of church leaders and lack of support for the abused women is used by people like the police and courts to ignore the abuse – police and judges will bluntly say “if he’s abusive, why is he allowed to go to church each week, no one says anything to him, and if asked about the abuse the minister/elder just says ‘it’s not our business’, if the abuse was real, no church would act like that”.
    How does one get well meaning but totally ignorant churches to act on domestic abuse in their midst? How do you make church leaders see that it’s not a private matter or just a secular matter, but that churches have to act on abuse too.

    • Louise on November 7, 2022 at 10:27 pm

      I also felt stuck because I didn’t believe in divorce/remarriage. It was “beaten” into me that GOD HATES DIVORCE. “Friends” served as Judge, Jury and Executioner: you can’t get a divorce. First, Malachi 2 is misinterpreted. God hates divorce because of the brokenness it causes + dealing treacherously with one another. Second, God also hates abuse. Marriage is a covenant, which your spouse breaks when he abuses you – just as he breaks the covenant if he is unfaithful. Third, even though God hates divorce, he loves those who get divorced. Fourth, if you leave, you don’t necessarily have to initiate a divorce. Neglect is a form of abuse. God loves you & does not want you to be abused. You know how you’ve tried to save your marriage & forgiven many times. Yet his behavior continues. I eventually fled my abusive marriage, & my spouse applied for divorce.

  3. Tanya on November 6, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    What do you do if you have a chronic illness and your husband is extremely resentful of that chronic illness and your medical bills. Makes fun of your chronic illness, has a whole other life without you. You aren’t really able to make a life of your own because of your limitations, but you know that this toxic relationship is getting in the way of you feeling better. I think if I had a roommate and his alimony and find part time online work I might be able to make it work. I’m just so tired of living in a love less emotionally abusive relationship.

    • Louise on November 7, 2022 at 9:24 pm

      My heart goes out to you. Five months after marriage, I became severely ill & disabled. Like yours, my spouse was resentful, made fun, had another life, etc. After 18 years, I accepted the horrible truth: he was abusive. I spent 1 year praying, going on private retreats, studying abuse, trying to make changes. Private retreats helped me be more objective. After 1 year, I decided I must leave. Otherwise, I would enable his abusive behavior. So I fled to a women’s emergency shelter. Yes, it was hard. And the abuse continued (but changed) after I fled. Now life is better. I feel safe & secure. I’m not afraid to go to bed at night. I’m responsible for only me. My health is more stable. I worked hard on my health when with my spouse, but is it possible to improve your health when stressed to the max?. With persistence, I was granted a small Canadian government disability pension. Other financial assistance may be available. It sounds like you are seriously considering leaving. If you don’t have good support (e.g. women’s shelters) nearby, there are online resources. You will need help with emotional support, housing, legal & financial planning. Maybe more. Leslie Vernick’s info is great. I will be praying for you.

  4. Kurt on November 6, 2022 at 5:36 pm

    The two most important questions- 1. Was my husband always like this? 2. Is my husband this way with other people? If the answer to both questions is ‘no’, then in my experience the wife has made the husband feel unsafe to open up due to some form of emotional abuse. This will take a lot of self reflection to identify what actions the wife is doing that are abusive and then do the hard work of ridding herself or these actions. The husband is a turtle right now. She needs to make it safe for the turtle to come back out of his shell.

    • Louise on November 7, 2022 at 8:37 pm

      That is a possibility. However, I believe it’s more likely that this husband is abusive to his wife. I have studied this subject extensively & have personal experience. 1. No, my husband wasn’t always like this. My husband was not abusive to me until after we were married. He was also abusive to his previous wife when they were married. (I learned this after we were married many years..) 2. No, my husband was not abusive to others. So, my answer to both questions is “No”. The truth is: my husband was abusive. His abusive behavior was a choice – behind closed doors. Abusive men can be very charismatic – when it suits them. Most people thought he was a great guy, although there were a few who saw the real man.

    • Li on November 7, 2022 at 10:01 pm

      Good questions. But with a covert narcissist, this is icommonplace. When a discovery is made of a secret life of a porn addiction, it all makes sense,

    • Tina on November 9, 2022 at 6:48 am

      BS

  5. Therese Rodriguez on November 6, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    Another option is to leave well.

  6. Julie DeCoster on November 7, 2022 at 11:14 am

    I have a friend that for a long time i would have most wanted for her to spend more time with me and it has grieved me A fair amount that she doesn’t want to or need to spend as much time as I would like she to with me. Ive often thought I’m not a friend she’s valued or as much as I have valued her and her friendship. But boundaries are about me not about the other person. or trying to change them or the way things are between us. Unfortunately her not getting back to me when I call only reinforces my feelings of she’s not there for me so much. How I interpret her valuing my friendship as much as Ive valued hers. I later realized she doesn’t have as much need for my friendship as she has so many people in her life compared to me. that provide her with connection. And agency with her two jobs and now taking a collage course. But I do have options too. I can make other friends that want to spend time with me as much as I with them. I’m giving her too much power as you described I d like to meet my social and work related needs in other relationships and things I do to serve the Lord other then depend on Terri to meet any more needs now than she does meet now. I’m single so I’ve already had to live without sexuality for many years now. and I’ve learned that sexuality is unsatisfactory outside of marriage. I ultimately feel a lot lonelier apart my felt closeness with him in that kind of relationship than being a Christian single person anyway.

  7. Debbie on November 7, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you Leslie Very helpful & insightful. I am taking care of me. Took me a while but I’ll be alright! My biggest challenge is valuing myself. I don’t need my mean spouse to take care of me. I got Jesus my Bridegroom. He’s helping me take steps to being a fulfilled & happy me. Boundaries make me feel good.

    • Linda on November 8, 2022 at 9:19 pm

      I am praying for you Debbie. My situation is very similar to yours. Sad to say it has been going on for years off and on. My husband is two different people! I have decided at this time to stay well at this time. I love my home and it is a great place for my kids and grandkids to come to. Why should I give it up? I am learning to live each day with God’s grace and enjoy my home. Leslie’s videos on staying well and one called Healthy Detachment have really helped me. It is so hard to feel rejected by anyone but especially by our husbands and under the same roof. Please know that you have a wonderful God who loves you with an everlasting love and will never shut you out. He is “The LORD who sees”. Leslie’s video on Rejection had such good reminders in it for me. Something I’ve really missed is having someone to eat meals with. My kids are all grown. So, I invite my grandkids over or a friend for lunch. Also I try to find other women who are alone and spend time with them. A lot more to say, but know I’m praying for you and I’m sure many others are to in this Conquer group.

  8. Rhonda on November 9, 2022 at 9:27 am

    What other choices does she have? is the question. I started with choice one, I confronted in love, kindness with a Biblical mindset. During this 10 yr (out of 31) I began to self care and do the things, make the friends that I loved….this just made my husband treat me worse….emotionally and mentally abusive. I prayed, sought His comfort and prayed some more. I set physical boundaries. I moved out of our bedroom and slept in the garage and when it got too cold I shared a room with my teenager. I did this for myself and to show my husband that I was done with his rotten treatment of me. This just made him treat me worse. He then became a bully. When I started to think and talk about the truth of my marriage, the truth about my husband I began to see more options. The Lord opened a window for me to leave (I took the 2 youngest of our 7 children). Sadly, I would have emotionally, mentally and spiritually died in that marriage but God. He relentlessly pursued me and rescued me from the lies. Divorce is a sin. Hypocrisy and lying are sins. I chose to not be a hypocrite nor lie anymore. I am in the process of divorcing him because as soon as I left the house ( I wanted a Legal Separation)he went and stole all of our savings. 31 years of marriage and alls he could think of was money. God thinks I am worth more than being bullied emotionally and mentally. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the death of my marriage He is with me. And He forgives me for the sin of divorce. I press on towards the goal that He has called me to.

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