Topic: Can I Set Boundaries with An Abusive Spouse?

Happy Memorial Day Friends,

I have never had the privilege of serving our in our country’s armed forces but I want to thank those who have. It is a supreme sacrifice to be willing to lay down your life for the freedoms we often take for granted in this country. I have traveled to many third world countries and I am always grateful to step foot on American soil once again. Although we struggle with many internal problems, I would not want to live anywhere else.

Thank you moms and dads, brother’s and sisters, grandparent’s, uncles and aunts who have loved one’s who have served and are serving our country. For you it must feel hard at times, fearing for their safety yet feeling so much pride in seeing your loved one’s selflessness in serving their country.

This week's question is part three to a long e-mail I received. If you want to read the first two parts, scroll to last week and the week before.

Today’s Question: I have one other question which I hope you can also address. My husband says that he is put into a kind of uncontrollable rage when I disrespect him because it is his god given right as the husband to be respected. Last night I told my husband who has physically struck me in the past that I felt unsafe in our marriage and that I thought it was necessary that we lay some ground rules and boundaries specifically to be enforced during our times of arguing and fighting so that we can keep each other accountable.

He resisted in agreeing boundaries were the issue but finally agreed. I told him that a universal boundary should be absolutely no physical striking or threats of physically hurting of any kind toward one another. To that he said that his boundary equivalent to that was “no disrespect/raising my voice to him.” He said that when he is disrespected, he feels he is being verbally abused by me and it feels as terrible as I feel when he slaps me on the arm/leg/head.

In theory this sounds “right”. He says that I am making a double standard when I put a boundary on his behavior but that he cannot on me. And yet, something does not seem right at all about what he is saying. I agree that disrespecting your husband is as sinful as physically striking your spouse in anger. Is it biblical to see these exactly the same in terms of setting “off limit” boundaries in disagreements?

Answer: Your struggle to think clearly in this muddle is common to women who live with abusive men. I want to help clarify some important truths.

First your husband’s rage and subsequent acts of violence toward you are not uncontrollable. His behavior is always his choice. I’m sure he has experienced disrespect from other people in his life – his employer, a rude driver, your children, a friend, an enemy. People sin against us all the time in many ways and sometimes we do get angry. However, that doesn’t mean we hit them. In fact, isn’t that what we teach our children NOT to do when someone takes their toy or makes them mad? We don’t hit people when we’re mad. Period!

Let me ask you a question. Does your husband hit other people in the arm/leg/head when he feels disrespected? What do you imagine a police officer would say if your husband used that as his excuse when he hit someone who disrespected him in traffic or at the mall?

Hear this important truth. Your husband hits you when he is mad because he chooses to and you have continued to enable him by not enforcing legal consequences that would protect you from this kind of abusive behavior.

He says that it is his god-given right to be respected. It’s also your god given right to be loved and cherished. When he fails to love and cherish you and you feel hurt or angry, do you hit him?

The second truth I want you be crystal clear on is that you will fail your spouse and he will fail you. Sometimes these failures are big but often they occur in little ways. He doesn’t love me like I’d like or she doesn’t respect me like I want her to. The truth is, our spouse doesn’t always give us what we want even if what we want is a good and godly thing. Hurt and disappointment occur in every marriage and we can feel angry.

But is the right answer to treat our spouse with abusive behavior or abusive speech when they don’t give us what we want? Jesus says “never!” The Bible labels that kind of behavior sin and selfishness and is never justified.

The truth is no one get’s everything he or she wants all of the time. Part of growing up and maturing is learning how to handle ourselves in a godly, mature way when we are disappointed, angry and hurt when we don’t get what we want.

Your husband’s entitlement thinking has deceived him into believing that since he’s entitled to be respected, he’s entitled to hit you when you’re not complying with what he wants. That is absolutely not true. How do other men handle being disrespected by their wives? They might pray for their wife. They might talk with their wife. They might get counseling as a couple. A much healthier response to his disappointment or hurt when you don’t respect him is for him to say, “Honey, that hurts me when you talk to me that way. Would you please stop?” Or even, “When you talk to me that way, I can’t hear you. I’m ending the conversation.”

As far as boundaries – you’re right, you will never feel safe to have a conversation with your husband let alone disagree if you fear for your safety. In the same way, if your husband fears your tongue and being disrespected, it’s hard for him to share his honest thoughts and feelings with you.

However, I’m not sure of his definition of disrespect. You were very clear with your definition of what you want stopped, no physical threats or physical violence. His definition was fuzzy – “No disrespect or raising your voice”. Does that mean that when you feel strongly about something or disagree, you can’t speak with an elevated voice without him feeling disrespected? Does that mean that you cannot argue because he will feel you don’t respect his opinion? Does that mean you have to agree with everything he thinks because not to will feel disrespectful to him?

You need to ask him to define for you the behavior that feels disrespectful to him. Is it calling him names? Is it swearing at him? Is it rolling your eyes? If you know what it is specifically, then you can decide whether or not you can agree to stop or change it. If you don’t know what it is, then the rules always change and he can feel disrespected just because you open your mouth in protest.

Finally, a first step boundary or safety plan for both of you might be that when either one of you feels unsafe, the one who feels unsafe can stop the conversation and the other person will respect that boundary and stop talking.

If it continues to be unsafe to have difficult discussions together and you have important things that need to be decided, then you will agree together to engage the help of a counselor to help you learn to speak safely and respectfully with one another and to handle your disappointment in a more godly way.

These “rules” need to be agreed to by both of you and if he does not keep them, then it's time to let him experience the consequences.


  1. Anonymous on May 31, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Might I add that with abusive men, they do not want to take responsibility for their behavior. If you are asking for change from them, they feel "entitled" that you must make a change for them. With a vague explanation of this man's expectation from his wife, it seems like he is looking for a way to build leverage to use against her, i.e. if she does not hold up her end of the bargain he doesn't have to either instead of taking responsbility for his part…looking for a way out when he fails. Just a thought.

  2. Leslie Vernick on May 31, 2011 at 12:48 am

    Thanks for your comments. Yes you're right, most abusive men feel entitled and don't want to be held accountable, but are very good at holding you accountable to whatever rules or boundaries they set up. I love that you all add your commends. It makes it a community of people who have been there and can share the wisdom they have gained form their pain. Every scar tells a story!

  3. Leslie Vernick on May 31, 2011 at 12:49 am

    opps. typed too fast. Glad you left your comments.
    God Bless, Leslie

  4. Amy on June 2, 2011 at 12:52 am

    It is very important to set boundaries with an abusive spouse, unfortunately I don't believe that many abusive spouses are willing to respect those boundaries and will often become more abusive because of it, although may change because of it.

    I was married to an emotionally/mentally abusive man for 20 years and I tried everything I could think of and read every book I could find to get him to change. But the truth that I finally see now (we divorced in March) is that nothing I did was going to make him change. He made choices in our marriage to be abusive and it had to be up to him to take responsibility for those choices.

    As Leslie said in her response, he is choosing to hit when mad, period. We all make choices but nobody can make us do anything against our will.

    Unfortunately, in my case, I had many Christians tell me that it was not biblical for me to set boundaries. I was told to just respect and love my husband no matter what, and definitely not to separate or divorce, and that God would bless me for suffering through an abusive marriage.

    I think it is sad when we have to actually ask if it's okay to set boundaries or to leave an abusive spouse in order to protect ourselves and our children. If a stranger were hitting us because they were mad at us or trying to harm us in any way, wouldn't we run the other way to protect ourselves? Would we continue allowing it? No.

    Sometimes the best way we can show love to an abusive spouse is to step aside and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. It doesn't mean that the only course of action is divorce, but separation can be a powerful eye opener for some spouses and they will either decide to take responsibility for their actions or they won't. And the only way to tell they have changed is when you can see the fruit of the spirit in them.

    I pray that the OP is able to take the necessary steps to find safety in her life. I am a stronger woman after being freed from over two decades of bondage.

  5. Anonymous on June 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    This may sound like a silly question, but after being in an abusive situation and accustomed to his line of thinking… I'm lost as to what being cherished means. What does a healthy marriage look like? What does it mean to be cherished and treasured?

  6. Amy on June 3, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    Re: the last post about knowing what it means to be cherished. I lived in an abusive relationship for a very long time, 20 years from the time I was in my early 20's and I had given up hope of ever finding someone that would truly cherish and love me, and like you wasn't sure I would even know what that looked like. But God brought a wonderful caring Christian man into my life two years after I had been separated from my ex and I can say that I am in a healthy relationship full of love, mutual respect and am cherished beyond what I would even have imagined. Not sure I can describe it very well, but being cherished and treasured leaves you feeling safe. I feel safe with this person, at ease and not always tense and waiting for something to happen. There is not this weight I once carried around when with my ex.

  7. Anonymous on June 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    What exactly does "experience the consequences" mean? For me, I do not want to be intimate with a man who treats me that way, but I haven't found much support for "withholding" sex. Is pulling away from a physical relationship ever a valid way to express that you don't feel loved?

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