setting boundaries and benchmarks in addiction recovery
Why Relationship Boundaries Lists Get it All WRONG (with Examples)

Many therapists encourage women to write a list of boundaries. Here's why that never works, with real life examples.

Many therapists encourage women to use relationship boundaries lists, with examples to improve their marriage. Anne talks about why boundary lists are a bad idea.

When victims confuse “benchmarks” with “boundaries” they may be in significant danger of more betrayal and abuse from their partner.

Anne speaks with Lindsey, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community, on the free BTR podcast to dive into the distinction between benchmarks and boundaries, and empower women to find safety and peace in ways that work. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

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What Are Benchmarks? What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are courageous actions that women take to separate themselves from abusive behavior.

Benchmarks are a standard that is set to measure something against.

You set a boundary, then you wait for benchmarks. A benchmark is something that they do. A boundary is something that you do.

Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Here are some examples of boundaries that women can set to separate themselves from abuse:

  • I spend time with people who treat me with respect 100% of the time.
  • I do not speak to people who gaslight me, manipulate me, and/or yell at me.
  • I only live with those who respect my body, heart, and mind.

Benchmarks are different. Here are some examples of benchmarks that can help victims determine if their partner is truly willing to seek change and live amends:

  • He is attending an abuse cessation program regularly.
  • He has not used pornography, masturbated, acted out sexually for six months or more.
  • He has ceased all abusive behavior including: gaslighting, lying, manipulating, blaming, playing the victim, acting-out sexually, etc.
  • He is fully engaged in his recovery plan.

Boundaries Are YOUR Job, Benchmarks Are HIS Job

Your boundaries are not created and maintained for the purpose of forcing or even encouraging him to change. Your boundaries are in place because you are an important human being who deserves to be treated with love and respect.

His benchmarks are not your responsibility. You can make safety requests, such as requesting that he join and attend an abuse cessation program. But his decision to attend or not attend, is not your responsibility. In fact, if you set out the requests then protect yourself with boundaries, you will be able to get a much clearer read on how serious he really is about changing.

If he is self-motivated and striving to create and follow his recovery and amends plan, that may be a good sign. But if you are constantly having to remind, beg, or threaten him, he is telling you (without telling you) that it’s not real change.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Women Who Want to Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting boundaries, making benchmark requests, and then surrendering the outcome of your partner’s choices is courageous. Women deserve validation and support as they work through this painful process toward safety.

The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in every time zone and offers women a safe place to process trauma, share hard feelings, ask important questions, and create lasting friendships with other women. Join today and find the empowerment that you deserve.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been talking with my friend, Lindsey. She lives in the same area as me, and we have attended the same 12-Step group, so we know each other personally, and we hang out. I’m so grateful that she’s spent this time with me.

If you have not heard the last three episodes with Lindsey, I encourage you to go back and start from three weeks ago and listen to them in order so you’re up to date and have the full story.

What Is The Difference Between Benchmarks And Boundaries?

Today, we’re going to start talking about benchmarks. Benchmarks aren’t boundaries. You set a boundary and then you wait for benchmarks.

A benchmark is something that they do, and a boundary is something that you do, and that’s the difference. We’re just going to jump right into this conversation about benchmarks.

Anne: Talk about some of the benchmarks you have now, for this boundary.

Lindsey: I smile at that, because this is something that we’ve gone back and forth on quite a lot. One of the areas of his recovery that my husband is really trying to work on is the expectations. One of the roots of his dishonesty is that he wants to fulfill other people’s expectations of him.

For me, I made a very conscious decision early on, in our in-home separation and, also in this out-of-home separation, to say, “I am not going to outline a plan for you. I’m not going to outline what I need to see, in order for this to be better.”

Anne: I’ll stop you there because I think that’s a good idea. The reason I think it’s a good idea is that, if you give them this list of, “Okay, I need you to go to group every week, I need you to do this, I need you to do that,” then they can fake all of that.

They can check off all those boxes, but it doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. I think it’s a good idea to just say, “I don’t know. I’ll keep praying, I’ll keep pondering, I’ll keep observing and I’ll see how it feels.”

Lindsey: Yeah. For him, what I know of him, I felt pretty comfortable saying, “If he comes up with a plan himself and then follows through with that plan, I feel like I can trust that that’s a move towards healthy behaviors.”

That wouldn’t work for everybody because some people would just make a list and check off the boxes, but where he’s at right now, I can trust, pretty much, that he’s not going to commit to something that he’s not ready to do.

Boundaries Keep You Safe While You Watch For Benchmarks

When they start working recovery, in three to five years, you can see significant improvement. I thought, “Okay, I’ve started my recovery, let’s start that clock.” It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that, simply because I had started to do my own healing and my own work, it did not mean that he had. It did not mean that he’s ready and did not mean that he’s committed. In some ways, it was harmful to him, and to me, for me to have that expectation.

Anne: I think that’s why safety first is the best way to go. If you’re thinking, “I need to establish safety for myself and for my home and I don’t know how to go about that, but it’s a top priority, and I’m going to continue to set boundaries until I feel safe, whatever that looks like,” then you’re never going to go wrong.

It could take ten years. You don’t know how long it’s going to take but, that way, it’s based on your level of safety and that’s something you can actually progress towards.

Lindsey: Yeah.

Anne: You’re making progress towards that. It’s taking a long time, which is fine, but that’s where you’re going and whether or not your safety ends up being that you hold—let’s just pretend—in four years, a no-contact boundary with an ex-husband, or if that safety means that he’s made enough healthy choices that he can be safe enough to move back in. Either way, you have worked toward your own safety and you’re making progress.

That might not feel like it right now but you’re going to get there. That is completely within your own control.

Lindsey: The idea of getting there is not my goal. My goal is to keep moving in that direction because, realistically, I don’t think there is ever going to be a point at which I totally say, “Okay, I’ve made it.”

Anne: Yeah, I agree. For me, I’ve set a no-contact boundary. I’m now divorced. I am getting safer all the time, but I definitely feel like I’m way safer than I was before. I’m still working toward that, but my level of safety is extremely high now compared to how it was before.

Also, as I have worked through my own weaknesses and problems, it’s really cool that all the people who surround me now, who are close to me, are really safe people. Even though there are lots of people who don’t like me—and I have a lot of haters, including my ex and his family—I feel pretty safe in general. There are days when I don’t.

Lindsey: One thing that I feel is some caution around the word safety. Just the idea that any relationship, whether it’s marriage or just with a friend or family member, you can’t expect there to be no conflicts.

You can’t expect there to be no risks and no hurt, no reason for being in pain. I feel some caution around the word safety simply, because I don’t want to be so focused on the goal of safety that I don’t open myself up to deep, meaningful, loving relationships.

Do you need boundaries with healthy people?

Anne: That’s interesting because I don’t feel that way at all. I feel very safe with my close friends and family, but we’re getting in fights all the time. But it’s a safe space. I’m not abused.

Lindsey: Right.

Anne: I’m not lied to. I’m not accused of things. I’m not being gaslighted. Is there conflict? Totally. In fact, I’m very confrontational, as are so many other people around me.

Lindsey: And that makes sense. With your background and your personality, of course, it makes sense. But, for me and who I am naturally, and I know this about myself, I’m naturally conflict averse, I want to be careful about me pushing safety too far.

Anne: Or you’re confusing—I think that might be the better word—safety and peace with a complete and total lack of conflict.

Lindsey: Maybe, because safety can mean not being in pain to some people.

Anne: For sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m in pain. I have conflicts that hurt my feelings but it’s resolvable with a safe person.

Lindsey: Well, yeah, but I guess what I’m saying is—

Anne: You can resolve it. The pain can be resolved—not quickly, but rather quickly. If you get in a conflict you can resolve it within a week, let’s say, which is great. These other conflicts with your spouse or ex-spouse that are unresolvable and cause pain forever—they’re not unresolvable, they’re resolvable just not anytime soon.

The safe space that I have now is, do I get my feelings hurt? Yeah, but the level of pain is completely different because it’s so much different to repair.

Boundaries Don’t Stop Us from Growing

Lindsey: I guess what I’m saying is. it’s not just pain from getting feelings hurt, but it’s also I want to be open to the pain of growth. The growth in a relationship that may come from a conflict that lasts for a while.

Anne: Right, but that doesn’t mean you’re unsafe.

Lindsey: No, but to some people, and in some situations, the idea of being in pain, period, may feel unsafe. For example, in my relationship with my parents, I have a lot of growth to do there. There have been some areas of conflict that have not been resolved at all, ever, and that is painful when I’m thinking about it.

I don’t always sit and dwell on that one relationship or area of conflict, but it’s okay if I feel like that is the pain of growth. Saying that it’s okay for me to feel the pain of saying I’m wrong sometimes.

Anne: Yeah, totally, but that again, safety is about, “Is this person lying to you? Are they trying to manipulate you? Are they hurting you on purpose to try and take the attention away from their unhealthy behaviors?”

If the person is genuine, they really genuinely care for you, they’re not trying to manipulate you. Like my mom, for example, she really wants me to do certain things and she tries to convince me in a lot of different ways.

Could I call it manipulation? Maybe, but not really because she’s very direct about it. “I don’t like those shoes your wearing. I don’t want you to wear them. Let me tell you the 17 reasons why they’re ugly,” and then she’ll tell me that over and over and over and I’m like, “I like those shoes.”

She doesn’t say, “Oh, let me buy you shoes.” No, there’s none of that it’s, “Those shoes are ugly. Don’t wear them anymore.” She’s doing that because she genuinely loves and cares about me, which is so different than coming from a place of, “I’m trying to hide things from you. I’m trying to make sure that you don’t confront me about my abusive behaviors.” I think safety with people even if there is conflict is totally achievable.

Maybe we can agree to disagree.

Lindsey: Yeah, absolutely. I’m definitely okay with that.

Anne: I believe you can get to safety, you really can.

Lindsey: I do believe that. I just know that, from my perspective, where safety has been a very unclear thing to me, when I was early in recovery, and to people who are around me, it can be misinterpreted very easily.

Healthy People Still Set Boundaries – They Just Don’t Make Lists with Examples:)

Anne: That’s so interesting. Maybe I need to go back and fix all my podcast episodes because I’m always talking about safety and people are like, “Well, that means that we never get in an argument or that means this” and I’m like, “No it doesn’t. It’s never meant that.” I’m wondering now if people are interpreting this differently than how I intended?

Lindsey: Oh, I’m sure.

Anne: There is no way we can ever have a life free of conflict and, actually, we don’t want that.

Lindsey: Right.

Anne: Which would mean someone is lying or someone isn’t sharing.

Lindsey: But I used to think that that’s what I would want. I used to think that, if I was in conflict in a relationship, then things were not okay. That relationship is not okay.

Anne: I think it depends on what you’re having a conflict about. If you’re having a conflict about your shoes, that relationship is fine.

Lindsey: Right.

Anne: If you’re having a conflict about whether or not someone is stabbing people, that is not okay.

Lindsey: Right.

When Benchmarks Are Met, You Can Change Your Boundaries, If You Want

Anne: What are your next steps? Are you feeling like you want to just settle into this?

Lindsey: No, I don’t. I don’t want to settle into this because this is not my ideal. Realistically, I don’t control him. I can’t make him do anything. For me, on the relationship front, it’s a waiting game. Wait and see what happens. See what he does, see how he acts, and see what happens.

I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, so I’ll mention this now. The key to that, for me, is developing and keeping my relationship with my Higher Power, such that I feel like I can trust my Higher Power to let me know if something is off. Because, realistically, I don’t know if he’s lying to me. I don’t know if he’s acting out.

There’s a lot that I don’t know because I’m unobservant and that’s just how things are. However, I have had multiple key moments in my relationship with my husband and in my own recovery journey where I know that my Higher Power has made me aware of things that I did not know.

Anne: Do you feel like your relationship with God has improved over time?

Lindsey: Yes and no. Yes, obviously it has because I’ve been working on myself and that’s always a good thing. No, in that I still struggle in some of the basics. I still struggle with connecting with my Higher Power on a regular basis. I still struggle with having the motivation to want to do the things that I know I need to do to keep that connection strong.

Anne: Like prayer or scripture study?

Lindsey: Scripture study. Even doing Step work, which is not quite a connection with my Higher Power, but it is. It’s the little things that, even on a day-to-day basis, I know I still have a lot of work to do on my end to make things feel in a better space for me, where I want to be.

Anne: Not a ton of women set boundaries like this. Boundaries are hard and, especially, having your husband move out is a very difficult boundary to decide on and to do. Let’s talk about, if you could go back in time and talk to your younger self and tell her some things about boundaries that you have learned, what would you tell her?

Lindsey: That it’s okay to not know what you’re doing because, realistically, I don’t know that I would have learned the things that I needed to learn in order to set these boundaries any sooner than I did, even if I told myself anything, any advice I could have given myself, and that’s okay. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to not have it down right now and it is something that’s going to take time.

Anne: I agree. I am now such an expert at boundaries, but I didn’t set a boundary at all before my ex was arrested. That was God telling me, “Let me help you out. You clearly are having problems and just let me do this for you.” I feel like that’s what happened and then I was like, “Thank you! I can breathe now!” and then I could figure out how to set boundaries.

I’ve just basically kept the boundary that God gave to me. Thank goodness, I don’t think I ever could have done it otherwise. Going back in time, I was really, really bad at boundaries. That’s what I would have told myself.

Advice For Setting A Separation Boundary

For women, right now, who are considering an in-home separation or an out-of-home separation, do you have any words of wisdom you can share with them?

Lindsey: I just know what I did. It helped to talk to a lot of people. It helped to talk not only with people who are in the same boat as me, but also with people who aren’t. People who have a completely different perspective and also talk with experts.

Reach out to a therapist, reach out to a sponsor, reach out to somebody who may be a little bit ahead of you on the journey and then the people who are right there in the trenches with you. It helped to talk it out. It helped me clarify what my thoughts were and what my feelings were.

Also, being open to guidance from my Higher Power. I can’t honestly say that it’s something that I knelt down and prayed about because that’s just not the place I’m at right now but connecting in other ways and being open.

Anne: Yeah. This is a tough journey. It’s kind of wild, when you think about it. It’s like a relationship rodeo. It’s intense and it’s unpredictable. I think that peace is a good goal to work towards. I do think it’s possible. A relatively peaceful life. I like the Serenity Prayer. A reasonably happy life now and a super-duper happy life in the afterlife.

Lindsey: Supremely happy.

Anne: Yeah, that we can make our way toward that and boundaries make that possible. They really do, and I really genuinely hope that your husband starts to make healthy choices, but time will tell.

Lindsey: Yep.

Anne: Again, a great big thank you to my friend, Lindsey, for coming and spending so much time with us over these past four weeks. I’m so grateful for her. She is a really great example to me of someone who sets boundaries and is doing the best she can to be as healthy as possible and I genuinely admire her and I’m grateful for her friendship.

I want to thank all of you who support the podcast to make it possible for me to continue sharing this message of hope, healing, and safety to women throughout the whole world.


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