Healthy Boundaries With An Abusive Ex-Husband
Several months ago, Kate was in a situation where she needed to hold a parallel parenting and no-contact boundary. She also had a financial situation that she needed to resolve with her ex-husband, that was proving difficult for several reasons. Kate explains her feelings during this time and reflects on the solutions she had considered, such as blocking him from contact. Coach Sarah also offers some important insight into Kate’s journey.
Anne: Kate, were you able to resolve that financial situation with your ex?
Kate: Yes, I was. It was difficult, but it was resolved. Retirement funds were transferred, and bank accounts were closed. Financially, I am disconnected from my ex now.
Anne: After considering blocking him on your phone and blocking his emails, now that we’ve had a few months go by, and you have this financial thing resolved, what are your feelings now about doing that?
Kate: Right now, I don’t feel like I need to do that, because I’ve been able to manage texts from him. He hasn’t called me at all and he hasn’t sent any emails. He’s only been texting. What I’ve found is that I’ve gained some resiliency in dealing with texts in the minimum kind of response as possible. I find myself, instead of reacting to his texts, I’m responding and I’m taking time to think things through before I respond. I don’t know the magic solution that has happened. I don’t know how to articulate it, but it has been a peaceful time in my heart and my soul in dealing with him. I am really grateful for it.
Anne: Sarah, I want to talk about how goals might change as situations change, or as we gain more insight, or as we gain more strength. What is the process of discovering what boundaries you might want, and then, in the process of exploring those boundaries, perhaps changing your mind, those types of issues?
Coach Sarah: Absolutely. We have really two types of boundaries, and we don’t even know it. The one type of boundary is what we call definitive boundary. I’m going to use an analogy to help conceptualize this. When I walk into the room, the things that define Sarah, I’ve got dark brown hair and green eyes. I walk in the room, and people see my dark hair, and they see my face, or my skin, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s Sarah.” These are the things that define me for who I am.
Depending on the season, middle of summer in Texas, I might come in in shorts and t-shirt, right? In the middle of winter, I might have my boots on and jeans and a jacket and, maybe, even a hat, depending on if it’s really cold. Those are what we call our protective boundaries. They change, based on our need for protection.
A great way to connect with how this would work, I get to define what I do or don’t want in my relationship. I might say, “In my relationship, I do not want pornography. That will never be a part of my marriage.” If the current marriage ended, “My next marriage, I will not have pornography be a part of my marriage.” That is a way that I get to define, it’s part of how I want things to be. That’s not going to change.
What might change is, let’s say shortly after discovery, I might not want to watch anything on TV. I might not want my husband to watch anything on TV, other than the Food Network channel, something that feels really safe and non-triggery. As time goes on, as safety increases, I might say, “Okay, well now we can also watch the fishing show.” I’m going to be able to add different shows on, because we feel safer. We don’t need as many layers to protect ourselves. Those shift, those boundaries, our protective boundaries shift, based on our needs.
It’s actually a very healthy thing, and a very intuitive thing that Kate was able to say, “You know what, I’m feeling resilience in this area. I don’t feel like I need quite as many layers of protection as I thought I needed. I went into thinking I might need this, because it looked like it was going to be cold outside, but I stepped in,” like that kind of an idea. Our safety boundaries shift with our safety needs.
Anne: Is that how you felt about it, Kate? Did you feel confident in your decisions, or were you like, “I should be doing this, but I feel guilty”? What was your internal process?
Kate: At first, as I investigated apps to help me set some kind of barrier between the communication, I felt very guilty. Like, “Well, this just doesn’t work for me, but, yet, I need to do something.” As I went back and forth, and researched, I realized the apps that were available were going to be more difficult to implement than I had expected, and they really didn’t fit my situation. I kept looking for something, it didn’t come about.
I guess I shifted the concentration on the specific boundary to an internal boundary for myself, and saying, “Well, if I can’t find the exact right fit, how can I tailor my own personal boundaries to fit my situation?” I found that, as I was healing and as I’ve been healing, my internal dialogue has been different. My internal thought processes about my ex’s behavior, whether present behavior or past behavior, and it creates a space where I can feel more safe and more settled and more resilient.
Anne: Boundaries are interesting, because right after my ex’s arrest, I wanted to talk to him. It was hell to not talk to him. It was hell for me to not write him letters and for me to communicate and tell him all the things I was feeling. But I had the no-contact boundary from the judge, and I knew I needed to keep it.
There is a difference, I think, between re-evaluating what we’ve been doing in the past, and making changes that might be extremely uncomfortable—it seems like a lot of women who want to be in recovery, they feel like, “This is what I want to do, but, at the same time, it doesn’t feel right. I want to set this boundary that I’m not going to have sex with my husband, but, at the same time, that’s mean,” or “He’s going to get mad,” or, “This is going to happen and it’s going to be uncomfortable, so does that mean it’s not right? Does that mean it’s not the right thing for me?” Sarah, what are some tips that you would give our listeners for how to know if their boundaries are working for them?
Coach Sarah: First of all, you’re going to have to be intentional. If we just put boundaries out there and aren’t paying attention to how it’s affecting our lives, we might not know. We just put it out there and see what happens. But, if we put a little bit of intention around it, we’re going to know if our boundaries are working for us or not. Here’s a couple of ways.
One, is what Kate talked about with being able to see that trying to do it in this way was actually increasing anxiety for her, because it wasn’t working. Because she was trying to fit herself into this boundary that wasn’t really applicable to what she needed, “Oh, it’s stressing me out and it’s causing anxiety to actually try to make this work.”
Taking a step back, and saying, “Okay, this is what works for me about this. This is what doesn’t work for me about it,” but the key there is understanding is this decreasing or increasing my anxiety? Like trying to put this boundary, is it helping me to feel safer or is it actually making me feel more boxed in? Asking yourself those kinds of questions, I think are really important. We have to spend time reflecting on the effect of even looking into the boundary.
Like Kate said, she said, “As I looked into it,” even thinking about it caused her to, “Hmm, no, this isn’t feeling right.” Paying attention to your gut, paying attention to the anxiety levels. I would even say, for those of us like me, who might get stuck in their head, overanalyzing everything, one of the things I like to suggest for people to do is to take a step back and check in with your body. Because a lot of times our body is trying to tell us messages. If there’s a disconnect between our body and our brain, we’re not going to hear them.
When you think about this boundary, are you finding yourself being relaxed in your body, or are you finding tension in your neck and in your shoulders? Are you finding your stomach getting upset? What is happening in your body, as you’re trying to enforce this boundary, or even think about putting the boundary in effect? I think those are a couple of tips to check and see if the boundary is working for you.
Kate: Yes. I really, really identified with what Coach Sarah just talked about with checking in with my body. I have chronic illnesses, so my body is my barometer on how I’m doing in safety and in all areas of my life. I was in a lot of pain last year. I had a massage therapist, that I love, she was talking to me about my process of going through the divorce and disconnecting from a husband. She suggested that I do some dance therapy. I’d never heard of that.
When she described it, I just knew it was something I was going to do. I picked a few songs that I really identified with and I went in my basement and I turned the songs on as loud as I could and I did a lot of ugly dancing to process things through my body. I realized I was carrying so much pain and so much betrayal and trauma in my body that I wasn’t able to heal physically. The physical and the emotional were being trapped. I don’t know if that’s called a boundary, but I had to make a boundary for my own health and my own safety, physically.
As I was able to do that, using artistic expression, it became easier for my body to process the betrayal, the trauma, and get rid of pain. I’ve become healthier, and happier. Not just because I did some ugly dancing, but for a lot of reasons, connecting and checking in with my body. I think that women who are connected to men who are narcissistic or addicts are very sacrificial. They deny their own needs so much that it becomes second nature to give up physical boundaries, as well as emotional boundaries.
That’s what I have been doing for 35 years. I’ve been very disconnected with my own self. Just knowing myself, knowing my own boundaries for myself, as well as with relationships. Getting in touch with my own body has been revolutionary in my healing process.
Coach Sarah: Kate, I love what you just said. If I could use slightly different words, I think, not only did you get in touch with your own body, but you got in touch with your own needs. When we’ve been in a relationship, especially if there’s been a lot of gaslighting going on, we lose touch with our needs, with our voice. We’ve been told that we want too much, or that what we want is unnecessary. What you’re talking about there, at least what I heard, is getting in touch with your needs like, “This is what I need.”
To that point, one of the things I was thinking about, what Anne said earlier, about the confusion between she knew she needed this no-contact policy that the judge had passed down, but she still wanted to. She had conflicting things going on inside of her. That’s why I would love to point out that boundary work is not simple. It is very, very complex, because of all the different things that, as an individual, you might bring to the table.
You might be disconnected from your needs. You might have gone through a lot of gaslighting. You might be dealing with a lot of values conflicts. We get stuck when we have two really high values conflicting against each other, and how do I set this boundary, when setting that boundary conflicts with another value that I have? Which one is the priority?
I like to teach about the different messages that the different parts of us give to us. We’ve got our head, we’ve got our heart, and we’ve got our gut. What Anne was talking about earlier, her head was saying, “This is good. This is safe. This is what I need for peace and for protection,” but her heart was saying, “I want to be heard. I want this person I’ve been connected to to know how I feel.” The different parts were having different messages.
All of those things go into our ability to have clarity around our boundaries, to be able to enforce them, and to be able to stick to them. It’s not a simple thing to do boundary work. That’s one of the reasons I love working with women in my boundaries sessions. Because one of the things that’s so helpful is to get that outside perspective, somebody who’s not emotionally invested, has training, has the mindset of, “Let’s look at these conflicts. Let’s look at the head, heart, gut from the outside.” Because with our stuff, we’re so close to it, it’s hard to take that step back.
I love it. It’s one of my greatest passions, working with women about how to find their need, like Kate talked about, and be able to clearly, from a place of authentic power, tap into their needs and get their needs met through healthy boundaries.
Anne: Kate, do you feel like you’re more on your way to getting your needs met? One of your key needs being safety, right, do you feel like you’re farther down that path?
Kate: Yes, I feel like I have grown tremendously in safety and in being more in touch with my needs. When my husband and I were in the initial process of the divorce, he came to me several times and said, “I have this list of needs that I want you to consider, if we can consider a reconciliation.” The healthier I got, I was able to say to him, “Well, you know, I’m learning that my needs are important. I’m learning that I’m the best-suited person, most qualified person to meet my own needs, whether it’s asking for someone to help me meet a need, or just being in charge of it myself.”
He would get angry when I would say that because he had this list of demands that he wanted me to automatically embrace and agree to, so that we could stay married. That was a really good sign to me that I was doing the right thing, because I knew that he was going to continue to assume that I was supposed to meet his needs. I knew that I needed to meet my own needs and be in charge of that and be in tune enough to know what they were.
I found out, towards the end, that my husband was writing journals of thoughts about me. He was identifying me as a monster and talking about, “Why doesn’t she just leave? Our daughter and I would be better off without her. Why doesn’t she do the right thing and go away?” It was devastating. The reason it was so devastating—I mean, you can imagine any wife finding volumes of journals like that—but it was so devastating because I’m a writer.
Writing, to me, is an artistic expression, and it’s part of who I am. When I found these words that were really harsh and ugly, and realizing the time and energy he had put into recording these ugly thoughts about me, it took away my writing voice, somehow. I was not able to write for a couple of years. I had been writing a blog that was really popular, and it, literally, shut me down. A great barometer of knowing how I’m healing now is that I’m writing again. I’ve found my voice again. It’s a different voice, definitely, but I’m writing, and it’s a good sign that healing has taken place.
Anne: You sent me a poem, and I would like you to share it with our audience. Do you feel comfortable enough to share it?
Kate: It’s interesting. As I started to write it, it was going to be about something else. As I finished it, it was totally the right poem, but it had taken a turn and it was totally different poem than what I had expected. This is called The Road Home:
The Road Home
I followed the ice crusted bear tracks north,
Ready to face my doomsday fear and
Dispatch the cruel beast once and for all,
But as the tsunami-like winds dissipated,
Hope glimmered desperately under the wreckage of my snow cave.
That’s when the thaw began.
So as the icicles dripped grieving tears,
I took some hesitant steps toward the sun,
Even though it was just a distant vacation memory
From a trip I never quite took.
As I picked my way through a desolate landscape
Filled with broken mirrors, rusty bed frames, and shredded books,
The splintered forest turned verdant and fresh.
My feet fell on moss-covered stones as I discovered new territory
Where all distant paths lead home.
Then, as if on cue, the leaf bed below revealed the tiniest of bread crumbs.
Leading into the horizon where all maps turn to dust.
So even though I was no longer lost, I stooped to pick them up
One by one for nourishment along the way.
Yes, I followed the ice crusted bear tracks north,
And they led me safely back to myself.
Anne: Thank you for sharing that. Sarah, why is introspection and writing and assessing your values such an important part of boundaries work? Kate is processing her emotions through dance and through poetry. Why is that essential to setting boundaries that will work for you?
Coach Sarah: In order to survive a relationship where there is a betrayal and, typically, ongoing gaslighting and things that could be labeled abusive, in order to survive those things, we disconnect from our feelings. If we’re disconnected from our feelings, how do we know what we need? If we don’t know what we need, how do we set healthy boundaries? Reverse engineering that, where we have to start is we have to be connected to our feelings, whether that’s through dance or painting or journaling.
I know a lot of people are a big proponent of journaling because you access a different part of your brain when you’re actually writing things out. Not even typing, but writing things out, you access a different part of your brain. The important thing here is getting connected to your feelings.
If we’re connected to our feelings, then we can start saying, “Oh, I don’t like the way I was just talked to. I need him to stop calling me names. I am going to put a boundary around if you call me names, I’m going to remove myself from the conversation.” How do we do that, if we’re disconnected from the feeling of, “I don’t like when he calls me names.” I think it’s crucial that we do whatever we need to do to safely reengage with our feelings.
Anne: In that poem, Kate, you went on a journey. You thought you were looking for something, but you found out that that’s not really what the journey was about, and that you came back to yourself. The feeling that that poem gave at the end is so peaceful and calm. What did you learn from the process of writing that poem?
Kate: I think I learned that I am responding to my own needs and I’m in my own corner, for the first time in my life. When I grew up, I had a narcissistic mother and I was always on alert as to how to behave so that I wouldn’t get pushed aside or blamed. I transferred to my husband and I had the same dynamic. I’ve not had any practice advocating for myself and my own needs.
I’ve realized, as I wrote the poem, I was taking a journey. I thought I was looking for another person in this journey. Yet, I was the person that I needed to find, and I still am in the process of doing that. As I find myself and validate my own needs, and then advocate to get those needs met in some healthy way, I know that I’m becoming my own best friend, and my own advocate. In a world that can be very harsh and disturbing sometimes.
The relationship I have with myself is the primary relationship in my life now. Not to say that I push others out, but it’s to say that I validate who I am and my needs, so that I can bring and embrace other people into my circle and have real true connections. That’s a boundary that I have never had in my life.
I’ve always felt like I’ve had to sacrifice my own needs in order to connect with others in an intimate way, whether it’s a friend or a relative or a significant other. It’s always been a lose-win situation. For the first time in my life now, I can choose relationships according to a win-win situation.
Anne: Sarah, that type of relationship, where you’re disconnecting from your own needs in order to connect to someone else, my assumption is that’s not a real connection anyway?
Coach Sarah: I don’t know that I would even say that it’s disconnecting to your own needs to connect with someone else. I think it’s disconnecting from your own needs just to survive. I think the implication there is that, if we’re disconnecting from our own self, how do we truly connect with anyone? Let alone the person that is our potential abuser, because, if we’re disconnected, how do we bring our full selves? If we don’t have self-intimacy, how are we intimate with anybody else?
Kate, it looks like you have done a really great job of assessing what you needed. Everything from the dancing that you needed to do to be in touch with your body, to brainstorming things that we had done to think about what might be helpful boundaries for you, in the past, and being like, “No, that doesn’t quite work. What I really need here is this.” You’ve done a real good job. What I would ask right now, is there a place that you still have a need around boundaries, specifically with your ex?
Kate: Recently, my ex texted me something about my daughter and her frequent flyer miles. He’d heard from her that we were planning a vacation. He texted me, and he named our daughter, and said, “She wanted me to check with you, because she’s not sure she wants to use her frequent flyer miles for this vacation you’re planning.” The minute I saw the text, I knew something was off.
Thankfully, I took a breath before I responded and thought, “You know, that doesn’t sound like my daughter. I don’t even know if she knows we have frequent flyer miles.” Luckily, I was able to take a breath and then I thought, “I need to just ask her what’s going on.” So I asked her, and she said, “No, that’s not what I talked to him about. I said I think you and mom should talk about frequent flyer miles.”
When I responded, I knew what she had said, and so I was armed with accurate information. I was able to respond instead of react. I find that when there is any kind of contact, in the past I’ve just reacted. I’ve tried to throw up some kind of barrier to protect myself, when it really wasn’t the right barrier. What I needed was a response, and thinking things through instead of hurrying to deflect his interjections into my life. I needed to actually have accurate information and then respond as clinically, and as detached, as possible so that it doesn’t fuel any interaction.
What happened is I just said, “I asked our daughter what was said and she told me this, so it sounds to me more like you might be the one that doesn’t want me to use the frequent flyer miles. If that’s true, I need to know that now, before I plan the vacation.” It just defused whatever he wanted to stir up and he was able to just say, “I have no problem with you using the frequent flyer miles, and, yes, I give my permission for her to go on this vacation.” Just by him all of a sudden agreeing for that to happen, I thought, “That’s so weird. Why would he start this conversation?” I was very confused.
Coach Sarah: What I hear you voicing in there, because you came up with that answer, based on what I asked, “What is your need?” You didn’t really state one, but if I’m hearing, it was kind of the confusion of, “Why? What was the whole point of this?” That maybe your need around that is for some clarity. Am I hearing you right?
Kate: Yes. I needed to know why he was all of a sudden texting me about frequent flyer miles.
Coach Sarah: This has a little bit less to do with boundaries, a little bit more to do with the effect of gaslighting. It has something to do with boundaries, because, “How am I going to put boundaries around myself for talking with someone who’s trying to gaslight me?” One of the things that we can get hooked in on, when someone’s trying to gaslight us, some of the traps.
When I talk about the traps, I tell people to think of quicksand. The more you start to walk in towards it, the more you get sucked in. Our brain wants to understand, because it thinks if it can understand then it can have information it needs to protect itself. But, in this situation, what we want to do is we want to actually not get sucked into what we call the Explanation Trap. What we want to pay attention to is, one, “How do I feel about the way that this happened? One, I don’t like that he dragged my daughter into this.”
In order for you to be able to just let that go, is be like, “You know, I don’t have to understand why he brought this up, and then when I confronted him, he basically just dropped it.” He’s not healthy. He’s not necessarily going to be thinking about things in a logical way. What I need to know is did I do things in a way where I felt peace and where I stayed in line with the boundaries of the way that I want to engage with him?
That’s where you can find peace. Peace doesn’t come from actually understanding the why. Peace comes from understanding did I get what I needed out of this interaction. If not, what do I need to do to get what I needed? That helps us not get sucked into the gaslighting.
Kate: Would you restate what you said? Peace doesn’t come from finding out the why. I really like that.
Coach Sarah: Peace comes when we take a step back and we’re able to say, what do I really need in this situation? Do I really need the answers from him, or do I need to know that I took the steps that I needed to take, that I said my truth where I felt it was important for me to say, that I didn’t get caught up in his gaslighting.
That’s where we find peace, is by connecting with the truth and the boundaries that we need, that we can find within ourselves, because we’re not going to get it from them. They’re an unreliable source. Refocusing on how can I get my needs met from within my wheelhouse, within my truth and my reality, and not letting them distort that. I unpack all of these things in my sessions on boundaries and gaslighting.
Anne: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast again, Kate, and for letting us know how you are doing.
Kate: Thanks so much, Anne.
Anne: For those of you interested in a no-contact boundary, or exploring your boundaries and seeing what you need, like Coach Sarah said, she has awesome sessions on boundaries and on gaslighting.
If you join Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, you’ll get access to all of the sessions. You never have to wait for an appointment. You always know that, if you have an abuse episode happen, or a disclosure and you’re in trauma, and you’re hyperventilating, that you can immediately get assistance, from a professional, to process what has happened, and also the support from other women who are going through your situation. That group is confidential.We have some women who have been in the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group for a year. That is their network of safety. We really recommend that.
Until next week, stay safe out there.