The words boundary and narcissist are not usually used in the same sentence unless it’s about the violation of a boundary. Narcissists are known for ignoring or outright disrespecting the limits of others. They usually view boundaries as a personal afront to their pride, believing they are above limits and deserve whatever they want. They will usually resist being told no at all costs, especially if their victim attempts to establish or enforce boundaries.
The goal of boundaries is to cultivate and protect a healthy and satisfying life, but what happens when boundaries meant to protect a victim become weaponized, eliciting narcissistic rage that threatens their safety?
Chronic Boundary Violations Are Abuse
A victim will often work for years, praying, learning, and trying to supposedly communicate better in the hopes of improving their so-called relationship challenges. This is especially true when children are involved as children are often an added incentive to make the relationship work. The problem is that repeated disregard for a victim’s boundaries is not a relationship issue—it’s an abuse issue.
A narcissist will often weaponize boundaries by using them like a tool of abuse to violate what a victim values most. When a victim reveals what their boundaries are, this almost empowers a narcissist with the exact roadmap of areas to disregard, disrespect, and violate in order to inflict the most damage. Their abuser never had any intention of respecting their boundaries. But a victim cannot usually see this until enough damage has been done.
Below are some ways that boundaries can be weaponized and some practical suggestions on how a victim of narcissist abuse might navigate them in the midst of abuse.
When Boundaries Become Weaponized
Boundaries can become dangerous when a narcissist purposely weaponizes them to provoke, threaten, control, and intimidate their victim into backing down. A narcissist will often either act out overtly by unleashing a whirlwind of narcissistic rage or act out covertly by playing the victim.
If a narcissist can’t intentionally provoke a victim to react to having their boundaries violated, they will usually explode in a flood of narcistic rage, sometimes even resorting to other forms of violence.
Some overt ways a narcissist may react to boundaries
If threatening and forceful tactics don’t succeed in getting a victim to back down from holding their boundaries, a narcissist may then attempt to play the victim card.
Some covert ways a narcissist may react to boundaries
- blaming stress, hunger, or other situational pressures
- deflecting the cause of their behavior onto others
- faulting the victim: “You made me”
- claiming the victim’s boundaries are too harsh or unreasonable
- ignoring or acting as if they didn’t know they crossed any boundaries
- disclosing a traumatic memory as an excuse, especially one that was previously unknown to the victim and may not even be true
If someone is afraid to set and enforce boundaries in their relationship because of guaranteed repercussions, it may be time for a victim to ask themselves how long are they willing to accept or stay in a relationship where they are not loved and are being abused.
Navigating Boundaries in the Midst of Narcissistic Abuse
Be Clear About Your Boundaries
A victim needs to first be clear on what their boundaries are—what is important to them—before trying to communicate that to others. If a victim is not clear on their boundaries, how can others understand them? In addition, if a victim is not clear on their boundaries, they can often easily be swayed as unclear boundaries are difficult to enforce. This is especially true when communicating boundaries to a narcissist who is usually committed to purposely misunderstanding the victim and is not interested in respecting boundaries.
Determine Your Non-negotiable Boundaries
A victim also needs to not only identify their boundaries but to choose carefully the boundaries they feel safe disclosing, knowing that their boundaries will most likely not be respected and possibly even weaponized. By choosing their highest priorities, a victim can stay focused on areas most important to them. It’s not wise to fight every battle, so identifying non-negotiable boundaries and preparing ahead of time can be helpful in diffusing battles that are not worth a victim’s time and energy.
Here are some ways to help clarify non-negotiable boundaries:
- What’s important to you?
- What gives you peace?
- What do you want to cultivate in your life?
- What usually upsets you?
- What areas of your time and energy are worth fighting for?
- What boundaries may have been ignored or crossed frequently in your childhood?
Decide Consequences before Boundaries Are Violated
In a relationship with a narcissist, it’s usually not if boundaries will be violated but when they will be violated. Stress can often be diluted when a victim has a follow-up plan or a pre-determined list of consequences for when their boundaries are crossed. A follow-up plan can help a victim stay clear on their intent so that they follow through with consequences when necessary.
Practice Boundaries First in Safe Relationships
A victim of abuse must not only clarify and establish personal boundaries but must also establish a safety plan to protect themselves in the face of almost guaranteed backlash from their abuser. It is often helpful for a victim to prepare themselves for the likely abuse that may follow boundary-setting by practicing first in safe relationships. While a victim can’t control their abuser’s reactions, they can choose how they will respond. The practice of enforcing boundaries ahead of time with themselves, with other safe people, or even with a counselor can help a victim grow in their confidence. Following a roadmap or grid can help mitigate reacting to narcissistic provocation.
Practicing boundaries might look like
- setting and honoring boundaries with yourself
- setting boundaries with safe people
- creating a safety plan to care for yourself when an abusive incident happens
- asking trusted and empathetic leaders for wisdom and advice
Communicate Boundaries and Consequences
When communicating boundaries and consequences to a narcissist, it can often help to state them clearly, calmly, and consistently. Calmly sticking to facts without overexplaining can often protect a victim from being baited into an argument. A narcissist doesn’t have to agree with what a victim values, but they do need to know the consequences for not honoring what is most important to the victim.
When a victim puts these requests in writing, others cannot twist what they’ve shared. The narcissist can no longer claim they didn’t know or that they forgot about the boundaries.
Follow Through with Consequences
Once the victim has written down the boundaries, they can then note boundary violations and responses by the narcissist, which can help a victim be aware of their weak spots. It can be hard to repeatedly set the same boundary with a narcissist who isn’t intent on honoring them, so a victim can easily become inconsistent in their boundaries or even give up. Keeping a written record can help bring clarity as to what is happening and strengthen the victim’s resolve to not only hold their boundaries but to follow through with consequences.
Failure to follow through with consequences usually only encourages a narcissist to continue crossing boundaries as they know there will be little to no repercussions. A narcissist often believes that if a victim puts up with mistreatment, then they deserve it.
Dealing with a Chronic Boundary Violator
A victim may need to accept that their boundaries won’t be respected. This can be a difficult but necessary truth to face. A victim may also need to decide whether they want to continue to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t truly love or respect them. They can’t change someone else’s behavior, but a victim can choose to accept it or to disengage.
Setting Boundaries when It’s Unsafe
Setting and enforcing boundaries in an abusive relationship can often be fraught with a sense of impending doom as repercussions are almost sure to follow. While a victim cannot prevent reactions from their abuser, they can choose how to navigate boundaries and take care of themselves in the midst of abuse. Below are a few ways a victim can establish safety when setting boundaries is unsafe.
Ways to establish safety when setting boundaries is unsafe
- acknowledge setting boundaries might be difficult
- grieve the realization that chronic boundary violations are abuse
- detach physically, emotionally, and spiritually
- limit contact or avoid being alone together
- choose not to participate in unproductive conversations by grey rocking
- ditch condemning voices of shame from yourself or others
- build a support team and bring others in on the plan
- make self-care a priority and give yourself lots of grace
- develop an in-house separation plan
- create a separation plan that involves living separately
- physically leave any dangerous situations
- prepare for pushback as much as possible so as not to be taken off guard
- create an emergency plan with the help of a domestic violence hotline or trusted counselor who understands the dynamics of covert abuse
A narcissist may get to choose his actions or behaviors, but he doesn’t get to choose the consequences of them.
Consider Limiting Contact or even Going No Contact
If all other options have been exhausted, sometimes the best way to deal with a chronic boundary violator is to limit, separate, or sometimes even end all contact. A victim of abuse needs to know if their husband is hurting them; they do not need permission from others to put distance between them and their abuser. Limited or no contact isn’t intended to punish or manipulate—it’s a form of self-care. If someone is being hurt physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, they deserve to protect themselves to put some distance in the relationship.
Sometimes the only way a victim can truly protect themselves is to end their marriage. If a husband is hurting an abuse victim, they do not need permission from others to divorce. The acts of abuse have already set the divorce in motion long before a victim might ever pursue that legally. While it’s helpful to have support, a victim does not need the approval of anyone—their family, best friend, pastor, or even counselor—to divorce. None of these individuals live with the victim or know what they are truly experiencing behind closed doors.
In God’s eyes, abuse has already broken the marriage covenant, and a victim is not bound to uphold a broken covenant when they are continually being harmed.
In various circumstances, a victim may simply not be ready to divorce or may feel trapped in their abusive marriage. Just as no one should tell a victim they cannot divorce, likewise, no one should ever tell a victim to divorce. Whether or not a victim chooses to divorce should be solely up to them, but it can be helpful for them to prepare as best as they can for a backlash of abuse when trying to navigate boundaries, knowing that no one can ever truly be ready. It is often an ongoing process, usually without a quick fix.
You Are Not Alone
A narcissist’s free will cannot be changed nor can they be forced to honor or respect a victim’s boundaries. No amount of counseling, prayer, or even God himself can change someone unless that person wants to change. God will not override someone’s free will, or He would contradict himself. A narcissist has to make the choice to change, but it’s almost guaranteed that they will not. A victim can protect themselves by defining their boundaries, and creating a plan can help both set boundaries and honor them even in the midst of abuse. Abuse doesn’t have to define you, but defining your boundaries can.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Esther Company