I didn’t realize I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. But I was. Married at 23-years-old to a man chasing the dream of success as a medical physician, I was along for the ride.

But all too soon, the ride got very bumpy.


Arguments turned into character-attacking rants. Nights of alcoholic rage became the norm.

Convinced it was my fault, I tried harder to be a better wife. Nothing changed. My self-esteem plummeted under the weight of shame.

I wish I could tell you I recognized the dysfunction in my marriage and sought help. But I didn’t. At least, not until far-reaching damage had been done to me emotionally.

Eleven years after saying “I do,” I finally gathered the courage to walk away. With two young daughters to raise, I refused to subject them to the emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse I was experiencing. Al-Anon—an organization dedicated to families of alcoholics—gave me the tools I needed to set healthy boundaries that enabled me to start a new life.

Unfortunately, boundaries couldn’t save my alcoholic marriage that included a history of relapse and destructive patterns. But I learned life-changing lessons on how boundaries impact relationships.

As a result, I’m sensitive to others in emotionally or physically abusive relationships. I quickly recognize fuzzy or negligent boundary setting. And I see it often in stepfamily relationships.

Sitting across the table from a stepmom in tears, I suspected a boundary problem. As the conversation continued, I listened to her describe her stepson’s fits of rage and disrespectful language toward her and her husband.  At 17-years-old, he was controlling their home with his behavior. But she didn’t know how to change it.

“How does your husband respond to his son’s actions?” I asked.

“It becomes a yelling match to see who can get in the last word,” the stepmom responded. “I often leave the house and take our daughter with me. I can’t stand to watch it unravel. But the real problem exists when my husband isn’t home and the behavior gets directed at me. His outbursts are becoming increasingly more violent and I’m scared to confront his anger—he’s bigger and stronger than I am.”

In her book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, author Leslie Vernick describes emotional abuse as “repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down … usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change.” She goes on to say that if emotional abuse continues, it “systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.”

Those involved in abusive behavior as described above often need professional counseling to learn how to help change the destructive patterns. In this situation, both parents need to be on board with the expectations of their home. In a calm, controlled setting, the dad must address his son’s lack of self-control and emphasize that his destructive outbursts will not be tolerated. Consequences need to be laid out and consistent follow-through put in place for the behavior to change.

Dr. John Townsend, author of Boundaries with Teens, says there are four elements to setting healthy boundaries with teens:

*Love. The first thing adolescents need to know for certain is that you are for them. Your teen may not act like he needs your care, but he does. Listen to him, enter his world and connect with. Your love helps your teen to accept and benefit from his boundaries.

Truth. Be clear and reasonable about the boundary you are setting, otherwise your teen won’t know where the boundary line is. Clarify the requirement for him, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). For example:

  • “I want you to make a certain grade point average (commensurate to your teen’s academic ability) because you are capable of it.”
  • “We are a zero-tolerance home for drugs.”
  • “You may disagree with me, but disrespectful words, tones or behavior are unacceptable.”

Freedom. For many parents, the hardest part of setting boundaries is the need to affirm that your teen has a choice. He can choose to obey the rule (your boundary) or not; you cannot make a teen obey. So let him know you understand he has both the responsibility to obey and the freedom not to. In the world of parents and teens, it goes something like this: “You don’t have to achieve these grades, and I can’t make you. It’s up to you, but I hope you will do it.”

Reality. Your teen needs to know there is a consequence for violating your boundary. Consequences help your adolescent understand the reality of sowing and reaping: “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). So instead of trying to force your teen to make acceptable grades, you set up a consequence that matters to him. It may include grounding; loss of driving time; loss of phone, computer or video electronic privileges; or extra chores. The key is that the consequence should be appropriate for the violation (not too harsh and not too light), and it should be something that matters to your teen. Do your own detective work to find out what your kid cares about.*

Boundaries help us change destructive patterns. Boundaries can help move relationships toward healing. And boundaries teach others we respect ourselves too much to be abused.

What boundaries do you need to put in place in your stepfamily?

*Excerpt from http://www.thrivingfamily.com/Family/Stages/Teen%20Phases/2012/boundaries-the-key-to-freedom.aspx?utm_source=nl_focusenews&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=345801&refcd=345801

Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee.




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