But what if you’re dealing with an outright abusive person who refuses to respect your boundaries? The above red flags can be unintentional and a result of a partner themselves having issues establishing healthy boundaries. These can be helped with compassionate awareness, counseling, and reevaluating the relationship.
Truly “toxic” dynamics, however, take things a bit further. That is the realm of deliberate, outright abuse when a person knowingly oversteps a boundary and does so for their own benefit. A relationship with such a person can be very dangerous, especially if the person whose boundaries are being obliterated doesn’t even understand what is happening. They may stay trapped in the dysfunction because they believe they deserve it, they believe it’s good for them, they feel sorry for their abuser, or worse—they simply believe that this is what love looks like. In such a relationship, counseling and frank conversation will seldom be enough.
Those with a poor sense of identity and low self-worth can quickly become engulfed in unhealthy dynamics, unable to see that their boundaries are slowly being worn away and their well-being damaged. A boundary is like the soul’s immune system—without an immune system, the body would quickly become overrun with infection, and it’s no different with our emotional or spiritual body. Some people are so embroiled in drama, demands, coercion, threats, guilt, shame, fear, and manipulation that it becomes invisible to them. They simply think, “This is what love feels like,” or, “This is just how a marriage goes.”
If you have especially weak boundaries, it’s quite possible that you have attracted or are currently attracting the kind of person who lives to play with, exploit, or push the boundaries of others for their own ends. It will help immensely to understand how your boundaries are being violated. As always, trust your gut and tune into your own body and soul to check if certain situations, people, or behaviors truly align with how you see yourself and what you want from the world. A toxic relationship can mirror back unconscious beliefs of self-hatred within you—people in the external world who treat you like you are worthless may only be confirming your own internal belief in exactly the same thing.
Watch out for “psychological urgency” in relationships. This is the feeling that if your partner calls, you had better quickly jump into action for them, or else. If you feel rushed or as though you have to act a certain way before time, resources, or patience wears out, you’re being manipulated.
The person who suddenly texts, “Get dressed and be ready in 20 minutes, I’m taking us out to dinner,” is not really being romantic; they’re forcing you to quickly make an impulsive decision without thinking and just do what they want. There should always be room for you to think and respond—be careful if you always feel hurried along.
In the beginning of a relationship, watch out for other intensely “romantic” gestures that are designed to overwhelm and disorient you. Watch out for game-playing or people trying to “win” or capture you. Sending flowers to your house every day, begging for a date, turning up unannounced with gifts, consulting friends and family about your schedule so they know where you are and can “surprise” you.
Initially, you might be in awe of the time and attention someone else is devoting towards impressing you, but these actions may or may not be well-intentioned. The effect is the same regardless: you are disempowered and put on the back foot because saying “no” will invariably be perceived as rude and thankless. Not to mention, what happens if you turn down these advances? Sadly, too many women know how quickly a man can go from declaring that she’s a goddess among women to wishing her dead—all because she said “no.”
In the early stages of a relationship, try not to see what the other person is doing to earn a “yes” and rather how ready they are to accept your “no.”
Once a relationship is underway, abuse is often characterized by a general lack of concern for your emotional well-being. If you constantly feel confused, on edge, and uneasy, it’s not a “passionate relationship”—it’s a problem. Stonewalling (shutting you out, ignoring you, or refusing to talk to you as punishment) or gaslighting (trying to make you appear crazy and irrational or doubt your own judgment) are hallmarks of abusers and narcissists hell-bent on controlling others.
It goes without saying that a lack of concern for your physical health and safety is also a giant red flag and violates your fundamental human rights. You should never be forced to do things that frighten you or put you in danger.
Abusers will knowingly chip away at your privacy, your time, and your self-esteem. They will feel entitled to you as a resource—they will believe that they deserve to have parts of you: your time, your sexuality, your kindness, your attention. They will enjoy what you provide for them, but this is completely different from appreciating you as a person and valuing you. Ask yourself, does your partner love you or do they love what they can get from you?
All kinds of manipulation can get you in the position they want you in—they may grind you down slowly, use fear to control you, put you down so that you don’t feel entitled to say “no” or feel how you feel, call you crazy, “test” you, make you walk on eggshells, be unfair, refuse to communicate, be sneaky, blow hot and cold, punish you with silence or sulking, pick fights, rewrite history (especially if it makes them look bad), or use the classic “DARVO” response—Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.”
For example, a woman may try to hold her partner accountable for hurting her arm in an argument, and he will respond with, “I didn’t hurt you just now. How dare you suggest that I would ever lay a hand on you?! This is the problem right here—I’m just trying to talk to you, and you get so crazy about things. You’re so dramatic and it’s wearing me down.”
The list of ways that abusers can abuse is endless, sadly. But it all amounts to the same thing—all of these tactics are mere tools in the inventory of a person who would like to push past your boundaries to get what they want. This is a person who consciously or unconsciously believes that others are not free agents in their own right, but merely resources to exploit, or means to an end.
They believe that their own desires and wants are more important than other people’s rights or well-being. A person who loves and respects you will care about your wants and needs, and will never trample over them to satisfy themselves. Having a strong sense of identity, self-worth, and intact boundaries will alert you immediately to this parasitic and exploitative behavior. Your boundaries are protective barriers around what you love and value in yourself, and they say to potential abusers, “That is not what my heart, body, and mind are for. I am not a thing for anybody to use.”