It’s common that people who are mistreated in relationships think it’s their fault — if not entirely then partly. And so they believe if they were better in a number of ways, they would get better treatment.
They beat themselves up for being the way they are and feel painfully insecure. They wish that they could be smarter, more beautiful, less emotional, and so on.
They compare themselves to their partner’s exes or their ex’s new partner and are convinced that they have it worst, which eats away at their self-esteem. And when all of their relationships end with them getting mistreated, they think the problem must be them.
If you relate to this description, I have good news for you.
You’re not the problem.
Anyone could become a victim of abuse. Anyone could attract an abuser.
There’s nothing especially problematic about you that makes you exclusively attract people who end up mistreating you.
So what is the problem?
It’s your boundaries.
There are two aspects to “your boundaries.”
What you accept, and
When someone does something you don’t accept, how you respond.
How setting boundaries can protect you
Take this simple example.
One of your boundaries is that your partner doesn’t lose their temper with you.
The situation is, in a heated argument, your partner raises their voice and calls you names.
If you have a weak or no boundary, you will get upset at them, reason with them, or stay quiet and let them go on. Then, later, you complain to your friends about them, and the cycle repeats.
If you have a strong boundary, however, you will tell them clearly that their behaviour is not okay to you and you stop engaging with them until they act in a way that is acceptable to you.
Once this boundary is established and your partner keeps pushing it, you register that they do not respect you and are not right for you, and you end the relationship there — no further bargaining.
Your worth is irrelevant.
See, in this example, your intelligence, your look, your wealth, or any of your qualities, are completely irrelevant.
The way someone treats you might be determined by how they perceive you and your worth, and it can be better or worse than how they treat other people they meet — it is out of your control and shouldn’t be your concern.
What concerns you is whether you accept their treatment and continue to engage with them.
Your job isn’t to become someone whom they treat well.
Your job is to assess whether the way they treat you is good enough to keep them in your life. If not, then you send them out the door and you move on to someone better.
Here’s the key takeaway.
To avoid bad treatment, you must not accept any behaviour that is disrespectful, hurtful, or uncomfortable to you — even remotely — and respond consistently and decidedly when your boundary is challenged.
The keywords here are “consistently and decidedly”.
Your boundaries need to be set through actions, not just words. You need to show that you will not tolerate any violation of your boundaries and you’re ready to walk away if your well-being and comfort are at risk.
This is why nagging doesn’t work.
If you nag or criticise your partner without doing anything, you’re essentially still putting up with the bad treatment while they see no real consequence. There will be no behavioural change and your partner will lose respect for you, which leads to even worse treatment.
What boundaries should you set?
A technique to find out your personal boundaries is to ask yourself: “What does a good relationship look like to me?” or “What’s the minimum for a relationship to be considered healthy and worthwhile to me?”
Write down everything you could think of on different levels — for example, emotional, physical, intellectual, sexual, and financial.
An emotional boundary could be being able to share openly about how you feel without your partner trying to find a solution for you.
A physical boundary could be not being touched when you’re upset.
An intellectual boundary could be not having religious ideas imposed on you.
A sexual boundary could be not having sex until you’re in a committed relationship.
A financial boundary could be keeping your bank accounts separate until you’re married.
Another technique is to find role models around you and ask yourself: “What boundaries would they set in their relationships?” Use them as your guidance.
A simple rule of thumbs is that if anything makes you feel uncomfortable or uneasy or anxious or generally negative, chances are it’s pushing your boundaries.
What to do next time
First, know your boundaries, and show them — don’t tell.
When someone does something that is not okay to you:
Point it out immediately.
Tell them how their behaviour makes you feel — focus on your feelings.
Explain to them why you feel the way you do. If you don’t know why, don’t worry — the fact that their behaviour doesn’t make you feel good should be enough of a reason for them to look at it.
Propose what you would like to happen next time.
A respectful, emotionally intelligent partner who values the relationship with you will acknowledge your feelings, and they will change their behaviour.
However, if your partner doesn’t change their behaviour, you need to stop engaging with that behaviour — give it no time and attention.
If it persists for whatever reason — either because they’re intentionally abusive to you or they’re not compatible with you, you need to re-evaluate the relationship as a whole and make a decision to leave.
Remember that the right relationship should operate within your boundaries and the right partner will understand and respect your boundaries.