“You f..ing bitch, I’m going to kill you.” Natalie’s ex-husband texted her after she refused to adjust the time sharing with their son for the holidays. It wasn’t the first time he made a threat, he did it numerous times before, mostly in person especially when he did not get his way. But this time, he sent a text message. It was in writing so she took it to the police.
Shortly afterwards, she filed an injunction and hoped that he would respect her boundary and stop the abusive messaging. He did not. He hired an attorney and fought the injunction by making a claim that she had threatened him first. Instead of things calming down, they escalated and now there were attorneys, a judge, a Guardian ad Litem, and a parenting coordinator in the mix. The financial burden was as suffocating and his remarks.
Natalie needed a break. She needed to find a way to set boundaries with her dangerous ex that did not involve expensive litigation. Here are some of the strategies that she used.
- Define the relationship. Like it or not, Natalie and her ex were still in a relationship. They were parents of their young son which made them co-parents, former lovers and partners, and engaging in a new hostile relationship. This is an example of an intimate relationship becoming unsafe yet the two have to remain in contact as co-parents. It helps to remember which aspect of the relationship is in contact for each communication. For instance when her ex sent the threatening message, this was the unsafe aspect of the relationship. Keeping the roles separate, allows for different boundaries for each role.
- Set realistic boundaries. An intimate relationship should have the most access to information because they are safe. Therefore, the boundaries likewise should be flexible. However in Natalie’s case where an intimate relationship is now hostile, the boundaries should be tight. Most likely a dangerous ex will not respect the boundaries and even be insulted that they are being treated like a “stranger”. Yet, this should not deter Natalie from setting a boundary such as no verbal communication. The boundary does not need to communicated, it can be just set.
- Limit your expectations. Accordingly, expectations for the behavior of a dangerous person is very different for an intimate partner. In the past, Natalie kept hoping that if she did just one more thing, her ex would back off and stop his abuse. But that never happened. Rather, she needed to reset her expectations that even when she established a boundary, he was likely to push past it. This new expectation freed Natalie to stop believing that she could do anything to stop his behavior. She was not responsible for how he acted, he was.
- Self-protect from the abuse. A heart is something to be treasured and protected. When it has been given away to an unsafe person, it is natural to feel hurt, vulnerable, naive, and even foolish. Remember, the dangerous person did not appear at the beginning, it was only after the heart’s guard has been let down that they attacked. Self-protection going forward means that Natalie should not allow the abuse to enter into her heart. It helps to think of his abusive remarks like water on a ducks back, it just beads up and rolls off.
- Test the safety. In the past, Natalie would see her ex’s silence or calmness as an indication that things were permanently better. This only led to even further hurt and pain when she would realize that he had not changed. Instead, Natalie learned to test him. This could be as simple as giving them a bit of information to see if he abuses it to his advantage. Or it could be checking out him out on social media to see if he is ranting, gloating, or silent. By testing his temperature before she engaged, she was more prepared and less vulnerable.
- Go slow. In an age of instant gratification and immediate social media relationships, the concept of transforming a relationship, establishing boundaries, and setting new expectations is lost. But there are huge benefits to observing a person in a variety of environments for a period before engaging in a relationship, especially when there has been abuse. Natalie began this practice by setting time limits for conversations and discussions, planning the co-parent calls and exchanges in advance, and having another person with her when needed to engage with her ex in person. She stopped being available at the drop of a hat, responding to messages immediately, and making quick decisions. When it came to dealing with her dangerous ex, Natalie went slow.
- Have cut-off limits. There should be some set of absolute rules that apply to all relationships across the board. For instance, abusive behavior should not be tolerated. So when Natalie’s ex engaged in further verbal abusive behavior, she would simply text, “I’ll talk to you later.” When he persisted, she turned off her phone. This is behavior modification. When the person does the correct behavior they are rewarded with further conversation. When they do not, the conversation stops. On occasion, Natalie would share his text messages with others and allow them to respond for her.
After Natalie put these 7 tips into practice, things got better temporarily with her ex. Then he escalated again but this time she was ready and had a plan. After a while, when he no longer got the reaction out of Natalie that he wanted, his attacks grew less and less frequent.