5 Things You Need to Know about Setting Boundaries with a Narcissistic Partner or Family Member

24 Apr 2024

Sooner or later, all victims of narcissistic abuse realize – rightly – that they are woefully challenged in the boundaries department. Somewhere along the way, they have heard about boundaries and the need to say a firm “No’ to the things that don’t sit well with them.

What makes it so hard to say a firm “No”?

Unfortunately, narcissistic abuse works to create an almost unbridgeable gulf between what you know you should do and what you feel you actually can do, as a result of learned helplessness and fear of the Narcissist’s retaliation.

That makes saying that firm “No” is one of the most challenging problems that you have to face.

It can feel like you are the only one who struggles to utter that firm, non-negotiable “No”.

You have surely noticed, in your relationship with an abusive partner or family member, they have no problem with saying “No”. They love to box you in with a definitive “No”. In fact, it is one of the words that roll most easily off their tongues – together with a few other mood-killers like “selfish”, “stupid” and “needy”.

So, why can’t you?

You already know the answer, right?

You were trained from way back when not to say “No”.

Disobedience to a Narcissist leads to punishment

Your role has always been to serve, people-pleaser and meet other people’s demands. No matter how unreasonable those demands happened to be.

You already know that any disobedience on your part would, inevitably, lead to punishment.

You have precisely no wiggle room in a narcissistic relationship.

Given that reality, trying to lay down a boundary with an abuser becomes a little like standing up and calling out to a sniper to let them know where you are. That sniper is there to shoot you down and you have just focused their attention on the opportunity to do so, right then, right there.

 5 Things You Need to Know about Setting Boundaries with a Narcissistic Partner or Family Member

The first thing that you need to know about setting a boundary with a narcissistic partner or family member is that it is not going to be a pleasant experience. There is no reality in which you can realistically redefine the terms of your relationship by saying to them:

“Hey, I am putting you on notice that from now on we are going to put this relationship on a normal, adult footing and henceforth respect each other’s boundaries”

You can say it. But you can never expect a Narcissist to suddenly change their spots and respect it.

The second thing that you need to know is that it is something that you really do have to do, if you ever want to be your own person as opposed to their thing.

The third thing you need to know is that boundary setting is a skill that you need to acquire in order to square up to a toxic person effectively. You might as well try to play chess with a moderately good player without ever learning the basic rules of the game.

The analogy of the moderately good chess player works well here because, provided they choose their adversary fairly carefully, chances are they will be able to beat them. Even though their game likely lacks sophistication and variety.

All victims of narcissistic abuse have been led to believe – by the Narcissist and the Narcissist’s henchmen and flying monkeys – that the Narcissist is significantly smarter than they really are.

Ultimately, a Narcissist’s arrogance and presumptuousness is their Achilles heel. They always know best…

Until some lesser mortal, such as the victim of their endless abuse, outmanoeuvres them and breaks their winning streak.

The more you master the skill of boundary setting, the less satisfaction they will get from attempting to play you.

The fourth thing that you need to know is that effective boundary setting is a skill that you can always learn which will transform the way that you do all of your relationships and restore the self-respect and peace of mind that have been sorely absent from your abusive relationship.

The fifth thing that you need to learn is what setting a boundary really means for you. It brings massive benefits because it redefines what you are and are not prepared to tolerate in a relationship.

So many of the survivors that I have talked to thought, in the early stages of their healing journey, that having boundaries meant that they could co-exist with an abusive loved one without excessive discomfort.

In other words, having boundaries was meant to bring about a fairly small qualitative shift. Those boundaries were meant to tone down the abuse to an acceptable level.

That is not how boundaries really work. Not least because there is no “acceptable” level of abuse in an intimate relationship.

There is no acceptable degree to which a loved one can legitimately abuse you.

The purpose of boundaries

You have to understand that boundaries serve the purpose of protecting you from abuse and restoring your sense of your worth.

Boundaries do not exist to help you create a bit of breathing room for yourself in what is an unjust and unpleasant status quo.

Boundaries serve to establish the kind of status quo that you choose to be a part of, a status quo in which you are shown the respect and consideration owed to an equal.

That means that you really have to shift your thinking and expectations from settling for a somewhat less noxious version of the existing situation to how you really want your life to look and feel to you.

Having a clear vision of how you want your intimate relationship to look and feel requires a new depth of self-knowledge and a new level of self-worth that you simply cannot achieve while you remain with a Narcissist.

Narcissists become the arbiter of your identity

Remember, one of the first things that a Narcissist does is become the arbiter of your identity and your human worth. You are constrained to shrink to become who they say that you can be, what they opine you can do and what they are willing to let you think for yourself.

Setting boundaries requires you to do some soul searching – in the most literal sense of the term: you have to reconnect with your soul and what makes you feel alive and good about yourself.

Do you see now why boundary-setting is a process as opposed to an occasional, isolated feat of heavy lifting?

Until you learn that process, it can look like a Herculean feat. But learning the process takes away the fear and that makes small, everyday miracles perfectly possible even for people who, like Maria, have spent their lives as people-pleasers.

Maria went from routinely doing most of her co-workers work as well as her own to responding to her new boss’s comment: “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and I am expecting a lot from you” by saying, with a sweet smile and gentle tone of voice: “Likewise, I’ve heard great things about you and I’m expecting a lot from you, too.”

Effective boundaries empower even the most easily intimidated of abuse survivors to feel comfortable making a stand for themselves.

So, even if you feel too timid to make a stand for yourself right now, you can learn to create transformative boundaries.

Hold that thought. And if you are ready to learn how to set effective boundaries for yourself, check out my Breaking Old Patterns course.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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