Setting Limits-The Cure For Getting No Respect



By Sister Renee


Warn a divisive person once, then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with him.  You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned…..Titus 3:10-11



          There are two basic concepts that are foreign to many of us who are used to being victimized, abused, or taken advantage of by family members.  The rest of the world has always accepted and put into effect these concepts.  It is time that we internalize them for use in our own lives as well.  Dear Sister, repeat after me:


  1.   I have the right to set limits on the behavior I will tolerate in my presence, or in the presence of my children.


  1. It is perfectly reasonable to expect adults to control themselves.


          Forgive me for repeating a story which I originally told in the article “Enriching Your Holidays While Including Your Birth-Family” (See Happier Holidays section ), but I feel it best illustrates a couple of points I would like to make.

          One time when I tried to reason with my birth-father, he grudgingly told me that he would modify his behavior in my home, but that I “had no right to tell him how to act” anywhere else, even if it was in my presence or my children’s presence.  I found this response fascinating and enlightening for several reasons.

          First, even though he was a grown man, his statement was very juvenile and immature (“You can’t tell me what to do!”) I almost expected him to stick his tongue out at me!  Second, without even realizing it, he acknowledged being perfectly well aware that his behavior was unacceptable; otherwise, why agree to stop it in my home?  The third interesting insight was that he could control his behavior if he wanted to, he just wasn’t going to because I had asked!

          My birth-father had chosen an adversarial spirit, rather than a spirit of cooperation.  He wasn’t going to let me “win” without him getting some concessions from me.

          Sister, I am here to tell you that the devil is a liar and he always tries to negotiate or bargain with you- to make a deal so he will still come out a winner!  Satan wants you to agree that some form of his evil is acceptable.  Do not compromise what you know is right!  Never make a deal with the devil!

          We all know we need to set and enforce boundaries and limits on unacceptable behavior, but many of us are not sure how to go about doing that. 

          Many therapists recommend using “I” statements to avoid making the offender feel that you are attacking him and to enlist him as your partner in solving the problem. An “I” statement is worded in such a way as to put the focus on the feelings that the hurtful behavior elicits in you, rather than coming right out and stating that the behavior is wrong.  You might say, “I feel _______ when you say______”.

          “I” statements may work in your situation, and are certainly worth a try.  In my personal situation, they not only didn’t work, but backfired on me in the sense that now that I had let my birth-father know his behavior was bothering me, he did it even more!

          When I said to my birth-mother, “I feel hurt when you criticize me,” she brushed me off with “That’s because you’re too sensitive”.  Another time, I told her “It makes me feel bad when you keep pointing out that I’ve gained weight”, and her answer was “It’s for your own good.”

          Once, when I told my birth-father, “It upsets me when you call me ‘stupid’”, he told me “Oh, stop it! You take everything the wrong way!”  Well, at least he didn’t say, “That’s because you are stupid!”

 My “I” statements were certainly not having the desired effect, because the offenders preferred not to “get the point”.  “I” statements pre-suppose goodwill on the part of the offender toward the offended.  They attempt to give the abuser the benefit of the doubt. When you use an “I” statement, you are assuming that the offender actually  cares about your feelings, and that it wasn’t his intention to make you feel bad.

“I” statements don’t take into account that an offender may very well be a malicious person, who is deliberately trying to hurt, upset, or degrade you.  And worse yet, now that you have let him know it worked, he’s going to do it even more!  Some people really are trying to get your goat, and you will have just handed him his tool for success on a silver platter.  With a true abuser, if you show any vulnerability, he will smell blood.  Now that he knows your weakness, he will go in for the kill!  Remember, “abuser” is just another word for “Bully”.

 I believe that you need to come from a position of strength when dealing with an abusive relative.  It is the only thing I have seen work, at least to some extent, with a truly abusive person. There are some people you simply can’t reason with. You have to stop acting like a victim, begging the abuser to take pity on you.  It doesn’t help to talk about hurt feelings and let him see that you are vulnerable.  What helps is to show him that you’re tough and strong, even if you really don’t feel that way, and that you will not tolerate being treated disrespectfully.

That being said, and regardless of goodwill or maliciousness on the part of your relative, you need to begin to take control. First, let’s define a boundary, or limit, and a consequence:


Boundary (or Limit):  What you are or are not willing to do, accept, or tolerate.


Consequence:  What steps you will take to protect yourself or your loved ones from someone who does not respect the limits of others, to minimize the damage an abuser can inflict, and to ensure that your boundaries are indeed respected.


 There are three easy steps to taking control of your life and your environment (Titus 3:10), and they include two chances for your relative to change his behavior before it results in a negative consequence for him:


  1. Decide on your boundary, and let your relative know what it is.That will give your relative the benefit of the doubt by giving him a chance to respect your boundary. You can consider this his first warning.


  1. If he chooses to repeat his objectionable behavior again,reiterate your boundary and inform him what the consequence will be the next time he does it.  This is his second warning.


  1. Hopefully by now, your relative has taken you seriously and it will not be necessary to enforce your consequence.  But if he still chooses to disregard your boundary, you need toenforce the consequence.  If you don’t back your words up with action, they will be seen as just an empty threat, and any limits you try to set in the future will be ignored.


Following are some examples of empowering statements that will inform your relatives of your new limits, and the consequences of not respecting them.  Customize these sentences to your own situation, and then begin to speak up!






I will limit my exposure to abusive behavior. (I will call my mother no more often than once a month, I will not spend my birthday with my parents, etc.)

          I will set an example for my children by teaching them that we do not accept evil or abusive behavior.



          We won’t be coming for Thanksgiving this year.  We are going on a ski trip.

          My religious beliefs are personal.  We need to respect each other’s differences. You do not have the right to impose your beliefs on me.

          I am not asking for your opinion on this subject.

          I am the mother of my children, and I want you to respect my authority concerning them.

          I would like us to relate to each other as friends, but we cannot do that if you continue to speak to me in a condescending manner.

          I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to discuss my marriage with you. Let’s talk about something else.

          I don’t feel it’s appropriate for you to discuss your marriage with me.  Let’s talk about something else.

I am not asking for your input right now.

I will not loan you my car again.  The last time you returned it dirty and with an empty gas tank.  You will have to make other plans.

I’ve already made my decision and I’m not going to change my mind.  Let’s not talk about it anymore.

We are not here for you to evaluate me.

I am an adult and I will not be spoken to as if I were a naughty child.

When you discussed my decision not to have children with my aunt, you violated my trust.  Do not discuss my personal business with anyone else again.

This is not open for discussion.  Let’s change the subject.


CONSEQUENCES: (Any variation of “If you do_____, then I will do____”)


I will not permit you to call me names.  If you cannot control yourself, then I will leave.

I will not allow you to drink in front of the children.  You cannot see them unless you are not drinking.

I don’t like it when you compare me to my sister.  Unless we can talk without you making comparisons, she will have to be an off-limits subject.

If you feel you need to reveal or discuss my personal business with other people, then I will no longer tell you anything personal.

If you continue to raise your voice, I will hang up the phone and we can discuss this when you are able to address me in a respectful manner.

If you criticize me in front of people again, I will stop going out with you.

If you continue pressuring me, I will leave the room.

I will not expose my children to your tirades.  If you cannot keep yourself under control in their presence, then you won’t be able to be with them.

My bedroom closet is my private space.  If I find that you have looked through it again, then you will not be invited back to my home.

I will no longer be around you when you are drunk.  You will have to be sober if you wish to speak with me.


Some situations call for setting a limit and enforcing it at the same time. For example:




I understand quite clearly what is being said.  You don’t need to explain it to me.

I see you have a lot to say about this subject, but can you hold that thought?- I want to hear what other people’s opinions are as well.

Let me interrupt you for just a minute.

LAST RESORT (to be said in mid-sentence-there will be no other choice):  Excuse me, I’ll be right back. (Then walk away and don’t come back– they probably won’t even miss you!)




You seem like you’re in a bad mood right now.  I’ll go home and come back another time when you’re feeling better. (If you ask “What’s wrong?, I guarantee you’ll be sorry you asked!)




I’m not willing to have all the holidays at my house anymore.  I’ll host Christmas this year if you’ll have Thanksgiving at your house. (BOUNDARY, shows willingness to compromise)…..

If the answer is NO:  Okay, then I guess we’ll go our separate ways this year.  Maybe we can work something out next year.  (CONSEQUENCE– Be sure to enforce it by making your own plans and not breaking down and inviting the person who will not reciprocate.  Having to stay home or make other plans isn’t the worst thing in the world and maybe it will help them to appreciate you more.)


When you advise others of your limits, you are doing them a favor.  You are giving them a chance to change before it becomes necessary for you to protect yourself.  If you never tell a person that her behavior is offensive, then you really can’t expect her to change.  Maybe she honestly doesn’t realize that she is being hurtful.  Maybe she has her own issues and is angry, jealous, etc.  Maybe she is just downright malicious and thinks she can keep getting away with it.  The only thing you can be sure of is that if you don’t set and enforce some boundaries, in all likelihood, nothing will ever change.

 It is time to relate to your inconsiderate or controlling relative as an equal.  Unfortunately, we cannot teach others to treat us with kindness if they are simply unkind people, but we can teach them to treat us with respect.  We pray for you to be filled with the courage and strength of the Lord as you do what needs to be done, and it is our hope that your birth-family relationships can improve and become more enjoyable for you.  And if a relationship can’t be salvaged because of an abusive relative’s stubborn refusal to respect your limits, we pray for you to be at peace with that, as well, and secure in the knowledge that you have done all you could do to resolve your differences before it became necessary to walk away.  God bless you, dear Sister, as you take back your own life from those who would swallow you up!


When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me …..1Corinthians

13:11 NIV

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit….Proverbs 26:5 KJV   

 Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee….Deuteronomy  31: 6 KJV

***For more on Setting Limits, see the articles Learning To Say No Enforcing Consequences is Not Revenge,  Off-Limits Subjects,  Still The Boss After All These Years,  Criticism,    Desperate MeasuresNew Traditions Enriching Your Holidays While Including Your Birth-Family& My Holiday Deliverance in the section Happier Holidays, Reaping What They Sow-The Natural Consequences of Bad Behavior  in the section Rebuking and the book reviews in the Reading Spotlight section ( BoundariesToxic ParentsDivorcing A Parent)