Setting Healthy Boundaries with Addicts and Alcoholics

There are very few people in this world who haven’t had some experience with alcoholism or addiction. Some struggle with it personally while others have people close to them (including family and loved ones) that have struggled in the past or continue to struggle. Both sides of the relationship feel pain and face challenges. As for the addict, their addiction can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t do had it not been for the presence of this baffling disease. This can include telling lies, cheating, stealing and going to great lengths to cover their tracks. On the other hand, those living with, working with, interacting with, and loving addicts can feel like they’re walking on eggshells while this compromising behavior goes on. If you can relate to this in any way it’s time to make a game plan for setting your own healthy boundaries. This will not only be beneficial to you but to your addicted loved one as well.

The Necessity of Good Boundaries

Even strong-willed people can maintain flimsy personal boundaries. A person that is accomplished in academics or successful in their career can still be taken for granted or treated like a doormat at home. This high-achieving person might even keep quiet about their personal life, opting instead only to do and speak about what’s within their control. This split-life is made possible by our own free will (our ability to make our own choices) coupled with the inability to control the choices of others. As individuals, we determine how much effort we’ll put in to make the grade or close the deal at work, but the way in which others treat us is largely out of our control. In this regard, our only means of protection is boundary setting. Maintaining good boundaries at home, at work and in all other areas of life is of the utmost importance, especially if you’re married to, related to, or living with an alcohol or addict.

Setting boundaries DOES require effort, and initially it can feel uncomfortable to put your foot down and set limits. In the long run, do know that embarking on this journey and practicing self-care will ultimately be a service to everyone. Let’s consider a practical example:

There are hundreds of thousands of commercial flights scheduled each day that all follow the same protocol. The doors are closed, seatbacks and tray tables up, captain turns on the fasten seatbelt sign, and soon passengers expect to be airborne in route to their destination. Just before takeoff a video plays going over the safety features of the plane, or in some cases a flight attendant will relay the nearly identical message over the loudspeaker. If you travel often, you might even have the whole spiel memorized, less a joke or two made by a witty crewmember.

Humor aside, one part of the safety advisory always remains the same: if the cabin pressure changes oxygen masks will reveal above each seat for every passenger. And what are you always told to do if that happens? You’re told to secure your own mask first and make sure it’s functioning properly before helping others with their masks. Should your oxygen mask not inflate and you can’t get the air you need to breath you’re in danger. It would be almost impossible to help someone else when in this state. You’re of more help when your mask is on and functioning first.

The takeaway from this scenario reaches far beyond the airplane; it’s crucial to your life and relationships that you implement self-care first. If you don’t, how can you possess the strength and the means to ever help anyone around you? Conversely, self-care can also include setting healthy boundaries with those around you, and even detaching when necessary. Remember it may be uncomfortable or feel unnatural at first, but when you demonstrate self-care in this fashion you’re also setting an example for the other people in your life. As you set and hold your boundaries you will get stronger!

Determining Where the Boundaries are Set

To determine what kind of boundaries you should set take some time to think about what’s happened in the past. You may have “accepted” (or passively accepted) certain behaviors over time, but now it’s time to be aware of the disappointments or resentments your acceptance has caused. Think of a line, on one side is normal interactions with people and on the other side is unacceptable behavior by people. What actions will then constitute crossing into the unacceptable side? It’s helpful to write down your thoughts on the subject for two reasons: (1) you become accountable to the list you are making, and (2) there is a therapeutic process that takes place in doing so. Continue to add to this list over the course of a week, or even throughout the month, and make note of actions and occurrences you no longer want to accept.

Maybe you write down a belittling comment that was made at your expense, the nights you waited to eat dinner because someone was running late, the time someone showed complete disregard for a just cleaned home (especially if they weren’t the one to clean it), or truly any form or instance of physical or emotional abuse you’ve been victim to. These behaviors all may seem obvious “red flags” calling for boundaries, but there are also “gray areas” that are much more difficult to assess, especially in husband-wife or cohabitant relationships.

Everyone’s situation is unique, and there will always be complexities and moving pieces. Much like making a list of “Pros and Cons” this list-strategy is universally beneficial to analyzing the “whole picture”. It’s the most useful and practical way to assess current events and feelings passed, and because the list is tangible it frees the mind from spinning through these thoughts like a Rolodex. Throughout this process you will learn to defuse and avoid unnecessary fights. You also learn to protect yourself from future negativity while giving your wounds of the past the time and space to heal.

Setting Forth Consequences for Crossed Boundaries

Once you’ve determined the behaviors that you will no longer tolerate, the next step is to set forth consequences that will be imposed if those behaviors occur. This can be a difficult stage in the process, but without some consequence the boundaries are meaningless. Boundaries must uphold to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “law of laws” aka “the law of cause and effect” that largely dictates our human interactions and conduct. It states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Don’t let the challenge of determining the “effect” (consequence) of the “cause” (breaking the boundary) dismantle your path—there has to be both!

Be aware eat other sources or articles on “boundaries” will usually advise you to “point out” to someone they’re crossing the line, and that’s about it. Sure, you can explain to someone how he or she makes you feel, but it takes more than “explaining” to create a longstanding change. In all likelihood, you’ve probably told that person before that you don’t appreciate them being late to dinner, making a mess, drinking and/or using drugs in the home, driving under the influence, or whatever the aggravating behavior may be. If the other person thinks you’re nagging them they will disregard what you say, and if you’ve already told them numerous times then you’re essentially “beating the dead horse”. If the person is under the influence when you talk to them, especially when there’s no set forth consequence for boundary crossing, then expect your statements to fall upon deaf ears.

If the addict is drinking or using it can be difficult to get through to them. Even so, don’t be afraid to tell the addict in your life that although you love them immensely, you cannot be around them if they’re under the influence. This constitutes a prime example of identifying a boundary and setting a consequence for crossing it. Support groups such as Al-Anon and the numerous others that were created for people with relationships to alcoholics and addicts suggest implementing a practice called “Detaching with Love”. To “detach” doesn’t mean a full separation from the person, carrying out drastic measures towards them, or threatening to move out or get divorced if they continue to use their drug of choice despite your wishes. Detachment means you respectfully decline to engage with them or participate in activities with them while they’re using. It is okay to hate the disease, but you can still love the person, and you have the right to distance yourself from the disease as you see fit.

Creating a distance between yourself and the behaviors that cross over the line into “unacceptable” is one of the most productive means of boundary enforcement. There are times when a separation or a divorce is necessary, especially when the boundaries are being consistently ignored or cause you or other family members to suffer repeatedly. If that’s the case, then the end of the relationship is most appropriate. The split is needed for your own self-preservation. Yes, you are ending something with someone, but you are also staying true to yourself and demonstrating self-care. Only you can determine what’s best for you.

There are many simple measures that you can take to set and enforce your boundaries. If you’ve been bothered in the past by a person’s tardiness, and find them late yet again, give them a 15-minute grace period then carry on without them. If you’re being spoken to in a disrespectful manner you are not obligated to listen. Avoid absorbing the negativity by thinking about something else and then calmly exit. You can leave the room, go for a walk, or go to a friend’s house. If you’ve been sharing a bank account with someone who’s using your joint funds to support their addiction, then it’s time to protect your money by opening another account in just your name. Money is cited as one of the leading cause of fights in all types of relationships—there’s no need to let commingled funds add drama when you’re already trying to cope with the disease of addiction. These are just a few considerations to make when setting boundaries and consequences and learning to detach from negativity.

As you learn to “detach with love” your reliance on the addict becomes less and the entire process gets easier. You will feel a sense of empowerment knowing that the other person no longer has hold of your feelings or your reactions. You will realize that you have the aptitude and skills to lead the life you’ve always wanted and undoubtedly deserve. Remember, clear-cut, firm, and reasonable boundaries (with corresponding consequences) don’t just serve you—they also have a positive effect on the other person. Your boundary practice will show them that you’re a determined person that deserves respect. They will have no choice but to stop treating you as a doormat or a whipping post and take responsibility for their own actions.

If the addict fails to respect your boundaries then it’s only fair for you to explore other options. Once they realize you’ve quit enabling their bad behaviors, or if you end up going as far as distancing yourself from them physically, they might just hit their “bottom” that inspires them to change. When addicts and alcoholics continue to abuse they are on a path for “Jails, Institutions, or Death”. Setting and enforcing your boundaries will help motivate your loved one to seek the help they need.

Copyright by Strength and Hope 2024. All rights reserved.

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