How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Addicts and Alcoholics

Posted on October 12th, 2012

Almost everyone has a friend or relative suffering from addiction to alcohol or drugs. Because of the nature of addiction, those suffering from it can often lie, cheat, and steal to cover their tracks. This makes living, working, or dealing with them highly problematic. Even people with otherwise rock-solid boundaries can find alcoholics and addicts easily pushing their buttons.

Why Are Good Boundaries Important?

When you have weak boundaries, you compromise who you are. You lose yourself, your freedom, your control, and your “territory.” Because you are the only thing in which you have complete control, healthy boundaries are an essential part of proper self-maintenance. You might ask, especially if the addict or alcoholic in your life is your child, how can I be a good partner, friend, or relative to this person if I have such limits? It’s like putting a wall up, and I feel guilty or like I’m betraying this person in their hour of need. Yes, it is excruciating to see someone you love struggle with addiction, but, like they say on the airplane, you need to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. This is why good boundaries are critical-you’ll find that you are actually of little to no help to others without them.

What Behavior is Unacceptable?

The first place to start in figuring out your boundaries with an alcoholic is in determining what behavior they display that you find unacceptable. Perhaps over the course of a week or a month, write down behaviors that you observe. Does this person make belittling comments, are they rude to you, are they chronically late, or maybe they are emotionally or physically abusive? Many behaviors can fall into “gray areas,” which might make this activity more difficult than it seems. This is why it is advisable to give it some time and make observations rather than just move on to the next step. Plus, making this list might also help you to better observe what common arguments you have with the alcoholic or addict so you can try to avoid or diffuse them.

Determining Consequences

Now that you know what behavior is unacceptable to you, figure out what are some reasonable consequences if these boundaries are crossed. Setting boundaries is actually the easy part; it is enforcing them that is challenging. So many self-help articles on setting boundaries simply advise to point out to the alcoholic or addict when they have crossed the line-end of story. Truthfully, this isn’t very effective, as you’ve no doubt already told the alcoholic a million times not to be late or not to drive drunk or whatnot. In fact, you’ve probably asked every which way possible to the point of becoming a nag. A boundary without a consequence is worthless.

When thinking about consequences to attach to your boundaries, remember that while it can be very painful to do, it is perfectly acceptable to tell an active alcoholic or addict, “I love you but I can not be around you while you’re drinking/using.” In fact, Al-Anon, a support group and twelve-step program for friends and family of alcoholics, pioneered a concept they call “detachment with love.” This doesn’t mean you have to file for divorce the next time your alcoholic wife shows up late, but it does mean you treat the alcoholic or addict with love while you step away from their toxic behaviors.

In this vein, some of the best consequences may involve creating distance between the alcoholic/addict and yourself. For example, if the person is late, don’t call and nag, just wait fifteen minutes then commence the plans without him or her. If the person is being rude or calling you names, go to a friend’s house. If you discover the person has lied to you, calmly confront them about it and disengage from whatever the lie was regarding (i.e. they lied about how they spent the grocery money, so open a separate bank account and don’t co-mingle funds with the alcoholic/addict any more).

In time, you may find you rely on the alcoholic or addict less and less as you continue to enforce your boundaries. Separations may result. Again, these are difficult and painful situations. Just remember, with soft, meaningless boundaries you only enable the unacceptable behavior of the alcoholic or addict. In other words, having strong boundaries not only is the healthiest thing for you, but it’s also the best thing for the alcoholic or addict. The sooner they are forced to accept responsibility for their actions or allowed to hit rock bottom, the sooner they might be motivated to seek help and change.

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