3 Steps for Setting Healthy Boundaries with an Alcoholic

Almost everyone has a friend or relative suffering from addiction to alcohol or drugs. The closer you are to an addicted loved one, the harder setting boundaries with an addict is. Addicted loved ones may lie, cheat or steal to cover their tracks. Even people with otherwise rock-solid boundaries can find alcoholics and addicts pushing every limit. You may be like many, though, and have never practiced the skill of setting boundaries with anyone, let alone an addict.

Why Is Setting Healthy Boundaries Important?

When you have weak boundaries, you compromise who you are. You lose yourself, your freedom, your control and your “territory.” Because you can only really control yourself, healthy boundaries are essential to self-care. You might ask, especially if the addict in your life is your child, “How can I be a good mother (or loved) with such limits? It’s like putting a wall up. 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. Healthy boundaries give you a chance to put your oxygen mask on. This is why setting good boundaries with an addict is critical. You’ll find that you are actually of little to no help to others without them.

1. Determine What Behavior Is Unaccptable

The first place to start in setting boundaries with an addict is to figure out what behavior you find unacceptable. Over the course of the next week or month, write down problematic behaviors that you observe. Does this person make belittling comments? Are they rude to you? Are they late again and again? Or are they emotionally or physically abusive? Of these behaviors, what is unacceptable to you? What are you unwilling to live with?


Many behaviors fall into “gray areas.” That’s what makes this activity more difficult than it seems at first. Give yourself some time and make observations rather than just moving on to the next step.


Plus, making this list might also help you to better observe what common arguments you have with your addicted loved one. When you know that, you can try to avoid or diffuse future arguments.

2. Set the Consequences for When Your Addicted Loved One Crosses Your Boundaries

Now that you know what behavior is unacceptable to you, figure out some reasonable consequences if these boundaries are crossed. Setting boundaries with an addict is actually the easy part; it is enforcing them that is challenging. So many self-help articles on setting boundaries simply advise pointing out to the alcoholic or addict when they have crossed the line. Truthfully, this Disn’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.

3. Detach with Love

Some of the consequences will involve distancing yourself, and this is important. While it can be very painful to do, it is perfectly acceptable to tell an addict, “I love you but I can not be around you while you’re drinking/using.” In fact, Al-Anon, a support for friends and family of alcoholics, pioneered a concept they call “detachment with love.” This doesn’t mean you file for divorce the next time your alcoholic wife shows up late (if that’s where your drew the boundary). 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 addict and yourself. For example, if the person is late, don’t call and nag. Wait fifteen minutes and then move on without them. 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 about. For example, if they lied about how they spent the grocery money, open a separate bank account and don’t co-mingle funds anymore.

Setting Boundaries with an Addict Doesn’t Always Save the Relationship

In time, you may find you rely on your addicted loved one less and less as you continue to enforce your boundaries. Separations may result. Again, these are difficult and painful situations. However, remember, soft, meaningless boundaries only enable the addiction.


In other words, having strong boundaries not only is the healthiest thing for you, but it’s also the best thing for your addicted loved one. The sooner they are forced to accept responsibility for their actions, the sooner they might be motivated to seek help and change.

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