Maintaining boundaries with a loved one who is suffering with addiction

Maintaining boundaries with a loved one who is suffering with addiction

Loving someone suffering with substance use disorder can be challenging, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. Our desire to care for them can sometimes mean putting their needs before our own. But it doesn't have to be that way. Through carefully placed boundaries, you can protect your needs and still show care and consideration for a loved one. Your actions may even help them find recovery.

What are boundaries?

A boundary is a physical or emotional limit that people set to safeguard their values, needs and well-being. It is the dividing line between which behaviors you consider acceptable and what is past your limit. Boundaries help us to nurture healthy relationships by telling the other person what we will and won't accept. This is especially important for those of us in a relationship with someone who has substance use disorder.

Characteristics of the disorder can sometimes mean that boundaries are pushed and often trampled over. Drug-seeking behavior can lead to dishonest behavior, lying, cheating, and manipulating. Situations where this behavior is prevalent calls for strong boundaries. Compromising those boundaries may result in codependency,being hurt by the other person, or even blaming ourselves.

If you find yourself doing any of these things you may need to set healthy boundaries:

  • Criticizing the other’s behavior

  • Acting in a passive-aggressive manner

  • Ignoring

  • Providing unsolicited advice

  • Avoiding confrontation

  • Managing the other person’s life

  • Feeling responsible for the other person

How to set healthy boundaries

When we set boundaries with the person we love, we establish guidelines for suitable behaviors and actions, and we know how far we are willing to go to. They also help to provide us with a framework for how to best communicate with each other, and how to look after our own needs. Last, they indicate to the other person what the consequences will be if they cross a particular boundary.

In setting boundaries, there are certain actions that are a clear violation of acceptable behavior — for example, getting violent and abusive. In these circumstances, we need to remove ourselves to stay safe. But in other scenarios, our limits are a personal decision.

When you are setting boundaries, consider these factors:

  • What is your motive for setting the boundary?For example, are you protecting your own sobriety?

  • What are your physical and emotional limits? What makes you feel anxious or stressed?

  • In which situations have you felt hurt by a loved one? How was that person behaving and how did that hurt you?

  • How have you acted in ways that made you feel as though you were dishonoring your needs?

Here are some examples of boundary setting:

  • Saying no. The word “no” is a complete sentence. If we feel uncomfortable, or our needs and values are compromised in any way, it is absolutely okay to say no.

  • Healthy communication. When expressing a boundary, it is important to keep the communication limited to you and your feelings. Don’t make assumptions or focus on the other person’s actions. Instead, use an “I” statement, which is less likely to provoke confrontation.  Here is a template for communicating a healthy boundary:

    • “When you ___ [their behavior], I feel __ [your emotion].

    • I prefer/want/need __ [specific action] because __.

    • If you continue to __ [behavior], I will __ [specific consequence of crossing a boundary].

This is a contextual example: “When you show up drunk, I feel unsafe. I prefer that you don’t come to my home when you’ve been drinking because it compromises my sobriety. If you continue to show up intoxicated, I will not answer the door.”

It is imperative that you follow through with the consequence if they cross your line. Otherwise, they won’t take future boundaries seriously.

Setting boundaries can feel challenging at first. We can feel frightened about how the other person might respond, or we can worry that we are no longer caring for the other person. But if we want to truly care for ourselves, boundaries are paramount. They may also encourage a loved one to get help with their substance use disorder. If they can’t rely on you to take care of them when they’re intoxicated, they may realize they need to look into recovery.