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Setting and Keeping Boundaries

If you are close to someone who is an addict or who is recovering from addiction, you face a difficult situation – the need to set and maintain proper boundaries within your relationship.

Boundaries are “rules” that set limits on what is and is not acceptable in a relationship.

Advantages of Setting Clear Boundaries

Boundaries help keep relationships healthy. If both parties know what is acceptable behavior and what is not, then it is easier to speak up and ask for change if a behavior is deemed problematic. It is as if a contract has been broken, not just that an undesirable action has taken place. The excuse of “I didn’t know it was not okay” cannot be used to deflect responsibility.

Boundaries help both the addicted person and the people they interact with. When effective boundaries are in place, trust can be built and relationships strengthened. The addicted person gains greater motivation to become responsible for their behavior, and the people who support them can feel more secure about helping them. The risk of enabling versus helping is reduced because there are guidelines and consequences associated with any assistance that may be offered.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Boundaries

All relationships have boundaries. Some are healthy; some are not.

Healthy Boundaries:

  • Establish each person’s rights within the relationship
  • Establish expectations that are designed to strengthen the relationship and support both parties
  • Reduce the chaos and uncertainty associated with unchecked or unregulated behavior

 Unhealthy Boundaries:

  • Damage and diminish personal values and choices
  • Encourage guilt and discourage authentic expression
  • Encourage codependency and enabling vs. personal responsibility

Have Your Boundaries Been Crossed?

In your relationship with an addict or a person in recovery, have you:

  • Felt (or been encouraged to feel) responsible for the other’s behavior?
  • Been taken advantage of (ex: asked for money, asked to lie for them, or make excuses for them)?
  • Changed your behavior to avoid angering them or having conflict with them?

These are just a few of the signs that indicate that your boundaries have been crossed. What you need to consider next is what should you do about it?

Setting Boundaries That Achieve the Desired Change

In order to set and keep effective boundaries, ones that get the results you want and need, you must consider these issues:

  • What specific behavior(s) do you want to set limits on?

    What outcome do you want to achieve? You cannot dictate another person’s behavior, but you can set limits on what you will allow in your presence, in your home, with your children, etc. For instance, you can set the boundary that the addict is not allowed to use in the home or around the children. This gives a specific, clear message about a particular behavior that will not be tolerated.

  • What is your motive for setting the boundary?

    You should be honest with yourself when setting a boundary. Does it really relate to a behavior that is important to set limits on? Or are you setting limits because you wish to punish the person or gain revenge for past behavior? For instance, it would be unfair and probably self-serving to insist that a father not see his children at all. Rather, limits should be set on the manner and conditions with which interaction would take place; for instance, always with the supervision of a trusted adult, and only after school or on weekend days, until it has been established that substance use has ceased.

  • Does the boundary encourage personal responsibility?

    When setting a boundary, you can place stipulations that encourage positive change and increasingly responsible actions. For example, you might include a condition that if the addict attends 3 support group meetings per week for six months, you will adjust the boundary related to access to the home or children.

Consequences for Broken Boundaries

Setting a boundary is not enough. You must be able to maintain it. But what happens if a boundary is crossed, and an important behavioral rule is broken? Should there be consequences? Of course; but exactly what should the consequence be and how can you enforce it?

Here are some basic guidelines:

Make the consequence fit the circumstances.

Some broken boundaries are more serious than others. For instance, a boundary rule might be that your addicted spouse is not to enter the home when he/she is using, and that if this happens, the consequence will be to limit further access to the home by asking that the spouse’s house key be returned.

If the boundary is that the person not drive after drinking or using a drug and they do, the consequences can range from restricting further use of the car, to not bailing the person out of jail if they are caught driving while under the influence.

These examples illustrate logical expectations with logical consequences. Just as you should not use boundary-setting to punish or to get revenge, you should not establish unreasonable consequences that greatly outweigh the misstep.

Learn to be okay saying “no.”

If you find yourself in a position of needing to set boundaries, it is likely that you have previously had difficulty saying “no” to people. After all, boundary-setting is only required when there is danger of someone overstepping the limits of acceptable behavior. And this can only occur if it is allowed. You may want to be  “nice” to people; you may be easily encouraged to feel guilty and give in to the requests or demands of someone you care about. Your personality type may be that of a person who avoids conflict at all costs and therefore is easy to prevail over. There are many reasons why saying “no” has not been easy for you.

But when dealing with an addicted person or a person in recovery, you need to learn to say “no”, mean it, and defend your assertion. By saying “no” to problematic behavior that is unhealthy for both you and the other person, you are not being mean. You are not being ungrateful or uncaring. Instead, you are protecting yourself and the other as well. While the addicted person is healing themselves, learning better coping skills and learning to take personal responsibility for their actions, you are providing the safety net that they need to avoid falling back into old, destructive behaviors…if you are strong enough to say “no” to them.



Images Courtesy of iStock

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