Addiction is a family disease, and one of the most important steps to take in recovery is setting boundaries.
Addiction is a disease of isolation. It relentlessly crosses boundaries, threatens relationships, and causes chaos. But you do not have to sit idly by and watch destruction happen; there are healthy steps that you can take in your own recovery. Just as an alcoholic or addict must learn to set boundaries, so do the people who love them.
We tend to hope that over time, change will naturally happen for the better, but the truth is that most change requires work. There is a common saying within the counseling profession: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” If we do not put in work and take action toward the things that we want, we will, for the most part, stay stuck in unhealthy cycles and toxic patterns.
Addiction almost always coexists with codependent relationships. Codependency develops out of a deep desire to care for someone else, and in doing so we end up trying to fix their problems and manage external circumstances. Codependency becomes an unhealthy way to deal with our negative feelings by pouring ourselves into making sure that our love one is “okay.” Creating boundaries helps us find healthy coping skills and teaches us how to care for ourselves.
Why family members need boundaries
If you are a family member who feels ready to sacrifice everything in an attempt to save your addicted loved one, you are not alone. The power of love and compassion that lives inside of you is real and it is important, but you must first take care of yourself by establishing and enforcing boundaries.
Boundaries help us define who we are, what we value, and what kind of future we are working towards. They regulate our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. They help us express what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and they help us define what we need within our relationships.
Think about the instructions that you are given about oxygen masks on airplanes. If cabin pressure changes, masks will drop down from the compartments above; make sure to secure your own mask before helping others. You have to take care of yourself in order to effectively help the people you love. Living in a constant state of self-sacrifice will lead us to continue repeating unhealthy cycles of behavior.
If you’re a family member of a person with an addiction, you don’t have to wait for your loved one to hit rock bottom or go to treatment before you set boundaries. Although it may seem counterintuitive, creating boundaries may be the best thing you can do for your loved one. It may frustrate them or cause them to be angry at you for a time, but a lack of boundaries is what enables an addict or alcoholic to continue down the same path.
Why the addict needs boundaries
It takes two people to make a codependent relationship. For this reason, boundaries are a two-way street. Just as the family member becomes consumed by the addict’s emotional ups and downs, the addict also learns to hyper-focus on their loved one’s emotional state, even if their actions may seem to indicate otherwise.
The addict can become so wrapped up in hiding their addiction from their loved ones or reacting to them, that they lose sight of what is going on for them in this moment and finding a healthy way forward.
Once the substance is removed, these difficult feelings about their relationships with loved ones often intensify and the need for boundaries becomes even more apparent.
People struggling with substance abuse often find themselves overwhelmed with shame. Yes, their actions in addiction have negatively affected their loved ones. Healthy remorse about these actions can certainly help bring change, but shame is crippling and undermines recovery. Addiction has a way of writing a shame-based story and trapping the person within it.
Boundaries It often leads to hyper-focusing on what the person believes others perceptions of them to be, rather on what the person in recovery actually needs. Boundaries serve as a healthy tool for redirecting the person’s attention to what they can control.
Boundaries are building blocks
This is not a quick fix. You cannot set a boundary today and expect your loved one to stop drinking or using tomorrow. Boundaries are a foundation for a healthy relationship, and they take time and practice. Each time we honor our boundaries, we are laying a brick in this foundation, and over time it becomes more sturdy and substantial.
It is important to know that boundaries are not about changing someone else’s behavior – that is impossible. Rather, they are about creating healthier versions of ourselves, because healthy relationships are the best thing we can offer to our addicted loved ones.
Communicate your boundaries effectively by stating your feelings, needs, and actions.
- “When you [behavior], I feel [emotion].
- “I prefer/want/need [specific action].
- “If you continue [specific behavior], I will [specific action.]
Maintaining fierce boundaries does not mean you stop loving someone or that you are not compassionate. It is actually an act of love.
You may need to set boundaries if:
- You are doing things for your alcoholic/addict that they are able to do for themselves.
- You are doing things for your alcoholic/addict that they did not ask you to do.
- You think that you may be in a codependent relationship
So, what boundaries should we set? There is no formula for boundaries; they are different for each person and each relationship. Although this may seem frustrating, it may also be hopeful. There is no other relationship in the world that is exactly like yours, and boundaries are something to be explored and discovered. They may take some experimenting, some trial & error, and some patience.
But you are not alone. Find the kind of support that you need while you are making these changes. Look into local family support groups, and know that addiction does not have to be a point of shame. Find a counselor or therapist that you trust. Take time and space to do something that brings you peace and joy.
Additional resources on boundaries:
- Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents – Allison Bottke
- Codependence and the Power of Detachment: How to Set Boundaries and Make Your Life Your Own – Karen Casey
- Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life – Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
- Boundaries in Marriage – Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend