Setting and enforcing boundaries are important for maintaining healthy relationships and they’re especially important if someone you love has a substance use disorder. Good boundaries are about respecting your own values and autonomy as well as the other person’s. Personal boundaries are limits we set to safeguard our own physical and emotional safety and wellbeing. Boundaries allow us to express who we are and what’s important to us while also recognizing the right of the other person to do the same. Boundaries are important at every stage of addiction and recovery. In active addiction, enforcing boundaries minimizes the extent to which you enable your loved one’s addictive behavior. In recovery, healthy boundaries allow you and your loved one to flourish as individuals, support one another, and communicate more effectively. Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and healthy relationships are one of the best resources for a strong recovery from addiction. 

Although healthy boundaries are essential for emotional and physical wellbeing, setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult. People with substance use disorders often resort to deceptive and manipulative behaviors to get what they want. They hate being told “no” and they can make life very difficult for loved ones who try to maintain boundaries. They may even become violent and family members often find it easier just to give in. It’s also common for people with a loved one with a substance use disorder to be in a codependent relationship in which the enabling partner is not even sure what his or her values and needs are in the first place. Establishing and maintaining boundaries takes a lot of work and often requires the help of a family therapist. Here are some tips for setting boundaries when you have a loved one who struggles with addiction.


Establish your needs and values

If you want to set boundaries based on your own needs and values, you first have to establish what those are. What’s most important to you? What do you need that you haven’t been getting? Is your behavior consistent with your values? For many, the answers to these questions will be obvious once they actually think about them but others will feel a bit lost. It’s ok if you feel a bit lost at first. You may need to ask a friend or a therapist for help clarifying your needs and values, especially if you’re in a codependent relationship and you’re used to neglecting your own needs in favor of someone else’s.


Realize no one can make you do anything

When someone is constantly violating your boundaries you may feel like you have no power over the situation. The other person may be adept at manipulating or bullying you to the point where you feel like you have no choice but to comply. However, when you get right down to it, no one can make you do anything. If you give in to someone’s threats or manipulations, it’s still your choice. The consequences of not cooperating may be very high, but you always have the ability to choose whether or not to cooperate. It’s important to recognize that you have the ability to choose, even when it doesn’t feel like it. You may choose to cooperate to avoid being harmed or some other negative outcome but it’s still a choice.


Communicate your boundaries

If you want someone to respect your boundaries, you have to tell them what those boundaries are. Clear communication is especially important. If someone is in the habit of manipulating you, he won’t hesitate to exploit any ambiguity on your part. When someone behaves toward you in a way you find unacceptable, say so clearly. It’s usually best to express yourself in terms of how the person’s behavior affects you rather than criticizing or condemning. For example, instead of saying, “You’re such a jerk,” try something more along the lines of “When you refuse to help with the chores, I feel like you don’t respect me or our relationship.” One caveat is to make sure to put safety first. If you feel like you might be in danger, get somewhere safe rather than worrying about establishing boundaries. 

It’s also important to listen. Listening helps you better understand why the other person behaves the way she does. It also helps you respect the other person’s boundaries because you can better understand her needs and values.

Be willing to follow through with consequences for violating boundaries
It would be nice if everyone had an innate desire to respect your boundaries, but that’s not always the case, especially for someone in active addiction. Sometimes you have to establish consequences for violating boundaries. For example, you might set a boundary like, “If you bring drugs into the house, I will call the police and have you thrown out.” That is a perfectly reasonable boundary to set for someone in active addiction. However, you have to be willing to follow through with whatever consequences you name. If not, the other person will quickly learn that your threats are meaningless and you will have a harder time setting boundaries in the future.


Respect the other person’s autonomy

It can be incredibly frustrating seeing a loved one make terrible, self-destructive choices, but the fact is that you can’t control someone else’s behavior. Trying to manipulate or coerce the person into doing what you think is right doesn’t respect their autonomy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to convince the person to get help; it just means you should do it in an honest, supportive way. Even an intervention is open and direct and ultimately respects your loved one’s right to make her own choices. When your loved one does enter recovery, it’s even more important to respect her autonomy. Make sure she has her own space and can make her own choices. Be there for support, but realize she is still ultimately responsible for her own actions.


Be consistent

Once you’ve communicated your boundaries and established the consequences for violating them, be consistent. You may have to train someone to understand what behavior is acceptable and what behavior isn’t and that’s harder when you keep changing your standards.

If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 800.910.9299.