Learn / How to Set Boundaries With an Addicted Loved One
It is, in fact, possible to love someone too much. When you care about a person with an addiction, it can be hard to stop yourself from giving. But over time, generosity can become counterproductive. In the very attempt to support them, you may be enabling their unhealthiest behaviors. If what they really need is treatment for a substance use disorder, you both might benefit from a little tough love.
Because addiction begets codependency, it’s crucial for you to set and maintain healthy boundaries. This process might be daunting at first. You may be concerned about being too harsh, especially if your loved one is facing other challenges. But setting boundaries is often the first step toward healing—for yourself, your relationship, and the person you love.
Good boundaries are an important part of any dynamic, and they are even more critical when your loved one has a substance use disorder. Although it can be painful to establish ground rules, this process is a vital part of building sustainable relationships, and caring for your own mental health.
Think of healthy boundaries as rules or guidelines for how you want to be treated by the people around you. As therapist and somatics teacher Prentis Hemphill says, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”1
It’s up to you to define what behavior you will and will not accept, communicate that to your loved ones, and decide what the consequences will be if you’re mistreated. By protecting yourself, you can also provide better, more sustainable support to a loved one with a substance use disorder. And the act of loving yourself can encourage those around you to set their own boundaries. It may even inspire them to begin recovery.
When you’re ready to start this process, begin by looking inward. It might be helpful to talk to a therapist or trusted friend, or spend time journaling about your feelings. Think about your most deeply held beliefs, your goals for yourself, and your needs in this relationship. Make sure your stated boundaries reflect your core values, without sacrificing your well-being for someone else’s sake.
With the big picture in mind, consider what you need from the other person in order to feel safe. This may seem selfish, especially if you’ve been deprioritizing your own needs for a long time. Try to accept that discomfort as part of the process.
Boundaries can be as simple or as complex as you need them to be. The following examples may help you start thinking about what’s right for you.
These are just examples, and they may not suit your specific situation. Once you’ve determined which boundaries you need to set, you can start thinking about how you’ll respond if they’re crossed.
Boundaries are only meaningful when you’re prepared to maintain them. This can prove difficult over time, especially when challenging situations arise. Do your best to plan in advance how you’ll respond if your loved one crosses a clearly communicated line.
Consequences aren’t necessarily punishments; instead, they’re a way to support yourself through difficult relationship dynamics. For example, you might institute some of the following consequences if a loved one disrespects your boundaries:
Make sure these consequences are clear, firm, and realistic. For example, if a long-distance friend lies to you, you can stop speaking to them. That same consequence wouldn’t work for a roommate or live-in partner. Even if you decide to move out and end the relationship, you’ll have to communicate about logistics. If you can’t follow through on these predefined consequences, your loved one may feel empowered to ignore your needs entirely.
Defining your boundaries is an act of self-care. And once you’ve done that work, it’s time to talk to your loved one. This conversation might be difficult, but it’s the first step toward building a healthier dynamic.
Clear communication is a necessary part of changing a relationship dynamic. And when your loved one has a substance use disorder, you may not be able to rely on them to start these important conversations.
It’s best to schedule this discussion in advance, so that you’ll both have time to emotionally prepare. If at all possible, approach your loved one when they’re calm and sober. If that’s not possible, don’t delay the conversation indefinitely. You have the right to ask for what you need, whether or not they can give it to you.
This is your opportunity to articulate your boundaries as clearly and effectively as possible. You might even take notes in advance, to help organize your thoughts. You can also discuss why you’re putting these guidelines in place, but you don’t have to. Your needs don’t require justification.
Make sure this conversation focuses on the real reason for this new framework: your love for the other person, and your concern for your mutual well-being. If you didn’t want them in your life at all, you could simply walk away instead of doing this work together. Let them know that you care about them, and that this is how you can keep supporting them without burning out or ending your relationship entirely.
After you’ve explained what your boundaries are, it’s up to you to hold the line. Your loved one may be unwilling or unable to respect your limits, especially if their addiction is severe enough to have lasting cognitive effects. Preliminary research suggests that substance misuse may even interfere with empathy,2 making it difficult for people to understand others’ needs.
Be prepared for your loved one to ignore or actively disrespect your stated boundaries. This may happen during the initial conversation, if they try to argue or undermine your reasoning. But even if they seem supportive at first, you may come into conflict in the future.
You can prepare for this eventuality by deciding in advance how you’ll react if your boundaries are challenged. While it’s natural to respond with anger, it’s also ineffective. This opens the door for further argument, and may destabilize both your mental health and your relationship.
The other extreme, passivity, is equally unproductive. By quietly allowing the person to disrespect you, you send the message that your needs are not important. This can encourage them to continue treating you poorly, because their bad behavior has no negative consequences.
By planning ahead, you can guard against either of these outcomes. Set the precedent that you deserve love and support. And whether or not you receive care from them, you can give it to yourself. This framework will not only improve your mental health; it can also improve your relationship. It might even show your loved one a much-needed example of self-care, and motivate them to think about recovery.
It’s ok to be conflicted about setting boundaries. Many people struggle to balance their own needs with the desire to protect loved ones from negative consequences. Remember that this process, while complex, will ultimately benefit you both. In fact, healthy boundaries can improve many aspects of mental health and relationships.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. When caring for someone depletes your emotional energy, you become vulnerable to compassion fatigue.3 This condition is similar to burnout, and can make it difficult for you to continue supporting the people you love. While the term is normally used to describe burnout in healthcare professionals, anyone can reach a similar limit. And even if you still want to put your loved one’s needs before your own, you might reach a point where you just can’t care for them any more.
By giving yourself room to breathe and recharge through clear-cut boundaries, you can maintain reserves of energy, patience, and mental bandwidth. This practice empowers you to support your loved one in a more sustainable way.
The concept of codependency4 was originally developed to describe maladaptive behaviors of people married to patients with alcohol use disorder (AUD). In recent years, the subject has become controversial. Some researchers believe that this condition is too vague to be clinically meaningful. Nevertheless, many people continue to find help and support by exploring their own codependent tendencies.
According to the American Psychological Association, codependency is “a dysfunctional relationship pattern5 in which an individual is psychologically dependent on (or controlled by) a person who has a pathological addiction.” This pattern may present itself in some counterintuitive ways. For example, a codependent person may attempt to control the behavior of their loved ones, without realizing their own actions are causing harm.
Despite common misconceptions, it’s important to note that relationships are not codependent; people are. By uncoupling your identity from your loved one’s identity—and their substance misuse—you can begin to define the boundaries that will protect your energy and mental health.
If you love someone with a substance use disorder, you may be concerned about their overindulgence. It’s also possible to overindulge in love. And sometimes, the best way to care for someone is by stepping back, and letting them make their own decisions. As much as you might want to help, you can’t go through recovery for them.
Establishing boundaries doesn’t have to mean cutting ties or refusing to help—although it can, if that’s what you need. However, you may be able to rebalance your relationship, providing support from a healthy distance that respects your needs as well as theirs.
To learn more about the recovery process, you can connect with a rehab center to find a good match for your loved one’s recovery journey.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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