Set Boundaries with Alcoholic or Addict; couple arguing

How to Set Boundaries with an Alcoholic or Addict

If you’re in a relationship with an alcoholic or addict – whether it’s your spouse, parent, child, or friend – you’ll find that setting boundaries is an essential component of self-preservation. Without boundaries, you’re likely to be consumed by the needs of the alcoholic or addict.

People struggling with addiction don’t have boundaries; they take and take, often with little regard for the needs of others. Therefore, you are the one who needs to set and enforce boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Healthy boundaries create a framework that lets people know how to treat you. The clear expectations created by boundaries help form respectful, mutual relationships. Without boundaries, we risk being mistreated and enmeshed (not functioning as completely separate people and being overly involved in other people’s lives).

A boundary is a necessary and healthy dividing line between two people; it reflects that you are a separate person with your own physical and emotional needs.

Boundaries also serve as limits for ourselves and others. For example, you might set a boundary with yourself to limit the amount of time you spend online. Or you might set a limit with your boss to communicate that you aren’t available to work over the weekend. These limits protect our time, energy, and money. They keep us safe, healthy, and in alignment with our values and goals.

How to set boundaries

It is challenging to start setting boundaries with people when there’s been a lack of boundaries in the past. The first step is to be clear about what boundaries you need.

I suggest writing down your boundaries and why they are important or necessary. Writing can help you gain clarity and reinforce your commitment to setting boundaries. Having a list is also helpful to reference when you’re wavering or struggling to enforce your boundaries.

You might start by making a list of behaviors that you consider unacceptable (such as driving your children while intoxicated, stealing, embarrassing you, calling you names, pressuring you to have sex, spending the rent money on drugs, etc.) and use that list to establish the boundaries that you need.

When setting and enforcing boundaries, try to remain calm and concise. Stick to the facts without overexplaining, blaming, or becoming defensive. For example, it’s more effective to say “I’m going to go home now. I don’t like to be around you when you’re drinking,” than to lose your temper and say “I can’t believe you’re drinking again! Every time I come over it’s the same thing. I’m not going to take it anymore!” You can see how the latter is more likely to instigate an argument.

It’s important to remember that boundaries aren’t about trying to control someone or make them change. Boundaries are about establishing how you want to be treated, self-preservation in a chaotic or dangerous environment, and a path to healthy relationships.

Common boundary issues with people abusing substances

Safety issues

Keeping yourself and any children in your care safe must always be your number one priority. Addicts can create an unsafe environment when they:

  • Drive under the influence
  • Physically hurt or assault people
  • Threaten, yell, curse, belittle
  • Destroy property
  • Bring strangers or fellow substance abusers into your home

When safety is a concern, there may be times when your best course of action is to leave the situation. And there may be times when you need to enlist additional help, such as calling a friend or 911, if someone will not respect your boundaries around safety. It’s not your responsibility if someone gets arrested or suffers negative consequences due to their behavior.

Being in the presence of someone who is drinking/using

When your loved one is drinking or using in your presence or arrives under the influence, your internal warning system probably starts to go off; you’re flooded with anxiety and stress hormones because you know that things are likely to go downhill sooner or later.

You can’t stop your loved one from drinking or using drugs, but you will need boundaries to determine your tolerance for this situation. Your boundary might be that you leave as soon as your loved one has one drink or you might feel OK as long as they’re drinking wine, but as soon as the whiskey is poured, you’re out of there.

Many people set boundaries around not engaging in arguments or discussing certain topics when their loved one is intoxicated. I also know people who choose not to serve alcohol when they host guests in their homes and ask others not to bring alcohol to gatherings at their house.

Requests for money, shelter, transportation, and favors

Because their lives are out of control, addicts and alcoholics often want help with practical things like money, shelter, and transportation. You aren’t obligated to provide any of these things to adults. Examples of boundaries could be: I’m willing to drive you to work and doctor’s appointments, but nowhere else. I don’t give or lend money ever. I am opening my own bank account. I won’t provide any assistance related to your DUI (no financial help, no rides, no reminders about court dates).

Another thing to remember about boundaries, is they don’t necessarily have to be shared with the other person. If your loved one perceives your boundaries as rules, efforts to control, or punishments, you may find your best course of action is to simply act on your boundaries. You don’t have to say, “I’m not going to help you with your DUI.” You can set this boundary yourself and follow through.

Set boundaries that meet your needs

In this article, I provided some examples of boundaries, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You will need to consider your particular situation. As you do, think about how you felt when you read the boundaries I suggested. Notice whether they felt empowering or scary. Did you feel resistant and think “I could never do that,” or “That’s heartless”?

We all have to set the boundaries that feel right for us and meet our needs. My book, The Better Boundaries Workbook, or a therapist can be a helpful guide and support in this process.

Boundaries are about choices. They help us move out of victim-mode and codependency and into empowerment. Sometimes none of the choices are what we want, but we aren’t helpless. We can choose option A or option B and that gives us strength and hope. We don’t have to put up with hurtful, dangerous, or uncomfortable situations.

©2022 Sharon Martin. All rights reserved.

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Better Boundaries Book

Learn to Set Better Boundaries

This evidence-based workbook will show you how to set healthy boundaries across all aspects of life—without sacrificing your kindness or compassion for others. You’ll learn to define your boundaries and discover why they’re so important for your emotional well-being.

Sharon Martin, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in codependency recovery with an online practice serving California residents. For the past 20 years, she’s been helping perfectionists and people-pleasers overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, learn to set boundaries, and reclaim their self-worth. Sharon writes the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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