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The Value of Setting Boundaries in Recovery

A close relationship with an addict can mean that boundaries are crossed again and again. A person suffering from addiction can develop uncharacteristic behavior that leads to volatile and unhealthy relationships with those close to them. This often involves co-dependent dynamics, where family members believe that they can prevent the addict from using again by modifying their own behavior instead of giving the addict an ultimatum.

By setting boundaries with your loved one in recovery, your relationship can transform from one-sided to a bond of mutual respect, understanding and communication. Boundaries also preserve parts of yourself you may have lost along the way in your relationship. For example, habits of self-care that may have been pushed aside and would otherwise allow you to live a normal life without the addict’s behavior influencing your actions. When boundaries are absent, we enable addicts to run many aspects of our lives and lose hope that things can change.

Many fear that by drawing boundaries or confronting problems, the addict may become more secretive and withdrawn or descend into using again. By allowing the addict’s predicted response or unpredictable behavior to dictate the terms of their relationships, the family unintentionally enables the addict. This does all parties a disservice in the long term and reinforces a toxic cycle. It’s important to remember that admitting to lacking boundaries does not equal failure on the family or spouse’s end of the relationship. Boundaries break slowly over time, when habits continue and slowly chip away at the foundation of a relationship. We’re human and want to see that the people we love are happy and healthy. But in many cases with addicts, their happiness is misleading when it is measured along with using their drug of choice or continuing bad behavior. By allowing them to run the show, we are continuing a cycle by putting a band-aid on a wound that requires stitches.

Once families acknowledge that boundaries must be built, it is highly recommended to trust in advice from professionals such as the staff at a sober living, therapists, nurses or doctors. They have experience and insight from handling many different cases. They can recognize co-dependency and unhealthy dynamics from an objective stance. Though it may be difficult to do, acting under their guidance will help you and your loved one develop a healthier relationship together.

Creating Consistent Boundaries

First it is important to determine what behavior is unacceptable. This could be anything from lying about a mysterious text to not coming home at night. It could be that they respond with unreasonable anger to small requests. Identify what is problematic or listen to what professionals tell you is unhealthy so that you can decide where lines can be drawn.

The next step is to identify consequences when those lines are crossed. Your consequences may be specific to your relationship. For example, you may decide that if your child continues to drink or use drugs, you will have to cut them off financially. You may decide that if you are lied to again by your loved one who lives at home, you will have to ask them to live elsewhere while you establish trust again.

Your boundaries may have some push-back and will not always be easy to set. Your loved one may not understand it, will try to work around it and become very upset when they realize they can’t continue to have their way. This makes it all the more crucial to follow through with consequences that must be taken. You’re setting a precedent that your relationship is not a one-way street where trust, reliance and respect are on the addict or alcoholic’s terms. Consequences will change the course of their behavior.

A fundamental for dealing with addicts and alcoholics is “detaching with love.” This means being able to do what is necessary and to take an objective approach without feeling guilty about it. Boundaries allow you to have a loving and healthy relationship with this person in your life, and by setting them you are being loving to them. The active addict’s personality differs from those who have experienced some time in sobriety and begun working the twelve steps. You will find that as time goes on, it may become easier for them to cooperate with you in a healthy relationship. Remember that by no longer enabling them, you are helping to close the open doors that can lead them off of their path.

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