Setting Healthy Boundaries with an Addict
If your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they will make life harder for you. Addiction changes who people are, how they act, and what their priorities are. Your loved one is experiencing a chemical change in their brain, which reduces the efficacy of the reward circuit in the brain because the brain literally doesn’t produce enough serotonin and dopamine in response to positive social engagement. Additionally, they experience dramatic shifts in personality, including reductions in self-esteem, reduced ability to empathize, and emotional blunting, where you literally feel less emotion. You cannot deal with your loved one as a healthy and rational person, because they are not.
That means setting boundaries becomes more important than it is in a normal and healthy relationship. Boundaries are there to protect you from your loved one, because they will abuse you, even without realizing it. These boundaries should define what you are comfortable with, how you expect to be treated, and how you expect your loved one to behave in terms of your and their mental health.
Commit To Your Boundaries
Once you set a boundary, it’s important to commit. Create consequences for breaching those boundaries. And, follow up on them. If your loved one can break boundaries with impunity, they will do so. An addict does not behave rationally, and they often have little control over those actions. This means:
- Only set boundaries you are willing to enforce
- Create commensurate consequences for breaking boundaries and follow up
- Be consistent in following up
What might this look like? If you say that a boundary is “Do not do drugs in this house”, and your loved one uses drugs in the house anyway, you might call the police (most people are unwilling to do that to their loved ones). You might also go stay in a hotel or with a friend or parent. Or you might ask them to move out. Your consequences should depend on the severity of the boundary being breached. E.g.,
- “I will not wait up for you if you are late” – If you don’t come home on time/show up on time I will leave without you/eat dinner without you/go to bed without you
- “I am unable to tolerate you getting blackout drunk in the house” – If you do so more than three times after these boundaries are set, I will move out
- “I am uncomfortable with you bringing friends into the house” – I will move out
- “I need you to continue to contribute to your share of rent/mortgage/chores/etc.” – If you do not, I will ask you to move out or move out myself
- “I will not tolerate you stealing and pawning or selling my things” – If you do, I will report them stollen to the police
- “I will not tolerate you lying or attempting to manipulate me” – If you do, the answer is no, no matter what it is
These boundaries as stated are difficult and depend on you being in a position of privilege to move out. They require you not relying financially on your loved one – although moving to a shelter may be an option, it’s not always a good idea. Set boundaries that work for you, your financial and economic conditions, and your options.
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Get Your Questions Answered
Discuss Boundaries and What They Mean, Upfront
Your loved one still cares about you. They may even guilt or shame themselves for how they treat you. While you should never resort to guilting and shaming them (getting into recovery often relies on having a social network and support from loved ones, not the opposite), it is a good idea to discuss why you are setting boundaries. Engaging in open communication might seem fruitless, especially if your loved one reacts badly. However, they will still remember that you communicated that, and they will still get to think it over and that may help them into detox, and then onto inpatient treatment.
- “I feel unsafe when you get blackout drunk, I would like to feel safe in my own home”
- “I cannot live with you if you don’t carry Naloxone, I cannot live with constantly worrying if you will have an overdose”
- “Losing my things is traumatic, I don’t want to experience trauma at the hands of someone I care about “
- “I am unable to cope with your responsibilities as well as my own, I need you to do your part, or I have to step out of the situation”
- “I am stressed by my day and work and spending more time stressing waiting for you is too much for me to deal with”
This kind of rationalization should never be about blame. Blame might result in anger, confrontation, and, in some cases, violence. Plus, it does little to build trust and to set a healthy boundary. Instead, it should be about sharing how you feel and being about your experiences. “I feel”, “I experience”, “my interpretation of”, etc., are all good phrases to communicate this. Similarly, you want to avoid phrases like, “You make me”, “You are”, and other accusative case statements wherever possible.
Refusing to Accept Blame
Whether you’re trying to take responsibility for their addiction, for their mental health, or for their treatment, it’s important to remember that there is no blame. Substance use disorders are a mental health disorder with roots in chemical dependence and behavioral addiction. Addiction is caused by a variety of factors including exposure, stress, and genetic and economic vulnerabilities. But, you can’t blame someone for them occurring. Your loved one made choices that resulted in them having a disorder – it is not your responsibility to fix them, not your responsibility for them being that way, and not your responsibility to care for them until they get better.
It is your responsibility to care for yourself, and if you have children, for them. If your loved one tries to blame you for that, or for breaking any boundary, remember they are trying to manipulate you, even if unintentionally. It’s easy to feel guilty for not helping your loved one. That remains true whether they are living with you or asking for rent money before they lose their house. Refusing to accept blame means not only sticking to your boundaries but also to refusing to accept the guilt you will (likely) feel as legitimate.
If your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, you cannot treat them like the same person they were. However, you can treat them respectfully, nonjudgmentally, and with love. You can offer support and offer help to get into treatment. And, you can be there for them until they are ready to go into treatment. In the meantime, make sure you take care of yourself, manage your boundaries, and make sure that your loved one’s disorder is not taking priority in your life.