How to set boundaries with an alcoholic or addict
What happens when you don’t have boundaries
Throughout the first sixteen years of my marriage my husband, Dean, struggled with his addiction to alcohol, prescription pain pills, and crack cocaine. As his addiction continued to get worse, my ability to set healthy boundaries failed. This didn’t happen overnight – it was a gradual process that eventually left me feeling powerless. And I had a hard time trying to stop being codependent.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was a confident young woman. Unfortunately, I had failed to recognize the signs of Dean’s addiction until we were married and I was pregnant with our son. As Dean began to take on addictive behaviors, I attempted to ‘lay down the law’. I would make threats to leave if he didn’t change his ways – and he would make empty promises that helped me feel better in the moment.
Each time I allowed Dean to pass a boundary – rather than standing my ground – I would allow my boundary to get pushed further. I was stuck in a cycle of making threats even when I knew I didn’t have the courage to follow through. Dean quickly learned that my boundaries didn’t really exist, and, as a result, my self-esteem was slowly chipped away. But codependency addiction recovery is possible when you learn to set healthy boundaries. But what are boundaries?
What is a boundary?
A boundary is your own limit – an invisible line that you will not allow others to cross. If it is crossed, you take action in order to protect your boundary. For example: you may have a boundary that you will not allow others to put you down. If somebody crosses that boundary, you respond by letting them know you will not tolerate being put down, and then you get up and leave the room.
In my own experience, I attempted to set many boundaries, but my failure came at taking action when those boundaries were crossed. Until I could find the courage needed to stand by my words, I would continue to have others take advantage and disrespect my boundaries.
What do you do when people do not respect your boundaries?
1. Respect you own boundaries. If people are not respecting your boundaries, it is because you are allowing it. In my relationship I told my husband over and over again what actions I would take if he crossed my boundaries. But over and over again, I failed to follow through. I was teaching him to disrespect my boundaries, because I did not respect them myself.
2. Don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to follow through on. Many times I threatened divorce, threatened to leave, threatened to call the police, but I never made good on those threats. I knew in my gut, even when making those statements, that I wasn’t really going to follow though — I just wanted to scare my husband into believing it. It didn’t take him long to figure out my game. I had to learn to stop making those threats unless I was prepared to keep my word.
3. Work on building up your self-esteem. The courage needed to protect your own boundaries comes from a healthy self-esteem. So how do you build up your self-esteem? This was my biggest challenge. My plan included exercise, journaling, meditation and visualization. As I began to turn my focus inward, I grew more and more confident. Eventually, I was able to stand by my boundaries, and Dean slowly learned that he could no longer disrespect the boundaries I set.
4. Reach out for help. Turn to the people who care about you. Remember that you don’t have to do this on your own. When you’re lacking strength you can borrow it. Pick up the phone and reach out to a friend. Join a family recovery group such as Al-Anon. There you can find a sponsor to help give you the courage needed to stand by your boundaries.
By learning to set healthy boundaries – and stand by them – positive changes began to happen in my marriage. My husband noticed the changes, and I sensed a new found respect from him. He grew receptive to accepting help, and eventually admitted himself into treatment. He became open to honesty in drug recovery, a parallel path to my own recovery from codependency. He has now been clean for over six years, and we are enjoying a healthy marriage. Learning to stand by my boundaries was the first step toward healing in our marriage.
Photo credit: Koen Cobbaert