Friday April 18th 2014

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

Leave a Reply

3 Responses to “How to set boundaries with an alcoholic or addict
Jasmine Zuner
7:48 am June 6th, 2012

I will have to print out this list. Just recently I read the article Are You Addicted to the Internet? and I suddenly realized that my son is probably addicted on the internet. Of course, it cannot be compared with your situation, but I feel that something needs to be done about this. So keep your finger crossed…

Eric
6:30 pm April 15th, 2013

A good way to learn and set boundaries with alcoholics and drug addicts is to have them move into a sober living home or attend meetings. Here you can really find out the dynamics of how addicts and alcoholics work.

Andrea
5:47 am May 9th, 2013

Tell me…when one disrespects every boundary including others and taking action doesn’t make any dent, what then? My husband became abusive. I not only threatened to leave, but issued a protective order. I was the one to pay the consequences not him!!! Social services swept in and took our kids, left me without a vehicle, a place to live…while my husband received benefits and got our kids. Now they see after all the psych Evals and reports that my actions were dire and though drastic, nessecary. We worked on our relationship and just as I felt we were becoming a happy family again, he sabotaged it with drug addiction again. He respects no ones boundaries. I have lived through his imprisonments and addictions on and off for 20 years. I’m obviously scared to death that if I leave and take the kids again that the same crap will happen. He has depleted all our money, has no job, made sure I didn’t have one at that…another story., and now I couldn’t leave if I needed to because there is nothing to leave with. We will be kicked out of our home because the rent isn’t paid and have nowhere to go. It’s one thing to say stick to your boundaries, but when your boundaries aren’t respected even with action, what then?

About Lisa Espich

Lisa Espich is the author of the multi award-winning book, Soaring Above Co-Addiction: Helping your loved one get clean, while creating the life of your dreams. For additional articles, resources, and a free preview chapter of Soaring Above Co-Addiction visit her website. Her book is available at bookstores everywhere and at Twin Feather Publishing.