How to set boundaries with an alcoholic or addict

Learning to set and stand by your boundaries is the first step in starting a healthhy relationships with an alcoholic or addict. What else can you do? More here.

minute read

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.

About the author
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.


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  1. I’m in a relationship with my fiance for 3an half years he is an alcohol and addicts he takes off for days at a time does not call or answer his phone or text s and when he does come home he says I was doing coke why should I call u know what I’m doing what can I do this time as we speak he has not been home for 3days in feel very angry

  2. My husband had an emotionally incestuous relatiohship with his mother.
    He put me in two situations that threatened my livlihood.
    He was controlling and immature.
    I finally found the cocaine and confronted him.
    I had been going to counseling and knew I was not crazy, but I felt crazy.
    I told him I would support him if he chose to get help.
    I left the marriage and chose not to bring children into this situation.

  3. Great article, and thank you for sharing your experience. It’s worth remembering that my boundary doesn’t make it their boundary. So, setting a boundary for myself AND requiring them to attend treatment tends not to work. It’s their addiction, not mine. There are consequences to that “choice” which is what boundaries are about.

    It is amazing how deep the insidious roots of addiction reach, and I’ve only recently become aware of how my spouse’s addiction have so deeply infected our lives for so many years.

  4. How do you set boundaries when your husband smokes crack right in front of you. I Love him and I tell myself that he doesn’t do it all the time. Maybe two or three times a week. I didn’t know he did drugs because he hid it from me. Now he is so comfortable that he does it right in our home and when I say its disrespectful he says I am crazy and he is an adult. He says we are both adults and I shouldn’t let it bother me. I have tried counseling and he says that there is nothing wrong with him. My husband would rather die than let the world know he has a problem. He is so worried about his self image because his family is well known in the community. The thing is he will call someone a crackhead in a heartbeat. Because we have a nice home and car he doesn’t see himself like the other addicts. I want to leave so bad and I did for a couple of months but made the big mistake of coming back. Now the way to get a reaction is to leave for good. Am I right?

    1. Hi TM. It’s obvious you guys need professional help. Your husband can learn how to beat addiction, and you can find out how to support him efficiently. Addiction counselors or psychologists can help you both, in group and individual sessions. Even if he doesn’t accept help, you need to be able to cope with the situation in the best possible manner.

  5. ME

    Let Go! Detach!

    I was happy to find your articles tonight. My husband is addicted to cocaine and likely alcohol which he over-consumes and hides when on coke. I first discovered hidden alcohol bottles in his basement office which is in our home so I thought drinking was the issue. I later discovered that he had been using cocaine, and had spent tens of thousands of dollars on it from his business account, for many years. He has a stressful job and started using it to focus. Now he struggles with long periods of concentration without it.

    I have been getting educated about addiction and have been to Alanon meetings but am realizing I have fallen into the codependency trap after a recent relapse. I absolutely need to be stronger about setting boundaries and consequences. I can’t use the leaving threat anymore because my priority is to not hurt my kids. But I can’t come up with other consequences that he would have an impact. Just yesterday, I argued with him about working in the basement office again which he agreed to move during our last cycle of recovery. It’s where all the past triggers are and is a bad place for him to be. He came up last night very late and slurring his words. Obviously when he mentions he’s going to work there it causes my bad behaviors to kick in high gear – watchful, nagging, worried. So if I say ‘you’re not allowed to work in the basement’ then what?? Or ‘you can’t use cocaine in our house’ then what?? Can you give me some suggestions on things you were able to follow through with when boundaries were crossed short of leaving him or kicking him out? Thank you!

  6. Marie
    You have taken the next step. I’m not as brave as u yet. I’ve been up to my neck in . I’m sorry from my husband and his addiction to meth and rock cocaine over 25 yrs. You need to know yr husband is fine they want you and me to worry with guilt,wondering if they have eatten or worse but we are not to worry that comes from the enemy. We keep on praying and know they arr in GOD’S hands. And we give it all to him he will take care and provide. Remember yr husband is 2 nd but the Lord is first. Women s prayers are powerful. Take yr eye’s off yr husband and put them om jesus. You will have peace. Take care and yr loved ones. I dont know how long yrs has been on drugs but dont get sucked into his mad ness. Y ou will never be the same . Send a bit more info. Set those boundaries. Go forward . Never give
    up. Pamela

  7. Lord give me strength y’all I’ve just separated from my husband due to his addiction and I’m learning how to cope its so hard because I don’t know what to do besides cry and pray that he’s OK please give me some advise

  8. Jenn, I’m right in the middle of this mess! What has been good about this mess is this: it felt great standing up for myself. I chose to jump off the crazy train and invited him to jump with me by entering treatment, I told my husband that I love him so much I am working to make myself the best version of me for our marriage, and, I said I hoped he’d choose changing his life for the better, but I had to change my own life regardless of his choices! I packed up our two kids and myself and left while giving him time and space to focus, but really giving myself the time and freedom to feel. Once you take these steps, it feels good, it’s hard, but empowering. Be in control of your life. Make changes in your life. Don’t worry about divorce or not, just choose happy and healthy for YOU, you deserve that. YOU DESERVE TO BE HAPPY! My husband is halfway through his treatment program. I’m scared of the future, but proud of my own power. God wants you to be happy. Ask him to whisper direction and strength into your heart. Praying for you!

  9. MY friend Jenn it won’t be easy. You need to stand up not just for you but your children. You need to have a support group. There will be many boulders to climb. My husband is struggling with the affects of anger very strongly and trying to get me to get mad and start arguing so he can leave . With the support group theycan help set boundaries for you and him. I still struggle with him to this day. But I have to be tough and so do u . Get involved with church and watch, and pray see what happens. Pamela

  10. My friend Jenn, I know now that there is that light at the end of the long tunnel. Get someone to talk with him anothet male that has gone thru what he is. Go to counseling as a couple first and get a close family to help with yr kids and most important get help for u , our men when they are in this evil state of mind tht care who they step on to get that drug

  11. I’m glad I came across your article as I have also been dealing with my husbands addictions for 18 years now. Now it’s worse than ever as he just recently was laid off, he started to steal from me and our kids, pawning our belongings, and taking off with the only car we have. I also was consumed in his every move, where is he? Who is he with? Is he dead? Did he crash? He would never answer my calls but like a dummie here I was at the house juggling bills around to make ends meet, taking care of all the kids and the family responsibilities. Now I’m not sure how to prepare myself for a step to help him recover. He has a drug, alcohol and gambling addiction. I’m trying to make a plan because I do want to be here to bring him back to the man and father he once was. I’m not sure what kind of boundaries are realistic to set and also I wish you would have written some examples of these boundaries. I never asked for this to happen to me and constantly told my spouse I didn’t sign up for this! But I feel like I want to help him beat these addictions and help our family all together! We all deserve help one way or another and giving up on the person you love is not part of my plan. What steps can be suggested for a smooth road to recovery?

  12. I am a few yrs older than my husband Joe. We meet at my work and he showed up and i fell in love with him. I knew he was the man i was gona spend the rest of my life with. We only knew each other 3 months and then we were married. Afterwards was something i was not prepared for. I saw something that was straight from hell and i really didnt know what to say i was in shock. I tried to get away. I just kept asking why me im a good person or at least i thought i was i was drawn into it like nothing before i was with him and the drugs and i never used drugs . I was going down with him every thing i had everything i had was taken from me , joe just didnt care . Shortly after we were in a hotel,hotels and joe had taken a belt put it around his neck and i had left, was running away and the lord spoke to me to back and said go back he needs you i did and i saved him from the ungly ness that would of ended his life. We have been out in the streets,shot at with nothing any more only the clothes on ourback to this day we are still together struggling we have been married 12 yrs and yes dealing with adultery affairs because of the drugs and the darkness that is over him and me being the light. The two do not mix. And people ask me why Pamela are you still with this man. Its because we are to forgive even those who treat us the worst and cause so much,much pain. So I can share with u just a little of what happened and let you know never give up on that person. There is hope. There is love and we need to love that person unconditionally. Remember LOVE. Pamela

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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…

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