Setting boundaries can be difficult, but it’s sometimes the only way to preserve a relationship with someone dealing with substance use disorder.

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It can be easy for your own mental health to take a backseat when you love and support someone with substance use disorder.

Substance use disorder doesn’t just affect the person living with it. It can have a ripple effect on everyone in their inner circle, including:

  • family
  • friends
  • co-workers

Community is an important part of recovery. Showing compassion and support to someone dealing with substance use disorder is completely appropriate. But sometimes, people may find themselves trying to force a positive change on their loved ones.

Ultimately, treatment and recovery is an individual decision. There are times when the healthiest choice might be to lovingly detach rather than to try to control someone’s behavior.

When it comes to substance use disorder, detachment may involve setting clear boundaries and ceasing to take responsibility for someone else’s behavior.

Family and friends can easily be drawn into damaging patterns cause by enabling behavior. They may try to:

  • fix the person
  • cover for them
  • drop everything to rescue them when there’s a crisis

It’s understandable to want to do everything you can to help someone you love. But ultimately, enabling is not helpful to either party.

Enabling a loved one with substance use disorder instead of supporting them in healthy ways might result in:

  • self-destructive behavior in the person with substance use disorder
  • disempowerment of both parties
  • a codependent dynamic that could damage the relationship
  • feeling drained

Detaching with love can be more supportive than enabling, because it allows the person with substance use disorder to experience the consequences of their actions.

This doesn’t mean you stop caring or that you cut off contact. In fact, detaching can sometimes be the best way to preserve the relationship.

The ways you choose to detach might depend on the specifics of your situation and relationship with the person. It may be helpful to start by reflecting on which behaviors or parts of your relationship you’d like to see changed.

Clearly communicating your decision to your loved one can help them understand your boundaries. For example, if you frequently find yourself bailing the other person out, you can calmly let them know that you can no longer do this.

You may also consider offering alternatives or solutions. If you often feel drained by constant contact or talking about their issues excessively, you might gently suggest they find a therapist or counselor.

Avoid enabling — even in dire straits

Substance use disorder may sometimes impact a person to the point of risking their job or housing. It may feel impossible to refuse to help a loved one in this situation.

Though challenging, sticking to your boundaries can be important in these tough circumstances. It’s also critical to try not to lie or make excuses for their behavior. Shielding them from the consequences of their actions could be harmful in the long run.

Disengage when they’re using

Witnessing your loved one using substances can be very upsetting and stressful. Putting up with discomfort might sometimes feel easier than risking a possible confrontation.

But in doing so, you may be putting their needs ahead of your own. This may set a precedent for creating an environment where their negative behavior can continue to go on unchecked.

You can honor yourself and your boundaries by disengaging from your loved one when they are using. This could mean physically leaving the environment where they are using or refusing to take calls or texts when they’re under the influence.

Don’t ignore dangerous behavior

One possible effect of substance use disorder might be using substances in unsafe situations. Driving while under the influence or using syringes that aren’t sterile are two examples.

It’s common for people with substance use disorder to dismiss the risks. You don’t have to go along with this or ignore the behavior to keep the peace. Calmly tell them that what they’re doing is not OK, and disengage.

If your loved one is acting recklessly and putting themselves or others in danger, you may need to call 911 or involve a crisis intervention.

Crisis intervention resources

If you feel you’re having a mental health emergency and need to speak with someone immediately, you can:

If you decide to call an emergency number like 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health, like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers.

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Prioritize your own needs

Substance use disorders can be all-consuming, both for the person experiencing it and for those around them.

It may be all too easy to push your own needs and well-being onto the back burner, perhaps because they feel less dramatic or pressing in comparison.

But one of the most important steps in healthy detachment can be unapologetically putting your own safety and health first.

Encourage treatment

Trying to fill the role of a counselor can be depleting. Instead, you may suggest that they seek professional help.

Even if they’ve been reluctant to see a therapist in the past, the realization that you are detaching may be enough for them to reconsider. All you can do is provide information and hope that they choose to use it.

You cannot save or ‘fix’ them

It’s natural to hope that with the right combination of words and actions, you can convince your loved one to change. Or that if you save them enough times, they’ll learn how to save themselves.

Letting go of the need to be their savior may involve a grieving process, and it may be a good idea to seek support.

Entering a support group

Focusing on your own healing can be helpful for detaching. Loving someone with substance use disorder can be traumatic. It can be easy to get so caught up in helping them that you discount your own pain in the process.

There are numerous support groups dedicated to loved ones of those with substance use disorder, such as Al-Anon. These support groups can offer specific guidance and advice on detaching with love.

There are many reasons why you may feel it’s necessary to detach from someone with substance use disorder. Identifying your reasons can help you to move through the process in a thoughtful way.

If your own mental health is suffering, that can be a red flag. Taking care of someone with substance use disorder can deplete your energy and emotional resources, which may become untenable.

In some cases, substance use may even make a person unsafe to be around. In other cases, you may simply feel that your involvement is doing more harm than good.

Even with the best of intentions, supporting someone with substance use disorder can easily blur into enabling. When you enable someone, you shield them from the natural consequences of their behavior, which can remove a potentially powerful incentive for change.

As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. In other words, if you don’t take care of yourself, you may not be able to take care of those around you, either.

Detaching can be painful and deeply challenging, and may go against your natural instincts. But it can also be essential for your mental health.

By taking responsibility for someone else’s substance use, you might be forcing yourself into a constant state of worrying about something that is outside your control. By taking a step back and surrendering that responsibility, you can let go of displaced anxiety.

Setting boundaries can be an expression of self-esteem and a way to ensure that you’re being emotionally taken care of in your relationships.

By identifying behaviors and patterns that aren’t serving you, and taking steps to detach from them, you’re filling your own cup.

It’s natural to feel conflicted, sad, or even guilty about the decision to detach from a loved one with substance use disorder.

Try to remember that you’re not abandoning the person — you’re empowering them to take responsibility for their actions. In doing so, you can clear the way for a healthier relationship with them in the future.

Getting help

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