If youre in a relationship with an alcoholic or addict whether its your spouse, parent, child, or friend youll find that setting boundaries is an essential component of self-preservation. Without boundaries, youre likely to be consumed by the needs of the alcoholic or addict. Addicts dont have boundaries; they take and take, often with little regard for the needs of others. Therefore, you are the one who needs to make and enforce boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Often, in dysfunctional or codependent families, people dont develop a strong sense of themselves as confident, independent people. Instead, they let others dictate their identity, emotional state, and self-worth. A boundary is a necessary and healthy dividing line between two people; it reflects that you are a separate person with your own physical and emotional needs.

Healthy boundariescreate a framework that lets people know how to treat you. The clear expectations created by boundaries help form respectful, mutual relationships. Without boundaries, we risk being mistreated and enmeshed (not functioning as completely separate people and being overly involved in other people lives).

How to set boundaries

It is challenging to start setting boundaries with people when theres been a lack of boundaries in the past. The first step is to be clear about what boundaries you need. I suggest writing down your boundaries and the reasons for setting them. Writing can help you gain clarity and reinforce your boundaries. Having a list is also helpful to reference when youre wavering or struggling to enforce your boundaries. You might start by making a list of behaviors that you consider unacceptable (such as driving your children while intoxicated, stealing, embarrassing you, calling you names, pressuring you to have sex, spending the rent money on drugs, etc.) and use that list to establish the boundaries that you need.

When setting and enforcing boundaries try to remain calm and concise. Stick to the facts without overexplaining, blaming, or becoming defensive. For example, its more effective to say Im going to go home now. I dont like to be around you when youre drinking, than to lose your temper and say I cant believe youre drinking again! Every time I come over its the same thing. Im not going to take it anymore! You can see how the latter is more likely to instigate an argument.

Its important to remember that boundaries arent about trying to control someone or make them change. Boundaries are about establishing how you want to be treated, self-preservation in a chaotic or dangerous environment, and a path to healthy relationships.

Common boundary issues with alcoholics and addicts

1. Safety issues

Keeping yourself and any children in your care safe must always be your number one priority. Addicts can create an unsafe environment when they:

  • Physically hurt or assault people
  • Threaten, yell, curse, belittle
  • Destroy property
  • Drive under the influence
  • Fail to supervise children in their care or leave drugs where children can get them
  • Bring strangers or fellow substance abusers into your home

When safety is a concern, there may be times when your best course of action is to leave the situation. And there may be times when you need to enlist additional help, such as calling a friend or 911, if someone will not respect your boundaries around safety. Its not your responsibility if someone gets arrested or suffers negative consequences due to their behavior.

2. Being in the presence of someone who is drinking/using

When your loved one is drinking or using in your presence or arrives under the influence, your internal warning system probably starts to go off; youre flooded with anxiety and stress hormones because you know that things are likely to go downhill sooner or later.

You cant stop your loved one from drinking or using drugs, but you will need boundaries to determine your tolerance for this situation. Your boundary might be that you leave as soon as your loved one has one drink or you might feel OK as long as theyre drinking wine, but as soon as the of whiskey is poured, youre out of there. Many people set boundaries around not engaging in arguments or discussing certain topics when their loved one is intoxicated. I also know people who choose not to serve alcohol when they host guests in their home and ask others not to bring alcohol to gatherings at their house.

3. Requests for money, shelter, transportation, and favors

Because their lives are out of control, addicts and alcoholics often want help with practical things like money, shelter, and transportation. You arent obligated to provide any of these things to adults. Examples of boundaries could be: Im willing to drive you to work and doctors appointments, but nowhere else. I dont give or lend money ever. I am opening my own bank account. I wont provide any assistance related to your DUI (no financial help, no rides, no reminders about court dates).

Another thing to remember about boundaries, is they dont necessarily have to be shared with the other person. If your loved one perceives your boundaries as rules, efforts to control, or punishments, you may find your best course of action is to simply act on your boundaries. You dont have to say, Im not going to help you with your DUI. You can simply set this boundary yourself and follow through.

Setting your own boundaries

In this article, I provided some examples of boundaries, but there isnt a one-size-fits-all solution. You will need to consider your particular situation. As you do, think about how you felt when you read the boundaries I suggested. Notice whether they felt empowering or scary. Did you feel resistant and think I could never do that, or Thats heartless? We all have to set the boundaries that feel right for us. A therapist can be a helpful guide and support in this process.

Boundaries are about choices. They help us move out of victim-mode and codependency and into empowerment. Sometimes none of the choices are what we want, but we arent helpless. We can choose option A or option B and that gives us strength and hope. We dont have to put up with hurtful or uncomfortable situations.


2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net