3 phases of a boundary

Addict’s Family


9- 3 Phases of a Boundary


Setting boundaries is a process that takes time and patience. For a boundary to work effectively, it must be clearly defined and established, whilst taking into account you are asking it from someone who is suffering from the disease of addiction. What follows are suggestions on the three-step process on drawing up effective boundaries that will help restore the safety and wellbeing and safety of your family.


1- Define the boundary

2- Establish the boundary

3- Maintain the boundary


Bear in mind: Boundaries are personal to each family. It is up to each family to decide how specifically the addiction of their loved one is affecting their lives and which behavior is harming their health and safety. Below are general guidelines that have helped some of us set and maintain an effective boundary. They are not rules but means to set a loose frame and guide you in your own attempts.


3 Phases of a boundary


1- Define the boundary

Boundaries are pointless if they are not practical and well implemented. So even though the addict likely acts in many ways that distress you and the rest of the family, you cannot expect to change every aspect of his behaviour. You can lay down boundaries left and right, but remember that you are dealing with someone who’s proven himself poor on impulse control. Don’t try to turn the addict into a model citizen overnight. That’s unrealistic. The other key thing to keep in mind is to lay down only those guidelines you are willing to enforce. If you say that you are not going to telephone the job for the addict when his drug use makes him unable to get to work, then be prepared to follow through. To sum up, a boundary has to be something the addict can reasonably be expected to respect, and something the family will enforce. Then decide exactly which behaviors you find objectionable and unacceptable, the behaviors that jeopardize the safety of your family home. Keeping in mind that you can’t change the addict overnight, and also that the boundary needs to be something that you are willing to enforce, you want any boundary to be clearly defined and formulated. Under these circumstances there is a greater chance for it work in practice.


To help you define and formulate an effective boundary, below are some questions and notes for you to consider:

1) Ask yourself which behaviors by the addict cause distress or threaten the safety of you and your family – and whether a boundary might be a remedy.


2) What do you want to achieve by setting this boundary?


3) Have you thought coolly and rationally about your motives for setting this boundary? Remember that anger at the addict – or wanting to get even with him – is a poor basis on which to formulate boundaries.


4) Think about the various ways the addict behaves – how he treats you and the rest of the family, for instance. Then ask yourself whether you would accept this kind of behavior from any other member of the family. Are you treating one family member different because they are addicted?


5) Setting boundaries is not about getting the addict to stop his drug use. Any attempt to control the addict in this way is doomed to failure, even if the addict himself wants to stop. Instead, focus on the kinds of behaviors that you can reasonably expect the addict to change. So forbidding the addict to use drugs is pointless. Remember, he’s addicted. It’s your home, of course, and if the addict is your son or daughter you can throw them out. But are you ready to do that? A more manageable boundary could to forbid the use of drugs in the home, along with the presence of any drug paraphernalia.


6) Does the boundary encourage him to take responsibility for his addiction, his behavior, and the choices he makes. That, obviously, would be a good thing. For the same reason, avoid boundaries that demean the addict, or ones that amount to treating him like a child. Respecting appropriate boundaries can be very therapeutic for the addict, and will offer him the chance of acting responsibly – maybe for the first time in years.


7) Are there any risks involved in the boundary you want to set? For example, would cutting off all financial support provoke him to resort to stealing from you or others? In this case, a better boundary might be to provide for him but avoid giving him any cash.


8) Make sure your boundary is clearly defined and let the addict know at what point it is to take effect.


9) You need to be clear about the consequences for the addict should he violate a boundary. Let the addict know what you will do should he ignore a boundary. Make sure the consequences are appropriate to the offense and vary according to how badly the addict has acted. 


10) Is the boundary you want to set realistic? Remember that you are dealing with a person who has been living without rules for a long time, so don’t imagine you will transform them by setting down a multitude of rules.


11) Some boundaries may grow out of repeated misbehavior by the addict. Prior to laying down a strict boundary, you may give the addict an ultimatum regarding a specific behavior – and only afterward setting a boundary.


12) Changing the way you deal with the addict is going to be difficult emotionally. Though setting boundaries is very effective and will result in real peace of mind for the family, this new way of doing things is likely to provoke painful feelings. After years of enabling the addict, rescuing him, lying for him, covering up for him, you may experience “withdrawals” when you start to let go of the addict and his addiction. There is something addictive about enabling behavior. But now you are letting go of that behavior and letting go of the addict and the addiction. You no longer are going to be enmeshed with the addict – with his feelings, his troubles, his crises. You may find yourself experiencing an “emotional grieving” process when you confront your powerlessness over the disease of addiction. Because setting boundaries is such a foreign concept for those of us in families with addiction, it is a great help to seek support from people in similar circumstances. This support can be found in abundance in 12 Step Family Fellowships. In the meetings of these Fellowships you will learn from others what they have gained by setting boundaries and how they have learned to enjoy life despite the trial of living with an active addict. There are many tools in the program of recovery to be found in these Fellowships, and you can learn about them all simply by attending meetings.


13) Just as you have resisted changing how you deal with the addict, so too will the addict resist any change in the way things have been done. Prepare yourself for the excuses, justifications and promises they may throw your way. Remind yourself of what has happened in the past when you have given in to their pleadings. Ask yourself, did it stop their bad behavior? Remind yourself of the facts of your life, how their behavior is hurting you and your family – and then follow through on your resolve to set boundaries.


14) Remind yourself that you and your family deserve to lead a healthy life, not one ruled by your addicted loved one’s chaotic behavior or by his insane addiction. Never forget that you are entitled to respect and a decent quality of life – and that setting boundaries is a key way to preserve your integrity.


15) Above all, don’t blame yourself for your loved one’s addiction. Remember that when it comes to addiction, you can’t cause it, control it, or cure it. The fact is that no one is to blame for this disease. Unwarranted guilt about poor parenting serves no useful purpose in you formulating a healthy and effective boundary.



2- Establish the boundary

Having defined the boundary, the next step is to put it into action. The first step in doing this is to talk it over with the rest of the family. The point is that everyone has to be clear about the boundary and in general agreement that it is reasonable. Make sure everyone is in agreement and will enforce it around the addict. For example if the boundary is not to give any cash to the addict anymore, then make sure all family members are aware of this. For someone else in the family to give the addict money is bound to create confusion and resentment for the rest, while undermining why the boundary was set in the first place. In addition, this will prevent a situation where the addict may manipulate family members who are unclear of the exact nature of the boundary. Once as a family you are all in accord as to why and how you want to set a boundary, then its time to talk it over with your addicted loved one.


Below are some suggestions on how to negotiate and establish a boundary with an addict:

  1. Remember that negotiation involves two people, so listen to the concerns of the addict and allow him to be part of the negotiation. Listen even to his justifications or defenses, even though they may sound like the same tired excuses.
  2. Be open and honest regarding why you want to set this boundary — why you say a particular behaviour is unacceptable and the harm it does
  3. Be cool and calm. Anger and recrimination have no place in the discussion of setting boundaries, which are not about setting scores or putting someone in his place. Talk about your feelings, how a behaviour by the addict hurts you, for instance. Establishing a boundary is not about rehashing old hurts and grievances. It is about dealing with the reality of here and now and why a certain behavior will no longer be tolerated.
  4. Admit your own faults. For example, if his drug use has led you to verbally abuse him, take responsibility for your anger
  5. Address the addict as an adult and not a child. Don’t judge the addict, but instead treat him as someone suffering from a chronic disease who is responsible for his own recovery
  6. Do not fall into the trap of getting into a fight or argument. The addict is bound to resist you demanding a boundary and starting a fight is one way he will try to sidetrack you. Instead try to keep a cool head and focus on why you started this negotiation in the first place.
  7. Be forthright about asking for what you want, but do not demand, plead or beg.
  8. After you have stated your position to the addict, double check that you have been understood. Don’t assume he has automatically agreed, but make sure he understands what you require of him regarding his behavior.
  9. Remember that you have a right to ask for respect and your home deserves safety and protection. So if the addict refuses outright to abide by your requests, you may have to rethink whether you can both share the same roof. At the same time, be willing to make reasonable compromises in order to reach an agreement.  Do not be obstinate in your demands, making it “my way or freeway”
  10. Agree on the terms of the boundary – such as when it will start and the consequences of the boundary being broken. You may want to ask him what consequence he thinks will be appropriate


If negotiation does not work and your addicted loved one refuses to accept a boundary, then you can:

  1. Restate in personal tones why you want to establish a boundary, making it clear that it is not a punishment. Your aim is to improve your own life, to win a measure of peace of mind.
  2. If the addict absolutely refuses to cooperate in setting up a boundary, you may have to impose it without negotiating with him. You can let him know either verbally or via a letter that this specific conduct is no longer acceptable and that if he continues to engage in it there will be consequences.



3- Maintain the boundary

  • Staying with a boundary – especially when you are first setting it – will be the most difficult part of the process.  Addicts naturally resist any discipline. In 12 Step Fellowships, they say that defiance is the most significant characteristic of the addict. In other words, they don’t like to be told what to do. On top of this, the disease of addiction thrives in chaos and mayhem, and boundaries by nature ask for order and equilibrium, which are threatening to the addict. They will react to anything that may jeopardize their continued drug use. So count on it, they will very likely test your willingness to maintain a boundary. You need to have firmness in your resolve to keep your boundary to not allow the manipulations or demands of the addict to wear you down.
  • As noted previously, setting and maintaining boundaries is a process, not something you do once and for all. Boundaries need to be reaffirmed over time. In fact, it’s very likely that you will see your boundaries violated, and you won’t react properly. But don’t let this setback keep you from resetting the boundary. You are learning a new way of relating to the addict, so it’s natural that you will make mistakes along the way. But as family members you can learn to stand firm in your conviction to carry out your boundary. You are not trying to change the addict; you are trying to change yourself. The addict has his own life to live, his own decisions to make. But your life is in your hands. A boundary is about your recovery and your family’s safety and protection. It is about you taking control of your lives, and recovering from the trauma of living with addiction. You have set boundaries in order to gain back your self-respect and integrity. As you gain back that self-respect, maintaining boundaries will seem more natural. After all, what you are asking for is simply decent treatment and freedom from constant anxiety. Maintaining a boundary equates with how much you value yourself. Though you are living with an active addict, you are no longer going to allow the disease of addiction to ruin your family life. Of course, respecting boundaries will benefit the addict too by making him take responsibility that he is not in the habit of taking. It may even take him to the point of confronting his disease. If it does, that’s wonderful, but it’s also secondary to your reasons for setting boundaries.
  • In formulating, establishing and maintaining boundaries, family members need as much support as possible. These are new behaviors you are trying to establish around someone whose thinking has become distorted by the disease of addiction. Working the 12 Steps of family support groups is the most effective way to recover from the effects of the disease of addiction on your lives. This is where you will be able to gain the strength and clarity necessary to deal with the destructive behavior of your addicted loved one. It is through the support you derive from these Fellowships that you will be able to summon up the courage and resolve to set boundaries and take steps to reclaim your lives.

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