8- Setting Boundaries
Setting boundaries around your addicted loved one’s behaviors is one of the most important things that you can do for the health and safety of your family. Setting boundaries lets your addicted loved one know what is expected of him and which behavior is unacceptable. Setting boundaries is not about controlling but reducing the impact of addiction on your lives. When the addict realizes there are limits to his conduct and behavior, he is more likely to come out of denial and become willing to get clean.
- What are boundaries
- Examples of boundaries
- Advantages of boundaries
What are boundaries
- Setting boundaries for your addicted loved one is about letting them know the family’s rules and limits, and what you will not allow in the home. You may resist making such demands because they seem harsh and unloving. Or you may not even be aware that you have a right to set rules and limits in your home around your addicted loved. But having boundaries is a very healthy practice for the health and safety of the family as a whole. For an addict who has fallen into the habit of acting in dangerous and irresponsible ways, being forced to respect certain rules and guidelines around the home can help him take responsibility for his condition. When he realizes his manipulations no longer work and his misbehavior is no longer tolerated, he is more likely to get a clearer picture of himself and what the drugs are doing to him and those around him. Finally confronted by his disease, he may be a step closer to taking action to get clean.
- Members of 12 Step Family Fellowships refer to setting limits and boundaries on the addict’s behavior as “tough love” – and it is love, though not the type most families of addicts are accustomed to doling. Though it may at first be difficult to believe, the demands you make on the addict are among the most caring and loving things you can do for that person. This is all very likely foreign to family members who have been in the habit of protecting and rescuing the addict – maybe for many years. But it has been demonstrated again and again in families just like yours that enabling behavior is never in the interest of the addict. So though you may think it unloving to set a boundary — and stick to it – the truth is that you are actually supporting the addict the best way you can. It is these kinds of tough love measures that can help him come out of denial about the truth of his condition.
- In setting boundaries, you are demanding that your loved one to act in a certain way, or suffer the consequences. You have to be serious about enforcing these consequences. You must be prepared to follow through. Setting up boundaries in a fit of anger, only to forget them later serves no purpose. Say, for instance, that your son is the drug addict and he stays out all night without calling home – and thereby worries you sick. You might threaten to throw her out of the house if she repeats the behavior. But before you make such a threat, consider whether you are willing to enforce it. Chances are that you are not prepared to bar your daughter from the home simply because she again stays out all night. You must decide for yourself what your boundaries are and the consequences for violating them. But if you tell the addict that you will not bail him out of jail the next time he gets arrested, be prepared to follow through. Set boundaries that are practical and that you are able to enforce.
- Years of living with the trauma of addiction may cause family members to lose any sense of their own self-worth. In households ruled by addiction, the normal constraints and rules of good behavior have long ago been forgotten. The result is that family members forget that they have any right to peace of mind or are entitled to respectful behavior from everyone in the family – including the addict. In this environment, setting boundaries – actually demanding that the addict conform to decent rules of behavior – will likely seem outlandish. But this reaction is a symptom of the extent to which living with an addict has distorted the thinking of everyone in the household. An addict in the grip of addiction acts insanely, while also spreading that insanity to those around him. Family members very regularly fall victim to the addict’s lies and manipulations. Promises are made and broken – again and again, for years. But you still believe them, in part because you think you have no choice. While trying to be helpful and understanding, you have allowed your boundaries to be repeatedly violated. The result is you have lost your own integrity and sense of self. Your life now amounts to caring for your addicted loved one, accepting whatever hardship they may throw your way. For all these reasons, to imagine setting boundaries may seem very strange. But such a step is necessary. For the good of everyone, it is time to tell the addict that you are entitled to a better life and that you are prepared to take actions to care for and protect yourself and the family.
- While insisting that the addict act more responsibly will benefit him, you need to be focused first of all on your own well-being and mental health. This is important to remember, because setting boundaries will not cure addiction, nor will boundaries allow you to control an addict. The point is that having boundaries around an addict will protect you from their misbehavior and improve the quality of your life. An example of a boundary may be asking the addict not to use drugs in front of you or in the home. By establishing the type of behavior you will not accept, you are putting the addict on notice that your life and well-being also count. Instead of being wrapped up in the addict’s madness and problems, you begin to reclaim control of your life, while regaining your sanity.
- Expect that the addict will resist any attempts to place restrictions on his behavior. The disease of addiction thrives in mayhem, for this is where it finds excuses to use more and more. But understand that you owe it to yourself to set limits on what you will accept regarding the addict’s behavior. Remember that your aim is to bring dignity back to your life, while also helping the addict face himself. You need to put thought into the boundaries you plan to set. Make sure that the addict knows what those boundaries are and why you are setting them. Explain that you are doing this for your own good — as well as theirs – and why it is important to you. In setting boundaries for the first time, don’t expect that everything will go smoothly. The disease of addiction dislikes order, and the addict is likely to test the new boundaries. When your loved one does this, it may help to remember that you are powerless over the disease of addiction The truth is you cannot force someone to change their behavior. What you can change is your attitude towards an unwelcome behavior. You no longer have to engage in the craziness that the addict creates, you no longer have to react, to get drawn in. Remember that you have your own life to live, so resist getting trapped in the chaotic world of the addict. Setting and maintaining boundaries is a practice. The steadier you maintain a boundary, the better you will feel and the greater the chance the addict will reach the point where he becomes ready to change.
- Though setting boundaries may seem harsh, why not view them as healthy measures to be taken by a sick person to get better. A person who is ill needs to follow a certain regimen, things they can and cannot do that will stem the disease and promote healing. You would encourage a loved one suffering from a heart condition to stop smoking and take their medication. You may need to set a boundary in order to encourage them in healthy activities – things that will help them get better. The same principle applies with your loved one suffering from the disease of addiction. A boundary will help them face responsibility for their disease, thus encouraging them to take action to get clean.
Examples of boundaries
- After living with an out-of-control addict, families lose sight of what a home is supposed to be. In 12 Step family programs, they say that in households ruled by addiction, the craziest person in the family sets the tone. That person is usually the addict. Family members forget that they have a right to expect decent, respectful behavior from others, including the addict. Living with the corrosive effect of drug addiction, their self-respect and integrity has eroded. As a result of misplaced love or in an attempt to protect the good name of the family, they have compromised their own lives.
- With the focus on the addict, family members never put themselves first. Constant worrying about the addict and the trouble his drug use brings on him and the family robs everyone of peace of mind. Never knowing what new crisis is just around the corner creates anxiety that makes a safe and secure family atmosphere impossible. Under these circumstances, family members too fall victim to the disease of addiction, living as slaves to its insanity. Just as the addict’s life has been taken over by addiction, so too has that of family members. It is for this reason that boundaries are necessary. Family members are powerless to control the addict’s drug use, but they can begin to work on themselves and their recovery. Setting boundaries will protect those around the addict from the corrosive effects of addiction. It is possible to live in peace regardless of whether the drug user continues with his addiction. In addition to enjoying you own lives, insisting that the addict live up to certain standards of behavior is also beneficial to him. When the addict is forced to face up to the consequences of his destructive behavior and to act responsibly in ways he is unused to, he is taking a step closer to confronting his disease.
- Below are some examples of boundaries. Remember that they may or may not be appropriate for your situation as each family must decide for itself which boundaries to set down, which ones it can follow through on:
1) No drug use allowed in the home or around family members
2) No drug paraphernalia allowed in the home
3) No drug-using friends allowed in the home
4) If the addict is arrested, the family will not bail him out and no lawyer will be paid for to defend him.
5) There will be no more sympathetic ear lent to the addict to complain and moan about the misery of his life – until he is ready to do something about it.
6) No more insults or ridicule will be allowed from the addict.
7) No more money will be given to the addict.
8) No more lying to cover up for the addict, whatever the circumstances.
9) No more depending on the addict to show up. If you make plans to for an outing, go ahead with them even if the addict fails to appear.
Advantages of boundaries
The purpose of setting boundaries is to protect and improve the quality of life for everyone in the family. Boundaries are not about threatening or controlling or manipulating the addict. They are not rigid rules or walls to cut you off from your loved one. Boundaries are about clear communication. They let the addict know – maybe for the first time in clear, simple terms — what is acceptable behavior around the home.
The advantage of having boundaries that protect you and your addicted loved one can be:
1. Establishes limits
Let the addict know what is unacceptable and unreasonable behavior around the home. This reduces the damaging effects of addiction on the family, which can then help them function more comfortably and safely.
2. Re-establishes integrity
Reestablish the self-respect and integrity of the family and helps them reclaim control of their lives.
3. Prompts responsibility
Prompts the addict to take responsibility for his disease. When finally setting limits, you are letting him know he is an adult responsible for himself. You make clear that his drug use is something he must confront when he is ready, but in the meantime he must conform to the standards of behavior you lay down.
4. Enables detachment
Enable you to detach from the disease. With boundaries, you are less likely to become enmeshed in the insanity of the disease. You keep the focus on yourself, and you avoid joining the addict on his emotional roller coaster rides. Freed from these extremes of emotions, you think more clearly and rationally – and are more effective when dealing with the problems the addict creates.
5. Reclaims proper roles
Helps each family member reclaim their life and proper place in the family. Addiction distorts family roles, turning family members into caretakers, or surrogate husbands, or scapegoats.
6. Reduces focus on addict
Helps family members retain their own values, plans and goals and not fall victim to the disease of addiction. They no longer are sacrificing their lives in focusing on the needs of the addict.
7. Sets healthy examples
Gives the addict a view of how healthy people live, which may help him realize what he is missing and give him something to aspire to.