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What Are Boundaries? Setting Boundaries with an Alcoholic or Addict

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what are boundaries

Boundaries are rules that we set with other people. These rules govern what they can and cannot do to or with us, but they also describe the consequences of what will happen if those boundaries are crossed.

Setting boundaries is healthy, and for most people, this is just sort of done naturally. They’re happy to tell you what’s okay and what’s not okay with them.

what are boundaries

When you meet someone who has no boundaries–they’re basically okay with you doing whatever you want whenever you want–that’s generally a sign that this person has some serious issues.

With an alcoholic or an addict, setting boundaries is critical because it keeps you from enabling them and allowing their behavior to worsen. And even if your boundaries have no effect on the alcoholic/addict, they’re not really there for them–they’re there to keep you sane.

The reason we need boundaries in any relationship is to keep ourselves okay. For example, you might say to a coworker, “I’m okay with you texting me on my cell during working hours, but it’s not okay after 6pm.” If the coworker ignores this boundary, you might enact a consequence, like going to the boss to report the behavior or telling the coworker they’re no longer allowed to text you period.

With an alcoholic/addict, boundaries are going to look tougher, and the consequences more severe. For example, you might say, “Drinking in the house is not allowed. If you drink in the house, you’re out.”

Setting boundaries can be hard enough, especially with an alcoholic/addict who is manipulative. You might find this difficult, if not impossible.

If that’s the case, you might need al-anon or CoDA (codependents anonymous).

If you have no problem setting the boundary, then how do you set it? How do you decide what the boundary is and what the consequences are?

Consider What You Need First

This is more important than thinking about what the alcoholic needs (at first).

Boundaries are for you. The goal is to find a way to interact with the alcoholic/addict (or not interact) in a way that allows you to feel comfortable and like you’re doing the right thing.

Here are some examples:

  • You cannot come to my house if you’re not sober. If you do, I won’t talk to you for a week
  • If you want to live in this house, you have to take a random drug test once a week, and you have to let me search your room randomly too. If you can’t agree to that, you can’t live in this house
  • The only financial support you’ll receive from me goes directly toward your bills and your sober living facility. You do not get any money from me–if you want cash to buy cigarettes or energy drinks, you need to earn money on your own for that
  • You cannot call me or come to this house until you have a year sober. If you do, I’ll call the police
  • I don’t want to see you ever again after how badly you’ve hurt me. If you try to find me, I’m calling the cops
  • Don’t speak to me until you’re ready to make amends. If you do, I’m cutting you off for 90 days
  • If you want a relationship with this family, you must have a steady job
  • The court has given me full custody. I will only let you see your children if you’re sober. If you’re high, you cannot see them or spend time with them, and you need to take a breathalyzer every time you want to see them, and you cannot be alone with them

All of these boundaries start with what you need, but you can see how they’re beneficial to the addict/alcoholic too. They give them clear rules that, if followed, will create a more healthy relationship between you and them.

In other cases, these boundaries are solely for your protection. You are not obligated to let people into your life or to allow them to stay in your life unless you are literally court ordered too.

It’s okay to cut people out of your life if that’s what you need to be okay.

You are not obligated to keep talking to your adult son who keeps stealing from you just because you love him or your spouse wants you to.

You’re not obligated to see your brother who molested you as a child ever again just because your family wants you to forgive and forget.

You’re not obligated to let a drug addict around your children unless a court mandates that you do.

That’s what boundaries do. They keep you safe and allow you to feel secure.

Alcoholics and Addicts Can Set Boundaries Too

If you’re an alcoholic/addict, you might have a history of having poor or nonexistent boundaries.

It’s incredibly common.

When we get sober, we often find that we are not okay with behaviors from others that we might once have been okay with.

We might have readily submitted to our friends’ pressures to drink with them, even if it’s just a couple drinks.

We might have allowed our significant other to push us into sex we didn’t want to have.

We might have allowed drug addict family members to call us and beg us to help them find coke and heroin.

We might have allowed our abusive parents or siblings or spouses to talk down to us and abuse us verbally or physically.

These people are manipulative at best, and they generally don’t like it when we set boundaries. Some may react strongly or violently.

Even people who are your friends and really do want you to get better might react negatively when we suddenly push back at behaviors that aren’t okay.

It’s okay for us to start setting boundaries when we get sober, and it’s okay to do that immediately if we want to.

We are not responsible for someone else’s feelings.

Let me repeat that.

We are not responsible for someone else’s feelings.

If people have a problem with how we want to live our new sober lives, they are more than welcome to leave our lives.

A good friend, a good spouse, a good child, a good family member–they will respect these boundaries no matter what they might think of them.

Set the boundaries that are right for you.

Because if you don’t, you might find yourself experiencing the same things that made your drinking and using worse. If these things make your depression worse or your anxiety worse, you don’t have to let them into your life.

They could be triggers–powerful triggers–and in early sobriety, triggers can be deadly.

Don’t let fear keep you from doing what’s right for you.

What boundaries have you set in your life? Have you gotten pushback? Do you feel like you need to set some but are struggling to?

Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

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Adam Fout

Adam Fout is an addiction/recovery blogger who writes nonfiction and speculative fiction. He is a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop and has been published in or has upcoming work in december, Another Chicago Magazine, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, J Journal, Pulp Literature, and DreamForge. And he LOVES when readers reach out to him! Always feel free to send me an email at awfout at gmail dot com. I can't wait to hear from you!