If you love someone with a substance use disorder, whether they’re a spouse, parent, sibling, child, or friend, it’s important to set clear boundaries for the terms of your relationship.
Substance use robs your loved one of the ability to think clearly. Instead of being worried about relationships with others or doing well at work, they are only worried about how to obtain more of the substance. If you do not set limits, your loved one will continue to act in a self-destructive fashion.
Boundaries are also important for your own well-being. You did not cause your loved one’s substance use, nor can you directly make the decision to stop it. However, by setting firm limits, you can give yourself the space necessary to continue to move forward with your own life.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Deciding which boundaries are appropriate to set with an addicted loved one depends on the nature of your relationship and how severe you believe their substance use disorder to be. However, the following boundaries are commonly recommended as a way to encourage a person to seek addiction treatment:
- Your home is a drug or alcohol-free zone. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your living space. Not allowing a loved one to keep drugs and/or alcohol in your home is a reasonable boundary to set.
- You will only welcome sober visitors. Someone with a substance use disorder typically has a circle of friends who engage in the same behavior. Not allowing these people to continue to exert influence over your loved one by visiting your home is a wise move. You may not have control over what goes on elsewhere, but you can prevent people from causing further damage in your home.
- You will not give your loved one any money or pay expenses on their behalf. Obviously, you wouldn’t directly give someone with an addiction money to buy drugs or alcohol. But, money you provide for groceries, rent, or other expenditures only frees up funds to feed your loved one’s addiction.
- You will not lie for your loved one. Substance use still carries a stigma, so it’s an understandable impulse to want to keep your loved one’s drug or alcohol problem private. However, telling lies only feeds the addiction. Do not call in sick to work on your loved one’s behalf or make up excuses to avoid social engagements because they are hungover. Letting the truth come out can be painful for everyone involved, but it’s a necessary part of the recovery process
- You will not bail your loved one out of jail. Seeing your loved one arrested for possession of an illegal substance or driving under the influence is heartbreaking. Nobody wants to think of someone they care about sitting in a jail cell. However, legal troubles are often a rock bottom moment for people with substance use disorders. If you prevent your loved one from feeling the consequences of their actions, they have no motivation to change.
- You will not allow your loved one to see your children. Unfortunately, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol can cause people to do things that are out of character. This may include stealing personal belongings, making insulting or threatening comments, or becoming physically aggressive. If you are a parent, you have a duty to protect your children from the possibility of harm.
Sticking to Boundaries
Once you’ve decided what boundaries are appropriate, you need to enforce your rules consistently. To do this, consider the following:
- Write down your new rules. The act of writing something down on paper makes it seem more official. Make a list of the boundaries you’ve set and keep it in a place where you will see it regularly.
- Get others on the same page. Talk to friends and family who share your concerns about your loved one’s behavior. If everyone presents a unified front in regards to setting clear boundaries, it will be harder for the person with a substance use disorder to continue on the same path. You can also help support each other through the process of sticking to these agreed upon rules.
- Remind yourself that change is never easy. Life is full of changes, but they all come with some amount of suffering. The pain you’re feeling as you tell your loved one you will no longer enable addiction-related behavior is fleeting, but a necessary part of guiding them towards treatment.
- Seek support for yourself. Loving someone with an addiction is unbelievably stressful. You need to take care of your own physical and mental health to be in a place where you’re able to provide support for your loved one. Seeing a therapist or attending a support group for friends and family of people with substance use disorders can help you feel less alone and better understand how to practice self-care during this trying time.
- Have faith. Addiction doesn’t develop overnight, so it’s often unreasonable to expect that a few days or even weeks of firm limits will fix this problem. However, recovery is always possible. No matter what’s happened in the past, continue to believe that your loved one is capable of change.