Boundaries – A Powerful Tool for Family Members & Friends of Someone With Addiction

This article is by Kathy Lang and published by Smart Recovery


All healthy relationships are based on respecting other’s rights. When we respect each other’s rights, we are recognizing our boundaries. Boundaries are guidelines that define what we feel are permissible ways for other people to treat us.

Most of the time we don’t acknowledge or think about it, but these boundaries operate beneath the surface of our relationships – even how much physical space we keep between us, when it is appropriate to touch someone, when and what favors to ask someone, what kind of information to share with another, etc. Some of these things are embedded in our family and cultural background, explaining the importance of understanding expectations when we deal with people from backgrounds different from ours. But even when we are dealing with shared expectations, problems can arise.

Many conflicts between human beings have their roots in boundary problems. When I was growing up there was hardly a newspaper in the country that didn’t publish a “Dear Ann Landers” column. So we’d eagerly await each day’s column to see what advice our neighbors were seeking. Invariably the columns were filled with brides angry with mothers trying to dictate their wedding plans, high schoolers resentful of parents dictating their college choice,  and mothers-in-law feeling overburdened by the demands of a son’s wife. Why is this?

It’s because people aren’t perfect and we sometimes intentionally or unintentionally tread on someone else’s rights.  When we do this in healthy relationships, it gets resolved through honest and respectful communication. Sometimes it requires negotiation. Perhaps the bride sits down with her mother to air her objections and hears how much the wedding celebration means to her mother and the rest of her family. Ideally they come to some meeting of the minds about what the celebration will be.

When addiction is an issue, boundary problems multiply quickly. Often behaviors unacceptable to family members become common. The addicted individual borrows money he doesn’t pay back or lies to cover up the truth of his activities. And often family members let these behaviors slide in an effort to help (what will happen if my loved one can’t pay his rent?) or keep peace (I’m tired of fighting about it!).  Family members feel they are trying to help, but the addiction continues and sometimes gets worse.  Suddenly things feel very much out of control as a wall is being constructed between them and their loved one. As founder of the successful CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) Program, Dr. Bob Myers said, “what starts out as helping turns into relationship poison. That’s typically when family members come to SMART looking for answers.

The answer we provide is that they have the power of choice.  They have the ability to let their loved one know how his or her behavior is impacting them and damaging the relationship.

Here at SMART for Family & Friends, they discover that their behaviors and their loved one’s addictive behavior have something in common. Both are “quick-fix, short-term solutions.”  Both minimize discomfort but only for the moment, and both have negative consequences in the long run. Ultimately, both parties face the same choice: to continue on the path of short-term gratification or move to the more rewarding path of recovery.

At SMART, families come to understand that the purpose of boundaries is not to punish or manipulate their loved one into changing. However, they also learn that effective, healthy boundaries go a long way as an antidote for negative behaviors. Participants practice communicating and protecting the boundaries that can help improve their relationship rather than continuing to build that wall between themselves and their loved one by nagging, pleading, threatening, and arguing.

They also come to realize that boundaries are a two-way street.  Family members understand they have crossed their loved one’s boundaries by trying to force him or her to give up the addictive behavior. They come to accept that it is their loved one who has to make that choice (or not). As much as they want the addiction to end, SMART participants recognize their boundaries cannot make this happen. But family and friends are pleased to discover that sometimes their actions can encourage their loved one to consider recovery, while at the same time making their own lives more manageable.

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