How to Set Effective Boundaries When You Love an Addict – Part 1

As an Addictions Therapist, specializing in working with families who are dealing with a loved one’s addiction – and as a recovering opioid addict with 35+ years clean and sober – one of the most common questions I’m asked is about boundaries.

  • “How do I set boundaries that they will actually listen to?”
  • “How do I maintain those boundaries when there is push back or resistance?”
  • “Why is it important to set boundaries – shouldn’t I just ‘love’ them instead?”
  • “How do I make the addict in my life stop using / drinking / gambling / gaming / watching porn – etc, etc.??”

I am going to answer all of those questions – in this article and in my next two – and show you three proven strategies for setting and maintaining healthy, respectful boundaries.

Let’s answer the questions first.  In order to have the addict you love listen to your boundaries and adhere to them, you must also have consequences attached to the boundaries that mean something to the addict.  Without a corresponding consequence, your boundary will just a sentence of words that will have very little meaning – and the addict is likely to not pay too much, if any, attention to it.

When there is push back, we need to love our addicted family member (or friend, co-worker, etc.) enough to do what’s right for them, even if it’s difficult for us to do that.  It’s been said that the least favourite word for an addict in active addiction to hear is “No.”  And when we set boundaries, we are basically saying no to them, so it is likely that you will receive some kind of resistance.  It’s almost as if it’s an addict’s job is to push back – and push and push – until you finally cave on the boundary so they can continue to do what they like.  But when we do that, we’re basically assisting them to stay stuck in the addiction.  Although caving may feel easier, when we do that we are not acting in a loving way, because a life with no healthy boundaries and consequences generally leads to a life of staying stuck in addiction.

And – when we behave in a way that has no boundaries or consequences for ‘bad behaviour’, it also takes away any semblance of the most important thing we either have or don’t have:  our Self-Respect.

If you have been a person who caves – or who hasn’t been setting appropriate boundaries – it’s not too late to change that and do what’s best for all concerned.  If you haven’t known how to do that, you’re not alone and you’ve come to the right place!

Boundary-setting strategy # 1: 

The Assertiveness Formula

I really like to keep things simple – I like my definitions to be simple and I like the tools I teach others to also be simple.  There really is no need to complicate any of this.  In fact, there is a saying in 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous that I have hijacked.  In those rooms, K-I-S-S means “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  But I prefer either “Keep It Simple, Sweetie” or “Keep It Super-Simple.”  Let’s keep this tool about boundary-setting as simple as we can – even while we remember that “simple” does not always mean “easy.”  If we persevere and learn how to do this, there is much more of a chance that we’ll practice these strategies for the best possible outcomes for all involved.

The Assertiveness Formula does not have to be complicated.  There are three simple components to it that you can practice.  Here is the formula in its entirety:

“I feel… (EMOTION word), when you… (name the BEHAVIOUR), because… (give the REASON), and what I need to see is (what you feel will be best possible OUTCOME).”

Let’s look at a couple of ways this formula can be used.  Let’s say that the addict in your life is stealing from you to be able to buy their drugs or alcohol, or to have money to gamble or shop, or for any other reason.  You have either recently discovered this or you’ve known for a while that this has been going on.  Here is how you could use the Assertiveness Formula:

“I feel angry and hurt when you steal from me to feed your addiction, because I am being treated disrespectfully by you and I am no longer willing to support you in active addiction in any way.  What I need to see if for you to either stop stealing from me, or to live somewhere else, or – best of all – to get some help such as counselling or a rehab program.”

Here is another example of how to use this formula.  Perhaps your partner or child is gaslighting you (ie, blaming you for their problems), and not taking responsibility for their own actions.  This is what you could say:

“I’m starting to feel uncomfortable and resentful when you blame me for things that you are doing, like yelling at me and shaming me in disrespectful ways.  I want to continue being able to have a relationship with you, but I won’t be able to do that if you continue to have a need to hurt me.  What I need to see is for this behaviour to stop on your part, and for us to get counselling together so that we can have a healthier relationship with each other.”

Please understand that the Assertiveness Formula isn’t the beginning and end point of the communication between you and the person you’re saying it to – there will undoubtedly be more discussion needed.  But this gives you a start, a way to open up the fact that you’re upset with how things are and that you want to see some healthy, respectful resolution if you’re going to stay in the relationship.  

Also, be sure to notice that even though you’re telling the other people what you’re upset with them about, you are primarily using “I” language rather than “you” language.  By using “I” you’re owning your own feelings, thoughts and needs, rather than doing your own gaslighting by playing the blame-shame-game.  The goal is to let the other person/people know how YOU feel, why you feel that way, and what your needs are in a respectful way – because when people feel shamed, they either become passive or aggressive in resistance.  The goal is to speak assertively and respectfully to others, while also letting them know how things are for you.  Some assertive “I” statements can begin like this:

  • I feel
  • I think
  • I know
  • I understand
  • I believe
  • I want
  • I need

When we’ve been codependent for a while – putting others’ needs first before our own — this can understandably feel like quite a challenging thing to do.  As I said, “simple” does not always mean “easy.”  But please remember that if nothing changes, nothing changes.  If you let this kind of behaviour from others continue, it will likely never change.  If you need help learning how to do this, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love With Boundaries – this is exactly how we help people who want to change their lives for the better.

In my next two articles, I will give you a couple of other simple strategies you can use to set boundaries and consequences for the addicts you love – and for anyone else with whom you are experiencing a disrespectful relationship.  Maybe you can spend this month practicing the Assertiveness Formula – and feel free to let me know how this is working for you.

See you in Part 2!

Candace Plattor, M.A., is an Addictions Therapist specializing in working with the family of people who are struggling with addiction. As a former addict with 35 years clean and sober, Candace knows that overcoming addiction is a family condition: everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. Learn more about Candace here: https://lovewithboundaries.com/

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