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Setting Boundaries With A Loved One In Addiction

Is there anything more heartbreaking than watching someone you love descend into the grips of addiction? Whether it’s a child, parent, partner, friend, or family member, addiction alters relationships in a scary way. Suddenly, the person you thought you knew is acting irrationally. They feel like a stranger. They can’t keep commitments. They behave in a way that is unpredictable, frightening, or just plain weird. They might steal from you, or maybe they’re always trying to borrow money. People say that “love conquers all,” but how do you keep loving someone when they’re in addiction?

Realize What Addiction is Doing To You, Too

Addiction is a mental illness, which some psychologists compare to obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder. When addiction is “active,” that is, when the person who suffers from addiction is drinking or using drugs, their behavior and seemingly their entire personality will change. After spending any time with an addict, you’ll be able to notice when they’re drunk or high when they’re craving their substance of choice, and when they’re hungover or coming down. You’ll become a finely tuned shame detector. What you may not realize is that your loved one’s addiction isn’t just affecting them—it’s affecting you, too.

Are you losing sleep over the addict you love? Has their addiction created financial problems for you? How about anxiety? You may not be the one who’s drinking and getting high, but there’s no denying that you are feeling the side effects, too. Paying attention to how you feel and how you behave when you know that the addict you love is in trouble can help clue you into your boundaries.

If you feel scared, uncomfortable, or angry, that’s a sign that your limits are being tested. Being in a long-term relationship, including a family relationship, with an addict can actually cause you to experience these emotions constantly. If you never get a break from your worry, or you can’t remember what it’s like to feel happy or safe, seek professional help. A therapist, family counselor, or 12 Step program can give you a safe space to process your feelings.

Practice Saying “No” When You Don’t Want to Participate

For such a short word, “no” is really hard to say sometimes. When the addict or alcoholic you love is suffering or asking you for money or for assistance, it’s difficult to say no. Addicts whose disease is active—that is, they’re using their substance of choice, not acting like themselves, and making self-destructive choices—can have all kinds of life problems. Bankruptcy, homelessness, debts and physical health issues are everyday calamities for people in addiction. As a family member or friend, you’ve probably gotten the panicked text or phone call asking for money before the power is shut off, or before the eviction notice shows up. The addict’s fear can feel contagious. You may feel like you have to do something, to help the addict or protect them from the consequences of their choices.

Before you take action, ask yourself: what’s the actual cost of the help you’re giving the addict? Besides the financial cost, what’s the emotional cost? Realistically, you will probably never see the money you “lend” the addict again. Every time you hand it over, you are also adding to your anxiety. You’ll wonder if the addict is using that money to get high, or if they’re actually spending it on their phone bill, or groceries, or diapers for the baby like they said they would. If you lend your car to the addict, you’re not only creating material instability for yourself—now, you have no way to get around—but emotional instability. Do you really think the addict is using your car to drive the kids to school like they promised? Or are they cruising by the dope house?

Although some people say you should take a drill sergeant approach to the addict, and only say no, that’s really a choice that only you can make. You know your own limits best, and you have the most experience in dealing with your loved one’s addiction. Before you give something to the addict, especially money, ask yourself, “How does this affect me? What about my other children? How do I feel about myself, when I make this choice?” You don’t have to do everything for the addict. Remember that when you take care of yourself first, you have a better chance of staying physically and emotionally healthy. Then, you can be a good support.

Having Good Boundaries Is A Way To Show Your Love

Believe it or not, when you create and maintain healthy boundaries, you’re creating the opportunity for healthy relationships, too. When you practice saying “no” every time the addict you care about asks to borrow money, for example, you’re refusing to take part in a harmful cycle of substance abuse. When you set limits with the addict and then follow through, you’re treating yourself—and your loved one’s addiction—with respect.

Loving an addict or alcoholic can be lethal to your self-esteem. Practice putting yourself first, reaching out for support, and getting honest about your limits and abilities. You can’t control the addict or their addiction, but you can take care of yourself. When they’re ready to seek recovery, you will be ready and strong to help them take the next steps into a new, healthy life.