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Boundaries and consequences with an addict or alcoholic are essential for people to have in place to protect themselves from the substance user’s manipulations, break the entitlement, and hold them accountable.
When boundaries are not set, it allows the addict or alcoholic to feel more comfortable than they otherwise would be, and it allows them to expect things will continue as they are. Until the addict or alcoholic learns there are consequences to their actions, they will likely not see a reason to do something different.
In this blog, we will be looking at the following:
Why are boundaries so important in addiction recovery?
Who needs to set boundaries for recovering addicts and alcoholics?
What are the four components of addiction?
What is a boundary in recovery?
Five examples of healthy boundaries
One of the first things a substance user requires to seek help is seeing the benefits of change over the benefits of staying the same. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Rather than try to control the substance user, the family can control the comfort of the environment where the substance user thrives. If the environment remains the same, so will the substance user’s behaviors and actions.
Lack of healthy boundaries may cause resentment among family members too. When certain family members have boundaries, and other family members do not, the addiction can affect both sides differently. When this occurs, the family members with boundaries often become angry with the others who do not. This will almost always lead to internal family conflicts. While the family fights over who they believe is right and wrong, the substance user carries on.
This manipulation is a symptom of addiction and the beginning of dismantling a family system. The longer this continues, the harder it is for families to agree to a common ground solution. Most family members are convinced they are angry at the substance user and that they cause all the problems; this is not always the case. Not setting family boundaries can pit family members against one another, and the only one who wins is the addict or alcoholic.
Many primary enablers are often viewed as people-pleasers who may struggle with codependency. A people pleaser is someone who codependently allows others to do things they would prefer not to do yet to gain approval or avoid confrontation.
When there are no boundaries with a substance user, they will continue to take advantage of those who allow them to walk all over the family members. As a result, the substance user will be unable to see the harmful effects of their substance use and unhealthy behaviors.
The substance user must see and feel the negative impact of the addiction and disruptive behaviors to start the process of wanting or seeing the need for help. Families often state their loved one doesn’t wish to help. This is always 100% false because using the substance in and of itself is asking for help.
The absolute truth is that most need to ask for another form of support. There is a big difference between wanting help and seeking help outside of substance use. This is primarily determined by whether or not there are boundaries and accountability in place or not that make drugs and alcohol an uncomfortable form of help.
“If your loved one is using drugs or alcohol, they are already asking for help. They are medicating themselves from something, and it is up to the family to help them by setting boundaries and offering a more effective solution.”
Lack of accountability and family boundaries in addiction is often related to family members who may need to feel a sense of control in the addictive relationship. Other times certain family members feel their loved one’s addiction provides a purpose that can cause them to feel needed in the relationship.
It is not uncommon for family members to disclose how they feel and tell us that they are the addict or alcoholics’ caretakers and are the ones keeping the substance user alive. Some believe that if not for their enabling and lack of boundaries, the addict or alcoholic would be worse off than they already are. When families enable it, they disable the substance user from seeing the need for change, preventing them from asking for help.
Many times, family members enable by protecting the substance user’s feelings. Thinking they are helping the substance user, they are only protecting themselves and their own feelings. This disables any chance of change for the addict or alcoholic.
Why Are Boundaries so Important in Addiction Recovery?
Boundaries are essential for people to have to protect themselves. When an addict or alcoholic is involved, boundaries are crucial to protect the family from enabling and allowing the substance user to feel the consequences of their actions while holding them accountable.
People often operate in a comfort zone of routine. It becomes expected when a family member allows the substance user to continue taking advantage of them. Families who enable and do not use boundaries build the substance user’s sense of entitlement.
At first, the addict or alcoholic tests the boundaries. Once they realize they are weak and can be broken with manipulation, or there are simply none, the substance user continues to return and takes over. The longer this continues, the more entitled the substance user becomes, making it harder for a family member to set healthy boundaries.
The family members often become overwhelmed and overpowered, making them afraid to do or say anything different for fear of making the substance user mad or pushing them over the edge.
Boundaries and consequences for addiction are also essential to help the substance user move through the stages of change. For an addict or alcoholic to move from the second stage of change, the contemplation stage, they must see the need for change before moving to the following stages.
The second stage of addiction requires something called ambivalence. Ambivalence is being able to see both sides of something. In the case of addiction, as long as the substance user sees less need to change and more reasons not to, they will most likely stay in their destructive patterns.
A substance user can see the need for change by seeing the harmful effects of their substance use and behaviors. An addict or alcoholic seldom sees this need for change if they are comfortable with little to no accountability while surrounded by others with weak, very few, or no boundaries.
Who Needs to Set Boundaries for Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics?
Those who need to set boundaries with addicts and alcoholics are anyone who could be potentially affected by the addiction or who may enable or comfort the addiction. Boundaries should also apply to recovering addicts and alcoholics too. One of the families’ most significant mistakes is letting their guard down too soon.
It is common for families to call us wanting everything to change, and the minute their loved one enters treatment, they forget why they called us and what has happened. This occurs even more after treatment. Families often believe the substance user is now well simply because they entered or completed a treatment program.
As part of Family First Interventions S.A.F.E. Family Recovery Coaching, we keep families engaged during their loved one’s treatment stay and after they have completed treatment. Families often let their guard down more than at any other time regarding the discharge plan.
Families can respect the discharge plan and do not have to agree with it. For example, you have a young adult living in your home, and the clinician at the facility believe they can return to your home after treatment. The family can say no to this and set a boundary by telling their loved ones and the clinician that they will support a sober living house until they find a job and can support themselves.
Recovering addicts and alcoholics often have relapse prevention plans. These plans include warning signs, triggers, and an action plan of what to do in the event of a relapse. Families should also have a relapse prevention plan to benefit the substance user and themselves.
The family’s relapse prevention plan would most likely include healthy boundaries to protect themselves from returning to old behaviors that previously comforted the addiction. The quicker the substance user is held accountable with boundaries, the more likely they will see the need to follow their own relapse prevention plan and return to some form of treatment.
What Are the Four Components of Addiction?
There are four categories of Substance Use Disorder per the D.S.M. 5:
- Impaired Control – Unable to control the amount and frequency of use; Use more often and in more quantities than intended.
- Social Problems – Prioritizing alcohol or drug use over relationships and responsibilities; Neglecting family and children; No longer engaging in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyed; Procrastination, excuses, lack of motivation, and the inability to perform work or school responsibilities.
- Risky Use – Using drugs or alcohol despite the possible problems or consequences; These consequences can be legal, medical, social, financial, etc.
- Physical Dependence – Building a higher tolerance and requiring more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same effects; Needing substances in the morning to feel normal, often referred to as a straightener; Feeling the effects of withdrawal as the result of not having enough or the substance they are dependent on.
There are 11 questions listed in the D.S.M. 5 Diagnostic Criteria Severity Scale for Substance Use Disorder. All questions are related to what has occurred within the past year. These questions are a popular assessment instrument used by professionals. Answering yes to 2-3 questions is considered a mild condition, 4-5 a moderate condition, and six or more a severe condition:
- Taking drugs or alcohol in larger amounts and for more extended periods than intended
- Inability to reduce the amount and frequency of use; unable to stop
- Spending increased amounts of time obtaining, ingesting, or recovering from drug and alcohol use
- Increased cravings and obsession with drugs or alcohol
- Life is increasingly becoming unmanageable in areas such as home, work, school, etc., because of the drug and alcohol use
- Using regardless of the potential consequences
- No longer caring about and giving up on work, families, or hobbies once enjoyed as the result of using drugs or alcohol
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol, even if it could cause potential danger to you and others
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even when faced with medical or mental problems and continuing to use knowing it could be or is making the condition worse
- Requiring more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same effects
- Having withdrawal symptoms from not using drugs or alcohol or using drugs or alcohol to avoid withdrawal symptoms
What is a Boundary in Recovery?
Boundaries are a way of drawing a line you will not cross under any circumstances. No matter how hard the substance user fights to break the family’s boundaries, it is essential to have a plan on how to react and respond. For the substance user, boundaries in recovery help hold them accountable to themselves and their program to prevent a possible relapse.
Boundaries in recovery can be learned both in the substance user’s recovery plan and the family’s recovery plan. Families must remember that when a substance user enters treatment, the family should too. Family recovery can be with therapists and their sponsors while attending self-help groups such as Al-Anon and A.C.O.A. meetings.
Boundaries in recovery should be set for both the substance user and the family of the substance user. So much emphasis goes on the family, setting boundaries for the substance user. It is just as crucial that the recovering substance user also set boundaries with toxic family members who are not in recovery.
It is not uncommon for the substance user to get well and for the family to stay the same. When this happens, the unhealthy family can indirectly pull the substance user back into their addiction. For this reason, the addict or alcoholic must have boundaries to protect themselves from returning to a dysfunctional family system.
Unhealthy family members often indirectly sabotage their loved one’s recovery, fueled by codependency, the fear of no longer having a purpose of being the substance user’s caretaker, and the fear of no longer being needed in the substance user’s life because they are now getting better on their own.
Other unhealthy family roles that go unaddressed can also contribute to the addict or alcoholic being pulled back from recovery by the family. Families who want their loved ones back because they feel they lost control of controlling the substance user are often to blame.
Please see unhealthy family roles here.
5 Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries for a family member to have for an addict or alcoholic are essential for two significant reasons:
- To hold the substance user accountable and for them to feel the consequences
- To take your life back and no longer help them avoid accountability and consequences
Examples of family boundaries for an addict or alcoholic:
- No longer allowing them to live in your home
- No longer providing them money or other financial resources
- No longer letting them be alone with children
- No longer allowing them at family functions
- No longer taking their phone calls unless it is to say they are ready for help.
Healthy boundaries for an addict or alcoholic to have for family members are essential for two significant reasons:
- To distance themselves from toxic family members who do not engage in their own recovery and, as a result, pull the substance user away from their recovery and back into the chaotic family system.
- To allow the family members time to heal and address their role in the addiction.
Examples of an addict or alcoholic’s boundaries for their family:
- Not letting the family pull you back into the chaotic, dysfunctional family system that exists as a result of the addiction
- Not engage with family members until they enter recovery
- No longer letting the family dictate or discourage your recovery, such as going to meetings, etc. (Example: prioritizing their need for you over your need to go to a meeting)
- No longer be around toxic family members
- Not letting family continue to throw the past in your face (It is acceptable to a point, and after a while, the substance user can set a boundary on that)
Family First Intervention has built its S.A.F.E. Family Recovery Coaching and Intervention curriculum to address both the addiction and the family. With the environment (including the family) being one of the number one predictors of successful outcomes in addiction treatment, we cannot see bypassing addressing the environment. Too many treatment centers and clinicians focus on one thing: the substance user and their problem.
Very few centers and clinicians look beyond what the substance user is telling them and don’t ask the family for input and insight into the background.
When discharging patients, very few treatment centers and very few clinicians run the discharge plan for those who will be directly affected by the discharge plan. Rather than call mom and dad or husband or wife, etc. and ask if it’s reasonable, the clinician will almost always call the family and insist it’s best. We believe this is not okay.
Understanding addiction, your family’s role in the addiction, along with how to set healthy boundaries is part of what we do here at Family First Intervention. We encourage families to set boundaries with the substance user and understand why they need to be set.
We help families engage in their own family recovery as much as we support the addict or alcoholic. In our experience, families who set boundaries and hold their loved ones, accountable see far greater results for themselves and the substance user than those who do not.