Setting boundaries has many advantages and is essential to creating and building healthy relationships, especially when dealing with addicts/alcoholics. Boundaries set expectations as to what behavior is acceptable. When a boundary is set during a substance abuser’s recovery, it requires them to be more responsible for their behavior and it can provide a healthy model for them to follow. A boundary can be set to limit the user’s behavior; which can help the family feel safer as well as facilitate the development of trust and stability between the user and their family. Boundaries also give each member of the family a role that they can play during the user’s recovery.

There are three stages of setting and keeping a boundary. The first is defining the boundary, the second is setting the boundary, and the third is keeping the boundary. When defining a boundary, you must think of the exact issue that you wish to change. Steps to keep in mind while establishing this boundary include defining your feelings, letting the user know how your personal boundaries have been crossed, setting limits, and being direct (“Boundaries in Recovery”). A healthy boundary encourages the user to share their feelings, respect others, and take responsibility for their actions. Be careful with how you define the boundary. For example, saying, ‘I don’t want you using in the home’ instead of ‘I don’t want you in the home while you’re using’ defines the boundary in terms of the behavior of the user and not the user as a person (Adfam).

Once a boundary is defined, clear consequences need to be set in case the boundary is violated. When doing this, you also need to think about how you will measure if the boundary has been breached or not. For example, is it a flexible or a fixed boundary? Other aspects you will have to deliberate on include how long the boundary is to be held for, when and where it will be set, and if it is realistic. It is vital to discuss whether the boundary seems appropriate to everyone and to reach a clear consensus between all family members.

The next stage is setting the boundary. Ideally, this stage occurs through negotiation, with both the family and the user agreeing on the terms of the boundary. This negotiation needs to have an effective dialogue in which both sides listen to each other and are open about their feelings. Everyone needs to respect each other by acknowledging and understanding how one another feels, even if they don’t agree. ‘Collaboration rather than confrontation’ is essential (Adfam). One of the most important parts of setting the boundary is having the user’s agreement and cooperation.

The last stage, keeping the boundary, includes noticing if the boundary has been kept or broken and responding if necessary. If the boundary is broken, you need to respond assertively and appropriately (Adfam). You need to acknowledge that the boundary has been broken and take your time to form your response instead of responding immediately in frustration. You want to communicate clearly how you feel, implement the consequence of breaking the boundary, and restate what your wants and needs are. This conversation may be difficult to start but can be made easier by first practicing what you want to say, remembering to hold eye contact, and speaking firmly. On the other hand, if the user continues to keep the boundary, acknowledge their good behavior and assess whether or not it would be appropriate to periodically reward them or reset the boundary.

Sometimes the boundary needs to be reset or modified, which is a normal part of the recovery process. By learning from what has happened, the family can keep or reset certain boundaries and determine which are most effective and helpful to the user’s well-being. The success of setting boundaries is maximized when all family members take part in supporting the user, as well as asking for additional support from professionals. It is important to remember that you cannot change someone else, but what you can change is your response to the situation. Your attitude toward the user can help them realize the changes they can and need to make. Remember that support from the whole family is needed; by working together to reach a compromise, you can create a healthy boundary and enable the user’s recovery.


“Boundaries in Recovery.” Stepping Stone Recovery. Stepping Stone Center for Recovery, 13. Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.
“Setting and Keeping Boundaries.” (n.d.): 1-5. Adfam. Adfam, 2010. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.