Boundaries can be a new concept for some families who are dealing with an addict in their lives. Often times addiction has to get worse before it can get better. Families may find it extremely difficult or uncomfortable having to take a step back from helping their loved one in their addiction. Addiction is unique because, while it primarily affects the addict, family members and loved ones can also aid in its progression unintentionally. Therefore, learning and implementing boundaries becomes essential to not only the addict getting better, but allowing the family to start functioning again in a healthy way.

Boundaries are essentially psychological fences that exist between the addict and the family. These fences usually define how family and friends interact with the addict. One of the most difficult things for families to do is to set proper boundaries with the addict. When family and friends are no longer willing to put up with certain behaviors, then change can begin to happen. A good example of a boundary can look like a family no longer inviting the addict over to family events when they are high or no longer willing to talk to the addict unless they are clean or seek help. Sometimes knowing what exact boundaries need to be set for your specific situation can be hard, especially if there is no healthy role model who can model what these look like. The best way to think of healthy boundaries is simply to think of them as a delineation of what type of addiction treatment is okay to you and what consequences will come from breaking the boundary that was set. Healthy boundaries allow individuals to share their feelings and thoughts and make sure that their own needs are being met; this includes being able to say no to the addict when needed. Being able to set healthy boundaries is an initial step in changing the relationship dynamics with an addict.

Once healthy boundaries are set it is important that the boundary then be enforced. For example, suppose a boundary was set and an addict was told they were not allowed to come to family events if they are high. Then suppose they still showed up to a family event while intoxicated. Family members would then need to reinforce the boundary again and follow it up with a consequence to let the addict know that this boundary is not to be crossed. Enforcing the boundary could be calling the cops if the addict does not leave the property. Although consequences can be hard to enforce (family members don’t want to see their loved ones in handcuffs), it’s important that they be implemented because if there is no follow-through then the addict learns that the boundaries don’t mean anything. If the boundaries can be easily broken than why should the addict take them seriously? Boundaries are difficult for anyone to set but addicts have an especially effective way of manipulating loved ones with threats or taking advantage of their family members’ fear of relapse or overdose. Family members often then give up enforcing the boundaries that they set with an addict.

Since boundaries can be so difficult to set and enforce, sometimes counseling or getting assistance in learning how to set effective boundaries is helpful. In the ideal case, when an addict seeks treatment, some treatment centers will teach the addict about boundaries and how to respect them, and they also may invite the family in to help them work on setting boundaries with the addict together. This is not true of all treatment centers and finding outside family counseling services may also be helpful. Although boundaries are difficult to both set and enforce, they are essential to not only helping the addict to get better but allowing the family to start functioning in a healthy way, despite their loved one’s addiction. Boundaries help teach others how they can and cannot treat us.