When you have a recovering addict or recovering alcoholic in your life, it can be hard to determine the best way to interact with them. You want to fully support their recovery journey and respect their needs but it’s tricky to know how much input is too little or too much. The delicate balance between being too lenient and overbearing is difficult to master and likely won’t happen overnight. Setting rules, or boundaries, for a loved one in recovery is important. Boundaries are not about changing someone’s behavior; rather, they are about having guidelines that will make for a mutually respectful relationship.
Boundaries help both parties better navigate the initial stages of recovery. Create boundaries as early as possible, ideally when your child, parent, partner, friend, or other loved one is still in inpatient treatment. Doing so promotes open communication and ensures that your loved one knows what to expect when they arrive home. If you don’t have access to your loved one while they’re in treatment or you’re unsure what specific boundaries are needed, that’s okay. While they’re adjusting to their new lifestyle at home, pay attention to any behaviors that worry or trouble you. If something bothers you, it’s a sign that you need to set boundaries.
Although the boundary-setting process can be challenging, it will benefit both sides and ultimately strengthen your relationship in the long run. Below are six steps to help you smoothly set boundaries with a loved one in recovery:
1. Trust your instincts.
When something isn’t sitting right in your gut, there’s likely a problem. You’ve seen how your loved one’s past addiction affected their behavior and personality. If you notice any troubling signs or if there is any doubt that they’re going down the wrong path, it’s time to have a conversation about boundaries.
Perhaps you are a mother, and your son has returned home from addiction treatment and is deciding if he wants to return to college. For the first few weeks, you’ve tiptoed around him, tending to all his needs. But then, you notice he starts to take advantage of your permissive attitude. Maybe he starts leaving a mess around the house, staying out past midnight, and not contributing to rent or other expenses. If these actions upset you, then you’ll need to set some boundaries like establishing a reasonable curfew and having him find a job so that he can help pay rent.
2. Start a conversation when both parties are calm.
Talk to your loved one after a period of sustained calmness, when you have clearly gathered all your thoughts. Communicating boundaries to a recovering addict during or right after an argument is unwise. The heat of the moment could cause you to lash out, your words to get misconstrued, and the other party to tune you out. Don’t approach your loved one in an accusatory way and make sure to have a two-way conversation, allowing them to be heard as well.
Let’s use the mother and son scenario again. You come home from work after a stressful day. You’re on edge and just want to relax on the couch, but your son is about to go out and meet friends from his pre-recovery days. He’s been staying out late the past few nights and this is starting to become a concern. This wouldn’t be an ideal moment to approach your son about your unease because you may lose your temper. Instead, it would be good to say:
You: “Have fun and be careful tonight. Let’s find time for us to talk tomorrow. I want to tell you about something that’s been on my mind.”
3. Set a boundary — be fair, but firm.
Having a conversation about boundaries with a recovering addict can be difficult. You have to make sure the tone you’re using is not too harsh, but not too casual either so that your boundary is taken seriously. Follow the framework below to help you stay focused and communicate effectively:
Framework for creating a boundary
- State what the issue is.
- Explain what the desired actions are.
- If not achieved, specify what the consequences will be.
Don’t let your emotions get the best of you during this conversation because it can be very easy to back down and pretend that everything is okay. On the other hand, make sure to also control your anger to avoid attacking the other person. Choose your words carefully and clearly state why the boundary is necessary for both parties.
You: “I’ve been thinking that for both our well-being’s sake, I need to establish a few boundaries with you.”
Son: “But I haven’t done anything.”
You: “I understand, but please listen. For the past week, you’ve been seeing old friends and coming home past midnight. It makes me anxious when you’re out late and I start to worry that you may relapse. From now on, I want you to be home by 11 PM. I also can’t keep providing you with money, so I want you to start looking for a part-time job so that you can pay for your own needs and help out with some household expenses. If you don’t want to follow these rules, then I won’t let you borrow my car anymore and you’ll have to find your own apartment.”
Son: “That’s so unfair! I promise to stop borrowing money. And my friends and I aren’t doing anything bad!”
You: “I’m sorry. But until I’m certain that there is nothing to worry about and that you are earning money to take care of your own expenses, these rules are necessary. We can discuss this again at a later date and reassess the boundary based on your progress.”
4. Monitor their progress with check-ins.
After setting a boundary with a recovering alcoholic, maintain an open line of communication and check-in occasionally to see how they are feeling. The first few months of sobriety are often a raw, uncertain time for recovering addicts and alcoholics. They’re still figuring out life without drugs and alcohol and will have lots of ups and downs. Remember not to create boundaries as punishment. These guidelines are there to protect your mental health and provide structure to your loved one’s recovery journey, without controlling it. Your family member or partner may react poorly at first, but you need to stand your ground.
Over time, if your loved one is adhering to the boundaries, consider loosening the rules a bit. It can be challenging for someone in recovery to quickly change all their old habits, so it’s important to acknowledge this and applaud them for their progress. Through trial and error, you’ll come to see what works well and what doesn’t when creating boundaries. Each time you create a new boundary, you’ll be able to refine your process even more.
Using the mother and son example, if you’ve noticed your son is actively looking for a job and coming home early, slowly adjust the boundary. Instead of the curfew being set at 11 PM, move the curfew to midnight. This shows you’re being fair and noticing his progress which can help fuel his positive behavior.
5. Reinforce boundaries with consequences.
Sometimes your loved one may not respect the boundaries you set because they thought you were bluffing or they simply don’t care. Although frustrating, don’t give up, and don’t let your boundary’s importance fade away. This is the stage in the process where you need to use tough love. Follow through on the consequences you had set. Not doing so will make boundaries seem merely like mild warnings or empty threats to a recovering addict. If we use the previous mother and son example, a conversation about implementing consequences could go like this:
You: “I think we need to look back at our previous conversation from a few weeks ago. I asked you to stop coming home past 11 PM and you continued staying out late. I love you, but I can’t have this happening anymore for your safety and my sanity’s sake.”
Son: “I didn’t think you were being serious about that. Besides, some nights I came home around midnight – that’s close enough.”
You: “Unfortunately, you haven’t shown me that you can respect my boundary, so I’m taking the car away. We can reassess your progress in two weeks. If you’ve shown that you can respect the curfew then you can have the keys back.”
Remember, this is not an attempt to control their behavior. You are implementing the consequences because your loved one chose not to mind the boundary set.
6. Seek support when necessary.
During the boundary-setting process, it’s important to take care of yourself too. Don’t focus all your energy on your loved one until it drains you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need someone to talk to, a therapist can help you work through any heavy thoughts on your mind. A mental health professional or family recovery coach will listen to your unique situation and be able to offer solutions on how best to work with your recovering addict or alcoholic.
When families first start setting boundaries with a loved one in recovery, it can feel harsh and unloving. The reality though is that the creation of boundaries fosters open and honest communication and builds mutual respect. The beginning stages of your loved one’s sobriety will likely be a rocky time for you both. Your loved one’s learning to modify past behaviors will take dedication and effort on their part and patience on yours. Creating boundaries will protect your mental health while also helping guide your loved one to long-term success.