It’s heartbreaking to know there’s only so much you can do when someone you love has a problem with addiction. As much as you might try, you’re not responsible for their healing. But your courage to establish firm boundaries will help both of you.
What Substance Abuse Takes Away
Substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) erodes the foundation of every relationship. These brain diseases alter how a person thinks, acts, and feels. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains why:
- Brain cells communicate through neurons and neurotransmitters. Drugs and alcohol interfere with how signals transmit between the two.
- Substances overactivate the basal ganglia, which is a part of the brain responsible for the reward circuit. Once a person’s brain is affected in this way, they can rarely experience pleasure from anything else aside from the substance.
- The extended amygdala controls feelings of anxiety, irritability, and stress. Drugs and alcohol make the amygdala more sensitive, and people have to use more to avoid discomfort.
- The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, and impulse control. Alcohol and drugs impact this area, making it more challenging to avoid excessive use without treatment because of a loss of impulse control.
So when you think about even general interactions with a partner, child, parent, sibling, or friend with SUD or AUD, it’s no wonder there are difficulties maintaining a “normal” relationship.
You want to believe in the person you love, and in many ways, that person still exists. But until they have qualitative treatment, you’ll likely experience a number of disappointments in your relationship—some might even involve legal, financial, or safety complications. Boundaries help you develop resiliency to deal with whatever happens and can provide a strong level of support when your loved one is able to focus on sobriety.
Remember: Their Addiction Isn’t Your Fault
Yes, we all impact one another, and there might even be aspects of shared trauma or family dysfunction between you and a loved one. However, numerous factors contribute to addiction. So just as you can’t take responsibility for their healing, you also can’t accept fault for their addiction.
Boundaries aren’t about shame or punishment—instead, they’re about acknowledging that you deserve to live without the fear or complications of addiction. This doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon the person you love, but you’ll no longer accept their actions or behaviors as your problems.
Outline the Behaviors That Are Unacceptable
One of the challenges of dealing with a loved one’s addictive behaviors is how much they often compromise values. For example, your child would have never lied to or stolen from you before, but under the influence of drugs or alcohol, this might become regular behavior.
You have to be willing to say no to unacceptable behavior, such as lying, manipulation, stealing, and other unethical actions. More importantly, you have to outline what the consequences are if these behaviors occur. So let’s say your adult child is stealing from you:
- Be clear about the boundary: “I love you and want you to be healthy. I also know that you’re stealing from me to continue to use drugs or alcohol. This is unacceptable behavior that I won’t tolerate.”
- Let them know that because of this behavior, you can no longer allow them in your home.
- Arrange to meet them for coffee a couple of times a week in a neutral public place.
With this example, you’ve identified the undesirable behavior and the consequences of it, but you haven’t cut the person out of your life. By using “I” declarative statements, you communicate without emotion that this is a cause-and-effect situation. By addressing the problem behavior and arranging to meet elsewhere, you demonstrate that it’s not the person who’s unacceptable, but the behavior.
You might also find it necessary to outline other unacceptable actions with the same tone: “I love you and want you to be healthy. I’m here to support you if you choose to get treatment for alcohol or drug use. If you choose to keep abusing substances, I won’t accept the following behaviors…” They might involve substance use in your home; emotional, mental, or physical abuse or the threat of it; stealing from you or anyone else; involving other family members in deception, and so on.
Without a doubt, boundaries surrounding addiction are often the most difficult to establish. You might be afraid of what your loved one will do as a result—but remember, you’re not responsible for their actions. Recognize why taking action in this way is vital to the relationship in the long run.
Draw a Hard Line on Financial Responsibility
Many people end up paying the literal price for a loved one’s addiction. Whether it’s covering rent so they’re not homeless or discovering a partner’s gambling problem, few people will be able to avoid these complications. Setting boundaries regarding financial support is important for everyone involved.
In some cases, you might feel you don’t have a choice but to help out financially, especially if there are young children involved. But ask yourself: does my financial support enable addictive behavior? Sometimes, the answer must simply be no.
Devote Time & Resources to Your Well-being
Through it all, you need to remember that putting on your oxygen mask first helps you be present for others. Don’t let your mental, emotional, or physical health be siphoned away by someone you love. If you don’t have a personal therapist yet, seek counsel through family support groups such as:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families
- Al-Anon Family Groups
- Co-Dependents Anonymous
- Nar-Anon Family Groups
Twin Lakes Is Ready to Help Your Family
At Twin Lakes, we believe in the power of family healing. If your loved one chooses our facility for addiction treatment, the whole family deserves a fresh start. Our board-certified medical professionals strive to resolve fractures in relationships caused by addiction with our family recovery program. When it’s time to move forward, let us help.