The Psychology of Setting Boundaries with an Alcoholic

Setting healthy and appropriate boundaries can be difficult for many people who love someone with alcohol use disorder. But you can learn how to set boundaries with your loved one while maintaining your own sense of emotional safety. It’s also important to understand why setting boundaries is important and how you can learn more about boundary setting.

In this article:

What Are Boundaries and Why Do We Need Them?

Boundaries vary from person to person and can differ between genders and cultures.1 For many, your individual boundaries can be vastly different from the boundaries of your family. Essentially, boundaries help us maintain relationships and avoid situations that could make us feel like we have been taken advantage of.2

Boundaries represent your level of self-respect.2 They can be rigid and fixed or diffused and loose. Ideally boundaries are:1

  • Flexible
  • Permeable
  • Clear

Healthy boundaries help inform others on how we would like to be treated. We can set healthy boundaries by:2

  • Identifying our limits
  • Listening to our own feelings
  • Recognizing our boundaries
  • Being direct
  • Being assertive
  • Starting small
  • Granting permission to say “no”
  • Enlisting support from others
  • Making our personal time a priority

If you feel resentful, uneasy, or have a loss of energy, this can be a strong indicator that your boundaries have been crossed.2 Your loved ones cannot read your mind, so it is up to you to communicate your boundaries in clear, direct, and assertive ways.

As you navigate setting boundaries, be patient with yourself. Communicating and enforcing boundaries with your loved one, especially when they have not been cemented, can be overwhelming and confusing.

It can help to begin with setting smaller boundaries and working up to the larger scaled boundaries. If this becomes too difficult for you and your loved one, consider seeking professional assistance. Setting and enforcing boundaries will help you conserve energy and can promote a more positive outlook.2

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Where Can I Go to Help Me Learn More About Boundaries?

To help you examine your own set of boundaries, as well as help you determine and enforce boundaries towards others, it can be helpful speaking to a professional. This professional could be a:

  • Licensed professional counselor
  • Licensed social worker
  • Licensed psychologist
  • Certified alcohol and drug counselor
  • Marriage and family therapist

You may even find a life coach helpful for exploring, establishing, and enforcing boundaries. If your loved one is currently in treatment, the treatment program may offer family therapy sessions, where you can ask to discuss boundary setting.

You may also consider joining Al-Anon, a support group for individuals who are worried about someone who has a problem with alcohol misuse.

Setting Boundaries with Someone Who Has Alcohol Use Disorder

Setting boundaries with an alcoholic can be difficult, especially if they have not previously existed in the relationship. One consequence of addiction is the lack of boundaries and the constant boundary-breaking; therefore, it is up to you to establish and enforce these boundaries to maintain your own sense of safety.

The first step for you is to explore what behavior is unacceptable to you.2 Secondly, after you have decided what you are unable/unwilling to deal with, set consequences. Learning to enforce the boundary can be the most challenging, so give yourself compassion and remember that it is a learning process.

Lastly, these consequences may mean distancing yourself from your loved one. While this distance may be painful, it is important to do. Learning to detach with love, an Al-Anon term, can be helpful.

Detaching with love shows your loved one you have not stopped loving them but have chosen to focus your time and energy on yourself.3 This detachment allows you to view situations realistically with objectivity. It is also a way to practice self-love and not allow the consequences of addiction to damage your mental health. Furthermore, this detachment can help you lead a happier and more manageable life, less focused on the behaviors of your loved one with alcohol use disorder.3

The Role of a Boundary Setter

Individuals in a boundary setting role will describe themselves in a more autonomous way.4 These individuals urge their loved ones to make choices and do not submit to the destiny of being in a relationship with someone who has alcohol use disorder. Meaning, these individuals either do not or no longer do, have a dependency on their drinking loved one.4

The power differential in a relationship with a boundary-setting person is more equal. This allows more room for the person who uses alcohol to take more responsibility. With your loved one accepting more responsibility, this leaves you an increased ability to manage and maintain your own self-determination.4

An Example of Boundary Setting with an Alcoholic

To examine boundary setting with an alcoholic, let’s look at an example. After you have explored what behaviors you refuse to accept from your loved one, you have decided to no longer allow alcohol in the home.

Your first step would be to calmly and clearly state to your loved one that bringing or having alcohol in the home is not acceptable. You can then explain why this boundary is important—maybe not only do you want to limit access for your loved one to use, but if there is a small child in the home, you do not want them to get into it.

You then explain the consequence if you find alcohol in the home, which can be something like, if alcohol is found in the home it will be dumped down the sink, and you will remind everyone that alcohol is not to be in the home for safety reasons.

Another example of boundary setting with an alcoholic can be forbidding them to come home or come to your house intoxicated. Again, be clear and concise about the boundary, explain why this boundary is important, and the consequence. This may look like this:

  • Boundary: Please do not come home when you are intoxicated.
  • Reason: Sometimes, when intoxicated, I get scared for my safety because there have been times when we argue, hurtful things have been said, and items were thrown at me.
  • Consequence: If you come home intoxicated, I will leave and stay at a friend’s house.

Lastly, be prepared to follow through on the consequence. So, when alcohol is found in your home, ensure that you do dump it down the drain, and if your loved one comes home intoxicated, follow through with sleeping at your friend’s house.

It is important to know that as you begin setting boundaries, there may be pushback. Our relationships have established a set of unspoken rules and patterns that are followed. As you set new boundaries these rules are challenged and your loved one will likely attempt to resort back to these previously established patterns. Regardless of this pushback, it is important to remember that working on boundaries can improve relationships and even reinforce the commitment to each other.5

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What Are the Benefits of Setting Boundaries?

Setting boundaries with your loved one who is experiencing alcohol use disorder can help you both:

  • Avoid feeling resentful
  • Avoid burnout
  • Avoid feeling dependent on each other
  • Increase self-respect
  • Improve communication
  • Learn how to say “no”
  • Improve overall mental health wellness
  • Take responsibility for your own actions rather than blaming each other
  • Reduce the risk of resorting back to unhealthy behaviors

How Do I Know If I Need to Set More Boundaries?

When considering setting boundaries, you may wonder how you will know if you need to set more. A few key signs that you may benefit from creating new and/or strengthening existing boundaries include:

  • Feeling resentful, frustrated, or burned out
  • Feeling a lack of self-respect
  • Feeling dependent on another
  • Feeling like you are being taken advantage of

What Happens if a Boundary is Broken?

When a boundary is broken or crossed, whether intentional or not, always enforce the agreed-upon consequence. If the boundary continues to be crossed, it may be time to consider setting up an appointment with a professional who can help, such as a marriage and family therapist.

For some, crossing boundaries may be a symptom of their alcohol addiction, whereas others may intentionally cross the boundary. For those individuals who intentionally cross the boundary, it may be helpful to explore why this continues to happen. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • Is my boundary realistic?
  • Have I communicated this is a boundary?
  • Do I enforce my boundaries?
  • What do I want to do about the continued crossing?

If you are interested in learning more about treatment options for yourself or a loved one, please call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak with a treatment support specialist.

Resources

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Substance use disorder treatment and family therapy.
  2. Holowaychuk, M. K. (2018). Setting boundaries to protect personal time. Veterinary Team Brief, July, 13-18.
  3. Al-Anon. (n.d.). Detachment.
  4. Simonen, J., & Torronen, J. (2017). Older women’s experiences, identities and coping strategies for dealing with a problem-drinking male family member. Drugs, Education, Prevention and Policy, 24(5), 409-417.
  5. Trefalt, S. (2013). Between you and me: Setting work-nonwork boundaries in the context of workplace relationships. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1802-1829.

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