When dealing with the addiction of a loved one in your life you may experience all kinds of painful emotions and difficulties, and there is only so much you can humanly take. A very effective way of avoiding this is to set boundaries.
This is easier said than done. It is one thing to express to the addict the limits of the behavior you are willing or able to tolerate. It is a totally different matter to actually enforce these boundaries.
I often compare this with the education of children and the use of rewards and punishment. If your child is not allowed to watch TV after 10 PM, you may enforce this boundary by indicating clearly that if this “rule” is broken, the consequence will be that the child won’t be allowed to watch TV for – let’s say – the next seven days. It is obvious that if the child breaks the rule this punishment has to be indeed executed to have any effect.
So it is with setting boundaries in living or dealing with the behavior of an addict. Before setting the boundary and expressing the consequence of not respecting it, you’d better be sure that you are willing to carry it out.
Due to the sometimes strong emotions and difficult circumstances involved, we have a tendency to set very dramatic forms of consequence or punishment, such as: “If you do X, I will leave you” or “If you do Y, I will get a divorce”, and these are very difficult to actually follow through upon, especially if the addict is a loved one, or the parent of your children.
It is advisable to use practical less radical enforcements. These depend on your specific circumstances and situation. Let me give you some examples: if the addict loves to watch ESPN sports channels and you pay the TV bill, you may cancel these channels for a while. If the addict loves to fish and depends on you to drive, you may refuse to do so for a while. The general idea is to look for practical, enforceable consequences that you can and will actually carry out and that are perceived by the addict as proportional to the undesirable consequences of his or her behavior.
Please be aware that your motivation for setting the boundaries should solely be your own personal health and well-being and should not be intended to control, change or cure the addict, which is impossible (see my previous article on the three C’s).
When setting a boundary make it clear to the addict that you need to do this for your own good and why.
In al-anon there is a slogan that is very helpful to contemplate upon before making the choice to set and enforce a boundary: “How important is it?”
There are some boundaries that are obviously non-negotiable, the most important of which are physical or mental abuse or cruelties. The consequence of these are very simple: call the police and leave the situation.