Typically, when addicts and loved ones of addicts enter a process of recovery and healing, they do not have good boundaries. In all likelihood, they don’t even know what good boundaries look like because they’ve never actually seen them in action. Often, they grew up in a home where boundaries were either nonexistent or random and malleable, changing at the whim of whoever the household’s ranking member was at any given moment. They then carry this lack of healthy and stable boundaries forward into adulthood.
Sometimes these individuals, especially addicts who know that their behavior is the cause of significant strife in their current relationships, feel that they do not even deserve to have healthy boundaries. In addition to being driven by shame about addictive behaviors, this can be the result growing up in a home where concerns or complaints about boundary violations were dismissed, devalued, or even laughed at. Often, these individuals, as children, were told they were too sensitive and they should stop complaining—messages they can’t help but carry into adulthood.
Even in the rare cases when addicts and loved ones of addicts had healthy, stable boundaries modeled for them in childhood, the presence of addiction will overrun that knowledge. For addicts, addiction diminishes the ability to feel empathy, which makes it difficult to see and understand the ways in which they are violating, using, manipulating, and controlling their loved ones. At the same time, addiction throws loved ones into crisis mode, causing them to operate from a fight-flight-freeze mode, rather than a mode of rational thought where boundaries actually matter.
So, whether you are addicted or the loved one of an addict, it is likely that you are struggling to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. If so, there are five things you should know as you move forward into relationship health.
Healthy Boundaries Are Essential in Healthy Relationships
There are two primary reasons to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
- Healthy boundaries protect us from the misbehavior of other people.
- Healthy boundaries protect other people from our misbehavior.
Healthy boundaries are a two-way street, on which everyone manages to stay in their own lane and to abide by the basic rules of safety. We agree to stop at stop signs, yield to oncoming traffic, slow down to avoid a crash, signal when we plan to turn or change lanes, etc. Without these mutual agreements, there will be accidents, pain, and chaos.
Healthy Boundaries Facilitate Connection
Setting and implementing healthy boundaries does not mean we all ourselves off. In fact, quite the opposite. With healthy boundaries, instead of emotionally and perhaps physically isolating ourselves for protection, we and the people we interact with are able to let one another in safely. Our healthy interpersonal boundaries keep us and others safe while we interact. More importantly, as healthy boundaries are respected and trust is built over the course of time, we become more honest and more vulnerable, leading to levels of intimacy that would otherwise not be possible.
If other people behave in ways that are safe for us, we can choose to let them in. If other people behave in ways that are not safe for us, we can choose to keep them out. The behavior of others belongs to them. The choice to interact with them (or not) belongs to us. For example, “I feel unsafe when you are active in your addiction. If I think that you have been acting out, I will not let you in my house. Otherwise, I enjoy your company and am happy to see you.”
Healthy Boundaries Are About Our Own Behavior, Not the Behavior of Others
Healthy boundaries are about controlling our own behavior. Rather than telling another person to behave in a certain way (or to stop behaving in a certain way), we simply let them know that a behavior of theirs upsets us and, in the future, if they engage in that behavior we will respond in a self-protective way. For example, “When you yell at me and blame me for your choices, it causes me to feel ashamed—as if I am somehow causing your behavior—even though I know intellectually that your choices are yours, not mine. So, in the future when this happens, I will disengage from the conversation and ask you to leave the premises for at least an hour so I can seek the emotional support I need.”
Healthy Boundaries Do Not Limit a Person’s Thinking or Choices
Healthy boundaries are meant to protect each person’s sense of reality, each person’s physical self, each person’s thinking and reasoning (how each person gives meaning to incoming data), each person’s feelings and emotions, and each person’s choice of actions and reactions. With healthy boundaries, each person is free to think, feel, believe, and act as he or she chooses. There is full freedom of choice.
That said, one of the choices we might make is to step away, either temporarily or permanently, from a person who behaves in ways that violate our boundaries. For example, at election time we might say, “I understand and respect your desire to vote the way you want to vote. I hope you can understand and respect my desire to vote differently. In the meantime, I find your politically oriented posts on Facebook offensive, so I’m going to block our interaction on that venue.”
There are Numerous Areas of Life in Which We Need to Set and Maintain Healthy Boundaries
Areas of life in which we (and others) need to set healthy boundaries include:
- Physical: Physical boundaries involve the proximity of your body or things to another person’s body or things. This includes personal privacy, sexual contact, physical safety, and more.
- Emotional: Emotional boundaries help us manage and regulate our emotions. Generally, a good boundary is that we will honestly share our feelings, and we will honestly listen while the other person shares their feelings, and this will happen with empathy and without
- Financial: Financial boundaries usually involve transparency within a relationship about how much money there is, how it is spent, and who will manage it.
- Communication: Communication boundaries typically focus on three things: What you feel safe to talk about; the ways in which you and others can respectfully resolve conflicts; and what you will (and will not) tell others about any type of relationship conflict you are currently experiencing.
- People, Places, and Things: Many relationships, especially romantic partnerships, need boundaries around people, places, and things outside the relationship. In romantic relationships, what constitutes infidelity should always be discussed and agreed upon.
At the end of the day, healthy boundaries facilitate relationship trust. As Brené Brown states, “I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you are clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.” If we fail to set and uphold healthy boundaries at our end, or we fail to respect the healthy boundaries set by those around us, we (and they) end up feeling used and mistreated, and relationship trust and vulnerability disappear. And with that, emotional connection and intimacy also disappear.
To truly connect with others, especially partners and loved ones, in an emotionally intimate way, we must have healthy interpersonal boundaries. Without such boundaries, we will find ourselves pushing others away even as we want to pull them closer.