Setting and Maintaining Healthy (Prodependent) Boundaries With an Addicted Loved One

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW

The simple truth is that many addicts try to get healthy and succeed. They get sober, stay sober, and slowly overcome the underlying issues that drive their addiction. Other addicts, however, will repeatedly try and fail to get sober. Sometimes this occurs because they have no real interest in sobriety, even if they pretend otherwise. Sometimes this occurs because they’re not getting proper treatment and support from other recovering addicts. Either way, the outcome has very little, if anything at all, to do with the addict’s loved ones. An addict’s sobriety is not dependent on his or her spouse, partner, or family. Recovery is the purview of the addict and no one else.

Still, loved ones of addicts often feel responsible for the safety, wellbeing, and recovery of the addict. Typically, these loved ones will attempt to help the addict by setting and enforcing ‘boundaries’ related to the addiction.

Unfortunately, many of these caring and extremely well-intentioned individuals have an inaccurate understanding of what healthy boundaries look like. When they set boundaries, they attempt to put limits on the addict’s behavior. As they do this, they inevitably learn, as does anyone who has ever attempted to control the behavior of another human being, that this does not work. The addict does not want to be controlled by a loved one any more than the loved one wants to be controlled by the addict.

My suggestion is that loved ones of addicts should work toward a different type of boundaries – boundaries that focus on the loved one’s behavior rather than on the addict’s behavior. In my book, Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, I illustrate this idea with two analogies:

  1. Healthy boundaries are about staying in our own hula hoop. The only things we can control (and that we should try to control) are the items in our immediate space – our own emotions, ideas, thoughts, and actions.
  2. Healthy boundaries are about recognizing that if it’s not our circus, we’re not in charge of corralling all the monkeys that have escaped. If a problem is not of our making, it’s also not ours to control or fix.

Ultimately, the purpose of a healthy boundary is to set meaningful limits on what we will and won’t put up with from other people. This does not mean that loved ones of addicts must find ways to push away the addict when the addict engages in problematic behaviors. What it means is that loved ones of addicts should find safe ways to let the addict in. If the addict is behaving in ways that are safe, the loved one can choose to let the addict in. If the addict is behaving in ways that are not safe, the loved one can choose to keep the addict out. The addict’s behavior belongs to the addict; a loved one’s choices belong to the loved one.

When properly implemented, healthy boundaries keep loved ones of addicts safe, while stopping them from enmeshing with, enabling, and attempting to control the addict and his or her behavior. As such, healthy boundaries protect loved ones of addicts from bad behavior by the addict, and addicts from bad behavior by the loved one. In time, with healthy boundaries, addicts and caregiving loved ones can establish and maintain healthy interdependence (i.e., prodependence) in their relationship.

That said, healthy boundaries are not a one size fits all proposition. Boundaries that are useful in some relationships could be incredibly unhelpful in others. Recognizing this, I suggest that loved ones of addicts answer the following questions before they attempt to define and implement boundaries.

  • How deeply mired in addiction is your loved one? Does the addiction completely control the addict’s life and thought process, or can the addict still (at least occasionally) make intelligent, rational, well-reasoned decisions?
  • Would pulling back and letting the addict face the consequences of the addiction be helpful in terms of motivating his or her recovery?
  • What would those consequences likely be? Are those consequences something that you and the rest of your family can live with?
  • What aspect of the addiction frightens you most? What aspect of the addiction do you most want (and try) to control? Is this a fear that you can rationally and legitimately release?

As you can see from these questions, sometimes easing back on control is the right thing to do. Other times, it might not be. And sometimes the difference between the two is not entirely clear. That is the difficulty faced by loved ones of addicts. Sometimes the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t is a matter of trial and error. And what works and doesn’t work today may change as the addict recovers and becomes more accountable.

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If you have experienced relationship betrayal related to sexual addiction or chronic infidelity, you have experienced a significant form of trauma from which you will need to heal. At the same time, it will help you to understand how your addicted/cheating partner thinks and what your partner’s process of recovery entails. To this end, you may want to consider taking Seeking Integrity’s low-cost online Workgroup for Betrayed Partners. Our next six-week session starts March 1, 2023; click here for more information.