Boundaries are often distorted by addiction. Here’s how to set them straight
By Mary McGraw Gordon
Setting healthy boundaries is a very real need for any family beginning a recovery path. While patients returning home must establish new and healthy boundaries to support their recovery, so too must their family and loved ones develop their own. For many, this is a daunting task, complicated by addiction’s injurious impact on family relationships.
To start the process as a family member, you must first take a long, hard look at yourself. Boundaries are imaginary lines in the sand with which you surround all the things you value and care to protect.
The implication is that those lines should be respected and never crossed. Part of the process of boundary setting involves recognizing those things you want to protect—the kind of soul-searching that’s often involved in treatment programs. Once you figure out your values, it’s time to take a look at the patterns within your family structure.
In her book The Alcoholic Family in Recovery, Stephanie Brown identifies four stages of family recovery: drinking, transition, early recovery and ongoing recovery. Her developmental model is a helpful tool in supporting a family’s road to wellness and begins with the family’s history and memories to reveal existing family dynamics.
As Brown outlines, in the drinking stage, family boundaries are fuzzy, limited, rigid or even nonexistent. The erosion of boundaries within a family system is just as gradual and progressive as the disease of addiction, and it is often difficult for family members to recognize how or why they relate to one another in certain ways. Most family members have adapted to the addiction with behaviors that protect them from the pain the addiction has inflicted.
Different members take on various roles within the family structure as a means to counter the imbalance caused by the addiction. The youngest person in a family may take on the role of mascot; the maternal figure may become the extreme caretaker. Each member needs to look at the roles they play and how addiction within their family has personally impacted them.
A family can start their discovery by discussing and learning what influences their family boundaries from the following categories: culture, gender, race, religion, demographics, age, personality types, trauma and physical size.
For example, different cultures respect different, and often unwritten, rules of order and conduct. The same holds true for different regions (demographics) and religions. An exploration of each of these categories, preferably with the guidance of a professional, helps the family to construct an accurate picture of what boundaries exist within their family system and what boundaries need to be developed.
Once healthy boundaries have been set, it’s important that each member of the family works on self-awareness and responsibly communicates his or her needs, emotions and concerns when those lines in the sand are crossed. Accountability is also a must. If you step out of bounds, admit it. If you lose control of your emotions and lash out, recognize your unhealthy behaviors, apologize and grow from the experience. By respecting the boundaries of others, you fortify your own.
Set Your Boundaries
- Physical: What is your personal comfort zone, and whom do you allow into that zone?
- Emotional: When do you know it is safe to share intimate details with a person? How can you be in touch with your inner guidance through your feelings?
- Sexual: How can you determine the difference between enmeshment and true intimacy? Do you have a right to sexual fulfillment? Within the context of an intimate committed relationship, can you say no to your partner?
- Fiscal: Can you decide how to share your money or if and when it’s appropriate to share?
- Spiritual: How do you decide which spiritual path fits your growth and journey? Do others get to impose their paths onto you? How do you set spiritual boundaries in order to grow?
Mary McGraw Gordon, MA, CADC II, is director of Family and Outpatient Services, Betty Ford Center, Rancho Mirage, Calif.