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Setting boundaries with your addicted loved one

Have Your Limits

Notice how breaking tends to happen to you, in reaction to something you can’t control. In order to brake, you will need to be at the controls: your hands on the steering wheel, your feet on the pedals. Knowing the difference depends on awareness. To build awareness and acceptance of your limits, you can ask yourself these questions:

What exactly is it that I dread?

How can I prepare myself for the best and worst outcome?

What can I do with this anger (or other emotion) before it gets out of control?

How can I settle my anxiety/other emotions enough to think straight and make good decisions?

What parts of this situation can I control?

Any of the awareness exercises from chapter 4 can help bring the signs of your limits into view. The “Self-Care Checklist” in chapter 5 is meant to encourage you to take care of yourself, but it can also help you respect your limits and breaking points, since they partly depend on tolerance and resilience.

Living Your Limits

Determining a limit and living with it are not the same thing. You may be hugely relieved by your decision not to pick him up at the train when he has been drinking; he can walk or find a ride home. You may celebrate the prospect of no more good-night phone calls when she’s drunk. But actu­ally following through can bring on a new, challenging mix of anxiety and guilt. Living with the limits you set requires conviction in their validity, plus tolerating your loved one’s reaction when you stand by them.

This chapter introduces limits as guidelines for self-care. In the next part of the book, we’ll present the goal-setting, communication, and rein­forcement strategies you can use to solve more complicated problems with limits, when it isn’t as simple as turning on the stereo in your car. This chapter is meant simply to give you permission to have limits, to help you see the value in knowing where they are, and to encourage you to pay attention to the relationship between your limits and how you take care of yourself. If you’re not sure how to talk to your loved one or anyone else affected by your limits, you can keep them to yourself for now.

Be patient while you get the hang of your limits. If you are used to los­ing your temper when he chooses that glass of wine over you, it might be enough for now to just notice that and take care of yourself. Practice setting and communicating lower-stakes limits in situations that are less charged—ordering in instead of cooking, having your mom babysit so you can stay later at work—where your boundaries will more likely be honored. Start smaller, set out a plan, and practice getting comfortable with your limits. Pick the lower-hanging fruit.

What’s hard about this . . . Family systems are like any organic system that tends toward a homeostatic state. When one person in a family (or couple or friendship) changes, everyone around him may try, consciously or uncon­sciously, to pull him back to the old routine (because that’s where they still are). As we’ll see in chapter 11 (“Consequences”), a “burst” of reaction is natural from others when we set new limits and their behavior doesn’t elicit the result they have come to expect. However, if you can tolerate an unpleas­ant reaction a few times in a row, the behavior will likely burn out.

Evie’s husband was trying to stop drinking by checking in with his addiction psychiatrist a couple times a month while he powered through long days at his all-consuming job. Evie took care of their three kids and cooked everything from scratch while she tried to run a small business. When her husband wasn’t relapsing, Evie was pretty happy with the full­ness of their life. When he decided to drink for a weekend, she was dev­astated. She knew her husband and their household were doing better on the whole, but she was always ready to snap, and snap she did when she found out he had been drinking.

As she educated herself on how people make behavioral changes, she came to understand that lapses were a likely part of the process for her husband. So, she decided to focus on minimizing the effects of his lapses on her, so that she wouldn’t break. She served leftovers more often. Her husband helped by getting up with the kids one morning each weekend. She made a point of taking five quiet, uninterrupted minutes each day to just breathe. She trained her nine-year-old daughter to ask her how she was doing as they drove home from school—not that Evie would unload everything on her daughter, but because it helped to remind her to ask the question to herself. Paying more attention to her own limits and reactions, she noticed that not only did she keep her temper in check on more occa­sions, but when she did lose it, she was able to get her equilibrium back more quickly than she used to.

Have Your Limits

Living life always at the edge of your breaking point is like a game of Jenga. The players take turns pulling out blocks one by one from the tower of blocks, hoping at each turn that this will not be the block that makes the whole thing collapse. We try to help families dealing with substance prob­lems stack the blocks of their lives differently, so that a single block does not make the difference between a standing tower and a pile of rubble. The elements of self-care in this part—awareness, acceptance, distress toler­ance, rest, nourishment, exercise, getting help when you are physically or psychologically ill, and setting limits—are the materials for a stable foun­dation and earthquake-proof building. Stability doesn’t depend on nothing going wrong. Rather, it depends on your ability to weather problems and mistakes, making sure the regular demands of life do not wear on the whole system too much, and repairing damages when they occur.

Take our suggestions with your own limits in mind. The research is clear about the power of family involvement, but there is no master check­list of things every family should do. The quality of your involvement mat­ters, as you will see, and a big factor in quality is whether you are involved in ways that make sense to you. Let your limits guide you in deciding what you will do and when you will do it.


It’s a sad and well-documented fact that when domestic violence occurs, alcohol and other substances are often involved. If you think you are at risk for violence in your relationship, the principles in this chapter apply all the more urgently, with some additional considerations specific to domestic abuse. Please take your feelings seriously if you are worried that your loved one may become violent—either in general or specifically in response to a change you plan to make. When we recommend making changes, our hope is for things to improve, but if you feel you are in danger or physically at risk, please get more information on how to protect yourself. This section is not meant to be a complete resource on this matter. We suggest where you might turn for more information and help and a few steps you can take toward greater safety:

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.


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