Setting Boundaries With Addicted Family Members

Setting Boundaries With Addicted Family Members

Setting boundaries with addicted family members – Why do we keep moving them? And how do we know they’re an addict or alcoholic? Does that even matter?

I remember those days…

If you drink, again, I’m leaving.

If you get another DUI, I’m done!

OK. I can go along with you only drinking on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights — but no more than that!

And with each boundary (and let me say, there were thousands set and thousands moved, some with the person and some with just myself, and oddly enough, there were different ones with different loved ones over the decades), the underlying theme was always, If you loved me, you’d stop! And since you don’t stop, I must be doing something wrong. I must not be good enough. There must be something I can do to make you want to stop.

And the confounding part of it was knowing in my heart of hearts they meant it when they PROMISED to do as we’d agreed or I meant it when I set one with myself. So if they (or I) didn’t/couldn’t keep those promises, then what was “it?” Maybe if I just ______________ (i.e., set a new boundary), then….

So why is it so hard to set a boundary and stick to it? And why is it so hard for our substance misusing loved ones to keep the boundaries they agree to? And how in the world do they continually come up with some plausible rationalization or counter attack that tips the balance and sends us off, moving our boundaries, again? Above all, why can’t they just stop!?!

Why We Keep Moving Our Boundaries With Addicted Family Members

It can take someone who lives with a non-recovering alcoholic|drug addict or excessive drinker|drug user years before they even think they may need outside help, let alone seek it. There are several reasons for this:

  • Love and the memory of the love and the relationship that was there before the abusive or addicted-type drinking or drug use took hold.
  • The belief that the alcoholic|drug addict can reduce how much they drink or use, if he or she really wants to.
  • Not understanding that if someone is drinking or using drugs and has the brain disease of addiction, they drink or use because their brain is telling them they have to, not because they want to.
  • The belief that you can somehow make a difference and so you try everything you can to make the difference, which perpetuates the problem because it continues the denial that your loved one’s drinking or drug use IS the problem.
  • The conditioning you may have received if there was addiction or substance abuse (or some other “dysfunction”) in your family of origin (which could be in your parents or your grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles).
  • Lack of knowledge about normal vs abuse vs addiction when it comes to using drugs or alcohol.
  • The gradual, insidious progression of the disease of addiction.
  • And perhaps the biggest one of all – the stigma and shame that surrounds all-things addiction because of the common belief that addiction is a choice, a character defect, a lack of willpower.

Why Moving Boundaries Doesn’t Work

Moving boundaries (in the sense of not sticking to the one you’d set) never works because addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. Disease by its simplest definition is something that changes cells in a negative way. When cells change in an organ, the health and function of the organ also changes.

Addiction changes how cells in the brain communicate with one another, and given the brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do, it’s those changes that change brain function and therefore a person’s behaviors (including their lying, cheating, stealing; saying mean, nasty things; breaking promises to stop or cut down).

Thus as long as a person with the disease of addiction uses ANY amount of the substance to which they are addicted, that person’s behaviors will not / cannot change. And all of our misguided attempts to set boundaries that we ultimately don’t keep only erodes the person we are / were meant to be. This is not to say there aren’t HEALTHY boundaries – there are – but typically, we try to set boundaries around their continued use or around excusing their continued use because we’re not really ready to enforce the boundary we set (such as, “I’m leaving if you use, again.”).

So think of it this way: if your loved one is powerless over their brain (their addiction; their behaviors) if they use, you are most definitely powerless over their brain (their addiction; their behaviors) when they use. Understanding that addiction is a brain disease helped me to let go of my blaming, shaming, attempts to manipulate a solution, hurt feelings and anger. I could finally understand it wasn’t “them” doing it to me, it was their brain powerless over their behaviors when alcohol or drugs were in their system.

Sad little boy hearing his parents arguingAnd it’s important to note – the behavioral changes occur when a person uses more of their drug or alcohol than their body can metabolized (get rid of). In other words, a person does not have to be an addict or alcoholic (have the disease of addiction). The behavioral changes I’m talking about, whether a person is an addict or “simply” misuses drugs or alcohol (aka abuses drugs or alcohol), include:

  • Verbally, physically or emotionally abusing someone – often a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or child.
  • Being inconsistent in one’s behaviors (more loving or solicitous or more offensive and nit-picking than when not drinking or using, as examples); pursuing insane, circular arguments or trains of illogical thought.
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking / drug use or recovering from the drinking / drug use.
  • Fighting with loved ones about the drinking or drug use; getting physically violent while under the influence.
  • Experiencing blackouts (not “remembering” what was said or done).
  • Getting a DUI; driving while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Having unplanned, unwanted or unprotected sex; date rape.

So the bottom line in all of this is the behaviors. If you do not like the behaviors your loved one exhibits when they drink or use drugs – that’s the issue. Not them (because remember, it’s brain changes caused by the chemical in drugs or alcohol changing brain function), not how much or how often – it’s the drinking or drugging behaviors caused by their drinking or drug use.

How to Prepare to Set and Stick To the Boundaries We Need to / Want to Set

The first thing is to understand is that it’s OK to not want to live this way anymore. In other words, your boundary does not have to be agreeable to anyone else but you. You only have one crack at this life and deserve to live it as you want to live it. Now I realize actually believing this is far beyond easier said than done at this point in time and that getting to the place of actually believing this will take time, but hearing (reading) this can be a first step to your considering these suggestions:

1.  Learn about the brain disease of addiction, including the five key risk factors that contribute to a person developing the disease (yes, developing – people are not born addicts/alcoholics), which include: mental illness, childhood trauma, genetics, early use and social environment. Check out 7 Soundbites to Update 2014 Conversations Around AddictionUnderstand that alcohol or drug abuse is not addiction but causes similar behavioral changes. Check out this short video, Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.

2.  Gain more understanding about Why Addicts | Alcoholics Lie, Cheat and Steal from those they love the most.

3.  Understand The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction and that you’ve been deeply changed, too – check out The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connectionas well.

4.  Understand that for all concerned, change requires changing brain maps because brain maps are our habits – how we cope, how we react. Check out Understand Brain Maps | Change a Habit | Change Your Life.

5.  Know you will always be triggered to fall back into your old dance, i.e., your old way of coping, BUT you don’t have to fall back into your old ways of reacting. Check out Courage to Change the Things I Can and Master of Manipulation – the Disease of Addiction.

6. Get help for yourself.

More Information and Answers

LF-AddictionRecovery-500pxYou might also want to purchase my new eBook, Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn’t. It’s a quick read but full of key information and answers, including what you can do to help yourself as you get more solid in how you’ll proceed. Here’s what Stephen Kassels, MD, had to say about it on Amazon:

As a physician who has board certified in both Emergency Medicine and Addiction Medicine and the Medical Director for an out-patient addiction service, I highly recommend “Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery”. The author does a great job of explaining that addiction is a disease of the brain, no different than how diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. How a person develops the disease, what it takes to treat and recover from the disease, as well as what family members can do to help themselves, and through that effort, better help their loved ones is well elucidated. It is a free flowing read with excellent resources linked throughout. I highly recommend it.

You can purchase this Quick Guide from most eBook retailers. Here’s the link to the Kindle version. This link takes you to iBook section of the iTunes store where you’ll type in the book title (Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery), and this link takes you to the Nook version. If you don’t have any of these devices, Kindle has a free reading app that allows you to read the Kindle version on most major smartphones, tablets and computers.

And, as always, feel free to call (650-362-3026) or email ( me with questions – there is no charge.

© 2015 Lisa Frederiksen


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

13 Responses to Setting Boundaries With Addicted Family Members

  1. Diane Mintz says:

    This makes so much sense I want to share it at my Alanon meeting tomorrow – Thank you

  2. Great information here about boundaries, Lisa. It is a judgement call every time and that’s where I think the confusion can start. The bottom line for me is to support long term recovery with every decision and boundary that you set. Thanks for sharing. Your Guide Book has great information! Thanks!

    • Excellent point, Cathy – “to support long term recovery with every decision and boundary that you set,” and now with the new research (when/as it’s more widely understood), it should be more clear how / what to do. I’m glad to hear you found my new Quick Guide helpful.

  3. Dave Cooke says:

    Clearly the challenge associated with setting and honoring boundaries is one of the most challenging components in interacting with people with addiction/abuse issues. The manipulation that comes with these boundaries tests fairness and resolve. Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement.

  4. You know, Lisa – I always enjoy, and learn from, your articles. One of the biggest reasons is you back what you present with facts. Seriously, readers, look at how many links Lisa includes in her statements. And that’s why I’m delighted to share Lisa’s work with my readers and clients.

    Here’s my favorite: “Know you will always be triggered to fall back into your old dance, i.e., your old way of coping, BUT you don’t have to fall back into your old ways of reacting.” That’s called insight and acceptance. None of us can be perfect, totally deleting our leanings. But we can sure accept they’re there and learn to manage.

    Here’s to you, Lisa. Thank You!

  5. Cynthia says:

    wow I just came across this thru facebook and this is so me 🙁 constantly setting boundaries but then moving them and not knowing what else to do, trying to hard to leave my drinking spouse but somehow doesn’t seem like the answer. thanks for sharing this

  6. […] Families of addicts can also learn how to detach from their addicted loved one, because more than likely during active addiction a rather sick and co-dependent relationship was created. It is the nature of addiction to turn relationships on their head and through the treatment process family members can learn how to better take care of themselves and set up healthy boundaries with their newly sober loved one. […]

  7. Jason Starc says:

    What about when the addicted family member behaves in the same despicable manner long after they have been sober and the family is told that they need to endure the abusive behavior and not “cause” the addicted person to relapse during the “dry drunk” phase,which is 1-2 years,or anytime thereafter? Also, why is the addicted person able to control the same behavior around different people with the drop of a hat? I think that the notion that they have no control over their behavior enables them to continue to do as please with no accountability.

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