A blog by Tim Panagos

Family members play a key role in helping their loved one stay sober. Following rehab, the first step for everyone - the recovering addict and their family - is to understand how to establish healthy boundaries and rebuild trust. However, knowing how to set boundaries can be challenging, especially if you have lost sight of what healthy boundaries are or how to implement them. Often, in active addiction as behaviour deteriorates and relationships breakdown, the things that family members would have previously found totally unacceptable become the norm as boundaries are pushed until they break.

What is a Boundary?

Personal boundaries are limits that people set to let someone know what is and isn’t acceptable. We set a boundary to express our needs and, if done correctly, this can be incredibly helpful for the person in recovery and their family. Healthy boundaries are set for, not by, the recovering addict to help establish guidelines for suitable behaviours, responsibilities and actions. In the words of Rokelle Lerner, a speaker and author on addiction and relationship issues, “What I value I will protect, but what you value I will respect.” For those in addiction recovery and their loved ones, having healthy boundaries may be a relatively new concept. However, they are important to make everyone feel safe and in control; being unboundaried is like playing a game without knowing the rules.

Defining the Boundary

Boundaries work the best when they are specific. For example, “If you take my car without permission, I will no longer give you access to the keys”. This boundary clearly states the outcome that is unacceptable and the consequence of breaking the boundary. Ensuring there is complete understanding of the boundary when it is being set is crucial, so be concise and clear from the outset. Explaining why a specific boundary is being implemented can also be useful, both for the one setting the boundary and the one receiving it. Often visualising the boundary as a property line that must not be crossed can help.

What if a Boundary is Crossed?

In an ideal world, all boundaries would be accepted and respected. Unfortunately, that is not reality so it’s important you are prepared to carry through with the consequence if the boundary is crossed. While it might be hard to enforce the predetermined action, it is crucial for both you and your loved one to ensure that the relationship continues to be safe, supportive and respectful.

Setting appropriate Boundaries

Personal boundaries will be different for different people and different situations. You probably wouldn’t have exactly the same boundaries with a colleague as you would with a family member and your boundaries don't have to be set in stone. The boundaries you establish with a loved one when they first leave rehab, won't be the same two years down the line when they're further along their recovery journey.

Looking After Yourself

Boundary setting can be hard, even harder if your boundaries are not always respected. Making sure you have enough time for self-care is essential for your own mental wellbeing. A support system can be helpful during difficult times and to assist you in taking action when boundaries are crossed. Remember, you are not alone and if boundary setting is new, it will be challenging at first. However, with time it will get easier as you start to regain mutual respect and understanding with your loved one.

Contact us for information and expert advice on supporting a recovering addict.