The Importance of Setting Boundaries With an Alcoholic Family Member

Setting boundaries is a crucial part of self-preservation if you’re in a relationship with an alcoholic or addict, whether they’re your spouse, parent, child, or friend. Without boundaries, you run the risk of being consumed by an alcoholic or addict’s needs. Addicts often disregard the needs of others as they take without boundaries and continuously. As a result, it is up to you to set and uphold boundaries.

What Are Boundaries and Why Are They Important?

People frequently lack a strong sense of independence and confidence when growing up in dysfunctional or codependent families. They instead allowed other people to define their identity, emotional state, and sense of worth. However, setting boundaries with alcoholics only serves to show that you are a separate person with your own physical and emotional needs, and enforcing boundaries is a necessary line separating two people that needs to be re-established.

You compromise who you are when your boundaries are lax. You give up control over yourself, your freedom, and your “territory.” Healthy boundaries are crucial to self-care because you can only really control yourself. Especially if the addict in your life is your child, you might wonder, “How can I be a good mother with such limits?”

It’s similar to building a wall. In their time of need, you might feel guilty or as though you’re betraying this person. It hurts to watch a loved one battle addiction. However, as they say on airplanes, you must put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. You have a chance to put on your oxygen mask when you have healthy boundaries. This is why it’s so important to establish clear boundaries with an addict. Without them, you’ll discover that you actually have little to offer others.

Setting the Boundaries With an Alcoholic

It can be challenging to establish boundaries with an alcoholic, especially if they did not previously exist in the relationship. It is up to you to set and enforce these boundaries to maintain your own sense of safety because addiction can lead to a lack of boundaries and frequent boundary-breaking.

You should consider and define what behavior you find unacceptable as a first step. Second, establish consequences once you have determined what you are unable or unwilling to handle. Give yourself compassion, and keep in mind that learning to enforce the boundary can be the most difficult part. Finally, avoiding your loved one may be necessary as a result of these consequences. Even though going this far may hurt, it must be done.

Choosing to focus your time and energy on yourself while still showing your loved one how much you care for them is known as “detaching with love.” This detachment allows you to view situations realistically and impartially. It also helps you develop self-love and guard against the detrimental effects of addiction affecting your mental health. Furthermore, by removing yourself from your loved one’s alcohol use disorder-related behaviors, this detachment can make your life happier and easier.

Use Consequences When Boundaries Are Broken

Determine some fair repercussions in the event that these boundaries are crossed now that you are aware of the behavior that you find unacceptable. Establishing boundaries with an addict is simple; the difficult part is actually upholding them. So many articles on setting boundaries in self-help books simply suggest telling the alcoholic or addict when they’ve gone too far.

Since you’ve probably already told the alcoholic a million times not to be late, not to drive drunk, or something similar, this isn’t very effective. You’ve probably asked in every way imaginable, to the point of being annoying. Without a corresponding penalty, a boundary is useless.

Make certain that you also verbalize why you are doing this to help reinforce the boundary—if they are unaware of why you are punishing them, they do not know what behavior to fix in order not to be punished again.

Consider These Boundaries

It takes consequences to spur change. If you do not stop the actions that are harming you, you are only continuing to support the addiction, regardless of whether the addict engages in self-harming behavior. The entire family still suffers when there are no boundaries.

It is beneficial to consider how “helping” has impacted you financially or emotionally when establishing your boundaries. Examples of rules to think about enforcing are:

    • Whenever you use, I won’t be around you.
    • I won’t pay you to take your preferred drug.
    • If you are using, I won’t give you housing or transportation.
    • If you are arrested, I won’t cover your legal costs or bail you out of jail.
    • If you are having issues with your job, your school, your probation officer, a friend, or anyone else, I won’t cover for you.
    • If you make me feel threatened or insulted, I won’t be around you.
    • If you can’t arrive on time for an event or your scheduled plans, you are no longer welcome.

Additionally, it might be necessary to establish limits with other family members. You need to let them know that you’re doing everything you can to support someone you care about, and then you need to assess whether they’re willing to join you. Take the example of a household with two young adults. You impose a restriction prohibiting transportation but are concerned that the addict’s sibling will provide rides to feed their addiction. If the sibling ignores your boundaries, you may have to make it clear that the sibling will suffer consequences as well.

Ultimately, working together will be the key to your greatest success. You will have the best chance of assisting recovery if all of your loved ones, including your immediate family, come together and agree to abide by the same set of boundaries.

Common Boundary Issues With Alcoholics


The safety of both you and any children in your care should always come first. Addicts can foster a dangerous environment if they:

    • Physically harm or assault others
    • Threaten, yell, curse, or belittle others
    • Damage property
    • Drive while intoxicated
    • Do not keep an eye on the children in your care, or leave drugs where kids can get them
    • Invite strangers or other drug users into your home

Your best course of action might occasionally be to leave the situation if your safety is in doubt. Additionally, if someone does not respect your safety boundaries, there may be times when you need to enlist additional assistance, such as calling a friend or 911. If someone is arrested or experiences bad outcomes because of their actions, remember: it is not your responsibility, but rather their choices that led to such a result.

Being In Their Presence While They Use

Your internal alarm system probably starts to go off when your loved one starts drinking or using drugs in front of you or shows up while under the influence; you’re flooded with anxiety and stress hormones because you know that things are likely to get worse sooner or later.

Although you can’t stop your loved one from using drugs or alcohol, you’ll need to set some ground rules to decide how much tolerance you have for this behavior. You may have a rule that you leave after just one drink from a loved one, or you may think it’s okay as long as they’re drinking wine, but as soon as the whiskey is poured, you’re gone.

When their loved one is drunk, many people establish rules about not getting into arguments or talking about certain subjects. It is also known that some people decide not to serve alcohol to visitors when they are house guests and that they request that guests do not bring alcohol when they host gatherings at their homes.

Requesting Too Much From You

Because their lives are out of control, addicts and alcoholics frequently request assistance with basic needs like transportation, housing, and financial support. None of these things must be given to adults; you are not required to.

An example of a boundary you can set in this instance is to be willing to drive the person to work and doctor’s appointments but nowhere else. Other examples of boundaries can be refusing to loan or give money out, or refusing to offer any financial assistance, rides, or court date reminders in connection with a DUI.

Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to boundaries is that they don’t always have to be shared with the other person. The best course of action may be to simply enforce your boundaries if your loved one views them as restrictions, attempts at control, or punishments. You don’t necessarily need to say that you won’t assist them with their DUI. You can easily establish and uphold this boundary by yourself.

Boundaries in Recovery

Establishing boundaries allows you to demarcate a line that you will never cross. It is crucial to have a strategy for how to react and respond, regardless of how hard the substance user tries to push past the set restrictions. Boundaries in recovery help the substance user hold themselves accountable to themselves and their program to avoid potential relapse.

Both the family’s recovery plan and the substance user’s recovery plan can teach about boundaries in recovery. Families need to keep in mind that they should also enter treatment when a substance user does. While attending meetings of self-help organizations like Al-Anon and ACOA, family recovery can take place with therapists and their sponsors.

It’s important to establish boundaries in recovery for both the substance user and their family. The family’s role in establishing boundaries for the substance user is highly stressed. Setting boundaries with toxic family members who are not in recovery is just as important for the recovering substance user.

It is not unusual for the drug or alcohol user to recover while the rest of the family remains unchanged. When this occurs, the dysfunctional family may inadvertently re-engage the substance user in their addiction. Because of this, the alcoholic or addict needs to have boundaries to prevent themselves from returning to the dysfunctional family structure.

Codependency, the fear of losing their role as the substance user’s caregiver, and the fear of losing their place in the substance user’s life because they are now recovering on their own are all factors that unhealthy family members use to sabotage their loved one’s recovery. Just remember: if someone is unwilling to respect your boundaries, that means they are unwilling to respect you as a person and are not worth keeping around.

A Reminder

As you continue to enforce your boundaries, you might find that you start to rely less and less on your addicted loved one. Separations could happen. These are once again challenging and painful circumstances. But keep in mind that weak, meaningless restrictions only serve to feed the addiction. In other words, setting clear boundaries is best for your addicted loved one. It’s also best for you. Your addicted loved one may also be motivated to seek help and make changes sooner if they are forced to take ownership of their behavior.

Next Steps

Are you prepared to begin setting boundaries? Every significant and challenging change starts with a single choice—the choice to shift your attention from what you might lose to what you might gain. Imagine a life where you have better relationships, more time to spend on yourself, less stress, and you get to know yourself again as you did before the disease took over.

Even though it may seem like a dream, it is actually a possibility. It’s difficult; you can’t just decide to change and then sit back and wait for it to happen. Even when others won’t respect them, you must establish boundaries and uphold them. Do it for the addict you care about as well as for yourself.

You’re not the only one who finds this overwhelming. We can assist you whether you’re ready to explore the possibility of inpatient treatment, whether you need assistance addressing the addiction or beginning to set boundaries, or even if you don’t know where to begin.

FAQs About Boundaries With Alcoholics

Healthy boundaries involve clearly defining limits that promote emotional well-being and support healthy relationships while managing interactions with individuals struggling with alcoholism.

Setting boundaries helps protect your emotional well-being by reducing stress, anxiety, and resentment that can arise from unhealthy interactions with alcoholics. It allows you to prioritize self-care and maintain a sense of control over your emotions.

Start by clearly communicating your limits and expectations regarding behavior and interactions related to their alcoholism. Consistency is key in enforcing these boundaries while remaining compassionate and firm. Joining a support group (such as Al-Anon or similar groups), can provide invaluable guidance and emotional support from others who are navigating similar situations.

Enforcing boundaries involves maintaining consistency and clarity in your communication. It’s important to prioritize your own needs while understanding that conflict may arise as the alcoholic adjusts to your boundaries. Seek support from others to stay consistent.

Yes, establishing boundaries can reduce physical stress and promote better health by minimizing exposure to toxic behaviors associated with alcoholism. It allows you to focus on maintaining your own physical well-being.

Financial boundaries involve setting limits on financial support or resources provided to the alcoholic, which can prevent enabling behaviors. It encourages personal responsibility and accountability for their actions.

Maintaining boundaries fosters healthier relationships by promoting respect, trust, and mutual understanding. It encourages open communication and supports both parties in prioritizing their well-being and personal growth.