Boundaries in Recovery

In addiction recovery, partners of addicts often ask where to draw the line between holding an addict accountable without becoming responsible for his behavior. Addicts do need to be held accountable for both their actions and the effects of their actions on others. Boundaries are a crucial part of recovery. However, for partners of addicts, it is easy to cross the line into becoming responsible for the addict’s recovery.

Some warning signs that you may be crossing into becoming responsible are:

  • Providing constant reminders of recovery behaviors he is “supposed to be doing”
  • Experiencing consistent, intense emotional reactions to his lack of recovery behaviors
  • Punishing or shaming him into doing things he has committed to do
  • Basing your own commitment to your recovery on whether he is doing his work
  • Numbing out or disconnecting from your own emotions based on his behaviors
  • Controlling or manipulating

The reason becoming responsible for his recovery is dangerous is that it puts you in a position of powerlessness. It may feel powerful or safe to control, manipulate, or coerce recovery behaviors in your partner, but you soon realize that your safety will always be tied to how well you can control someone else. Of course, this is not a healthy long-term solution.

The “secret” to holding an addict accountable without becoming responsible for his recovery is creating, communicating, and enforcing boundaries.

Boundaries in Addiction RecoveryBoundaries are like fences between neighbors. They define the limits of the relationship. Contrary to what you might think, boundaries actually strengthen relationships because they communicate relational needs, define appropriate and inappropriate engagement in the relationship, and delineate consequences for inappropriate engagement.

Setting and Enforcing Boundaries

Setting and enforcing boundaries can be very challenging. It requires that you trust your own judgment about what is healthy. When properly engaged, boundaries allow you to hold an addict accountable in recovery without becoming responsible for his behaviors.

Some examples of healthy boundaries in addiction recovery follow:

  • “If you act out in your addiction and hide it from me, I will ask you not to sleep in my bed until I feel safe again with you.”
  • “You often lie about what you are doing or where you are going. For now, I need you to leave your GPS on your cell phone on throughout the day so that if I get worried about where you are, I can check to help manage my worries. When I feel safe that you are being honest, I will let you know that I don’t need you to do that anymore.”
  • “I will feel much safer and able to trust you if you are attending weekly 12-step meetings. If you choose not to go, I will be limited in my ability to emotionally connect with you.”
  • “If you try to make your poor choices in recovery my fault, I will let you know that in our next couple therapy session we will discuss my concerns with our therapist. I will not argue with you about it.”
  • “I will not engage sexually with you when I feel coerced or when you beg.”
  • “If you cannot work toward understanding how your addiction has hurt me, and if you continue to excuse your behavior, I will move toward a separation from you because in this state of mind, your ‘addict’ self is not safe enough for me to be with.”

Remember, boundaries are not punishments. They are not meant to coerce behavior in another. The best way I’ve heard a boundary described is this, “My boundary is how I protect myself when you won’t protect me.” Often, it’s less about the exact nature of the boundary that defines it as healthy, and more about intention.