Holiday Boundaries: The Key to Surviving the Holidays with a Loved One Abusing Substances

In this episode, I’m going to do a deeper dive into boundaries. I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it here. Setting boundaries is both one of the most difficult things to do, and one of the most effective forms of communication when it comes to a loved one using substances.

In fact, boundaries may be the key to keeping your next holiday from turning into a shit show. What many people don’t realize is, however is that, if they’re set with compassion, and without shame, they are also one of the best ways to positively influence your loved one’s use.

So in this episode, I’m going to talk about what boundaries are, the importance of boundaries, how to communicate them with love, and why they are essential for both your loved one – whether they’re in recovery or not – and the well-being of the entire family.

So What Are Boundaries?

One of the most important things to understand about boundaries is that they are NOT about control and they are not about punishment. And that’s a good thing because trying to control another person often backfires. And you don’t have control anyway. But you do have influence. And boundaries, when they’re set right, are one of the most effective ways to positively influence your loved one’s use.

So if boundaries aren’t about control, then what are they about? Boundaries are actually about you. In dictionary terms, boundaries are the invisible lines that define the limits of acceptable behavior within a relationship. They are not barriers meant to isolate or punish, but rather safeguards that promote mutual respect and well-being in a relationship.

They respect another person’s autonomy – the fact that they’re free to behave as they choose. And they’re also free to face the consequences of that behavior.

But boundaries state that if a person engages in certain behaviors, then walls, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the behavior, will start to go up in the relationship. They are manners and degrees in which you will no longer connect with and/or support the person. What those walls look like can be highly variable. And some of that is dependent on the relationship. For example, Boundaries with children will sometimes look different than boundaries with adults.

So I want to give you some examples of what boundaries with your loved one using substances could look like.

Here are some examples of boundaries with adults:

  • I will not get in a car with you if you are drinking. Or even I will call the police if I know you are driving while intoxicated in order to protect everyone on the road. (If you use this last one, it will be important that you do it for the safety of all people on the road, not as a punishment. And I would state this clearly if you set this boundary.)
  • You will not be welcome, or you will be asked to leave family gatherings if you are under the influence of substances. Or I will leave an event or family gathering on my own if you are using substances.
  • I will not let you live here if you continue to use.
  • I will not wake you up so you can be somewhere you need to be or call into work for you if you are too hung over.
  • And the boundary family members sometimes need to set as a last resort, I will not continue a relationship with you if you continue to use.

While some of those boundaries I just mentioned can also be set with children, here are some others that can be used with children as well:

  • If you continue to use, you will no longer have access to the family car and we will not pay your insurance.
  • If you continue to use, we will no longer pay for your phone.
  • If you continue to use, we will block your access to the internet.
  • If you continue to use, we will limit other activities.

So those are some examples of what boundaries could look like.

But before you set any of these boundaries, it’s important to consider what you will use as acceptable evidence of use. Some families go as far as to require a drug or breathalyzer test. Others focus more on the unacceptable behavior that accompanies the use. If you’re focusing more on the unacceptable behavior that accompanies the use, then you will need to outline that behavior in the boundary.

In fact, you may want to outline a list of unacceptable behaviors that accompany the use as evidence.

So that’s what boundaries are, and some examples of boundaries you may choose to set with your loved one. Some of these, like your or your loved one’s participation at events, can be directly linked to the holidays. But all of them can be useful year-round.

Now, before I move on to the connection between boundaries and recovery, and how to communicate boundaries with compassion and empathy – which IS essential when you’re setting them, I want to talk about the partner to boundaries: and that’s rewards, or what many in the cognitive behavioral therapy field call positive reinforcement.

One of the things that so often happens in families affected by addiction and other dysfunction is that boundaries get weaponized and used as tools of coercion and shame. If that’s how boundaries are used, their chance of having a positive influence on the use is almost nil.

So if you really want to make the most of boundaries, it’s essential that you pair setting boundaries with rewards. The reward is not about something material, although it can be that too, but it’s mostly about support, appreciation and praise.

Setting boundaries without offering support and appreciation for positive behavior is frankly unfeeling, and depending on the extreme can even become abuse. At the very least, it renders the relationship very one-sided, all take and no give.

So even as you’re setting boundaries, it’s important to notice what your loved one does well, and offer support and praise for that. Additionally, if your loved one has other healthy interests that don’t involve substances, you can offer additional support for those interests as well.

And of course, you should offer to support, in whatever way you reasonably can, any efforts they make towards positive change.

When it comes to boundaries and rewards, basically, what you are saying is that, while I can’t be a doormat to your use, if you want help with the substance use, I’ll support you however I can. And I’ll support you and affirm you in any ways I can beyond that.

Unfortunately, even rewards can be hard to offer for family members. Because so often you’re angry. And rightly so. And that anger makes it difficult for family members to see what their loved one is doing right or doing well.

I’ve said a number of times before that setting boundaries is really hard – and it is – but families need support with rewards, too. In other words, they need a healthy place to vent their anger, and they need an outside perspective that will help them recognize ways they can reward, support, and praise their loved one.

OK, so we’ve talked about what boundaries are and what they could look like. Now let’s talk about the importance of boundaries.

The Connection Between Boundaries and Recovery

Boundaries and rewards positively influence your loved one’s use in two ways. The boundaries serve to make the use less attractive, and the rewards serve to make positive change more attractive.

But boundaries also serve at least two additional purposes. First and foremost, they provide a framework for a person in recovery to rebuild trust with their loved ones. And that’s one of the things recovering people most want to do in their relationships. But building trust takes time, and that can be challenging for a recovering person.

However, by clearly defining expectations and consequences, you basically offer them a roadmap for rebuilding that trust, because boundaries help create a stable and predictable environment, which is not only essential for building trust, it’s also essential for the recovery process.

Furthermore, boundaries protect both your loved one using substances and you the family from the potential negative consequences of substance abuse. They establish a line between supportive involvement and enabling behaviors on your part, helping you the family member avoid inadvertently contributing to the cycle of addiction.

But how you set those boundaries matters, and it’s important to communicate those boundaries with empathy, and without judgment. And you may need outside support to help you do this.

Effectively communicating boundaries requires a delicate balance of firmness – enough to show that you’re serious, and empathy for the fact that your loved one is struggling with a disease. It’s essential to express your concerns and expectations while maintaining a compassionate and non-judgmental tone.

So, Here are some tips for communicating boundaries with love:

Choose the Right Time and Place: To the best of your ability, find a calm and private setting for the conversation, and again, to the best of your ability, make sure your loved one is sober. The holiday season can be chaotic, so to the extent that you can, choose a moment when everyone is relatively relaxed, sober, and focused.

Use “I” Statements: I know this is not new, but you should frame your concerns in a way that emphasizes your feelings and your experiences. For example, say, “I feel worried when I see you drinking at family gatherings,” instead of making accusatory statements.

Express Empathy: Acknowledge the challenges your loved one is facing and express your support for their recovery journey or any kind of positive change. Let them know that the boundaries are meant to create a healthy and positive environment for everyone involved. It’s not just about them and their use.

Be Specific and Clear: It’s really important to clearly articulate the boundaries you’re setting because ambiguity can lead to misunderstandings and arguments about whether or not the boundary was actually violated. So be specific about the behaviors that are unacceptable and the consequences that may follow.

Listen Actively: This may be the hardest one, but it’s also important to encourage your loved one to share THEIR perspective and feelings. And then LISTEN. You don’t have to agree with everything your loved one says, but actively listening to what they say fosters a sense of mutual understanding and helps strengthen the lines of communication between you. And you may just learn something here that helps you have more compassion and better support your loved one in making positive change.

So those are 5 tips for communicating boundaries with love.

But establishing boundaries is just the first step; maintaining consistency in those boundaries is equally critical. Consistency provides stability and predictability, which are essential elements for both the individual in recovery and the family.

If boundaries aren’t consistently enforced, it can lead to confusion and erode the trust that the family is working to rebuild. In fact, one of the first rules of setting boundaries is to not make false threats. If you’re not prepared to uphold the boundary, it’s far better not to set it. Because setting a boundary you are not prepared to uphold actually erodes communication and trust. You will not be believed in the future if you do this and this will erode your loved one’s ability to trust you, just as their substance use erodes your ability to trust them.

You need to mean it when you set a boundary, and you need to enforce it consistently. And again, you will probably need additional support to do this. Because it’s HARD. It really is.

Consistency also reinforces the message that the boundaries are not arbitrary rules, but essential components of maintaining a supportive and healthy environment for the family. It demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of everyone involved and emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility in the recovery journey.

In fact, not enforcing boundaries consistently only contributes to the dysfunctional relationship dynamics in family addiction because rules and expectations change from one day to next.

And remember, while setting boundaries is a necessary part of supporting yourself, your family and your loved one, rewards, acknowledgement, encouragement and praise – in other words, positive reinforcement – are equally important.

Celebrate and acknowledge small victories in your loved one’s recovery journey. This positive reinforcement helps build self-esteem and reinforces the idea that adhering to boundaries leads to positive outcomes.

Boundaries around the holidays are important, but by also focusing on the positive aspects of progress, you can create a more uplifting and supportive atmosphere during the holidays.

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