Boundaries can be a confusing landscape to navigate. Professionals are quick to point out the need for boundaries, and when looking at someone else’s family, the solution seems so obvious. It’s not so easy when it’s our own family. Especially with young people, boundaries can have as much impact on their recovery as their individual participation.
When we talk about boundaries it is important to understand that you are being asked to change even if your loved one who suffers from addiction doesn’t make any changes. If you can embrace that one concept, then boundaries are easy.
As usual, there is a need for a disclaimer. What is discussed in this blog is simply our view based on our collective experience (professionally and personally) in recovery and working in the field of addiction. We always suggest that you read, or better yet, interact with others as much as possible until an approach that fits your values is found. Here is one perspective on this subject.
First, it’s helpful to look at the way those who suffer from addiction get their needs met. What follows are some generalizations about the addict population, but you should see some commonalities. Addiction is a selfish process, and in order to feed ‘the beast’, the addict will utilize an arsenal of different tactics.
Addicts in recovery will often look back and see maladaptive behaviors that predate addiction, while others have been models of good behavior until they started using. The following are examples of some ways in which needs are met. This is not an all-inclusive list, but rather a starting point from which to begin a discussion of boundaries.
The Ambush: What makes an effective ambush? Speed, surprise and urgency of action. The addict will use this approach to get what he wants by overwhelming you with information and request that action must be taken now. If action is not taken now, then all will be lost. This approach is very dramatic, and by design, no room is left for you to pause and think it over.
The Maze: This tactic is used to confuse you with extraneous information so that the request seems minimal compared to what they are going through. If you are in a confusing conversation with more information and ‘facts’ than you can keep track of, then you are in the maze. Example: “Do you have the money you borrowed?” “I was on the way to the bank when I was pulled over by the police, which was total harassment, by the way. Then my girlfriend calls and yells at me for not depositing my paycheck. Getting pulled over caused me to be late for work so now my boss is mad at me, so no, I don’t have your money.”
Self-Pity: This is nothing more than reverse psychology. The goal is to make you feel guilty about or sorry for the current situation, so much so that you are going to offer support. This is actually quite effective, as parents especially will walk on eggshells around the addict and guilt drives them to suggest the very thing the addict is fishing for. Example: “Treatment was really difficult. I didn’t want to go but I did. Then I had to leave my friends to come to this halfway house. Nobody likes me and I can’t get around. All I do is sit in my room.” “Well, why don’t your father and I get you a car so you can get around.”
Plucking of the Heartstrings: A classic! The addict picks the parent most likely to cave and starts laying on the compliments and expressing affection. They magnify their progress in order to give you hope, thus deserving of a reward. Always remember that recovery is its own reward. Often this tactic will be the opening act, but can quickly turn to another when it does not work. Example: “You know dad, I really love you and respect how difficult this whole process has been for you. I have been working really hard since arriving here and my counselor says I am doing really well! A car would really help…..”
The Bully: As the name suggests, this is the bulldozer. Zero finesse. No beating around the bush, straight to the point and laced with anger and designed to wound you. When the bully is used, the conversation should end immediately. Example: “I never wanted to go to treatment, you destroyed my life, I hate you and if you don’t get me a car, I am leaving and I will never speak to you again!”
Passive-Aggressive ‘Love’: This tactic is common, but easy to spot with an unsophisticated delivery. In the hands of a skilled manipulator, however, it’s highly effective. Instead of plucking the heartstrings, this one wounds the heart a little at a time. No one wound would amount to much, but collectively, the wounds add up and eventually you give in to their demands. It is difficult to write an example as it would take up significant space (this tactic can take a while to achieve) but here are the highlights: “You were never there growing up. This whole situation is your fault. I miss you but I don’t like you. I was only joking when I said I was going to relapse, etc….” Actions are important in this example as well, such as being happy when they get what they want and sulking when they do not. Not calling when they know communication is important to you, giving one-word answers and implying threats of using, not speaking to you and/or not participating in the relationship.
Worn Out: More often than not, they wear you out with a constant chipping away at your defenses until you give in. As parents, we get tired from the constant onslaught and we cave. In fact, no one tactic is used; rather, they are used like a boxer switching from jabs, body blows and uppercuts until we lose the will to fight (hold the boundary).
What exactly are boundaries? Boundaries are a line in the sand that protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings. They are ways of protecting your values from being manipulated. Boundaries can be an instrument of change for your loved one who suffers from addiction. Addiction respects action, not words. If an intelligent conversation could cure addiction, most addicts would have been sober well before the need for treatment. Change will not occur until the old behavior no longer works. If I can continue to get money out of you, why would I get a job? If you bail me out of jail every time I get in trouble, why would I stop getting arrested? Seems obvious…..right? Then why do so many families compromise their core values and pander to the addict?
Fear. Fear keeps us from taking the actions necessary to promote a healthy relationship. Fear makes you a hostage, and once established, it is terribly difficult to remove. Fear of losing your loved one to addiction is the most common fear, and this will cause you to sell out your values. You’ll be walking on eggshells.
There is also the belief that you can somehow fix the addiction by giving in. This is essentially trying to bribe the addict into change, and it does not work. It may be successful for a short time but it does not produce lasting change. Just being plain tired is another reason we fail to uphold boundaries. Are you willing to allow fear, bribery and tiredness to hold you hostage? Let’s hope not!
So, what does it take to set an effective boundary? Nobody can tell you what your boundary should be, although that probably doesn’t stop well-meaning people from doing so. At Gray Wolf Ranch we help families through a process of identifying what their values are and then identifying what the boundary is. So what are your values? Here are some examples:
• Being a part of the family
• Recovery First
If these are the values you embrace, then they must be translated into boundaries. Boundaries must be consistent, and presented the same way over time. Example: we have had families write their boundaries out on paper and leave it next to the phone so when their son calls and begins attempting to manipulate, each parent says the same thing.
This, of course, assumes forethought and consensus. Everybody needs to be on the same page and agree to the same principles. That word consensus is very important, as often parents do not share the same values or the priority of the values is not the same. A unified front is essential, and that means no more ‘good cop/bad cop’.
Part of developing a boundary is having a consequence associated with not respecting that boundary. If you make a commitment to a consequence, then you follow through with it. Example: the family agrees that if their son who is in treatment uses the bully tactic during a phone conversation, the conversation is over by politely ending the phone call. Simple….but not always easy. Nothing gets an addict’s attention quite like a boundary where before there was none.
Stay away from ‘forever’ consequences. The above example was not to never speak with him again, simply that this particular conversation is over.
Another good rule to follow is to say what you are going to do, not what the addict should do. Example: “If you choose to speak to us like that again, we will no longer participate in the conversation.” Remember, the boundary is for you, to protect you from being hurt and manipulated. When boundaries are set, people are forced to try new and hopefully healthier ways of communicating, which brings us to an important point: you must practice what you preach. If you are no longer going to accept being bullied, then you cannot be a bully. If you will no longer accept passive-aggressive behavior then you cannot be passive-aggressive yourself. Boundaries are about change in the system, not the individual.
Setting boundaries is a process that begins with examination of what’s wrong in the system and identifying where manipulation and unhealthy practices are at work. Then, then core values are identified and boundaries are developed that support those values. Consistency, follow through and tact are essential components as well.
Boundaries are not easy, so it is important to find support. The various 12-Step communities are the perfect place to start. Attend an AL-ANON, Families Anonymous or CODA meeting.