Healthy Boundaries and Relapses

A couple weeks ago we talked about what to do if a loved one relapses. Part of what we talked about was maintaining healthy boundaries. Yet, this is something society does not talk much about. In fact, society often pressures us into letting go of healthy boundaries in favor of other, less beneficial gains. So, let’s take a little time today to talk about how we maintain healthy boundaries, so we are prepared when a loved one relapses.

What are Boundaries?

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First, let’s talk about what boundaries are. In the broadest sense, boundaries are limits. Concrete examples include state and federal borders. They’re not as clear when we talk about boundaries with people, but the concept is the same. It’s the limits we place on what we deem acceptable and not acceptable. Examples include your physical space, the energy you spend in a relationship, and how much money are you willing to spend on a relationship. While these are not the only boundaries we have, they should help you understand what we mean when we talk about boundaries.

Healthy Boundaries

Now that we’re clear on what we mean by boundaries, we can address what healthy boundaries are. This gets a little trickier to define. Each person has their own definition of healthy boundaries, so it’s not as easy to give a universal definition. The simplest way to think about if a boundary you’ve set is healthy or not is to answer a set of questions.

The Why Part

The first question is why are you setting the boundary where you are? What is it doing for you? Is it to help provide safety and wellbeing? Is it to ensure you have enough resources left to take care of yourself? Or is it because you can’t bear to let go of someone and/or their issues? Or someone has hurt you several times and are working to keep yourself from getting hurt again? How you answer these questions still won’t give you a clear-cut answer on if a boundary is healthy or not, but it will give you some clues. If you are setting boundaries to make sure you can take care of yourself at the end of the day, it’s probably a healthy boundary. If your answer is more like the scenarios in those last two questions, you may want to consider that boundary further. These last two questions don’t mean the boundary is unhealthy but can indicate a problem at times.

The Energy Part

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The next question is how much energy are you willing to invest in enforcing this boundary? While this may seem like an odd question, consider this. If you set a boundary but are not willing to enforce it, you’re in effect teaching people not to take your boundaries seriously. So, it is critically important to enforce those limits where you’ve set them or make a conscious choice to adjust those boundaries to where you will enforce them.

The Goal Part

Finally, is the boundary you’ve set achieving the purpose you have for setting it? This circles back the first question about why you’re setting a boundary. It’s about testing to see if the boundary is working the way you want it to work or not. Even when we have good intentions and good reasons for certain boundaries, if they’re not working the way we want them to we may need to change them.

Changing Our Boundaries

That’s perhaps the best part of all this is that we can change our boundaries to work when we want or need. We need to keep these questions in mind when we make those changes. As long as we are satisfied with the answers we discover when evaluating our own boundaries, then it’s most likely a healthy boundary.

The toughest part with setting boundaries is everyone will have different boundaries. What one person considers a healthy boundary, others may not. It doesn’t mean we have to change a boundary when others disagree with that boundary, but we should consider why they’re concerned. It can get easy to think we are doing something good for ourselves and not see how it may harm us.

How Boundaries Apply to Relapse

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Now, how does this connect back to what happens when a loved one relapses? The nature of addictive and using behaviors is to push limits, manipulate, and deceive. It’s not that our loved one is intentionally being cruel to us, it’s the disease driving those behaviors. That means we must be careful when considering why we are doing the things we are with that loved one. Is the decision to bail them out of a tough situation going to help them? Or will it enable them to continue the negative behaviors?

Perhaps the most important boundary to hold when a loved one relapses is that line between your loved one and the disease. Because we see the behaviors, we can slip into blaming the person for the choices they are making. Choice doesn’t play that kind of role though. Remember, the behaviors are about doing what they can to minimize the pain, shame, anxiety, and all the other uncomfortable feelings that come with addictions. This limits what choices the loved one has despite what it may look like on the outside.

In the end, none of this is an exact science. There are no easy answers. Supporting a loved one through a relapse can be painful, intimidating, and frustrating. They’re often feeling the same way, even if they won’t admit it. Next week, we will talk about how trauma plays a role in relapses and one way of working on that trauma while the loved one is in treatment.