Drawing a Line In the Sand

Setting boundaries with addicts.

Posted Sep 10, 2019

Addiction is no longer considered a health problem that impacts only the addict. The presence of an addict in a family or in a relationship has ripple effects, impacting anyone in the scope of the addict's close personal and even professional interactions. 

It is not uncommon for family members, friends, and coworkers to get pulled into the addict's behavior. These people, who may initially think they are a support to the addict, quickly move into being enablers. The enabler may start out by providing help to the addict, but such continued rescuing behaviors can reduce the responsibilities and consequences of the addiction for the addict. 

One of the consequences for an addict, when enablers are present, is the ability to continue on with the addictive behavior and not have to face reality or consequences. Often people in the enabler role have limited abilities to set boundaries, which is also a critical component of codependency. 

In a study in 2012 by the National Survey on Drug use and Health, out of 23 million people with addiction, only 2.5 million reached out for help, with over 19 million stating they did not see the need for help, mainly due to someone else covering or enabling their continued ability to function at some acceptable level. 

Setting Boundaries 

Boundaries are rules, guidelines, or limits that are put in place to create a safeguard for emotional and physical well-being. They are not generalizations or vague requests, rather they are specific, meaningful, and relevant and allow the addict and those around him or her to rebuild a healthy, trusting, and respectful relationship. They also provide the framework to be able to say "no" and to also hear others say "no" when boundaries are crossed.

In cases where codependency and enabling have occurred, boundaries are also in place to protect the recovering addict from the rescuing behavior or the enabling behavior of those around him or her. Some strategies for developing these boundaries include:

  • Identification of behaviors – understanding where and when behavior becomes enabling or negative is important. Knowing which behaviors your personal boundaries is critical: Typical examples may be an addict asking you to lie for them, asking you to engage in a negative behavior with them, or asking you to be in an unsafe situation. 
  • Communicated boundaries – clear communication of where the boundaries are and why they are in place is essential. Stating you will not lie to cover substance abuse by the addict is critical, but also sharing how this request makes you feel is also necessary. 
  • Talk about boundaries – while it is common for those impacted by addiction to set boundaries, the addict may also have his or her own boundaries. Talking about boundaries and showing that boundaries can be different based on individuals is a good step in developing a sense of respect about boundaries.

Boundaries are constructed as a way to define or develop healthy relationships. Boundaries are not arbitrary and are not used to manipulate or punish. Instead, with well-designed and developed boundaries, the relationship can rebuild in a way that is safe, respectful, and productive for both the recovering addict and the family member, partner, or friend. 

Whether you want to think of boundaries as a red line that cannot be crossed, or a line in the sand that designates safe behavior from unsafe or destructive behavior, the boundaries are to be enforced. Setting boundaries, providing clear communication, and following through when boundaries are violated will be essential to rebuilding the relationship moving forward. 


Foundations Recovery Network. (2014, September 4). 7 Signs that You're Enabling an Addict. Retrieved August 3, 2019, from Foundations Recovery Network: https://www.foundationsrecoverynetwork.com/7-signs-youre-enabling-addict/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.Rockville, MD: HHS.

TherapistAid.com. (2016). What Are Personal Boundaries.Retrieved August 3, 2019, from UC Berkeley, University Health Services: https://uhs.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/relationships_personal_boundaries.pdf