About Boundaries

Boundary – ‘a limit on what is reasonable’ – Oxford English Dictionary. One of the areas that families of substance users have difficulty with is in setting boundaries that are effective and manageable.

All relationships where people live together need boundaries in place to develop trust, stability and respect within the relationship.

Effective boundaries give a sense of security and respect.

When a substance user lives in a household, boundaries often get stretched to the limit or even broken down completely – giving the family members a sense of helplessness. One mother said “It was like our home had been taken over by a tyrant. We all had to walk around on egg shells while he did whatever he wanted, if anyone said anything he threatened suicide or moving out onto the streets”.

Family members firstly need to remember who pays the rent, the mortgage or owns the house. Giving away power through fear or threats is not effective and will only lead to more chaos and anxiety. The truth is that the drug user would be at a disadvantage without a place to stay. They usually know this very well.

There are three stages to effective boundary setting:
  1. Defining the boundary and consequences that everyone agrees on and can live with
  2. Setting the boundary and communicating the understanding of all parties
  3. Keeping the boundary

Action learning is a useful concept here because the truth is that boundaries need setting and modifying many times. So there is a constant process of setting, reviewing, modifying and resetting. So it is always important that you don’t see boundaries as totally set in concrete.

Why set boundaries?
  • They encourage the drug user to take more responsibility for their behaviour
  • They help the drug user become aware that their behaviour impacts on those around them
  • They model a healthy and safe way for people to coexist, even when there are difficulties
  • They help the whole family to minimise the harm and negative impact of substance use and the attendant behaviours
  • They help break down the negative roles that members get stuck in i.e. mothers rescuing users, users relying on others to accommodate them, fathers getting angry etc.

Remember the key FDS principle – you can never change anyone else no matter how much you want to. What you do have total control over is you, your behaviour and how you respond to situations. The great thing about this is that if you do change yourself it may then provoke change in the other.