3 Tips for Healthy Family Boundaries in Recovery
“Clean, as clean as I’ll be” croons the singer Martin Gore in the 1990 Depeche Mode hit — and the sentiment can resonate for those fresh out of rehab for drugs or alcohol. But for many in early recovery, adjusting to life sober also involves reconnecting with family when some of the same dysfunctional dynamics are still there. And for families, too, this acclimation to newfound sobriety can present similar hurdles.
“Enmeshment” vs. Healthy Boundaries
Such challenges are to be expected. There are actually very few times when I meet someone entering treatment for whom there is not a high level of family “enmeshment” (as in poorly defined personal boundaries with immediate family members).
To illustrate enmeshment, I like to use the analogy of a friendship bracelet: close family members are often so concerned about a loved one’s substance abuse and so invested in seeing them get better, that like the strands in a friendship bracelet, they and their own happiness have become wrapped up in that loved one’s well-being.
In contrast, healthy family boundaries look more like beach balls floating in a pool. They are interconnected and share the same environment, but do not overlap. And this second picture — embodying healthy family boundaries — is what I encourage families in recovery to aim for.
3 Tips for Articulating Healthy Family Boundaries
These three tips can help the key stakeholders in recovery (both those returning from detox and their immediate family members) articulate healthier boundaries with one another:
1. Practice self-awareness.
In order to articulate your boundaries, you’ve first got to identify what they are, and identifying your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual limits involves tuning in to your feelings on a regular basis. Whereas substance abuse once provided a quick escape route from attentiveness to this inner world, by dulling some of these more painful feelings and blocking their healthy interpersonal expression, recovery will require a daily discipline of “tuning in” to these thoughts and emotions.
In time, and with some daily discipline, this practice of self-awareness can become almost second nature. You’ll eventually be able to notice even subtle changes in mood, for example, and how certain actions and behaviors (either your own or others’) affect this inner landscape.
Especially note feelings of discomfort or resentment. These can be potential red flags warning of a boundary violation. Once you’ve identified the feeling, try to identify what caused it. If a family member’s words or behavior were the trigger, you may need to speak up — for more here, read the next tip!
2. Be direct and honest about what you need to stay healthy.
For families emerging from the stranglehold of drugs or alcohol, this can take real courage. That’s because in the presence of an active addiction, both they and their diagnosed loved one have probably invented all sorts of ways to disguise or bottle up feelings and emotions. And genuine self-expression demands vulnerability, which is scary — but vulnerability is also necessary to healthy family boundaries.
Once you’ve evaluated your own needs, then, share them with your loved one(s). You are your best advocate here. It’s unrealistic to expect that those who love you most will intuit your needs for you without a clear, gentle lead from you first.
Also, being honest and direct about what you are feeling and what you need from a loved one doesn’t equate with assigning blame or making accusatory statements. Use first person statements to encapsulate your feelings, such as “I feel ______ when you do x, y or z,” or “I need _______ from you.” Then be as direct and specific about what you need before then inviting your loved one’s feedback.
3. Accept that your loved one(s) can’t fulfill all of your expressed needs, by finding additional outlets for support.
No family member or family system can meet all of your various needs. What they can do — and what you can invite them to do — is to honor this reality, by giving you their blessing to find these necessary supports elsewhere. That may mean asking them to help you stay accountable to participating in a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Codependency Anonymous, or Adult Children of Alcoholics (only some of the many groups out there). Or it may mean requesting regular time and space away from the family to indulge in a healthy creative pursuit or recreational activity. By finding additional outlets for support, you send the message that you aren’t looking to your family to undertake the impossible task of meeting all your needs. That itself is an important boundary line.