How to Set Healthy Boundaries When Dealing With Addiction

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It's not uncommon for individuals living with an addiction to have problems with boundaries. For the people who love and care about them, establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries can be a challenge. The process can be painful and guilt-inducing. When a person with an addiction is struggling, those closest to them are often willing to allow otherwise problematic behaviors in order to help their loved one find their way. Unfortunately, this often means letting the person "cross the line" when it comes to certain completely inappropriate behaviors.

What Are Boundaries?

Simply put, boundaries are limits to what is acceptable or can be tolerated in a relationship. In the literal sense of the word, a boundary is a dividing line that separates one area from another and one that can be marked by a physical barrier like a fence or a road. Without the physical marker, it may not be clear exactly where one area ends and the other begins. In a similar way, when we use the word boundary to describe limits and rules in relationships, some judgment is needed to decide which behaviors "cross the line." Herein lies the difficulty that people living with an addiction and their loved ones have with boundaries in their relationships.

Boundaries and Addiction

Boundaries are very individual, but people with substance addictions and those close to them often have problems with respecting boundaries. Often, areas of difficulty for boundary setting surround the very substances and behaviors at the center of the addiction.

Substance abuse and addiction often raise issues of legality that should be addressed with firm boundaries. Common areas where boundaries should be set include:

  • Prohibiting drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs.
  • Bringing controlled drugs into someone else's home or vehicle, as this can have legal consequences for the owner.
  • Touching another person with unwelcome sexual or aggressive intent.
  • Using someone else as an alibi to cover up illegal activities.

It is never acceptable to implicate another person in illegal activities. Beyond setting boundaries surrounding illegal behaviors, boundaries can and should also be set around issues of safety, health, and even comfort. You define the boundaries in your relationships.

Boundaries for Smoking

Smoking in someone else's presence, around their children, or in their home are common boundaries for nonsmokers. Smoking is known to cause harm even to nonsmokers. Now it's known that not just secondhand smoke but thirdhand smoke (contaminants on the walls, carpet, and other surfaces after a smoking session) is hazardous to health. Personal preference and comfort are also perfectly legitimate rationale for strict boundaries.

People with a nicotine addiction may have difficulties with adhering to strict boundaries around their smoking behaviors.

When deciding on your boundaries when it comes to smoking, remember that it is completely justified if you feel it should always be off-limits in your presence.

Boundaries for Alcohol and Drugs

Setting limits on just how much alcohol consumption is acceptable to each person in the relationship is tricky, and attempting to control what and how much can be consumed can lead to struggle. In the case where the person with an alcohol or drug addiction may not feel or admit that they have a problem, requesting limits can feel both futile and frustrating. The person with an addiction may be unable and unwilling to communicate in a meaningful way because they are under the influence.

Where drinking and drug use are concerned, you must decide what kinds of behavior are acceptable in your home. Then you must clearly communicate your expectations.

Setting and Enforcing Your Boundaries

The first step is to set your boundary; the next step is to enforce it. Define and discuss what is acceptable before the communication efforts become stalled or potentially veer into verbal or emotional abuse. Use "I" statements to express your boundaries directly, honestly, and respectfully. Then, be prepared to clearly state when you feel that the line is being crossed and even to remove yourself from the situation if your boundaries aren't respected. Enforcing your boundaries may require enforcing consequences for behavior that violates the boundary.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Boundaries in addiction recovery.

  2. Jacob P, Benowitz NL, Destaillats H, et al. Thirdhand smoke: new evidence, challenges, and future directions. Chem Res Toxicol. 2017;30(1):270-294. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrestox.6b00343

  3. Lima-Rodriguez JS, Guerra-Martin MD, Dominguez-Sanchez I, Lima-Serrano M. Alcoholic patients' response to their disease: perspective of patients and family. Rev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2015;23(6):1165-1172. doi:10.1590/0104-1169.0516.2662

Additional Reading
  • Clarke J, Dawson C. Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children. 2nd ed. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing; 1998.

  • Katherine A. Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day. Fireside. 2000.

  • Orford J, Natera G, Copello A, et al. Coping With Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures. London, UK: Routledge; 2005.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.