Photo of Aubrey, an addiction peer coach in Sioux Falls

Setting boundaries with a spouse

Meet Aubrey
Aubrey struggled with addiction for more than 10 years and has a range of experiences as a loved one to call upon. She has always wanted to help others impacted by addiction and let them know they're not alone.

Q: My spouse isn’t ready to stop drinking. How do I set boundaries to maintain my own wellbeing?

A: Boundaries are meant to protect you, not to control someone else. Think about it like building a fence around your yard. You can do that pretty easily, but you can’t build a fence around someone else’s yard. Make sure any boundaries you set are realistic, that they involve what you can control and are reasonable.

It’s important to remember that you’re the only one who can break your boundaries. If you don’t have a plan to enforce your boundary, then you don’t have a boundary.

It’s also important to remember that a boundary isn’t an ultimatum. A boundary is meant to protect you, while an ultimatum is meant to control someone else. Instead of, “If you drink, I will leave the house,” consider saying, “If I feel like you are being aggressive, then I will leave the house for the night.” Your spouse can claim they didn’t drink but they can’t say that you did or didn’t feel a certain way.

When you start thinking of boundaries that are important to you, it will be helpful to focus on the behaviors that happen because of the drinking, not the drinking itself. Does your spouse get angry, call names or make promises they don’t keep? Or maybe they isolate or neglect responsibilities the day after drinking. Whatever the situation, focus on those other behaviors that are putting a strain on your relationship or wellbeing. You should also determine your non-negotiable boundaries – situations that will harm you physically, mentally, emotionally or even financially.

Here are just a few examples of boundaries. The ones you select should be personal to you. And remember, they always need to be enforced.

Boundary: I’m not comfortable living with you until I know you’re working on this issue.
Not a boundary: You have to go to treatment or I’m going to move out.

Boundary: I’m going to be responsible for $X and no more than that.
Not a boundary: You have to pay your part of the rent, insurance, etc.

Boundary: I’m not going to allow myself to be talked to that way. I will leave the room or hang up the phone if I feel disrespected.
Not a boundary: You can’t talk to me that way.

Boundary: If I find drugs in this house, I’m going to throw them away.
Not a boundary: You can’t use drugs in this house.

Boundary: If I’m worried about your state of mind, I’m not going to leave the kids with you.
Not a boundary: You have to be sober when you’re with the kids.

Sometimes, verbally telling someone isn’t always the best way to communicate a boundary. Your behavior will speak volumes.

At the end of the day, you train people how to treat you. The good news is you can retrain and set new expectations. The bad news is the other person may not react positively. Change, especially severe change, may bring feelings of frustration or anger. They may try to make you feel guilty or say things to start a fight. Do your best to calmly explain why you’re doing what you’re doing and that it’s better for your wellbeing.

If you need help brainstorming boundaries or want ideas on how to enforce them, please reach out to us at Face It TOGETHER. As loved one coaches, we’ve been there. We use our firsthand experience and extensive training to help others overcome challenges surrounding addiction or problematic use.

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