Sometimes love looks like "No": When to set and maintain healthy boundaries
Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with someone who is in active addiction? What needs to happen for that to occur?
If you are in that situation, you have probably wondered about this many times.
THE QUESTION OF THE DAY
Several weeks ago I was interviewed on Talk Recovery radio, a new program on Vancouver’s Co-Op Radio station, dealing with addiction and recovery issues. I was honored to be chosen as their very first guest, and I had a great time talking with the interviewers about my book Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction and the work I do with the loved ones of people struggling with addictive behaviors.
The Question of the Day that was posed for the show was: Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with someone who is in active addiction? Throughout our lively discussion, we touched on many important topics—not the least of which was the importance of knowing the difference between helping and enabling. At one point, one of the interviewers, Frances, quipped, “Sometimes love looks like No,” which I thought was just brilliant—thank you, Frances, for putting it so succinctly.
It’s so true—sometimes love really does look like “no.” We know that loving parents take the time to teach their young children not to do unsafe things such as touching a hot stove or running into a busy street. Sometimes there are even consequences for behaviors such as these that put children at risk, so that they will come to understand that they can’t do whatever they like whenever they like. In this way, children can learn how to think a potential action through to its logical conclusion—a necessary skill that can enormously assist a child’s decision-making process well into adulthood.
WHAT IS THE MOST LOVING THING TO DO?
When parents don’t set these kinds of boundaries, for whatever reason, they are essentially preparing their children for a world that simply doesn’t exist. Our lives are made up of choices, and then we are faced with the consequences—good, bad, and sometimes ugly—that those choices bring us. Failing to teach this truth is not a loving act toward anybody, especially the children involved.
The same is true for people struggling with addictive behaviors of any kind. When loved ones don’t set healthy and appropriate boundaries, and instead allow the addicts to continue to get away with behaviors that contribute to their own destructive lifestyles, how can this be a loving act toward them?
Simply put, enabling behaviors are those that keep the addiction going, while helping behaviors generally influence the addiction to stop. It’s important to understand that when family and friends enable the addicts in their lives, they are often meeting their own needs as opposed to truly meeting the addict’s needs. An example of this dynamic is giving money to someone who is entrenched in active addiction. This type of act may allow the loved ones to feel some relief, as they choose to believe that the money will be spent wisely, perhaps on such things as rent and food. But when we give money to people who are still using an addictive behavior, we can have a pretty good idea what that money will be used for—that’s right, it will be used to subsidize the addiction.
The question to ask ourselves is, “Does this action on my part actually meet the need of my addicted loved one?”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know that it doesn’t. It may be what the addict wants, but it’s not even slightly what he or she needs. What an addict needs is help to stop using, not enabling to continue. It can sometimes be difficult for loved ones to see that enabling the addict meets their own needs—perhaps they want to be liked or loved by the person with the addiction, or they don’t want to deal with the addict’s rage when being given a “No.” As understandable as these feelings might be, the truth remains that giving in to an addict’s unhealthy demands is not good for the addict, nor is it a loving—or self-respecting—act on the part of the loved one.
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE—AND HOW DO WE DO IT?
First and foremost, we need to understand that we are not helping when we allow people with addictions to manipulate us. Just as we would not allow a child to touch a hot stove, we must not contribute to the addict’s addiction if we really love that person and want the best for them. Many loved ones of addicts are ‘people-pleasers’ and have been that way for a long time. They may have even learned those codependent behaviors in their own families of origin, not knowing how else to get along in the world. Saying “no” to anyone, especially a potentially rageful or manipulative addict who is still in active addiction, can be a very foreign and scary concept for them.
If this sounds like you, please know that this can change. The most important first step is to ascertain what your boundaries are—if you haven’t been setting any, as a general rule, you may need some help in figuring that out. You can learn how to phrase your boundaries so that they are assertive, as opposed to passive or aggressive. You can receive support that will help you maintain the healthy boundaries you’ve set, even when the addict in your life lets you know they are not happy with you. Please always reach out for assistance when you need it!
Once you understand that saying “No” to an addict may very well be the most loving thing you can do, it will become easier for you to do this, and to withstand the potential backlash. Parenting experts have been telling us for years that children who know what the healthy boundaries are feel safer and more loved than those who are allowed to get away with untoward behaviors. I believe the same holds true of people struggling with addiction—they are much more likely to make the choice to stop the addictive behavior when the boundaries are set and maintained.
It’s time to raise the bar to an appropriate level and expect more of your addicted loved ones—and of yourself. The next time you find yourself wondering how to best have a healthy relationship with a practicing addict, remember that sometimes saying “No” will be the most loving act you can do for everyone concerned.