If you or your clients love someone who abuses substances, you may find yourself with a lot of decisions to make — including whether to continue in the relationship. While you’re making these decisions, having boundaries are like having lines in the sand. Although you get to choose where to draw the line, once it’s crossed, you need to act. Mastering boundaries is a skill that needs and deserves consistent practice. And in the end, it is up to you. These are four boundaries that can be helpful whether you stay in or leave the relationship. Here we go. 

1. Create Boundaries Around Sex

Intimacy should be earned with trust. If your loved one abuses substances, chances are trust has been broken. Furthermore, this is a very specific time in your life where you’re making a real effort to take a step back and reassess whether you will stay in the relationship.

Many professionals recommend “fasting” from physical intimacy during a separation because it clouds your judgment. Refraining from intimacy is a boundary that may be difficult, especially if the intimate part of your relationship is healthy. Perhaps it’s the only thing that is enjoyable in your relationship — even more reason to fast from it during this time of reassessment. This boundary really serves you, the person who isn’t using. Defining what’s okay and what’s not okay with your physical behavior is crucial when planning to stay or leave the relationship. Even if you used to hug after an argument, this may not feel okay anymore. Stating this boundary makes it clear what behaviors will work for you.

2. Enforce Boundaries Around Children

This is about protecting your children and communicating directly and reasonably. Let’s break that previous sentence down a bit more.

Safety. Protecting our children is the biggest reason for this boundary. If your loved one abuses substances and you are either in the relationship or in a separation, you want to be 100% sure that your children will be safe with the other parent.

Some may be saying, “I just have to trust them. There’s no way I’d really know unless they are under the influence when I drop the kids off.” Not true. If you’re serious about making sure your loved one is not under the influence when your children are with them, you absolutely can ask the court to implement an alcohol screener or drug test. The substance your loved one uses should have no bearing on this boundary. No matter what, they should not be under the influence when with your children.

Communicating directly and reasonably. Being reasonable is also part of boundaries with children. This boundary serves everyone: the person abusing substances, the person not using, and the children. It’s a two-part boundary. Communication between you and your loved one is one part. The other part is communication about you and your loved one.

Communication between should always be in text or email so you have a way to record and track your requests and expectations. This is helpful for both you and your loved one. The communication should be succinct and focused on the children, as if you were writing a colleague about a project.

Here’s an example: Your email subject would be, School Play Tuesday August 20 @ 6:00pm. In the body of the email it would say: Hi Jane, Tommy has a school play on Tuesday 8/20 @ 6:00pm. I will bring him to the event and per our agreement you will take him to dinner after the event and drop him off at my house by 9:00pm. Please confirm this is still the plan. Thank you, John.

Communication about your loved one should be practical and direct. It is not helpful or acceptable to communicate through the children. If you have questions or concerns regarding your loved one, ask them directly and in writing. Be respectful, even if you’re not receiving respect.

3. Set Boundaries Around Trash Talk

Create a boundary for yourself not to speak poorly of your partner or yourself. You don’t need to trash yourself for the choices you made, and you don’t need to trash your loved one, especially to your children.

Why? It’s impactful if you can remove yourself from your own suffering to care for your children’s needs. They’re experiencing this too. Moreover, putting their other parent down places your children in a position where they feel they need to support you emotionally. It also impedes their ability to develop their own relationship with that parent, as they may feel disloyal or guilty for doing so later on.

Regardless of what your partner has done or said to you, and regardless of how much money their addiction has cost the family, hold yourself accountable not to speak poorly about the other person. It’s for your own good. It also shows your children that you hold yourself to a standard even when you’re dealing with something difficult.

4. Use Boundaries Around Supporting Them

By the time your loved one is abusing substances, they have already been unhealthily supported by something long enough. It’s time they learned to help themselves. You, the non-user, may feel good when you’re needed, wanted, or helpful.

However, I challenge you to answer this question: are you actually helping? When you support them by picking them up in the middle of the night when they’re drunk, or by writing an email to their boss the next day because they are too hung over to go to work, or depositing your income into an account that gets used for their addiction – are you actually helping?
That feeling of being needed, that feeling about being helpful – what is it really about? The quick answer? You.

It’s about you feeling useful, it’s about you avoiding the issue by focusing on them, it’s about you wanting this relationship to work. Again, I challenge you to ask yourself: are you actually helping? It’s not cruel if you hit the ignore button. You no longer need to play the role of therapist, parent, judge, or fixer. Really think about what that looks and feels like. This boundary can be the most uncomfortable one to draw and stick to because at the heart of it, it requires us to examine ourselves. This boundary is the one that often brings the non-user into therapy. This is the one that brings guilt, anguish, and resentment. But eventually, it can bring strength, empowerment, and peace.

Loving someone who abuses substances is not easy. It can be scary, emotionally and physically, at times. Boundaries are ways to keep you safe, and I encourage you to practice, practice, practice. If you find yourself in therapy, try writing your boundaries on paper and practicing how you’ll put those in place with your therapist.

As with any practice, there will be good moments and bad moments. There will be situations where you beautifully and powerfully communicate your boundary, and there will be situations where it’s messy and you compromise. In those messy moments, in those moments where you compromise instead of collaborating with your loved one, remember that this is your time to draw lines in the sand and be clear to your loved one and yourself about what will happen should those lines be crossed.

Bre Gentile, PhD

Bre Gentile brings over 10 years of clinical psychology experience to her work, with the last three years being in innovative research at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. Prior to joining the research team, she spent time at Google where she conducted user research on their hardware. Before that, she worked as clinical advisor at X2AI, where she created content for chatbots delivering on-demand mental health. Bre holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. When she’s not teaching dance classes at Equinox in San Francisco, you’ll find her enjoying chai and London fogs at playgrounds with her two sons. She’s always available to geek out on resilience factors and use machine learning to predict outcomes in trauma.
Bre Gentile, PhD