What are boundaries? Boundaries are like fences between neighbors. They define the limits of the relationship. They provide safety and structure, define appropriate and inappropriate engagement in the relationship, and delineate responses to inappropriate or unhealthy engagement.
In sexual addiction recovery, boundaries are crucial. Addicts in recovery need to set boundaries around their media usage, who they talk to, how they spend their time, how they manage difficult emotions, and many other things.
Sometimes wives of addicts struggle with confusion about how they set and enforce their own boundaries. The struggle is how to determine the difference between healthy boundaries and the many other unhealthy ways people may respond to their spouse’s addiction behaviors.
First, let’s define what boundaries are and are not.
- used to define limits of relationships
- healthy responses to violations of self
- in place as trust is rebuilt in relationships
- protection against repeated harm
Boundaries are not…
- methods of coercing and forcing behaviors
- ways to avoid dealing with pain
- used to emotionally disconnect
Boundaries are often the remedy for unhealthy ways of responding to an addict. Because boundaries are the opposite of becoming responsible for his behaviors or recovery, it is wise to self-assess occasionally and determine whether you are crossing the line into becoming responsible.
Some warning signs that you may be crossing into becoming responsible are:
- Providing constant reminders of recovery behaviors he is supposed to be doing
- Experiencing consistent, intense emotional reactions to his lack of recovery behaviors
- Punishing or shaming him into doing things he has committed to do
- Basing your own commitment to your recovery on whether he is doing his work
- Numbing out or disconnecting from your own emotions based on his behaviors
- Controlling or manipulating
Good boundaries will help you avoid these types of responses. If you are the spouse of an addict, you will need to set up two types of boundaries for your own emotional well being and recovery: personal boundaries and relational boundaries.
Personal boundaries are about how you respond to yourself. Your own triggers in recovery and emotional responses may sometimes lead you to unhealthy coping. This might include emotionally disconnecting (zoning out), punishing, controlling, or micro-managing others’ behaviors. Personal boundaries allow you to make healthy choices in the face of powerful emotional triggers.
Examples of personal boundary statements are:
“I can choose my responses to his slips or relapses. I do not have to allow my trauma to control how I respond.”
“Instead of punishing him for hurting me, I will take care of myself in a healthy way. When he has earned my trust, I will share with him my feelings and needs.”
I can decide when and how I begin to trust him again.”
“I will work on my own recovery, regardless of his commitment to his recovery.”
“Instead of zoning out and emotionally disconnecting when I am in pain, I will reach out and share with others in my life who are safe.”
“I choose not to be responsible for his choices.”
“I can choose to love and accept myself even when his addiction affects the way I perceive myself.”
Relational boundaries are most often set with the addict, but may also be set with parents, family, or friends. Your relational boundaries define how much physical and emotional space you need between you and others. These boundaries define how you will respond when others act (or refuse to act). They keep you safe when others are not ready to keep you safe.
Examples of relational boundary statements you might share with your spouse in recovery are:
“Even if you decide not to stay engaged in recovery, I will continue to do my own work.”
“If you act out in your addiction and hide it from me, I will ask you not to sleep in my bed until I feel safe again with you.”
“I will feel much safer and more able to trust you if you are attending weekly 12-step meetings. If you choose not to go, I will be limited in my ability to emotionally connect with you.”
“If you try to blame me for your choices in addiction, I will let you know that in our next therapy session together we will discuss my concerns with our therapist. I will not argue with you about it or defend myself.”
“I will not engage sexually with you when I feel coerced or when you beg.”
“If you cannot work toward understanding how your addiction has hurt me, and if you continue to excuse your behavior, I will move toward separation from you. In this state of mind, your ‘addict’ self is not safe enough for me to be with.”
Implementing and Enforcing Boundaries
You may not verbally share every single boundary you set with others. Some may be just for you. However, if they involve responding to the addict, it is important that he be aware of them. Here are some simple steps to implement and enforce your boundaries.
1. Decide on your boundaries — write them down.
2. Share your boundaries with him: “In order to maintain my own safety while you are working on your recovery, when you __________, I will __________ . “
3. If necessary, remind him of your boundaries to provide clarity.
1. Slow down, breathe, and quietly decide how you will respond.
2. Remind him of your boundary and that your response is about your own emotional and relational safety.
3. Follow through with the boundary.
4. Help him understand that your boundary is in place until you feel safe again, and not for a set period of time.
The best way I have heard boundaries described is this, “My boundaries are how I protect myself when you choose not to protect me.”
Defining and enforcing boundaries is often one of the more challenging aspects of wives’ recovery processes. However, becoming adept at boundary work is often a defining process for the wives I work with in counseling. As their boundaries improve, their sense of self does as well. Their trauma often begins to lose power, they trust themselves more, and their sense of hope for real change often improves. Regardless of their husband’s commitment to his own recovery, boundaries help wives heal for themselves.
Below is my presentation on boundaries in recovery at the Utah Coalition Against Pornography annual conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015.