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How to Set Appropriate Boundaries with Loved Ones Struggling With Addiction


If you’re at all knowledgeable about addiction (such as if you know it’s officially called substance use disorder), you likely know about sober family members being called codependent, and the need to set boundaries with a person drinking to excess or taking drugs. Otherwise, you’re “enabling,” not helping, which is not healthy for you, either.

Codependency is focusing on the addict to such an extent that your own life is negatively affected, and an example of setting a boundary is refusing to give an addict money that will likely be spent on drugs or alcohol. Or encouraging them to seek residential inpatient alcohol treatment for their substance abuse disorder.

A Different Way to Think About Codependency & Addiction

On Psychcentral, a website with a good reputation, Robert Weiss, an addiction expert, writes about a different way of thinking about how we interact with a family member suffering from substance use disorder. It’s something to consider. He takes issue with how family members who love and care for the family member with a problem are characterized (like in the first paragraph here). He says: “…all loving actions taken in an attempt to remain attached to a troubled loved one should only be seen for what they are—valiant attempts to stay connected and provide meaningful help.”

Instead, Weiss talks about a model called prodependence. The description, taken from the book Weiss wrote about this “paradigm,” is as follows:

With its attachment-focused view, prodependence pushes aside the flaws of the codependency model, which generally suggests that family members of addicts need to “detach with love” and if they don’t neither the family member nor the addict will change or grow. That advice typically leaves loved ones of addicts feeling confused and misunderstood rather than supported and validated. Prodependence approaches the matter differently, choosing to celebrate and value a caregiving loved one’s willingness to support and stay connected with an addicted family member, while promoting healing for the entire family.

Rather than thinking a loved one with SUD has a problem, Weiss would like to talk about “hope and instruction for healing.” He believes in acknowledging the trauma and dysfunction family members experience when being close to an addict, but once both people are in therapy, those family members should be given consideration for their efforts. For example, the therapist might say something to the family member like:

It’s possible, however, that you’re not … helping your loved one as effectively as you might. …It’s hard to worry about loving someone in the best possible way when you’re in the middle of a disaster zone. If the house is burning down, you grab your loved one and drag that person out of the fire, and you don’t worry about whether you’re grabbing too hard or in a way that hurts. Now that you’re in therapy, though, we can slow things down and figure out how you can help the addict more effectively—in ways that might be more useful to the addict and that won’t cause you to feel so overwhelmed.

Weiss goes on to explain his idea of boundaries, which are not different from those any specialist might recommend. However, it’s his approach, the language he employs, that are different.

“The purpose of healthy boundaries is to facilitate healthy relationships, not to shut relationships down, “he said. “Healthy boundaries are not about keeping other people out, they’re about letting other people safely in.”

He adds a caveat, however.

“Boundaries are not a one size fits all proposition, “Weiss explained. “Boundaries that are helpful in some relationships could be very unhelpful in others.”

If you’re a family member of an addict, kind of makes you want to talk to him to learn more, doesn’t it?