In family systems impacted by addiction, establishing healthy functional boundaries is often a difficult and painful process, but necessary in order for the family unit to ultimately heal. Within the addicted family system, family members tend to either become rigid and walled off in their approach to setting boundaries or conversely, they become boundary-less. Both approaches tend to fuel addictive behavior despite the good intentions typically motivating each approach.
Pia Mellody defines boundaries as “a system of limit setting that protects a person from being a victim and contains a person so that he or she is not offensive to others.” The primary purpose of functional boundaries is to contain and protect a person’s reality during intimacy and to establish identity. One’s reality typically consists of the physical self or what we look like, our thinking or how we give meaning to incoming data, our feelings or our emotions, and our behavior or what we do or don’t do.
There are different boundary systems, including our external boundary system and our internal boundary system. The external system contains and protects one’s physical body and controls distance and touch. An example of an external physical boundary includes having the right to determine how physically close one can get and who can and cannot have physical contact with you.
The internal boundary system contains and protects our thinking, feelings and behaviors and acts like a block or filter. This system helps to protect thoughts and feelings when engaging with another individual. Internal boundaries tend to deteriorate in family systems impacted by addiction as a result of repeated boundary violations.
Examples of internal boundary violations include:
1. By word or deed, indicating that another person is worth less.
2. Yelling or screaming.
3. Ridiculing or making fun of.
5. Breaking a commitment for no reason.
6. Attempting to control, enable, or manipulate another person.
7. Being sarcastic while being intimate.
Personal boundary systems that are functional and healthy are key components to breaking the cycle of boundary violations that is typical of family systems impacted by addiction.
A Personal Boundary System:
• Protects and contains a person during intimate contact
• When an individual protects his or her self, they keep themselves from being a victim, which is an act of self-esteem and can help to break the cycle of addiction.
• When a person contains his or her self, they keep themselves from being offensive which is respectful of the people he or she is being emotionally intimate with.
• Personal boundaries also enable an individual to identify who they are.
• Personal boundaries that are healthy increase functional intimacy.
Functional intimacy occurs when a person receives the reality of another, and when a person expresses his or her reality without being too vulnerable or invulnerable. When an individual lacks boundaries and healthy functional intimacy, the person can be offensive in his or her expression of self and may be too vulnerable when receiving the reality of another.
Conversely, when an individual has a wall for a boundary, this prevents meaningful intimate exchange and can cause the individual to become too vulnerable and exposed during intimate contact. Enabling behaviors typically occur in family systems that lack boundaries. These behaviors fuel addiction and addictive patterns creating a destructive cycle within the family system.
Enabling can be defined as:
• Standing between a person and his or her consequences.
• Doing for someone something he or she should be doing for him or herself.
• Engaging in actions that ultimately perpetuate someone’s problematic behavior.
Families often enable loved ones by:
• Getting stuck in the defenses.
• Denying there is a problem.
• Minimizing the problem.
• Avoiding discussions about the problem.
• Blaming others or lashing out with anger.
• Joining in the rationalizations/justifications that their children create.
• Taking over their responsibilities.
• Continuing to provide financial support.
• Helping to resolve legal problems.
• Promising rewards for abstinence.
• Suggesting a physical fitness program or a job change.
• Threatening to kick them out.
• Provoking arguments/nagging.
• Avoiding getting help for themselves.
A healthy family with functional boundaries:
• communicates honestly, directly and thoughtfully.
• supports and affirms one another.
• maintains trust through reliability and consistency.
• practices respect for each other and for others.
• shares a sense of order and responsibilities.
• shares leisure time and a positive sense of humor.
• teaches traditions, values and right from wrong.
• shares attention among members in a balanced way.
• respects appropriate boundaries among each other.
• values service to others.
• is flexible under stress.
• resolves disagreements without damaging words.
• is a system that is open to other people and new ideas.
• admits problems and seeks help from others.
• a sense of optimism for the future.
When working on establishing healthy functional boundaries within an alcoholic or addicted family system, it is almost always recommended that the entire family receive support and help while doing this work. Furthermore, it is important for family members to remember the “3 C’s” of addiction when breaking dysfunctional old patterns: “I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it.” Family members and loved ones of alcoholics and addicts can practice increased self-care, more effective communication, and can make healthier choices by practicing functional boundary setting while refusing to engage in old enabling behaviors.