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What Are Boundaries?

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Updated November 14, 2010

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Question: What Are Boundaries?
We hear a lot about people with addictions having problems with boundaries, but it is not always clear what is meant by the term boundaries. What are boundaries, and what do they have to do with relationships?
Answer:

In the literal sense of the word, a boundary is a dividing line that seperates one area from another. Although a boundary can be clearly marked by a fence or a road, it is never entirely clear exactly where one area ends and the other begins. In a similar way, when we use the word boundaries to describe limits and rules in relationships, some honest judgement is needed to decide which behaviors "cross the line." And herein lies the difficulty that people with addictions and their loved ones have with boundaries in relationships.

Simply put, boundaries are limits to what is acceptable or can be tolerated in a relationship. Boundaries are very individual, but people with addictions and those close to them often have problems with setting and sticking to boundaries in relationships. Some common areas of difficulty for boundaries and addictions are:

  • Smoking in someone else's presence, around their children, or in their home.
  • How much alcohol consumption and drunkenness is acceptable to each person in the relationship. This can be a problem from the partners of problem drinkers, and the adult children of alcoholics and heavy drinkers.
  • What kinds of behaviour are acceptable to each partner -- particularly when the addicted partner is under the influence, as people who are drunk or on drugs can be embarrassing without realizing it.
  • Pressurizing someone else to drink or use drugs, topping up their drink without them noticing, or spiking their drink.
  • Defining when each partner crosses the line from being emotionally expressive to verbally or emotionally abusive.
  • Discussing intimacy issues with others outside of the relationship without your partner's permission.
  • Using someone else as an alibi to cover up infidelity or other activities related to an addiction.

Addictions often raise issues of legality that need to be addressed by people in relationship with the addict. Some common areas where boundaries need to be set are:

  • Limiting drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs.
  • Bringing controlled drugs into someone else's home or vehicle, as this can have legal consequences for the owner.
  • Using someone else as an alibi to cover up illegal activities.

The following broad principles can be applied to setting good boundaries:

  • Smoking, drinking and drug use are offensive to many people, and make many more uncomfortable. Err on the side of caution when exposing other people to these behaviors.
  • Children are very vulnerable to adult influence -- even without encouragement, they can be influenced just by watching what an adult does. Restrain your addictive behaviors in front of children and younger people.
  • Never implicate another person in your illegal activities.
  • Never touch another person with unwelcome sexual or aggressive intent while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Carefully listen to others when they tell you about your behavior while under the influence. You may think you are witty, the life and soul of the party, or incredibly generous while drunk, whereas in reality, you may be ridiculous, overly gregarious, or pushy with alcohol or drugs.

Sources:

Clarke, J. & Dawson, C. Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children. (Second Edition). Center City: Hazelden. 1998.

Katherine, A. Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every DayFireside. 2000.

Orford et al Coping With Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures. London: Routledge. 2005.

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