Boundaries are like fences between neighbors. They can help define where you end and I begin. Boundaries provide safety and structure, define healthy behavior in relationships, and help you respond to unhealthy behavior.
In sexual addiction recovery, defining and enforcing boundaries are crucial processes. For example, addicts in recovery need to set boundaries around their media usage, who they talk to, how they spend their time, and how they manage difficult emotions.
Often, wives of addicts struggle with confusion about how they can set and enforce their own boundaries in recovery. The challenge is to determine the difference between healthy boundaries and the many unhealthy ways people may respond to their spouse's addiction behaviors or their own trauma responses.
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 or forcing behaviors
● ways to avoid dealing with pain
● used to emotionally disconnect
Boundaries can be the remedy for unhealthy ways of responding to an addict. Because boundaries are the opposite of becoming responsible for his behaviors, it is wise to self-assess occasionally and determine whether you are crossing the line into becoming responsible for his recovery.
Some warning signs that you may be 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 or not he is doing his work
● numbing out or disconnecting from your own emotions based on his behaviors
As you can imagine, becoming responsible for his recovery does not create real change, and does very little to help you heal. Good boundaries will aid you in avoiding 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 and emotional responses may sometimes lead you to unhealthy coping. This might include some of the behaviors listed above. 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 sometimes 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). Your boundaries can 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 always verbally share with other people every boundary you set. Some may be just for
you. However, if they involve responding to an addict, it is important that you make him aware of your boundaries. 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.
Defining and enforcing boundaries is often one of the more challenging aspects of a spouse's own recovery. Becoming adept at boundary work can be a life-changing 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.
Dr. Adam M. Moore is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in the treatment of sexual addiction and extramarital affairs. He works with addicts and their traumatized partners to help sustain parallel recoveries for both. Dr. Moore is the clinical director at Utah Valley Counseling (www.utahvalleycounseling.com) as well as the assistant director of BYU's Comprehensive Clinic.